Greens formula: pragmatic idealism

Dr. Jonathan King lays out his plan to act as a 'stepladder' to get Lee Rhiannon into the Senate.

Greens candidate for Mackellar Dr Jonathan King is a blue-blooded radical. King gained national prominence in 1988 when he staged an $11 million recreation of the First Fleet's voyage. The historian and former journalist became, in his own words, “political hot property,” courted by both major parties.

He declined their overtures. Politics “was in [his] blood”, King said, but he was “too radical” for the major parties.

Following the bicentennial voyage, King found his “next big project, and that was helping the environment”.

This big project, though, has brought King back to politics, as he seeks election as the Greens candidate for Mackellar, in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. The seat has been held by King’s old friend in the Liberal Party, Bronwyn Bishop, since 1994, and sits directly north of Coalition leader Tony Abbott’s seat of Warringah.

At a fundraising event last weekend, King said that when he informed Bishop of his intention to run in Mackellar, she said, “Jonathan, you’ll just become cannon fodder”.

King’s campaign manager David Sentinella believes that, in Mackellar, “the traditional attitude … is that the Liberals always think they can win, Labor thinks they could never win, so neither spends any money”. He believes this has created an air of “resignation” in the electorate.

Labor candidate for Mackellar, Linda Beattie said, “the truth is somewhat more pragmatic … I wouldn’t say we’re resigned to the fact that we can’t win [Mackellar], but resources go to where a seat can be won”.

Beattie described Mackellar as “a snapshot of tradition”, an area where, for the most part, “people actually don’t like change”.

But King’s campaign is a microcosm of the broader Greens effort in this election. He acknowledges it would take a "minor miracle" for him to win, and says he would be happy to simply act as a "stepladder" for Lee Rhiannon to be elected to Senate as the first federal Greens representative from NSW.

While surprisingly pragmatic from a self-confessed radical, Sentinella believes the shift is part of a broader pattern in the Greens of embracing political realities.

“During this election … the Greens have stepped up in organisation … and policy delivery”, Sentinella said. For him, targeting Senate seats now will reap rewards in the Lower House down the track.

“You don’t have to lose your ideals [to target Senate seats], but you do have to say that one comes before the other.”

Sentinella said that, as a former political science lecturer, King is “a realist, and knows that change in an electorate of this kind needs a political crisis”.

At the campaign fundraiser, King said this political crisis was upon us already in the form of climate change. Likening the issue to European appeasement of Nazi Germany in 1939, King said that “the world is divided over whether or not there is something to worry about”.

“Australia is well placed to take a lead.”

Such historical comparison quells any suggestion that political expediency has seen King abandon his self-proclaimed radicalism.
“I suppose there’s a radical streak there but that works for the world”, said Rhiannon.

While the rhetoric concerns issues of global significance, the reality for the Mackellar Greens, as for Beattie, is of probable defeat. This is brightened, though, at the possibility of reducing Bishop’s majority.

“I’d be thrilled if we got 20% [of the primary vote] … because we’d tug Bronwyn back toward 50%”, Sentinella said.

Beattie agreed, saying: “Wouldn’t it be great if we can get her under 50%?”