Midday, and the Greens campaign and press bus — that is, Richard Di Natale, two advisers and me in a maxi-taxi — pull up in Glenroy, in a side street, between the Chicken Shack and the TAB, there for a visit to the early polling place, in an old deserted menswear store. Cold, and the wind whipping through the old shops, the sagging weatherboards.
There’s a woman walking past on the other side, swaddled against the cold, a beautiful white and turquoise headscarf on. “It’s you,” she says to Di Natale. She comes closer. We tense, relax when we see she’s brown skinned.
“I saw you and I wanted to thank you.” Then the words tumble out. She’s a refugee, from Iran, three months here, after three years in Nauru, another victim of that useless processional.
“I saw you on TV and you were the only one saying good things for us … It’s been very hard …”
Now I am known as being so far in the tank for the Greens I might as well be one of those implanted fuel supplements, but this happened just how I’m saying it. A tear sprang to her eye, tears sprang to ours, Richard hugged her, was reassuring without being grandstanding.
Had he a press pack, this would have been a moment of the campaign, camos jostling each other, booms swinging over. But there was just me fumbling for a phone out of juice.
Later, when Richard had moved on I asked her a few questions. She’d been a Tehran taxi driver, got out to follow her husband, who was here, and by now with another woman. She’d ended up in limbo. Small worlds, whole worlds in a Glenroy backstreet. She sounded lonely and sad. Yet still immaculately turned out, Middle Eastern turquoise twirling round her, she moves back into the crowd.
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We’d started at Northcote Baptist Chuch on High Street, red brick and unremarkable and hosting an early polling place for Batman, and thus besieged by birders, sheaves of how-to-vote cards in their hands. Half a dozen Greens covering all entrances, old lumpy bloke might have been a roadie at Sunbury, girl with blue hair, neat studenty types, inner-urban alts.
Couple of Labor people, young black-haired girl from the north, a little snarly, and who can blame her. Posters on scissor boards, Alex Bhathal in pearls and a serene expression, David Feeney with a forced smile, like he was watching something terrible happen. Bhathal’s sign keeps blowing over; Feeney’s doesn’t. Either the gods are with him or even his photo is heavier than other people’s.
Couple of Libs, pretty Northcote-y types, handing out, one holding a small terrier, looks like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. I sidle up.
“Bit of a hardship posting for you.”
“What? Oh yeah, but you gotta do what you gotta do.”
“Do you?” Maybe I can just persuade him to go home.
”Yeah well was l Labor until a decade or so ago, in the TWU. I ran as an independent delegate and -” he then made a series of allegations that I can’t repeat but that I have no doubt are true, the fate of anyone who dares to question Labor’s right to own the unions.
“But you’re kind of helping them. Your cards are preferencing Feeney …”
“Well, yeah, I, uh …”
“Why don’t you dodge up some independent cards advocating a Liberal vote and a conscience ticket, go your own way Labor vs Green …”
“Oh yeah, well, I dunno …”
Triumph yaps at me. The love between man and dog is great. Inner-city Libs. Always eccentrics.
Cars pull up, and Bhathal and Di Natale climb out, start glad-handing and talking to the punters who are streaming through. About one in four is taking only a Greens card, by my estimate. The Labor people go into a quick huddle.
Thornbury, a century and a half old, old Victorian shops parapets and curlicues, the thick tram wires overhead, the chemists with crowded windows, the frock shops, the old cafes with plates of cakes on glass shelves, the new cafes with polished Gaggia, and hip wooden furniture. The old folk come in, the new folk come in, there is excitement to see the Greens leader.
