“I leave with a sense of fulfilment knowing we have been a positive influence on the place and my role in that has been important, but also knowing that a lot of the big stuff is still totally unresolved,” he tells The Age.
“If your starting point is that climate change is an existential threat and that structural inequality in and of itself is a bad thing, then the past 10 years have been a failure. Our political institutions have let us down.”
In one sense, it is a strange time for Senator Di Natale, a Greens senator since 2010 and party leader since 2015, to be quitting Parliament. He is a public health doctor who before his political career briefly worked for Victoria’s Health Department investigating influenza outbreaks.
You’d think having a former contact tracer in Parliament would be handy in a pandemic. But as Di Natale reflects, “if my experience in politics over the past 10 years tells me anything, the government is not interested in people who might actually know something about the problem”.
His decision to leave was a personal one. His two sons are nearing the end of their primary school years and he understands that if he doesn’t spend more time with them now, they will be grown without him being present in their lives. Having taken this decision at the start of the pandemic, he has been given more time for reflection than he could have imagined.
He remains convinced about the Greens as a political project and argues that despite the party being unable to make significant gains over the past 10 years in parliamentary arithmetic, it is the party most likely to bring change to a national Parliament increasingly less representative of who we are and how we vote.
The simplest measure of this is that at the last federal election a quarter of the electorate lodged a first preference vote in the House of Representatives for a candidate who didn’t belong to one of the major parties.
This resulted in only six of those candidates being elected in a lower house of 151. The Greens secured one seat from a 10 per cent share of the national vote; the National Party won 10 seats from 4.5 per cent of the vote.
Senator Di Natale says the distortions in our voting system are made worse by the dominant pathway into Parliament – student politics to political staffer to MP – which produces candidates who don’t reflect the diversity of the electorate whether measured by class, occupation, life experience or ethnicity.
“We’ve got this narrow political class who get into the place and then you need a crowbar to get them out,” he says.
“Whenever I talk to young people interested in a career in politics, my advice to them is to go and do something else first; go develop a set of skills and experience and a perspective you can bring to the Parliament that actually makes it a better place,” he says.
This advice is not new. John Howard used to say the same thing when he was prime minister.
The political ruptures of the past decade and uniquely destructive role played by climate politics don’t need recounting here. A broadly accepted version is that Senator Di Natale joined the Senate just as the rot was setting in. During the 2010 election that came after Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd, Ms Gillard promised there’d be no carbon tax, but she later fatefully agreed to one as the price of Greens support for her minority government.
Senator Di Natale has a different view. He looks back on the Gillard government as the only government that put a price on carbon and a highly productive one in other policy areas: the National Disability Insurance Scheme, Medicare-funded dental care for children and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation.
Those three years, without him knowing it, were the best of times for the Greens. They also sowed personal bitterness and acrimony that helped poison our national affairs.
Senator Di Natale’s greatest policy regret outside climate change is Parliament’s failure to support meaningful reforms to political donations. He accepts the Greens are less than pure on this front, continuing to accept donations from individuals and progressive organisations while pushing for an end to the corporate donations that fund the major parties.
“I would rather we didn’t take any, but if we didn’t we simply wouldn’t be able to run an election campaign,’’ he says.
For all this, he remains optimistic. He is inspired less by the Greens as a party than those who support its central cause. He describes a movement building among young people, some engaged with party politics and some not, to bring fundamental change. His only doubt is whether they will have enough time.
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“If you blindly support a political party like you do a football team, you are missing the point. I want the Greens to succeed because I believe we are the most effective vehicle for influencing political change within our system. But ultimately, that is what needs to happen.
“What is the point of having a strong Greens party if, in the end, we are dealing with the ruins of decades of crony capitalism and the breakdown of our climate?”
Chip Le Grand is The Age’s chief reporter. He writes about crime, sport and national affairs, with a particular focus on Melbourne.