The Greens leader who knew too much

Christine Milne has marked herself as the leader who will try to knit economics with environmental conservation. Her challenge will be to avoid splitting the Greens by doing so.

Christine Milne has made more effort than most within her party to learn the language of economic growth. The question now is whether the new Greens leader can teach her party colleagues and their electoral base to speak it too.

Milne knows there is no fundamental conflict, in the long term at least, between sound economic policy and environmental conservation.

But she also knows that in a democracy, voters and their representatives just won't forgo large amounts of wealth today for a sustainability dividend tomorrow.

So Milne's job is to grapple with both problems at once. To date her performance has been relatively strong – more than any other member of her party, she has foregrounded issues of job creation and wealth before wading into whatever environmental issue is on the agenda.

That does not make her economic outlook correct, but it's important to note the huge difference in style between Milne and former leader Bob Brown. Not only did Brown typically put economic considerations second when facing the nation's media, but 'Saint Bob' also felt at liberty to stray from his party's own policy platform when the urge took him.

In Milne the Greens have a much more disciplined politician leading the party who will try to knit together the threads of 'growth' and 'sustainability'.

I do not envy her that task. To the extent that she manages to sketch out a coherent vision for the economy, she will alienate voters of the 'fundi' (environmental fundamentalist) disposition. Just who they'd vote for instead is a mystery – the Socialist Alliance? Or they might just try to white-ant her leadership.

Conversely, to the extent that she bows to fundi pressure within her party, she will lose voters on the 'realos' (economic 'realists') side of the party to Labor, from whence they originally came.

Part of the problem for Milne is that the Greens vote is skewed towards youth. As I wrote last November: "As [young voters] learn more about the Greens' policy mix they will either abandon the party, or find leaders within it to champion both 'environment' and a more centrist view of the old left/right debates over socialised vs privatised creation and distribution of wealth. We are already seeing such leaders emerge – with Bob Brown and Christine Milne's comments on the economy often sounding as if they were being spoken from within different centuries (Milne looking ever more the economic 'realist')." (Labor's jump to the right, November 17, 2011)

Greens don't like to talk about the 'realos'/'fundi' split that tore Germany's green movement in two in the 1990s (The Greens – more than a protest vote, November 6, 2010). But it is there, and Milne must walk a tightrope between them if she is to write her name in the history books alongside Saint Bob.

I have, in general, not been a fan of Bob Brown – senior figures within the ALP, Coalition and even the green movement itself have complained bitterly that he thought he was above the party, or above politics itself. A former federal MP involved in attempts to forge a forestry deal in Tasmania in the late 1980s told me how Brown had once pointed at then premier Robin Gray and said "I won't negotiate while he's in the room".

Nonetheless, Brown's place in the history books is secure, not only in Australia but as a significant leader of the Greens movement globally.

And Milne, by contrast, could end up being the leader that oversaw a damaging split that destroyed the party.

Earlier this year, I spent an hour with Milne in her Canberra office talking through some of the big issues of the day – auto industry subsidies, the Murray Darling, carbon pricing and the steel industry. The level of briefing she has had on each was impressive, though she jumped a little too quickly from renewable subsidies to food security and electric vehicles to diesel rebates to give the impression of being in control of her message.

This could be the flaw Milne needs to overcome. Her bitter enemy in Canberra is Tony Abbott, and he has built a stellar political career on keeping his message simple, finding his enemy's weakness ("you can't trust Gillard!") and driving the same message home day after day.

Milne could end up being the Greens leader who knew too much. To unite fundi and realos elements within her party and to hold electoral ground against Labor she will have to present a supremely well crafted message. Abbott's lesson for her (if he lost his mind long enough to offer one) would be "don't say too much".

Mediating her performance will be the same journalists who demonised Brown – his press conference spats with News Ltd journos in particular were impressive. It's hard to imagine she will get an easier ride.

One of her first media performances as leader has been to call on the Gillard government to abandon the political goal of a budget surplus while non-resources sector businesses are teetering on the brink of recession.

To a hostile press pack that will be a socialist plot to plunge the nation into more debt. It's also the view of BCA president Tony Shepherd – and it would be a brave journo that called him a socialist.

Milne's leadership is likely to change the political landscape. Whether that means the self-destruction of the Greens, or a re-shaping of the party on firmer economic foundations is the question that will be answered in the months ahead.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter

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