The retirement of Bob Brown came as a surprise to many, largely because the Greens don’t operate as a colander. I wasn’t surprised as some were – due to Brown’s age as well as the ideal timing of the announcement, 18 months before the next Federal Election – giving enough time for his successor to build a public persona.
Now we have a new party leader, ready to lead a party. That is the key message that should be coming out of this change. No longer are the Greens just a group centred around the personality of one charismatic, friendly, avuncular leader. The Greens are a party, with structures, a variety of views and ways of developing policy. I think already we have seen that Milne has been at the pottery wheel, working on shaping her vision of what a Greens leader looks like for a while – her first week showed what has come out of her kiln. The new leader has already made a mark as someone who is ready to make deals and represent a sophisticated approach to policy, as shown in the Mike Seccombe piece in the Global Mail, not the extremist stereotype so easily made.
Milne has also outlined her startling (to some) desire to redirect Green focus to regional areas. Startling because the perception amongst old political heads is that appealing to regional voters won’t win the Greens seats. That flies in the face of one of the long term agenda of the Greens – to be agrarian conservatives. That is, protect what is disappearing and come up with more sustainable ways of doing agribusiness. It is core business for the Greens to be interested in protecting farmers’ rights, to be opposing the poisoning of water tables and other destruction caused by coal seam gas mines, to be helping agribusiness develop organic techniques as well as other ways of sustaining Australia’s food bowl status.
This is why I wasn’t surprised or startled. It’s not a new approach by the Greens. It was no surprise that Milne started her regional listening tour by visiting Jeremy Buckingham, the NSW MLC from Orange who squeaked into the upper house a few hundred votes ahead of Pauline Hanson. (Note that even the ABC reporter on the ground didn’t know who he was, by saying he was the region’s “local state MP”, when really he isn’t.) His role has been to represent rural interests in the NSW Greens and has been touring those areas as a part of that agenda. He is a Green who works against the stereotype perpetuated by the likes of Joe Hildebrand – he is a rural resident who spends his time talking to farmers. Buckingham is proof that the Greens are developing into a broad based party, containing a range of people with a range of backgrounds, agendas and interests.
It is easy for outsiders like the Joe Hildebrands of the world to take potshots at “inner city” Greens eating vegan food in Glebe, because they would never interview Greens members or take the time to investigate how the party works. These same critics, who also include Peter Hartcher, also focus just on the likes of Lee Rhiannon. The same Rhiannon who has fought for a range of issues over the years as a NSW MLC, not just being the Militant Watermelon that some would like people believe her to be. She brings one voice to the Federal Greens and a passionate one. So does the likes of Rachel Siewert, who is currently highlighting the paltry amount of money Newstart provides people on unemployment benefit.
In her new role, Milne will probably enjoy a number of parts of it. She will enjoy talking to people in rural areas as well as others, considering that teachers like talking to people, generally. I do wonder, though, how any political leader copes with the land of dumb that we see in political reporting in Canberra. One such example is that produced by the former Liberal staffer Chris Kenny, who, as ever, shows little clue of how the Greens actually run or how the Greens deal with the Labor Government has actually worked. The balance of power Greens haven’t really had a large number of total wins in terms of its policy outcomes – after all, the carbon reduction target being delivered by the carbon pricing mechanism isn’t particularly large. The government is still subsiding miners and have left gold mining out of the MRRT. Dental care is still largely out of medicare, same sex marriage was cut down by the likes of Uncle Joe de Bruyn. We still have the arcane chase for offshore processing and Milne has already flagged her objection to the pointless chase for a budget surplus. It’s just mendacity on Kenny’s part to claim that Brown had “too much” influence over the government – it’s a line he repeats parrot fashion and it suits his desire to be Australia’s Bill O’Reilly. Truth was, the Greens received what a balance of power party usually receives – concessions, amendments. The fixed price of carbon over a limited term was a concession. The long term market based carbon pricing scheme is still the ALP approach, the front end is the window dressing put there to appease the Greens.
It was of mild surprise to me that Adam Bandt was installed as deputy, considering his recent arrival as an MP. It makes sense, though, on several levels. One, he is the Reps member and on a broader level, he does represent the inner urban professional who makes up a considerable number of Greens members and voters. David Shoebridge performs a similar role in NSW. This may cause sniggers amongst some in the land of political punditry, but personally I think it’s of benefit of any party to have intelligent, articulate, politically clean people as representatives. Preferable to the likes of former union leaders like Craig Thomson and Marn Ferguson or, say, Barnaby Joyce.
Those who also like to compare the Greens to the Democrats also miss the point of what having Milne as leader will do for the party. The Democrats were a “keep the bastards honest” party, with a narrow range of goals focused on keeping both sides of politics to account. A party defined by the rules of the big two, formed by a former member of one of them. The Greens are a separate political force, defined by those who sit outside both major parties, a party that formulates its own methods and structures. Evidence from countries such as Germany show that the Greens can survive past the departure of its first leader and can form a culture that is bigger than one person. It’s a mindset that most Canberra writers don’t seem to get – that’s because they only deal with Canberra and perceive the rest of us from that prism. Milne, though, will have, amongst other things, her garden as a form of escape from the levels of derp she will face.