State member for Northcote Lidia Thorpe (left) posing for marriage equality with former Batman candidate Alex Bhathal (right)

With the survival of David Feeney in the seat of Batman now in the hands of the High Court, and removal and a by-election very likely, Labor is tensing for another loss of their inner-city heartland to the Greens. In 2016, five-time candidate Alex Bhathal came within a whisker of defeating Feeney, who managed to forget the existence of a property-portfolio house he owned in the electorate, and then delivered a gaffe-prone campaign performance. In November, the Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe won the state seat of Northcote, within Batman’s bounds, by a stonking 12% margin. With Feeney’s new memory lapse — he has mislaid documents he claims proved that he had renounced his UK citizenship — Batman looks in the bag for Bhathal, an increasingly popular and well-known figure in the electorate.

But now there is fresh trouble for the Greens, with an attempt to deselect Bhathal prior to the expected by-election. Crikey can reveal that a complaint has gone from the Darebin branch of the party to Victorian state Greens head office, cosigned by a number of members, calling for Bhathal’s deselection, and possible expulsion.

McCarthy is one of four Greens on Darebin city council (including the Darebin mayor Kim Le Cerf), and was heir-presumptive to the seat of Northcote, which had been widely expected to go Green as soon as the late Fiona Richardson, from Labor, retired or passed away, after contracting cancer. But McCarthy was heavily defeated in a pre-selection battle by Bhathal-backed candidate Lidia Thorpe — a Koori working-class woman whose candidacy extended the reach of a party with a heavy white, anglo presence, and whose passionate personal style almost certainly increased the Greens’ margin of victory.

Three separate sources have confirmed that a written complaint is in process; it has been suggested that the complaint has between 15-20 signatories, and accuses Bhathal of being unsupportive and undermining of the four Darebin councillors, with further accusations of “bullying”.

Victorian state Greens co-convenor Colin Jacobs noted only that “Victorian Greens take all internal complaints seriously and deal with them on a confidential basis”.

“The Darebin branch has two very large factions, and relations have broken down,” a prominent member of the party’s Yarra branch (covering Fitzroy, Collingwood and Richmond) has noted. “Its part of a wider story — that the party doesn’t have official factions which would help us deal with these conflicts. Before the preselection [for Northcote] there were huge membership sign-ups by both sides, which verged on stacking”.

“There’s a gray area in the Greens procedural rules,” a former Victorian Greens administrative officer told Crikey. “It’s not clear whether the prior pre-selected candidate remains the preselected candidate for a by-election, or whether it should be re-opened.” This former officer was also well-aware of the split in Darebin. “The view that Alex has been relentless critical and unhelpful for the new councillors is around. I’m not sure about ‘bullying'”. A source close to Bhathal said that while it couldn’t be described as a “split”, “there are real political differences between the two groups.”

Such conflict is widening as Greens leader Richard Di Natale appears to be moving the party further towards the centre onsome matters, such as political engagement on legislation — on issues such as Australia Day, for example. Meanwhile, strong left factions remain in inner-city Greens areas. Eyebrows were raised when South Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young popped up at the Davos World Economic Forum last week, and tweeted positive messages about the event as a place to find “solutions”. For many Greens, the Davos World Economic Forum is an elite power confab, dedicated to frustrating democratic power, and excluding the mass of humanity from decision-making.

However a source close to Richard Di Natale denied that the Greens leader had any role or preference in the process, saying that an attempt to link Di Natale to the complaint was coming from “outside the state”: “someone’s trying to put Richard in the frame for this, for opportunistic reasons. He campaigned with Alex extensively in 2016”.

Crikey takes “outside the state” to mean “New South Wales”.

The move against Bhathal comes not because the Greens are marginal to the political process, but because it is widely believed that the Darebin dog could win Batman for the Greens, if David Feeney is unseated by the High Court. If Feeney were to somehow re-contest the seat, the swing to the Greens is expected to be substantial. But even a new candidate — and there has been talk of running Clare Burns, the failed candidate for Northcote — would most likely fall. Labor itself is riven with factional disputes in the area, with the insurgent right-wing Somyurek faction based in the area, and attempting to replace the official Right, and destroy state Labor’s stability pact.

Some see it as a struggle for the soul of the party. Others less so. “This is just payback for Alex (Bhathal) not supporting Trent (McCarthy) in the preselection,” our Yarra source said.

Though local, the conflict has wide implications. A win in Batman, would not only give the Greens two seats in what might be a hung parliament, going to election well before 2019, but it would also nail down the party’s campaign to have an inner-city sweep in the November Victorian state election, taking Brunswick and Richmond, and giving them a five-seat base in the lower house — and again, a possible role in deciding government.

But any undermining of Bhathal, at a branch, state or federal level, could have grave implications. Inner-city Melbourne remains a radical left zone; here the Greens support is both centrist knowledge-class workers, and a large coalition of consciously left people, many of them deserting the ALP in despair at the contempt with which it has treated them.

Trent McCarthy is a widely-respected and long-serving Greens member, with a role in policy development. But he’s also so white you could use him as a swatch for painting an art-gallery, and the election of Thorpe, and the candidacy of Bhathal connects the Greens to a global movement of people of colour, and opens the doors of the party to them. The inner-city ain’t in the bag yet, and the Greens would do well to avoid the gold-dust fever — of the sort that has lost Labor seats to the Greens in the past few years.

Trent McCarthy was contacted for this story but did not respond before deadline on Wednesday. 

Peter Fray

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