“You know how they say Lee Rhiannon is a watermelon,” newly elected Greens councillor Michelle Tormey tells Green Left Weekly, “I could probably relate to being a bit of a watermelon myself.”
“I don’t think capitalism is good and I probably lean more towards socialism. I believe that, at the very least, key public services like water, electricity, health care, dental care, are things that everyone should have access to.
“That’s what I think and I don’t care if anyone judges me on that.”
Tormey made history on September 8 by becoming the first Greens councillor elected to Penrith City Council in north-west Sydney.
What’s more, this determined, young single mother and TAFE student hopes to use her new position on council to become “a voice for the environment and the community”.
It was only two years ago that Tormey first got involved in politics, offering to help the Greens out on polling day at the 2010 federal election.
Now she is the first Greens councillor in an area of western Sydney traditionally known as a Labor heartland, and in recent years has increasingly swung to the Liberals.
Asked how she felt about the media coverage that claimed voters in western Sydney had rejected the Greens, Tormey said some voters were undoubtedly influenced by the scare campaign against the carbon price and “the perception that the Greens are in bed with Labor”.
“Those factors played on the results, as did the general shift away from Labor to the Liberals, which we also saw at the state elections last year.”
In that sense, it was “not anything in particular about the NSW Greens.”
Yet, despite this trend, the Greens were able to field more candidates than ever before (contesting all three wards in Penrith, compared to one last time around) and win a spot on council.
For Tormey, the explanation for this rise in support was partly due to the growing respect that the Greens have won among people.
But behind the name were the efforts of her local Greens branch.
“The Nepean Greens have been active since 1995, and a lot of work, time and effort has been put into the group by a number of dedicated activists.
“My election was the result of the hard work of the local group who have helped raise awareness of our existence in the area.”
As the Greens had not been on council before, Tormey said the campaign focused on what they would like to do rather than what they have already done.
But she said the local Greens branch had already had a positive impact on the local community. They were instrumental in securing federal funding to conserve the Cumberland Plains Woodlands.
On council, Tormey hopes to be able to build on this work.
“I want to be a voice for the environment that will, for example, oppose any development proposal on the Cumberland Plain Woodlands.”
She also hopes to become a person that local residents can come to for help to raise their issues on council.
As part of raising locals’ concerns on council, she has already got council to commission a report on the potential effects of coal seam gas mining in the Penrith area, and is keen to stand up on issues ranging from playgrounds equipped for special-needs children to defending the local TAFE.
“I hope to make connections with people and with many different groups to get to understand their issues, get more involved, and from there see how I can help them.”
Key to this will be increasing community engagement. Council meetings can be a daunting experience for anyone, so “rather than wait for them to come to us, we need to go to the people” by organising forums in different community venues.
Tormey believes that as a councillor, she can help show people that “we can make a difference”.
When people get angry with one of the big parties, they tend to vote for the other, only to then get angry and revert back to the original party.
Some consider voting Green, “but either they have heard lots of crap about the Greens or they say ‘what could they possibly do?’
“I’m hoping that through my position in council, by adding some noteworthy achievements and having my voice out in the media, that it might change the perception of the Greens.”
One perception that Tormey is keen to keep is the view that people have of the Greens as being the party that “stands up for people and the environment”.
“We are the activists in government and I would not want to lose that just for the sake of growing.”
Reflecting on what all this might mean for the Greens in next year’s federal election, Tormey believes that the Greens have a better chance of achieving good outcomes by working with Labor rather than the Liberals, as the two parties have more in common.
“Of course, the Greens are all about getting them to do better, but the reality is we are not one of the two major parties, and the political system is designed to ensure there will always be two major parties.”
Can the two-party system be broken? “I’m not sure if it’s possible, but if it is, then I would like to help make it happen.”