Lidia Thorpe just managed the biggest bait-and-switch in Australian political history.
Thorpe hooked Australian voters on the idea of electing her as a strong Greens senator at the last election. Now those same voters discover they have bought something utterly different.
Did she dud Australians at the election? Thorpe ended her statement to the media on Monday without taking that or any other questions.
This is a spectacular and shameless act of political desertion that weakens the Greens, resets calculations about crossbench power in the Senate and crowns a new and wildly unpredictable independent in parliament.
It is a wonderful deal for Thorpe, whose term in the upper house continues to 2028 and who now gains total freedom to speak as she wants without answering to a party organisation or the branch members who helped install her in parliament.
But it is a disaster for the Greens. It is hugely damaging to Adam Bandt who led the party to a strong result last May and now looks like a leader who cannot keep his party together. How many Greens members will leave with Lidia?
And it is humiliating for the senior Greens who decided Thorpe deserved the party’s support even though she had not worked her way through the ranks like other contenders for a Senate seat of great value.
Thorpe soared to political office when the party chose her to run for the Victorian state seat of Northcote at a byelection in 2017, but she lost to Labor at the general election the next year.
The Greens chose to elevate her again in 2020 when she replaced Di Natale when he resigned from parliament in November that year. The party gave her the great gift of being the incumbent senator when she led the Greens ticket in Victoria last May.
All parties have rats who desert the tribe, but Thorpe has ratted in rapid time. Mal Colston was a Labor senator for 24 years before quitting the party for the crossbench in 1999. Julian McGauran was a Nationals senator for 19 years before switching to the Liberals in 2006. Thorpe has jumped ship in two years and five months.
This weakens Thorpe’s credibility in parliament – it is hard to crusade for honesty in politics after a jump like this – but this rarely matters to politicians who choose to go it alone. She has always believed in her personal mission, not in the Greens, and some in the party always thought her departure was only a matter of time.
The greater damage is to the Greens because it has sold voters one thing and delivered them something else, the classic definition of a bait-and-switch in the retail trade.
The Greens gained 529,429 primary votes in the Senate race in Victoria, just short of a full quota, so Thorpe needed preferences (including from Labor) to gain her seat. The vast majority of the support was above the line for the party, not for her. She gained only 40,174 votes in her own name.
Thorpe cannot claim much of a mandate with those numbers.
Nobody can be sure how many of those voters, especially Greens members, like Thorpe more than the party. This could turn into a deep rupture over the direction of the Greens, if not an existential crisis, if Thorpe emerges as a popular champion for thousands of young people drawn to a harder line on Indigenous sovereignty, as many were at the January 26 protest marches.
But Thorpe is no champion. At least, not yet. She has been accused of bullying Indigenous elders like Aunty Geraldine Atkinson, for instance. There are clearly questions about her behaviour – and Bandt gave no assurances about this on Monday. “Do you believe Senator Thorpe has acted with propriety during her time as a Greens senator?” he was asked. He ducked the question. Twice.
Each side of the split has signed up to a non-disclosure agreement that suits them both. Bandt will not talk about any issues with Thorpe inside the party; Thorpe says she will not talk either. This is not expected to last long because Thorpe is a strong character with a strong voice; silence will not suit her.
The Voice that matters most, the Indigenous Voice to parliament, gains a boost from this upheaval. The Greens will be able to unify behind a position, most likely to support the Voice with concerns or caveats, when the polls clearly show the party’s members overwhelmingly support the change.
Rather than representing a divided party, Thorpe will speak for a narrow group on the edge of the debate. The campaign for the Voice will expand with the inclusion of Bandt and other Greens such as Dorinda Cox, the Western Australian senator who has described the Voice as a “unifying” reform. They will have a shared interest, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, in reminding voters that Thorpe speaks for a small minority.
A previous version of this story said Thorpe quit her party in record time. Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus both left the Palmer United Party in under a year.
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