Adam Bandt began his political journey in the Labor party, but the issue of climate change drew him to the Greens. Last week he became their leader, elected unopposed.
Asked about his ambitions for the party, Bandt aspires to a power-sharing situation with a Labor government, akin to the Gillard era.
“Ultimately Labor’s got to decide where it stands, and if Labor decides that it does want to go down the path of working with us on a plan to phase out coal and look after workers in communities, then great.
"If Labor prefers to work with the Liberals, maybe we’re going to see a situation like we do in Germany at the moment where there’s a grand coalition between the equivalent of the Labor and Liberal parties because they find that they’ve got more in common with each other than with us.”
Transcript (edited for clarity)
Michelle Grattan: The Greens last week changed their leader in what was a very smooth transition. There was no hint of arm twisting, let alone a challenge. Richard Di Natale’s explanation of family reasons for stepping down seemed convincing. Adam Bandt, the party’s sole lower house member, took the job without any opposition.
Adam Bandt is generally considered more radical than Di Natale, and he faces the challenging task of managing a senate party from the lower house. He joins us today to talk about how he’ll approach the job.
Adam Bandt, let’s start with your own political background, can you tell us something of your journey to the Greens?
Adam Bandt: When I was at high school, I actually joined the Labor Party in part because of my family history. Dad was the first one in his family to go to university. And we have always had a very sort of social justice focus at home. And so I joined the Labor Party. I left early on in university when I got involved in the education campaigns right in the thick of Labor’s, I guess, embrace of neo-liberalism and putting up the cost of education. And that wasn’t attractive to me. So I left.
For a number of years, I worked as an employment lawyer, industrial relations lawyer, representing low paid workers and their unions. And it was really climate change that for me prompted me to…I’d been handing out how to vote cards for Greens candidates and doing that for a number of years. But it was really the climate crisis and sort of that initial dawning of how little time we’ve got left to turn the ship around that prompted me to join the Greens back in the mid 2000s and I have been with them ever since.
MG: Now you’re seen as more radical than Richard Di Natale, do you see yourself that way? And in general, what differences will you bring to the leadership?
AB: I’ll let others make the comparisons. I’ve been very public and continue to be public that I think Richard did a great job and led us to our second best ever election result. And I think that’s quite a feather in his cap.
In terms of what I stand for, like I said before, in terms of my history, the two things that matter most for me are tackling inequality in Australia and tackling the climate crisis. And for me, they’re the two values that have underpinned my adult life. And I’ll keep pushing those. I mean, some have made that comment. I’m not quite sure what it means. I won’t say anything that I can’t back up with the science.
And I think on the climate front, for example, we attracted some criticism before the Christmas holidays for saying that Scott Morrison had played a role in increasing the risk of catastrophic fires like the ones we were seeing and that he had to take some responsibility for it. And I stand by that because objectively he has. And I think those who say perhaps there’s a bit too much strong language, I think fail to understand how angry and anxious people are feeling at the moment and especially a lot of young people in this country. And so I think the time for kind of soft pedalling and not telling the truth about how severe the climate emergency is, is now over.
MG: Just to take you up on this point about young people, while not downplaying the whole threat of climate change, do you feel some responsibility not to alarm people who are very young, 13, 14 year olds?
AB: I would say that they are already alarmed and anxious. And part of my responsibility is to say we hear that alarm and anxiety and a part of our role is to provide hope that there’s an exit strategy from it. And when, for example, last week I spoke to a student striker who’d come up to Canberra and she was 17 and she said, I can’t bring myself to think more than a year in advance about my future now. I used to be able to, but now I can’t. When I think five or 10 years ahead and think about what the climate emergency will do to me in my life, it all gets too much and I can’t think more than a year ahead.
Now, Scott Morrison might say that’s needless anxiety, but actually at one level, it’s a rational reaction to the things that people are learning about the state of the science. And I speak to a lot of school groups and school children about the state of climate change. And it is a difficult balancing act because on the one hand, you don’t want to tell people things that aren’t true. But on the other hand, we’ve got to provide a bit of hope. And that’s what I see my role as.
