Transition in the Greens

My colleague Bernard Keane has a piece in Crikey today on the media reaction to the Greens leadership change. It’s very good – go and read it. He says some important things about the failings of the media and their unhealthy relationship to politicians; this will give you the flavor:

The core problem is that the Greens, by and large, don’t engage in the sort of transactional journalism that is the bread and butter of gallery reporting and much of politics in Canberra. Politicians — government and opposition alike — provide information to journalists as part of a transaction in which, the spoken or unspoken quid pro quo is, the agenda of the source is given coverage. Politicians who aren’t willing to provide information to the media risk getting frozen out in favour of those who are prepared to be sources. Journalists who are perceived as unco-operative don’t have calls returned.

But with all that said, there’s still something about the Greens’ process that makes me uncomfortable, and I thought I’d try to explain what it is.

Leave aside the question of whether it’s a good thing to have the leader elected just by the parliamentary party rather than giving the membership (or, more radically, all the supporters) a say: I wrote about that a few weeks ago, and Ben Raue made the case for change yesterday. The question isn’t whether the Greens should change their rules, but how they operate within them.

The Greens pride themselves on transparency, and much of the time that pride is justified. But it seems to me that if you take transparency seriously, then even if the members have no formal voice in choosing the leader, you should want the decision-makers to have an opportunity to at least listen to the members’ views, and preferably to those of the wider pubic as well.

This week’s transition, however, foreclosed on that opportunity: the leadership was decided before the party’s members, much less the public at large, knew that there was a vacancy. Those who were already in the know, of course, could consult with whoever they liked, but no-one else could get a look in.

The problem is not that there was no contest, or that things were settled by polite consensus – there’s nothing wrong with that. (Although there’s nothing wrong with contests either, and it’s a bad sign when political parties seem pathologically afraid of them.) It doesn’t even worry me that the discussion happened behind closed doors. The problem is that nobody outside a closed circle knew that the discussion was taking place.

Contrast with, for example, the retirement of New South Wales premier Bob Carr in 2005, a benchmark for neatness and suddenness. But it still didn’t happen instantly: Carr called a press conference, announced that he was retiring, and that a caucus meeting would be called for a week’s time to choose his successor.

I don’t pretend that input from ordinary ALP members had any real impact in that intervening week; in reality the elevation of Morris Iemma was stitched up in a factional deal. But at least in principle it might have. Caucus members had the chance to listen to public opinion if they so chose.

For that matter, I’m not suggesting that the Greens would have emerged with a different leadership if they had followed a more transparent process. Nor do I think Richard Di Natale is a poor choice: on the contrary, I’ve thought ever since his election that he would be well suited for the leadership.

But appearances matter in politics, and the Greens this week have given the appearance of a party that is less democratic than it could be.

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