“G’day, Richard Di Natale.” “Oh, I’m voting for you.” “Well, for Alex.” “Yeah.” “What do you do?” “Well I’m in medical technologies.” “Oh right, you know, I’m a doctor — where did you study?” “Monash.” “Right that’s- ”
And they’re off, yapping, the leader of a party at home among the knowledge workers, talking to knowledge workers. The Labor spruikers look on enviously. A couple of cars pull up and half a dozen more Labor spruikers — TeamFeeney T-shirts, ugh — tumble out. No David. He and Bhatal had already crossed paths that morning at the Preston Markets. Strained, apparently. But then they’ve been crossing paths for 30 years, from Melbourne Uni student politics. Together with Richard Marles, the current speaker, Sophie Panapolous/Mirabella and many others. Democracy at work. Alex went on to be a social worker and spend 30 years in the area. David was parachuted in, a hard right-winger in an electorate that was inner-city left and is now going hipster, against the wishes of, well, everyone. Fanatically pro-US, pro-Zionist in a multicultural electorate, he might not only be its last ever representative from the ALP, but from the DLP as well.
Bloke in a sling starts teasing the Labor spruikers.
“He’s a disgrace! He forgot a whole house? How did he forget a whole house?”
“This change your vote?” I ask him.
“Too bloody right. I was Labor down the line for 20 years! He’s a property baron!”
“You’re just jealous,” says one of the Labor spruikers, who has a perhaps imperfect understanding of her party’s central philosophy.
Broken-arms’ eyes swivel in his head, steam comes from his ears. He grabs a Greens leaflet and marches in.
Another car pulls up, a flash of blond hair and Liberty Sanger, Mrs David Feeney, gets out, in red T-shirt, ready to deputise.
Di Natale is in an immaculately sharp-creased grey overcoat and subtle orange tie on a white shirt. The man can really rock haberdashery. So could Bob Brown, but there was always an ironic twist to it. Whenever I saw him and Ben Oquist together it was like an ectomorph version of a Blues Brothers tribute act. Hidey hey baby don’t you want to go. But Richard looks more of a natural. He talks to the young about refugees, housing, the aged about pensions and local services. I suspect he gets at least a few stray Labor votes from people who believe that nice Mister Ben Chifley has come back to run again.
After Glenroy we barrel down the freeway to a 3AW forum debate being hosted by Tom Elliott, who has discovered a new enthusiasm for democracy after a period believing, after Daniel Andrews’ surprise victory, that the most stable economy in the OECD was in such crisis that a committee of emergency management should be formed to bypass the mob. Well, that will be interesting. On the road, Di Natale runs most of his own campaign from the front seat — “switch me back to Errol Street for that evening … What’s that thing at 7.30? Is that TV or radio? Do we need to do that? Is that the best use of our time?”
The meeja have decided that the transition from Brown and Christine Milne to Di Natale marks some great change in the Greens. It does and it doesn’t. Brown and Milne were hardly ferals straight off the raft. They’d both been Tasmanian MPs for years before they hit Canberra. No party goes from two senators to guaranteeing government in a decade without being well-organised. Almost everything written about the Greens is Greens Derangement Syndrome, for this one weird reason: most journalists, commentators, consultants etc are more or less Green in their understanding of the way things should be run — the Earth and global society as a complex system each part interacting with the other, and requiring management at the level of the system. You can’t greenlight coal mines and fix the Barrier Reef, it’s bullshit. Everyone knows what deep down, but we have to continue with the pantomime of old-style politics for a decade or do more, I suppose.
But here that weird thing: the Greens represent nothing but themselves and the smallish class from which they draw their support. They have a universal message of course, but what I mean is this: they are not other than their rank and file. A Greens MP among Greens supporters is a fish in water. That’s why it’s the only party with members drawn from its rank and file, the only leader called to politics from a life outside of it, as an answer to the issues he encountered there (as an NT doctor) — not someone who’s been aiming for it since O-week 1983.
Labor and Liberal, by contrast, are an elite in relation to their own shrinking rank and file. Labor’s role as a bunch of high-immigration, privatisation-crazy, free marketeers is to sell a lot of that to their base who remain nationalist, communalist, protectionist and socially conservative in many ways. The Libs have a similar job to do, to whatever remains of their party base before the next cold snap. I can’t help but think that some of the support for Labor from the sort of people who might otherwise be thought to be reliable Greens has an element of retro chic about it, Labor as the heroic mass party, etc. It isn’t and hasn’t been for a while. But at the very moment that the Greens become the normal party of the inner city — now anywhere 15ks from the GPO — and of the knowledge class, there is an urge to go elsewhere.