MG: But you are more alarmed than the average person, probably about climate change and yet you think obviously five or 10 years ahead. So isn’t there some responsibility to say to that young person, well, I can think a decade ahead and of course, you can think a decade ahead.
AB: Yes. And that’s why I’m pushing for a Green New Deal. Part of the motivation for outlining a green new deal is to say, look, there’s a different way of thinking about Australia. We could become a renewable energy superpower and tackle the climate crisis and tackle the anxiety that people are legitimately feeling about that. And so part of a Green New Deal is about dealing with the economic challenges that we face. But part of it is also about having an exit strategy from what I see as the climate crisis, a jobs crisis and an inequality crisis all coming in together at the moment in a way that could be quite paralysing for some people. So we need an exit strategy.
MG: We’ll come to the Green New Deal in a moment. But let me first take you to some of the Greens internal issues. You’ve had problems within the party, for example, claims of sexual harassment and the like. Are you concerned about the party’s culture and do you have some plan to deal with it?
AB: Look, I’m not concerned about where the party’s culture is at the moment. But I think in the past - and I think you’ve found Richard Di Natale is saying exactly the same thing - probably things weren’t dealt with as well as they could have been. And it’s a challenge for us as a volunteer based organisation where we’re wanting to bring people in and be active supporters in our campaign knowing that we don’t have the money that the others have got and so we’re much more reliant on people and…
MG: They’re not problems of money are they, really?
AB: Well no it’s problems of not having paid attention to having the right processes in place and putting in place the right culture and I think in the past we didn’t do as well as we could have for the women who came forward with those complaints. I think we have to accept that. And since then, I know certainly in my office we put in place structures to make sure that if anyone ever felt uncomfortable, they’d have a way to raise it and they’d be believed. And I know that in the national organisation, they’ve put in place some of those changes as well. So I feel that we’ve got to admit that in the past, we didn’t do it as well as we could, and I think the changes that have been made at the national organisation will stand us in good stead.
MG: Now, some Greens in your rank and file would like to have a say in the choice of leader. What do you think about that? Should future leaders be chosen, at least in part by the rank and file, as happens with the Labor Party? Or do you think the decision should rest with the parliamentary party?
AB: Yes so at the moment it rests with the parliamentary party. Some have been pushing for a change to say it should be solely selected by the members. My personal view is that I favour a mixed model where the party room continues to have a say but members also get to have a say via a vote. Now we’ve got a process in place in the party to resolve that at the May national conference, which we’ve got coming up. And so I hope that process is on track and I’ve got no reason to think it won’t be. And we’ll probably have a resolution of it by then on on the current timetable.
MG: It seems slightly indecent to talk about your successor but you’re saying your successor you think will be chosen by a mixed system?
AB: Well, I don’t know. It’s gonna be up to the party. But if I get a ballot paper, within the Greens, I as one individual member, will be taking the mixed model box. But I also think as a leader, it’s probably not my role to use my position now to influence things one way or the other. That’s got to be something the members decide.
MG: Let’s turn to the Green New Deal. Firstly, why did you choose that term, New Deal?
AB: We’ve been talking about that in the Greens for some time. We held a conference back in 2009 to promote a Green New Deal in Australia. And it’s a term that is gaining global currency as well. And I think increasingly…
MG: And has historical context of course from America.
AB: That’s right. And one of the things that it raises the question of because of its historical associations is what is the role of government? What is the role of government in the context of the current crises that we have at the moment? And I wanted to send a very clear message that for me, the Green New Deal is a government led plan of action and investment to grow new jobs and industries and create a clean economy in a caring society. And I think we are facing a number of crises and are at an impasse in Australia, in part because government has been unwilling to step in and deal with the challenges that we’ve got.
