Change at the top for the Greens

Christine Milne has been replaced by Victorian senator Richard Di Natale as the leader of the Greens. Who is Richard Di Natale and what does his elevation represent politically? These are harder questions to answer than you might think.

An unusual source, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, sees hope in Di Natale. He’s “a 4WD-loving sports fanatic”, which “could be another sign that Dr Di Natale plans to be a more mainstream leader of the Greens rather than a traditional koala-hugging activist”.

The endorsement of the Daily Telegraph should be the kiss of death for anyone left wing, so other sources need to be sought.

On the Greens website, there’s an article, “10 facts about Richard Di Natale”. But all it contains is a very repetitive list that boils down to doctor, farmer, sports and animal loving, Italian-speaking all-round top bloke.

What do you mean, you want to know what he stands for?

Perhaps we should just listen to the man himself. In his first comments as leader, Di Natale declared: “I’m in this business to get outcomes; I want to get stuff done”, thereby distinguishing himself from any potential leaders who don’t want to get stuff done.

Can we tell if his elevation is a move to the right or the left for the Greens?

No answers there either, unfortunately. While it may come as news to the Daily Telegraph, the Greens long ago shed their single-issue environmentalist status. Under the leadership of arch-tree-hugger Bob Brown, their initial electoral breakthrough in 2001 came on social issues and opposition to the excesses of the market, not on environmental issues alone.

It’s early days yet, but Di Natale is so far continuing in the “mainstream progressive” footsteps of his predecessor. Christine Milne used her pre-budget speech at the National Press Club the day after she stepped down to decry Abbott’s neoliberal agenda. Today’s pre-budget email from Di Natale doesn’t shift from that line: “By ending the free-ride for the big end of town, we can … raise billions of dollars for our schools, hospitals and better public transport, without making life harder for everyday Australians.”

There is one other place to seek answers, and that’s from the left inside the Greens. How have they analysed the elevation of Di Natale?

Sadly, any public critique has been entirely organisational, about how the leadership vote was taken. NSW senator Lee Rhiannon, a genuinely left wing figure within the party, has been outspoken on this.

“I have always been, and remain, a strong advocate for membership involvement in party leadership. Members should have a vote”, she tweeted. “Christine has been a fearless and courageous activist, politician and leader. Party has grown under her leadership. Sad to see her leave.”

Should we care how the Greens leader was elected? Not really. It’s a fairly apolitical complaint. It has similar content to the longstanding criticism of the Labor Party, which situates the party’s problems in its factionalism or its structures. The fundamental problem with Labor, however, is not the existence of factions, but the fact that there is no faction or grouping prepared to stand up seriously to the party’s right wing policies.

Where is the commentary about what Di Natale represents politically? Is he more conservative than Milne? What are the disagreements of the more left wing NSW Greens with his positions? The organisational structure of the party cannot be invoked to defend the silence of the left on the political issues. If it’s a victory of the right over the left, why aren’t the left saying so and fighting over the issues?

The answer lies in the nature of the Greens. They are first and foremost a parliamentary party. They’ve had quite a bit of success in that regard. And now we are seeing some of the political costs of that success.

Particularly since entering or propping up both Labor and Liberal state and federal governments, the Greens nationally have more and more positioned themselves as moderates, a safe pair of hands with the balance of power.

Di Natale continues that positioning. “I’m not an ideologue”, he said. The left in the party will remain under pressure to shut up about anything that’s not economically “responsible” and politically mainstream.