News National Richard Di Natale’s big gamble with the Greens
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Richard Di Natale’s big gamble with the Greens

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Is Richard Di Natale the Messiah? Not really. But the new Greens leader is doing a good impression of another Biblical figure at the moment; he’s leading his people from the wilderness of minor party status towards the promise of holding government one day.

Two opinion polls this week showed the Greens are in a strong political position, admittedly 12 months out from the next federal election.

Newspoll reports they have gained two points and then lost one since Senator Di Natale took the leadership in May, leaving them at 13 per cent. The highest vote the party has achieved at any federal election was 11.8 per cent for the House of Representatives and 13.1 per cent for the Senate at the 2010 federal election.

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However, the Ipsos poll has found stronger support for the Greens, registering an increase in the party’s vote from 13 per cent to 16 per cent over the same period.

Given this happy news comes at the same time the major party leaders are facing their lowest approval ratings, it’s fair to wonder whether Senator Di Natale can lay any claim to the Greens’ modest but promising poll gains.

However, consider the following: the Greens managed a leadership transition and infusion of new blood into their leadership group with nary a leak to the media or glimpse of a contender shamelessly brandishing their credentials to show up a failing leader.

In contrast, Labor wonders what to do with their leader as he lurks in the shadows of the Killing Season, and the Liberals squabble with their leader and among themselves over cabinet leaks and who has the greatest right to be a bigot.

Sliding up the polls

It’s hardly surprising some voters gave the Greens points for maturity and stability last time they were contacted by a pollster.

Peter Whish-Wilson, the economist turned Greens Senator. Photo: AAP
Peter Whish-Wilson, the economist turned Greens Senator. Photo: AAP

Senator Di Natale has also made no secret of his ambition to transform the Greens into a major party. He’s laid claim to “mainstream progressives”, saying the Greens are their natural home. This news could be welcomed by the traditionally Labor or Liberal-voting progressives who have felt increasingly disaffected by the major party’s bipartisan hardline approach to asylum seekers and national security.

Perhaps more importantly, Senator Di Natale is part of a triumvirate formed within the Greens parliamentary wing to dispel the party’s reputation for bottom-of-the-garden economics. In doing so, the Greens hope to establish the party as a voice of economic responsibility, and provide a contrast to the magic-pudding economics of the Government and the “just say no” approach of Labor.

Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, an economist and former Wall Street stockbroker, certainly adds to the party’s economic firepower. Combined with the Greens’ only member of the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt, and Senator Di Natale, the three men have strong potential to refurbish the party’s economic reputation.

An early indication of this new economic approach was Senator Di Natale flagging that he’d be prepared to talk to the Government about passing the increase to the indexation of fuel excise. Most political observers were nevertheless surprised when the new Greens economic team struck a deal first with the Government on the pension asset test.

This deal reversed a concession made to well-off retirees during the Howard government, which the Greens had opposed at the time. According to Senator Di Natale, it was a no-brainer to let the change through the Senate, so that some people with high assets would lose some of their part pension, and people at the low end of the scale would get an increase in pension. “In equity terms it’s hard to argue with that. The policy stood on its own,” he said.

Someone was sold a pup

In response, Labor muttered something about the Greens being sold a pup, and then hurriedly made its own deal with the Government on fuel excise to stop the Greens from getting further kudos.

The explosion in apartment construction was most concerning. .
The Greens have turned negative gearing on property into a policy plus. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless, voters will have taken note that the Greens did the economically responsible thing. And that the party is releasing fully costed policies, such as the one aimed at dampening the effects of negative gearing on heated housing markets.

It is not by mistake that there’s no mention of the environment in the topics of interest to the Greens canvassed above. That’s not to say Senator Di Natale and his team are not interested in saving the environment, but that their agenda has broadened beyond that which is normally associated with the party.

This reflects the broader agenda of the Greens’ nascent support base, which is predominantly affluent white-collar professionals living in inner-city electorates held by Labor or Liberal MPs.

These voters may not have supported the Greens in the past because they had little affinity with the environmental warriors who led the party, but may reconsider once they find they do indeed have an affinity with the new generation of Greens, like the doctor Di Natale (who runs a farm like many of the new rural Greens supporters), the former stockbroker Whish-Wilson and the former industrial relations lawyer Bandt.

So who will be the Greens’ first Prime Minister?

It is because of this potential tide of inner-city Green voters, drifting away from Labor and the Liberals, that the new generation of Green MPs can aspire to actually holding government one day. Senator Di Natale has already predicted the party could double its vote to 20 per cent nationally within the next decade, which seems reasonable in light of this week’s Ipsos poll results.

Former leader Christine Milne has said the Greens “will be most effective when we form government … and that will be at some point in this century”.

To achieve that goal, the Greens will need to keep strengthening its economic credentials, choose wisely when to support the Government or the Opposition, and keep any residual leadership angst under wraps.

The party will also need to find a way to replicate and roll-out across the country the high-impact and therefore expensive campaigning strategies it developed and perfected with Mr Bandt’s successful campaign in Melbourne, Scott Ludlam’s Senate campaign in Western Australia, and the election of three lower house MPs in the recent NSW election.

Under Senator Di Natale’s leadership, the Greens may well be taking a risk to go mainstream. But it is either that or remain a party of protest with a limited constituency. The promised land of government remains a long way off for the Greens, but it is not out of reach.

With his broad appeal, and trustworthy beside manner, the good doctor Di Natale may well be the man to lead them there.

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