So this is about saying, well, what are the settings in place to grow new jobs and industries so that Australia becomes a renewable energy superpower, as we tackle some of these other jobs and inequality crises that we’re facing at the moment? So it’s a different way of thinking about government as helping usher in a new clean economy.
MG: So is it putting more emphasis on the economic side rather than the environmental side of climate change issues of energy transition?
AB: It’s about acknowledging that some of the big challenges that we’ve got are a mix of moral and economic, if you want to use those terms. So we’ve got a climate crisis that is being felt now very acutely in Australia. We’ve got a jobs crisis where it’s being particularly played out amongst young people where one in three young people either doesn’t have a job or doesn’t have enough hours of work. They’re underemployed. And we’ve got an inequality crisis where we’ve got inequality at a 70 year high and people still living in poverty.
What I’m arguing is that the solution to all of these is government stepping in and saying, right, we’ve got some problems and we’re going to fix them. And that then addresses both the economic questions and the moral questions.
I think also on one other note, I’ve been in the house of representatives and I’ve got a seat where we’ve got more public housing than any other seat in Victoria but we’ve also got more women in paid work than any other state in Victoria. And it’s consistent with my history, too, of representing a lot of working people over many years is that I firmly believe that you have to take people’s material concerns seriously and you have to listen to where people are at and what is important to them in their lives. And part of the reason we’ve been successful in Melbourne is that we’ve been able to say, yes, we want to talk about climate change as the Greens, but we also have a plan to deal with a lot of your material concerns. And in fact, if you elected us, you’d find that you’d be better off than under the other parties. And we’ve successfully grown our audiences by getting that message out.
So for me, it’s also part of the Green New Deal. It’s about saying issues of jobs, issues of growing a clean economy are important issues. And we’ve got a plan to deal with that as part of tackling the climate crisis.
MG: Of course, that’s all about environment as part of the wider issue. But nevertheless, you’re less from an environment background than, say, Christine Milne or Bob Brown, aren’t you?
AB: Look, the first demonstration that I went on was in high school in Western Australia, and it was against a nuclear powered warship that had pulled into port. And having done high school and university in Western Australia…it was in the milieu of the Greens in Western Australia - the anti-nuclear campaign which was quite a campaign then. My dad’s side of the family is that much more labor-ist side and mum’s was, I guess you would say, very practical environmentalist side and we were always getting from her mum Wilderness Society calendars for Christmas and they lived in Tasmania and had a very keen understanding that we’ve only got one planet. So those two things for me have always been sort of driving forces.
Yes, I went off and before coming to this job, spent time working, I guess you might say, on that social side of it. But it was the climate crisis that prompted me to chuck that all in and say, I’m going to throw my hat in the ring and start running in politics.
MG: You haven’t tried to intercept a bulldozer?
AB: No, I haven’t. But I’ve been at other demonstrations. But no I haven’t been arrested.
MG: So can we turn to your ambition for the Greens? What is your most optimistic scenario while keeping within the bounds of reality?
AB: I think one unassailable fact in recent history is that the only time pollution came down in this country in a sustained way was when the Greens, independents and Labor worked together and we introduced a carbon price. And when there was an understanding that we had to share power, but in accordance with the composition of the parliament that had been elected. I could see that happening again.
I think we’re in a very finely balanced parliament, and you know Scott Morrison is still only holding on effectively by one seat. And it wouldn’t take the dial shifting that much to be back in a situation akin to the 2010 parliament…
MG: Now are you talking post election?
AB: Yes, post-election. It may happen sooner. All it takes is one. In every term of parliament, there’s almost always a by-election. Someone resigns. And if it’s someone in the right seat who resigns and theie seat then changes to the independents or Greens or Labor, then we could be in a very interesting situation before the next election. But certainly at and after the next election, to summarise it, my goals would be to turf the government out, put Greens in balance of power and implement a Green New Deal.
MG: So you would see at your most optimistic a power sharing situation with a Labor government, with an Albanese government?
