The Greens were dumped – not the other way around. And that’s their lasting shame

Lidia Thorpe’s exit from the Greens says less about her than it does about the party and the broader progressive movement – none of it flattering.

Thorpe’s reasons for her departure have been well-aired and don’t need more ventilating here, other than to at least acknowledge their spiritual force. She expresses de facto opposition to a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice to parliament because she fears such a reform will, without a treaty, cede First Nations’ sovereignty.

Lidia Thorpe’s view on treaty put her at odds with many Greens members and voters. She is pictured here with (from left) Greens leader Adam Bandt, Senator Janet Rice and Greens candidates. Credit:Paul Jeffers

“[The government] wants to put the colonial Constitution on top of the oldest constitution on the planet … we are sovereign and this is our land,” she recently told anti-Australia Day protesters. “And we deserve better than an advisory body.”

Indigenous Australians may well deserve better as a matter of legal and moral principle. But despite office workers routinely kicking off Zoom meetings by solemnly acknowledging “sovereignty was never ceded”, every day brings fresh evidence of the disempowerment of Indigenous Australians.

Thorpe’s freelance advocacy against the Voice while a senator for the minor party highlights two enduring pathologies on the political left. The first is adherence to the notion of “stay in your lane”. The second, more enduring, pathology is a reflexive disdain for incremental reform of which a proposal like the Voice is an example.

“Stay in your lane” is the idea in contemporary identity politics that only groups with “lived experience” of oppression can legitimately expound on issues concerning them; they effectively commandeer discussion by declaring the subject – sexual politics, gender identity, race and so on – closed to debate. The greater the group’s perceived oppression, the less those professing to speak for them can be challenged in good faith.

In the intersectional world view – or at least the intellectually flabby version of it – power relations are seen as rigid. Indigenous people are always less powerful than non-Indigenous people – a belief wildly contradicted in the melodrama that became Thorpe and the Greens.

The Greens anointed Thorpe, with her cut-through celebrity appeal, the ultimate authority on the Voice. They struck a deal that gave her free rein to campaign against the proposal while they figured out if they should formally back it.

Yet a referendum, by definition, undermines “stay-in-your-lane” orthodoxy. All of us, Indigenous or otherwise, are being asked our opinion on tinkering with the Constitution to recognise an Indigenous Voice. Non-Indigenous Australians are being asked to weigh the conflicting views of Indigenous Australians – of Yes advocates Marcia Langton, Noel Pearson and Linda Burney, against No campaigners Warren Mundine, Jacinta Nampijinpa Price and most likely Thorpe – and their respective and compelling life experience, and the views of many others besides, in deciding how to vote.

The Voice, if passed, would not be the last word on policy; the body’s view would be persuasive but not decisive. Government would still be the final arbiter. In both process and substance the Voice proposal sits uneasily with the Greens’ absolutism on identity politics.

And whatever Thorpe’s appeal to the moral high ground on sovereignty, she was advocating for a morally dubious outcome: a blunt “No” to the question of whether Indigenous Australians should have a right to be heard through a mechanism that a critical mass of Indigenous representatives have endorsed.

This cognitive dissonance was hurting the Greens, whose voters reportedly support the Voice in even greater numbers than Labor’s. Thorpe’s resignation was born of the realisation that even within her party she could no longer assert exclusive ownership of the debate.

None of this should let the Greens off the hook for having walked both sides of the street on the Voice debate, a posture every bit as cynical as the Liberals’ soft undermining of the proposal by calling for more “detail”. Which brings us to the left’s second pathology: its hard-wired hostility towards steady-as-she-goes social democratic reform. We’ve come to anticipate the Greens’ ritualised ambit claim, which positions the party as striving towards an ideal just beyond reach. Yes, we can bring it up again: the Greens failed in 2009 to support Kevin Rudd’s less-than-perfect Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. And nearly 15 years on, this country still has no durable mechanism, perfect or otherwise, for cutting emissions.

Many of the party’s supporters may gravitate towards Thorpe’s radical chic. The inconvenient truth is that outflanking Labor from the left remains the Greens’ core mission, if not its raison d’etre. This remains true even if on this occasion the contradictions became unmanageable and the party now throws its support behind the Voice.

Greens leader Adam Bandt labours how “sorry”, how “truly sad” he is that Thorpe up and split. And that says it all. In the end, Thorpe dumped the Greens, and not, to the party’s lasting shame, the other way around.

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