“Yeah what is it with [name deleted] and [name deleted]. I don’t get it?” says Di Natale from the front seat.
“Top of my head, I can’t help but think that some of the support for Labor from the sort of people who might otherwise be thought to be reliable Greens, has an element of retro chic about it, Labor as the heroic mass party,” I say doing my usual interview trick, talking over the subject. “Tim Lyons reminded me of this pertinent passage in Deleuze … ”
“Hello? Hello? Call me,” Di Natale said to an empty phone. “Oh, we’re here.”
‘”Well Barry, is it, look, you’ve had a go every day this week we’ve got a political forum on today … hello, Tom Elliott show … how many people on an AFL field at any one time … well, that’s a sports question isn’t it …”
Listening to a three-way political debate from the production booth is as close to a sketch of the cockamamie political process you’re likely to get. In the studio, Richard Marles, Di Natale and Greg Hunt are going at each other, on the fine points of policy detail. In the booth, the lost of the world call in with their bewildered questions. The two mainsteamers occasionally trying a pincer movement. “How can you say Medicare’s funding gap can be solved by efficiency?” Hunt says, to a GP. “What are you talking about?” “I’ll give you one example — arthroscopy, for knee surgery. Thousands of them, each year, unnecessary. X-rays for back pain, same. Also -” “Uh OK, OK.” How had Hunt imagined this would go?
There is one way in which Di Natale’s style has differed from that of Brown and Milne in that he never never takes the indulgence, or the risk, if you prefer, of going a bit wider, musing on nature, or throwing in a left-field comment however pertinent it might be. He never tries to do too much in one answer — one reason why he’s been able to go up against the Bolts et al on their own turf. That’s how it was, in this forum: direct as a machine gun, going in hard but courteous, to try and win every exchange. If I sometimes miss the more freewheeling style, I’m glad of that uncompromising discipline in a leader. It’s the mark of political success: to never give yourself an excuse, never console yourself with “moral victory”; when you lose the point, go in fresh on the next one. Turnbull has that. Di Natale has it. Not sure Bill does, TBH.
We part there, at Media House (4th floor: Fairfax; 5th floor: Excelsior Sausage Casings P/L), and I watch the cold, tired rush hour crowds stream into Southern Cross, the grey raincoats and wool hats, the mittens and head scarves a flash of colour here and there. Thought of Northcote, the old Melbourne inner city as close to a home as I have, the brick veneer suburbs peeling away as we drove down the freeway, and the day before, on the Bill trail, the press plane coming out of Canberra, and turning on its wing, and the green and brown flatlands suddenly radiant in the sun, and felt a sudden piercing love for the country, a hope that having avoided the worst so far, that it build on what everyone can now surely see is a recent great good fortune.
Should you vote Green if that’s what you want? Yes, of course you should. If you believe the planet is in crisis, if you’re a leftist, a social democrat, of course you should give your vote to a party that is recognisably to the left of Labor and drags it further left — but that is also committed to a series of very liberal challenges to the system’s corrupt structures and state of affairs. Of course you should force Labor to deal with a party pushing a federal ICAC, real action on carbon, affordable education and union rights. The objections to it are absurd. Were we are first-past-the-post system, or had the Greens leap-frogged to the centre, the question would be a live one. It isn’t. This is no time to be too clever by half. Vote Green, preference Labor and build the party. Vote selected independents — Mayne, McGowan, Windsor and others — and if you feel the Greens can be a tad nanny-statish throw your vote via The Sex Party. But it’s a preferential system for godssake. Build your ticket. Start with the Greens not because their leader reached out to a woman in the street, but because she reached out to him, not for who he was, but for what he stood for, in the wild winds of the world, now buffeting us all.
*Crikey editor’s note: In an earlier version of this story, Guy Rundle, high on election fever, went beyond the pale. And in the cold light of day we’re happy to concede we shouldn’t have released those lines to the world. They have been removed. Crikey apologises for any offence caused.