Greens jump on Bandt wagon

Greens jump on Bandt wagon

Judith Ireland – The Sydney Morning Herald – Sunday 09 February 2020

There is a framed poster in Adam Bandt’s Parliament House office. In German, it reads: “Eco power not climate killer.”

Bandt peeled it off a Berlin lamppost while his wife Claudia Perkins stood guard during their honeymoon six years ago. It’s not your typical romantic souvenir, but now enjoys a prominent place near his desk, along with a large Indigenous dot painting, rainbow flag and another German poster which simply says “Crisis”.

Not that he needs any reminding about climate change. Bandt talked of a “climate emergency” in his first speech to Parliament in 2010, telling the chamber: “Scientists have spoken, it is now over to politics to craft solutions.”

Within half an hour of winning the Greens leadership unopposed on Tuesday, Bandt was holding a press conference, calling on young people to join the party, to vote out the Coalition and pressure Labor to introduce a sweeping economy-wide plan to address climate change, social inequality and jobs (a “Green New Deal”).

With rolled-up sleeves, no jacket and no tie, he lambasted coal, oil and gas companies for “threatening human life” and told reporters Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s climate change plans will result in “three times as many” bushfire deaths as there had been during this horrific summer.

Some political commentators have been quick to say the leadership change will mean a shift to the left for the Greens: moving from Richard Di Natale, the “mainstream” medical doctor, to Bandt, the industrial relations lawyer who has a PhD on Marxism (although he does not like to be addressed as “Dr”).

The Greens insist there will be no substantive change: Di Natale first announced a Green New Deal last November and planned to make it his focus ahead of the next election. What will change is the approach.

Bandt’s co-deputy leader Larissa Waters has known Bandt since 2006, before either of them were in parliament. She describes the events of the past week as a chance for a “public reset”.

She praises Bandt’s “clear” communication skills and his ability to talk to everyone from policy experts to schoolchildren. The party’s other co-deputy, Nick McKim, stresses Bandt’s intelligence: “He’s a very deep thinker about politics [and] outstanding in his capacity to get across detailed policy.”

Independent Andrew Wilkie, who has sat with Bandt on the crossbench since 2010, is also a big fan. He says the former deputy to both Christine Milne and Di Natale is “a leader for the times”.

Sydney University senior lecturer in Australian politics Stewart Jackson expects Bandt to put climate change even more to the fore of the Greens’ activities and take advantage of the increased public attention on the issue after a summer of devastating fires.\

“The policies haven’t changed [but] the emphasis is going to change,” said Jackson, a former national convener of the Greens. Jackson also notes Bandt has a different presentation style than Di Natale, “with a little bit of fire in the belly”.

Bandt’s direct communication style may be praised by his colleagues but it is not always as well received in other quarters.

After the Greens leaders’ first press conference, Sydney breakfast show host Alan Jones said Bandt was a “master” of “hate speech”. Labor was also unimpressed, with Victorian MP Tim Watts observing: “This sort of hectoring, lecturing, sometimes abusive model of public advocacy, it just doesn’t work in the Australian community.”

Initial Liberal thinking is that the leadership switch is good news for their party, particularly in the blue ribbon Melbourne seats of Higgins and Kooyong, which came under threat from the Greens in 2019.

“No one was happier – other than Adam Bandt – at his election as Greens leader than the Liberal Party this week,” Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson told Sky News.

“For all of Richard Di Natale’s faults, he is the soft, cuddly version of the Greens and Adam Bandt is the hard-edged left-wing version of the Greens. And I don’t think it’s going to go down very well in the community, and it’s particularly not going to go down in those areas where the Greens were making some gains in those kind of leafy suburbs of our big cities.”

Labor MPs have played down the impact on the leadership change, with Labor left Victorian MP Andrew Giles saying “our focus is on doing our job, not on anyone else”.

When asked about his presentation style, Bandt is nonplussed.

“Look, I’m passionate. And I believe these things. And I’ve believed in social justice and looking after the planet since I was a kid.”

Bandt, 47, went to his first demonstration in high school when a nuclear-powered warship pulled into the ports in Fremantle where he was growing up. He also tracks his interest in politics back to his father, the first person in his family to go to university, where he did a social work degree.

Bandt, who briefly joined the ALP in his youth, makes no secret of the fact that he wants to see the Coalition voted out at the next election and the Greens to come away with the balance of power in both houses.

All six of the party’s senators up for re-election in 2019 were returned, and the Greens captured 10.4 per cent of lower house first preferences – a slight increase on 2016. Nevertheless, much-hyped conquests in Kooyong and Higgins and Labor seats such as Macnamara failed to materialise. Despite great expectations, Bandt remains the party’s only lower house MP.

Two years out from the next federal election, election analyst Kevin Bonham cautions that “the Greens need a lot of luck” when it comes to securing the balance of power. In the lower house, he noted, they would be relying on the fact that neither party would get a majority. He also wonders, “Where are they going to get the [extra] seats?”

In the Senate, Bonham said the Greens could pick up between one and three extra spots, but this does not necessarily mean anything in terms of the balance of power.

“I feel that, when the Greens publicly campaign on ‘we want the balance of power’ openly, that can scare voters a bit.”

Bandt has not put a number yet on the extra seats he thinks his party could win. He said the party should “campaign where we could win seats”, adding there was nothing “earth-shattering” about this assessment. “I think closer to the next election we might have a better idea about what those seats are.”

Di Natale’s resignation comes right as the country grapples with a catastrophic bushfire season and heightened community anxiety about climate change. But the outgoing leader insisted it was the “right time” for the party to change leaders.

“The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was really important that we give someone a good opportunity to launch into the next election and particularly at the moment, when it’s so critical to hold this shocking government to account for their failure on fires,” the outgoing leader said.

While Greens colleagues and members have been very understanding of Di Natale’s decision to retire for family reasons, some were disappointed about the timing.

Since 2017, the Greens have been actively debating whether to let party members directly elect the leader, with a range of views about what model could be adopted. Some members, such as NSW senator Mehreen Faruqi, have expressed frustration that the party’s national conference is due to make a decision on the issue in May (and Di Natale’s resignation has seen another leadership vote by the party room).

For his part, Bandt favours a mixed model where members and MPs get a vote and sees “no reason” why the issue won’t be resolved by May (although other Greens sources say the issue could easily drag on longer).

Leadership positions are automatically spilled after elections, so if the party does change its method of electing leaders, Bandt could face a membership vote within two years.

His more pressing challenge, however, will be to capitalise on the increased focus on climate change. The member for Melbourne said the biggest risk for the Greens was the Morrison government’s “greenwashing campaign”.

“I think there’s been a marked shift in the public mood and sentiment. The climate emergency is being felt physically by many people now … People accept that there’s a link between the fires and the drought and climate change,” he said.

“The government has switched, it’s changed tack and has said ‘oh yes we accept that climate change is real but don’t worry, we’ve got it all under control’. I think the risk is they’re successful in selling that message.”

Bandt described the 48 hours after winning the leadership as a “baptism of fire”. The phone hadn’t stopped ringing and his office had not even had a chance to “clink champagne glasses”.

In among the meetings, briefings and calls, Di Natale got in touch to give his successor some tips about the job to come. But Bandt is not prepared to reveal what was said.

“I’ll probably keep a lot of that to myself. It’s good advice.”

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