AB: I think that is a path to achieving change in this country. And I think it’s a realistic path. We elected a senator in every state at the last election. So it shows that we can do that. Of course, the dynamics in the house of representatives, there’s probably a few more moving parts there with independents running. But the good thing about the current house of representatives is that, with the exception of Bob Katter, there is a great willingness amongst the independents to act on climate change. And we’ve worked very closely together on things like the medivac bill, but also on the climate emergency motion that I moved and Zali Steggall seconded.
MG: And now she’s got private members bill…
AB: And now she’s got a private member’s bill as well. So we might have different views about the best policy mechanism to do it. But I think there is now a broad based desire amongst sections of the crossbench to take action on climate. And you’ve got government members losing seats to people like Zali Steggall on the basis of an ambitious climate policy. And so after the next election, if it ended up in a situation similar to 2010, I think there’d be a lot of scope for climate ambition and the ability for Greens, Labor and independents to work together.
MG: Mind you, Labor’s rhetoric isn’t very nice to the Greens. They say some extremely unpleasant things about you.
AB: Yea, and I think Labor’s got to decide whether they want to help us take on the government over climate change or not. I’ve been disappointed that Labor has chosen to adopt exactly the same rhetoric on coal that Tony Abbott did and that the government did. That’s not hyperbole. Like they actually are now using the same language of our coal apparently being cleaner and we can continue to we to open up new coal mines and they won’t rule out building new coal fired power stations either. That makes our job of holding Morrison to account harder.
So ultimately Labor’s got to decide where it stands and if Labor decides that it does want to go down the path of working with us on a plan to phase out coal and look after workers in communities, then great. If not, if Labor prefers to work with the Liberals, maybe we’re going to see a situation like we do in Germany at the moment where there’s a grand coalition between the equivalent of the Labor and Liberal parties because they find that they’ve got more in common with each other than with us.
MG: So are you more disappointed in Anthony Albanese than you were with Bill Shorten on this coal question?
AB: Well, I think that Labor risks fighting the last election again rather than the next one. And there’s this move from Labor and Liberals to embrace coal. I think it misreads the election result. I think especially after the summer that we’re we’ve had at the moment, I don’t think people want to see an embrace to coal.
MG: And you think Albanese is embracing coal?
AB: Yes. And he would say he is. And he’s using the same, as I say, the same rhetoric as Tony Abbott. They’re both saying, well, we’ve got to sell it otherwise, they’ll buy it from somewhere else…
MG: Tony Abbott or Scott Morrison?
AB: That’s what Tony Abbott said. It’s what Scott Morrison says and it’s what Anthony Albanese is now saying as well…
MG: So they’re in a pro coal alliance, Morrison and Albanese, would you say that?
AB: Well, I don’t know if they’re in… I mean, take a step back and look at the Queensland results at the last election. There’s this sense that somehow coal won the election and that therefore everyone has to be pro coal now. I think it completely misreads the results.
If you look at what happens in some of those coal seats, the Liberal Party vote or the LNP vote, the change you know, barely troubled the scorer like they got a very small change. Some went slightly down, I think - I stand to be corrected, some might have gone up slightly. What happened was that a lot of Labor voters, women voted for One Nation and then the preferences came back to the Liberals.
And what I think that speaks of is that on this question of a transition out of coal, people see through you when you try and have it both ways. And what is needed in those coal communities is a transition plan where we’re not trying to pull the wool over people’s eyes. And if Labor thinks it can continue to walk both sides of the fence, then I think they’re going to stay in opposition for a very long time, because the script that we saw playing out at the last election will just play itself out at the next election. Last election, it was the Adani coal mine. Next election, it could be the new mine that Clive Palmer or Gina Rinehart wants to open up.
So I think that there’s a risk of misreading what the electoral result actually meant on the question of coal. And also forgetting, I think, that Clive Palmer helped buy the election. I understand that Labor has gone through the process of working out where they think they went wrong but I think a lot of weight needs to be put on that. So I think electoral donations reform is an essential component if we’re to ever have a change of government.
