The conservative and contrarian state of Queensland remains the toughest parliamentary challenge for the Australian Greens though they are starting to make some inroads. Ronan Lee was briefly a Greens State MP after he defected from Labor in 2008 - though he was turfed out of office by the voters a year later. Larissa Waters (who went up against fellow Senate candidate Barnaby Joyce on Q&A last night) is taking her second tilt at a Senate seat in 2010 hoping to improve on her 7.3 percent in 2007 which saw her defeated on the final count for the last Queensland seat. Labor won that 27th count with the help of Pauline’s United Australia preferences but with La Hanson now firmly out of the political scene, the Greens may finally have a sniff of a Queensland Senate seat.
Meanwhile an ex-Queensland Senator is making the Greens’ most serious fight yet for a Lower House seat. Former Democrats leader Andrew Bartlett is the most high profile recruit to the Greens north of the Tweed since Lee. Bartlett was a casually elected Senator for the Democrats in 1997 after the Labor defection of Cheryl Kernot. He successfully defended his seat in 2001, was party leader as they began to unravel in 2004 before being defeated as the Democrats disintegrated in 2007. In November 2009 he announced he would be standing for the seat of Brisbane held by Labor’s Arch Bevis.
I interviewed Bartlett during his unsuccessful 2007 campaign and as he is now a candidate in my electorate I have repeated the exercise three years on. Brisbane is an inner city seat covering the CBD and surrounding suburbs north of the river. Bevis has held the seat for two decades and won comfortably in 2007 with a 2PP vote of 57 to 43. In that election the relatively unknown Elizabeth Guthrie took 11.8 percent for the Greens and it is safe to predict Bartlett’s name recognition value will add substantially to their vote this time round. In the only polling done so far in the seat, a Galaxy poll for WWF, Bartlett said he is polling between 18 to 20 percent.
Liberals are also putting up a strong candidate in Brisbane, former Redcliffe MP Teresa Gambaro. Bartlett will have his work cut out in a tough contest between three candidates who have 40 years of legislative experience between them. 20 percent of the vote is unlikely to beat either Bevis or Gambaro. But the WWF polling is another solid indicator the Greens have a base that is slowly and steadily growing.
Bartlett said they were in government in Tasmania, held the balance of power in SA’s upper house and had 20 MPs and a 100 councillors including a mayor in Byron Bay and three mayors in Melbourne councils. Bartlett said this bottom-up approach was a key difference between the Democrats and the Greens. “The Democrats were in power federally almost from the start - we had the balance of power within a year of being formed,” he said. “But the Greens have a more sustainable foundation.”
Bartlett blames the upheaval over the GST deal the Democrats struck with the Howard Government in 1999 for its ultimate demise. “When a party’s ethics is based on honesty, [the change of direction] led to a massive hole in its core,” he said. He said the Greens now remind how the Democrats used to be and said he wants to be a part of their parliamentary push. “I felt I still have something to contribute,” he said. “Ever since 1989 I felt very strongly the two party system was not capable of delivering enough”.
He enjoyed serving on parliamentary committees across many areas of governance during the years when the Democrats had the balance of power though he concedes they may have spread themselves too thinly in the end. After Howard won control of the Senate in 2004, Bartlett had more opportunity to study the Greens which were growing as the Democrats contracted. He said the Greens broadened their focus from being a pure environmental lobby group and their willingness to negotiate meant he was seeing more common ground with the party.
Bartlett defended the Greens decision to reject the Labor Government’s CPRS last year though he acknowledges it would have been a politically easier decision to support it. “You should explore every avenue to negotiate as you go but in the end you must decided whether it is worse than doing nothing,” he said. “It’s like designing a bridge – if the direction and trajectory are wrong, you don’t say build it anyway and we’ll fix it up later.”
Climate change remains the biggest challenge. “If we accept the science, its ‘past urgent’,” he said. He said the Greens were on the cusp of giving people a viable alternative to the two major parties. Bartlett said he wanted to use his campaign to remind people of the importance of the Senate. “I was the last person in the Senate from Queensland who wasn’t Labor or the Coalition,” he said. Bartlett believed Waters stood a good chance of being elected.
He also understood the need for the Greens to move beyond the environmental fringe. “We need to become more literate in other areas,” he said. “If we do become the balance of power we can’t just have an opposing role - we’ll have to tackle issues like taxation and superannuation.” In the event Bartlett is not returned to parliament, he will surely find a role in the background poring over documents to help the Greens turn those next policy corners.