The Inner West has fallen to the Greens on a State level. But can they win federally? Nigel Bowen meets the two left-wingers battling to represent Grayndler.
In the red corner is Albo, long-serving local member and the only Australian politician beloved enough to have a craft beer named after him. In the green corner is Jim Casey, head of the NSW branch of the firies union and a fresh face with the luxury of taking crowd-pleasing positions on hot-button issues such as WestConnex. What’s an inner-city elitist to do? Well, that’s up to you but you can find out more about the two men vying for Sydney’s progressive heartland below.
What’s your connection with the Inner West?
I’ve been running into burning buildings in the Inner West since 2001 but I accept a minority of the electorate would have met me in that capacity. I’ve lived in or near this area since 1988. My partner and I and our two children live in Stanmore.
Can you chronicle your much-publicised political trajectory from the International Socialist Organisation to the Greens?
I don’t resile from the time I spent in those organisations and networks. I’d like to think I did some good activist work while involved in them. I still identify as a socialist. But there are limits to that approach. I found it wanting and moved on. My most serious political engagement has been leading a union for the last seven years. That led to a more broad-based understanding of social change. My Road to Damascus moment was the 2009 Black Saturday fires. It was the unprecedented fire behaviour that was happening not just in Victoria but also elsewhere in Australia and the world. I decided ecological sustainability had to be married with social justice.
Why not join the ALP to further those goals?
If I’d been getting into politics 30-40 years ago I likely would have ended up in the Labor Left. But the Labor Left is not what it used to be and on so many fundamental questions Labor is on the wrong side of history. Labor is still hellbent on opening new coalmines. It is OK with locking people up who’ve done nothing wrong to send a message to other people who’ve done nothing wrong. I’m a Green because I agree with the politics of the Greens, not the politics of the Labor Party.
Voting Green might make voters feel virtuous but isn’t it a pointless gesture?
Two types make that argument. One type is the people who are genuinely concerned about the Liberals and I have some sympathy for them. Alternatively, it’s Labor apparatchiks. The argument is simply not true, having alternative voices in parliaments is important and it can achieve things. To take one example, [federal Greens senator] Janet Rice used Senate Estimates to unpack questions around the money going to WestConnex. That wouldn’t have happened if she wasn’t there. Labor and Liberal agree on the project and don’t want to scrutinise it.
What do you make of the way the Murdoch press has attacked you?
Having the Daily Telegraph announce you are a problem means that nine times out of ten you’re part of the solution. I feel sympathy for Anthony. When the withered, septuagenarian lips of Rupert Murdoch touch your cheeks, it’s a little bit like Michael Corleone giving you the kiss of death!
After three decades of neo-liberalism is there a hunger for alternatives?
People are disenchanted with the way the world is organised. A quarter of a century ago polls showed most people supported privatisation. Now, having lived through the neo-liberal era, most of them don’t. They see that business – with the two major parties in lockstep – is just trying to make a buck at their expense.
I connect with voters when I say I’m for trade union rights, environmental sustainability, affordable housing and a compassionate approach to refugees. If people want to call that a socialist position I’m fine with that.
Can you beat Albo?
Yes but it’s not actually about Anthony or me. It’s about whether people want to vote ALP or Greens, which of those parties best reflect their values. Grayndler will go Green. Whether it’s me on July 2nd or another candidate at a future election, the Greens will win this seat.
What do you make of the Daily Telegraph going from photoshopping you as Sgt Schultz last election to launching a ‘Save our Albo’ campaign this time round?
[Laughs] Well, it is what it is but it did draw attention to the fact that if people wanted me as their local member they had to vote for me. When I was out doorknocking, one person said to me, ‘You’re terrific, you should be PM, don’t worry you’ve got my preference.’ Well, people can’t put a one next to the Greens and a two next to Labor and still see me elected.
You’ve been more vocal than usual in attacking your Greens opponent this election. Is that because the Greens are now a serious threat?
Whatever differences I had with [previous Greens candidate] Hall Greenland, he’d been on the Council, involved in Callan Park, had a record of activism around local issues. Prior to the campaign I’d never met Jim Casey at any local event. I didn’t know Jim Casey because I hadn’t hung around fringe left parties.
Is it an odd position to be in as the leader of the Labor Left to be criticising your opponent for being a socialist?
My criticism of Jim Casey is that he was a member of the International Socialist Organisation. That’s a Trotskyist party and not one that believes in parliamentary democracy. My concern with the NSW Greens, and it’s one shared by many Greens outside NSW, is that it contains people who’ve been part of fringe left parties and gone into the Greens. They have an ideological agenda that leads them to concentrate their criticisms on the Labor Party, never the conservatives.
Nonetheless, aren’t your opponent’s positions on issues such as refugees and the WestConnex more in line with those of progressive Inner West voters than yours?
Well, he can take a pure position on anything because there are no consequences. His party has one vote in the House of Representatives and are 75 short of a majority. It’s easy to come up with simplistic solutions and simple slogans, to tell people they what want to hear, but government is complex. Take Labor’s renewable energy target of 50 per cent by 2030. The Greens say it isn’t ambitious enough but the truth is there has to be a transition. You can’t have 100 per cent renewable energy tomorrow. You have to be honest with people. If you put forward propositions that have no hope of being achieved you just create further cynicism in the community about the political system.
Is taking a complex rather than simplistic approach to the WestConnex costing you votes?
If the Greens were fair dinkum they would acknowledge WestConnex is a Coalition State Government project. The Greens have Upper House members as well as two local Lower House members in State Parliament and what have they done about it? What representations have they made on behalf of those people concerned about what they were being paid for their [compulsorily acquired] homes? I’ve made representations about saving Ashfield Park, campaigned for an audit of the way the project was funded, raised the issue more than 30 times in the Federal Parliament.
So why should left-leaning voters support you on July 2nd?
We’ve had an Abbott-Turnbull Government for three years. That’s had real consequences for people in the electorate. It will have consequences for local schools when the Gonski funding runs out. Consequences for Marrickville Legal Centre, for local arts organisations, for public transport. If you’re a progressive faced with the choice of having an opportunity to impact on decisions when they’re made by a government or wait for them to be made then protest about them afterwards, it’s beyond my comprehension that you’d choose the latter rather than the former.
(NB: For reasons of space and clarity the candidates’ answers have been edited.)