MG: Now, you’ve been very critical of Labor, but you’re also saying that your aspiration would be to work with the Labor government. What sort of personal contact, if any, do you have with the Labor leadership? I mean, do you have a beer or a cup of coffee with Anthony Albanese or do you not talk to them at all?
AB: Well, during the power sharing parliament, Anthony Albanese was leader in the house and we met regularly. We would meet at least once or twice a week to discuss the business of the place. And I think ultimately history is going to be a lot kinder to that period of parliament than perhaps some currently think about it because I mean, Julia Gillard can hold her head high. And Anthony Albanese played a part of helping put in place laws that brought down pollution. In terms of ongoing contact, even during this parliament, things like coming within a vote of getting a no confidence motion progressed with respect to Peter Dutton and things like the medivac legislation, I’ve worked closely with Labor and the crossbenchers in the business of Parliament to actually try to make things happen.
MG: So how’s your relationship with Albanese. Do you have a sort of personal rapport or is it just a matter of convenience when it’s needed to talk?
AB: Well look so far it’s been a good working relationship but I think the the question for them now is what approach they want to take and if they want to be backing in Scott Morrison more and appearing more like him then perhaps they’ll want to work with with us. Ball’s in their court really.
MG: Now you hold an inner city seat, but the Greens have not been able to capture other federal house of representatives seats. There was one way back, but that special circumstances. Do you think that you do have any prospect in the future or have you sort of missed the opportunity? There was speculation, for example, during the Batman by election.
AB: Yea I would hope to see us grow in the house of representatives, as well as the senate and I think we have to. Where those opportunities are, for me, that’s gonna be driven by where we’re at closer to the next election. I took some heart from how close we came in states like Higgins and Kooyong at the last election and I feel a main reason we didn’t break through in those seats was that the government came to town and spent millions of dollars to hold them. And those millions of dollars were spent convincing people that the government all of a sudden cared about climate change.
Now people say, oh well, it’s the climate election but look at the result. Well, you know, Scott Morrison got that result by telling people he cared about climate change. I could see that in Higgins and in Kooyong. Those are seats near mine and I could see it happening every day. The question will be whether having seen the summer that we’ve had and seeing what happens over the next couple of years, whether Morrison is successful in that greenwashing and continuing to say it’s okay I’ve climate crisis under control. When you’ve got Melbourne and Sydney and Canberra ranking amongst the world’s most polluted cities over a course of a couple of months, he might not be that successful in doing it, but they’re places that we will be continuing to spend a bit of time in.
MG: Just finally you’re in the house of representatives. But you’re managing essentially a Senate party. How’s that going to work out in practice? I know you’ve said that there’ll be a bit of power sharing and so on, but it’s quite difficult to follow what is often quite fast play in the upper house if you’re not actually sitting on one of those red seats.
AB: We’ll now have a position of leader in the senate that Larissa Waters will hold and she’ll be supported by a deputy, Nick McKim, and a team that knows how to read the play in the Senate and deal with it as it happens. And look, the other parties have their leaders in the house and have a senate team that’s ably led and is able to deal with things as they arise in the senate. But also, look in this period of parliament, where the government’s got people like One Nation that they can work with to get their agenda through the senate, part of what we’ve got to do is work with those social movements that are building up at the moment to put some pressure on the government.
And so we’ll be spending a bit of our time in the community talking to the people who are going on the school strikes for climate and so on. And I feel that if we do it right, it could be reminiscent of the Franklin Dam campaign where we have that interaction between the social movement of what’s happening in politics. Where if the voices from the people are strong enough, we can use that in parliament to push for change. And so that approach is probably not so much about which house you’re in. It’s about having as much an outward facing approach as focusing on the business of parliament.
MG: Adam Bandt, thank you very much for talking with The Conversation today.
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Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra