When Christine Milne assumed the leadership of The Greens from Bob Brown she did so amidst a wave of unwelcome speculation about her party’s short term future. From start to finish pundits wanted her head on a silver plate, not out of any detestation for her but out of a desire to write about another Greek tragedy like that which befell the Australian Democrats. They never got their Greek tragedy, they never got their head on a plate. Yesterday Christine left on her own terms, her party intact, the doomsayers flummoxed.
Much was made of the media’s role in damaging Julia Gillard politically but till the bitter end she enjoyed a loud and passionate cheer squad headed up by Anne Summers. Milne never had an Anne Summers. For three years every development concerning The Greens was distorted by the fifth estate to signify that a catastrophe was on the horizon for the hapless Milne. When it looked as though the Greens might lose their West Australian senate seat at the last election this was supposed to signify a disaster for Milne. When, a month later, Scott Ludlam romped home in the Senate re-election, this too was cited as evidence that Milne’s leadership was facing an imminent crisis.
But the crisis never came. The narrative of the inept, second leader falling dismally short of her predecessor’s impossibly high standards never got beyond the prologue. For three years the crisis was just a day away, three years on it still hasn’t arrived.
In part credit for Milne’s success rests with her parliamentary party. For all the innuendo about Sarah Hanson-Young’s ambition, the parliamentarians who served under Milne showed her a decency of which major party leaders could only dream. For The Greens did suffer setbacks under Milne, too many to count. But whereas the major parties would have turned on their leaders after such setbacks, The Greens, even Hanson-Young, set their teeth and placed their trust in Milne. A trust, in time, which she repaid.
Yet for all the decency of her parliamentary colleagues it was Milne who had to go out day after day to hear her own doom prophesized as loudly in the progressive media as it was in the conservative media. The natural ebb and flow of the electoral cycle was being proffered as proof of her ineptitude. She was simultaneously charged with losing touch with The Greens core values while sabotaging Julia Gillard’s leadership with her extreme demands. They probably thought the relentless barrage would break her. What fools they were. This was the same woman who was once dubbed “mother of teenage sodomy” by a former federal minister within Tasmanian parliament, sneering was never going to finish her off. The savagery of the hung parliament finished many towering figures of Australian politics, the vision of Tony Windsor choking back tears as he declared “I don’t want to be in three years time,” spoke succinctly to the mental and emotional toll the environment was taking on these political practitioners. Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd, Stephen Smith, Simon Crean, Bob Brown, Rob Oakshott, Nick Minchin and Windsor all called it quits during this vicious period in Australian politics but Milne fought on.
Throughout all the setbacks, despite unfriendly voices bellowing advice to change course, Milne remained true to her party’s core principles of grassroots democracy, ecological sustainability, social justice and nonviolence. And eventually the setbacks became fewer, Gillard loyalists stopped blaming Milne for their hero’s shortcomings and the electoral tide began to move back in The Greens favour. A decent showing in the Victorian elections and a barnstorming performance in NSW coupled with federal polling hovering around the 12 percent mark seemed to suggest a rosy future for The Greens under Milne.
Had she stayed on until 2016 she would likely have matched Brown’s 2010 performance and joined him as equally the most successful minor party leader in Australian history. But those accolades were never what Milne was after. She’d guided a parliamentary party of young, promising Greens through a challenging time and didn’t need to be around to reap the rewards. She guided her anointed successor into the leadership so that he might build on her efforts in the longer term. And with that she was gone, on the eve of what could have been her tour de force she had stepped aside, not with tears or a stiff upper lip, but with a broad smile and a hug. A commentariat hoping for an unedifying leadership fracas resorted to soviet innuendo to try and inject scandal into this harmonious transition but there simply wasn’t anything scandalous.
And that was the way of it. The party that was meant to disintegrate under Milne’s leadership marches on in a stronger position than when she first took over. They stand alone, the only party seemingly prepared for what the next federal election will bring. All the early signs suggest that for The Greens it will bring rewards, and Christine Milne won’t hang around to enjoy them. She doesn’t need to.