When Christine Milne unexpectedly announced her resignation as leader of the Australian Greens on Wednesday, many political observers had the same thought – did she jump or was she pushed?
The veteran conservationist politician hasn’t had the easiest of times since succeeding the iconic Bob Brown as leader of the party three years ago.
At the time, then Senator Brown had built the party into a clear alternative for voters at the progressive end of the political spectrum.
As a result, Labor voters defected in droves, giving the Greens its biggest national vote ever at the 2010 federal election.
Following Mr Brown’s departure in 2012, Ms Milne faced the challenge of maintaining that vote at a time when the Greens were variously being blamed for dragooning Prime Minister Julia Gillard into bringing in a carbon tax, risking the lives of boat people by refusing to support the Malaysia solution, or putting protest before principle.
The Green vote had started to drop even before Mr Brown had retired, but a number of poor state and territory election results for the Greens sparked speculation that Ms Milne’s leadership was at risk.
This speculation did not abate in early 2013, despite Ms Milne using a National Press Club address to end the relationship forged between the Greens and Labor, that allowed Ms Gillard to form government.
The Greens leader hoped the very public divorce would reduce the criticism levelled at the party for supporting the Gillard minority government.
The tactic did not work.
While the Greens famously prefer to keep their dirty laundry to themselves, recriminations and other destabilising comments were fed to the media after the party’s vote dropped from 11.8 to 8.6 per cent at the 2013 federal election.
Along with news that six of the party’s “most senior staffers” had left, rumours swirled that the party’s Adam Bandt had been planning to challenge Ms Milne for the leadership.
Another notably ambitious Greens Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, told journalists after Ms Milne was re-elected as leader that her party had “just returned a leader that would see the party marching to a slow death”.
One of the staffers who left at that time was Ms Milne’s former chief of staff Ben Oquist, who cited “fundamental differences of opinion in strategy” for his departure.
During his time as chief of staff to Ms Milne, and before that in the same role with Mr Brown, Mr Oquist was on the board of the Australia Institute, a progressive think tank originally established by Clive Hamilton.
Mr Oquist is now a strategist with the organisation, which is headed by another former Greens staffer, Richard Denniss, who hasn’t held back in his public criticism of Ms Milne or in suggesting the need for generational change in the party’s leadership.
Although not an extension of the Greens, by any measure, Mr Oquist and Mr Denniss have since the federal election articulated the concerns about Ms Milne that Greens MPs will not for fear of being seen to be no better than the destabilisers in the “old” parties.
When the leader decided not to negotiate with the Abbott government on increasing the petrol tax excise, it was Mr Denniss who was reported echoing the words of the Greens MPs who wondered why an anti-pollution party wouldn’t support increasing a tax on petrol.
Mr Denniss went even further, criticising Senator Milne for essentially cutting the Greens out of having any influence and giving the balance of power to Clive Palmer, because her “political strategy is to oppose things that Tony Abbott introduces” even when “Abbott proposes things that Greens support” such as “petrol taxes, increasing taxes on high-income earners, the PPL”.
Of course, the Australia Institute head would know, because Mr Oquist facilitated the Mr Palmer/Al Gore press conference that led to the PUP leader committing to save the renewable energy target.
Behind the scenes, under the cover of the Greens’ fabled solidarity, Mr Bandt is said to have been the main leadership agitator, while Ms Hanson-Young’s frequent attempts at challenging for leadership roles have made her intentions patently clear.
To many observers, it was merely a matter of time before Ms Milne acceded to the combined forces of internal pressure from her colleagues and external pressure from critics like those at the Australia Institute, and declared an end to her time as leader.
However, as word emerged that some Greens MPs, such as Mr Bandt, had not known that Ms Milne was going to resign, and therefore had no time to do the numbers, it became clear that the wily conservationist had got the jump on her detractors.
The election of two Milne supporters, Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlam, as co-deputy leaders, also made it clear that the Melbourne MP’s confidence in becoming the next Greens’ leader was not shared by the majority of his colleagues.
Paula Matthewson was media adviser to John Howard in the early 1990s and then worked for almost 25 years in communication, political and industry advocacy roles. She is now a freelance writer and communications strategist. Paula has been tweeting and blogging about politics, the media and social media since 2009 under the pen name @Drag0nista.