Vale Richard di Natale.

Richard di Natale left his party much as he led it without fuss or fanfare, quiet, reasonable, and always at a certain distance from the turmoil of parliamentary conflict.

It was almost appropriate that COVOS meant that his valedictory had to be confined to his home state of Victoria rather than a more public wake in the senate. Di Natale was, and is, a figure of substance, at times one of distinction. But he has never really been a political animal.

Last week he was almost apologetic about it. During his tumultuous decade in parliament, five of them as party leader, he had been part of many significant reforms, the Greens supplying the crucial balance of power to implement them.

But he also had to acknowledge the failures, among which he mentioned climate change, homelessness, job insecurity, mental illness and the protection of the environment. And di Natale blames not individual governments, but the overriding political culture, for its inability to respond to the challenges.

However, perhaps this has itself been his greatest failure. When he took over as leader he made it clear that he wanted to be part of the mainstream. He did not want the Greens to be a fringe party, a bunch of tree-hugging extremists, but part of a general reform movement that could eventually compete to form government.

This meant, of course, winning a lot of seats, gaining a real foothold in the House of Representatives. But in spite of repeated hopes, only Adam Bandt in Melbourne got over the line. And the way the system works, he is unlikely to ever find himself among colleagues.

The big issue for the Greens has always been that, as a progressive party, players on the left, they have to win votes which would normally go to the Labor Party. And given the vastly superior resources of the ALP – partly through the money and influence of most of the unions, but also from sheer political inertia – this has been mission impossible.

Di Natale remains optimistic; he believes that COVIS may yet prove to be a game breaker, forcing politicians, the media and finally the voters to confront reality. The pandemic has led to suffering and loss, but may also engender a new sense of solidarity, collective action not only across the nation but across the world.

Of course, if this Utopian dream becomes reality, it will mean the end of the Greens as a separate force – they will simply become a faction in the bloodless revolution. But this, obviously, would be a price di Natale would willingly pay.

And in this sense, his time has not been wasted. He has not lost his idealism, his true purpose. He has never been seduced by power for power’s sake. A cynic might say he has never had the chance, but I suspect that the retiring Melbourne medico is sincere

He really does want to leave the political scene better than he found it. And whether he is counted a success or not, he has given it a bloody good try. So vale, Richard – we will miss you.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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