Armed with six seats from the last ACT election, Greens’ leader Shane Rattenbury comes emboldened to the coalition government with Labor, but braced and ready for the conflict ahead. Political reporter BELINDA STRAHORN reports…
GREENS’ leader Shane Rattenbury, 49, is likely to draw heavily on his experience as an endurance runner for the political race of his life.
Mr Rattenbury’s fitness for office will be put to the test following the electoral gift handed to the Greens as a result of the ACT election, where the party trebled its representation in the Assembly.
This is arguably the Greens greatest chance to influence the shape and direction of the new ACT government.
Speaking with “CityNews”, Rattenbury knows he has a delicate balancing act to perform, seeking to appeal to his party’s support base while demonstrating that he and his newly appointed colleagues can be responsible members of the Barr administration.
“Undoubtedly there will be tension throughout the course of the term between ourselves and the Labor Party and the Opposition will bring issues forward that the two governing parties will have differing views on as well,” he says.
“Our party membership, who wanted us to play a role in the cabinet, also expect us to bring our voice to the table in an independent way, so
there will be tension throughout the term, no doubt about it, as there has been in previous terms.”
Mr Rattenbury, the party’s sole frontbencher in the previous administration, has been joined in cabinet this time by colleagues Rebecca Vassarotti and Emma Davidson.
A former activist and lawyer, Mr Rattenbury is the ACT’s new Attorney-General, replacing the outgoing Gordon Ramsay, in the most senior government role held by a Green in the Assembly.
While the situation presents itself as a golden opportunity to cement the Greens’ place as part of future ACT administrations, it is not without risks for the party and its experienced leader.
Yet, on this light, spring morning, Rattenbury could be found on one of his regular runs up Mt Ainslie, and doesn’t intend letting the burdens of office get in the way of his passion for distance running.
He says the two governing parties have entered in a “real spirit” of wanting to make it work.
“What I’m most excited about is our ability to get into issues in depth that perhaps we have not been able to in the past, not because we didn’t want to, but through sheer lack of capacity we couldn’t do it,” Mr Rattenbury says.
“I expect the Greens to play a stronger role in the government. With more of us, we will be wanting to prosecute more of an agenda, the simple fact of having three ministers in cabinet reflects that change of dynamic.”
Just as the Nationals often end up owning the policies of the Liberals when in government, so too the Greens will have to wear some of the criticism for Labor’s perceived failings in the eyes of the voters.
Mr Rattenbury acknowledges there’s lots of work to do, especially in the areas of social housing, where he admits there’s not been enough investment.
“We were very upfront about saying the government has not made enough investment in recent years; there has been investment, but it’s been about renewal of housing stock and that’s been an important process but we definitely need more,” says Mr Rattenbury.
In its power-sharing arrangement, the new Labor/Greens alliance aims to build 1000 affordable homes in the next five years, 400 of which would be public-housing dwellings.
Encouraged by the Victorian government’s announcement to spend $5.3 billion to build more than 12,000 public-housing homes over the next four years, Mr Rattenbury says shaping the future direction of the ACT government is something his party wants to grab hold of with both hands.
“We took a very detailed platform across a whole range of policy areas to the election and in that we said these are the areas we want to improve, so we are in that sense unashamedly ambitious in knowing there are all these things we still want to do,” Mr Rattenbury says.
“It’s like painting the Harbour Bridge, you are always at it, there’s always more to do.”
In an almost fortuitous unfolding of events, Rattenbury concedes the election outcome exceeded expectations.
“It wasn’t our most expected outcome but one that we believed was possible,” he says.
“We went into the election thinking we could win six seats. We had said all along that if we got the same vote we got in the federal election that would result in us winning six seats.”
Sitting on the ABC’s expert panel on election eve, the Greens’ leader says the “unexpected” result caught him by surprise.
“The very first result we had was 15.5 per cent in Brindabella, I had to double check the little computers we were given on the panel,” Mr Rattenbury says.
“I thought to myself, don’t get too excited, but as the night went on and the numbers built up it became more and more promising and to finish the night with Antony Green saying it could be six for the Greens… there was a lot of celebrating going on.”
Rattenbury, a keen ultra marathon runner, who has been known to knock out a 12-kilometre run on the trails of Mt Majura or Mt Ainslie most mornings before work, says he appreciates the warm reception from voters following the election result.
“People often come to chat to me like they know me, and I like that because it keeps it real,” he says.
Keeping it real is a mentality that extends to politics, he says, where the decade-long Greenpeace activist first cut his teeth on policy ideas and how to implement them.
“The nice thing about coming to ACT politics is a lot of the work I did with Greenpeace was big picture global issues and in the ACT you get to apply those ideas, but at a local level and I really like that part of it,” Mr Rattenbury says.
Growing up in Batemans Bay, Rattenbury says his was an “idyllic” childhood.
“We just roamed, with the rule being, be home before the sun went down behind the hills, it was a great way to grow up,” he says.
“I grew up as a kid of the ’80s when a lot of big environmental issues were being debated, the hole in the ozone layer, the treaty to protect Antarctica from mining, the big logging debates in Australia… they were big issues in my teenage and university years, so I feel like I became an environmental activist through that period.”
Moving to Canberra with his mother and sister in 1984, Rattenbury attended Canberra Grammar School and went on to study at the ANU.
He unsuccessfully stood for election to the ACT Legislative Assembly at the 2001 election. However, by the time of the 2008 election, swings were recorded against both Labor and the Liberals and a 6.6 per cent swing towards the Greens, resulting in the election of Mr Rattenbury, Meredith Hunter, Amanda Bresnan, and Caroline Le Couteur.
Mr Rattenbury counts former Labor minister and Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett and former federal Greens’ leaders Christine Milne and Bob Brown as his political role models.
“I’ve had the good fortune to get to know Bob over the years and he’s been an excellent mentor, he’s got real integrity, real compassion and I have watched a lot how Bob conducted himself,” Rattenbury says.
Now he has the chance to emulate his political mentor and lead his party through an exciting and challenging period in the history of the ACT Greens.
He wont have too long to wait for the verdict, voters will pass judgement on his performance and that of his colleagues in 2024.