Persistence may finally be about to pay off for Alex Bhathal. After more than a decade of work she is positioned to contest the seat of Batman and deliver a second Green into the lower house.
This year, there’s a different feeling in the air around her Preston campaign office and indeed throughout the electorate.
After more than a decade of growing their primary vote, the Greens are on the offensive and Alex Bhathal, the five-time candidate, is at the front lines.
Their opponent is The Australian Labor Party’s David Feeney, who holds the seat with a margin of 10.6%.
In any other electorate that lead would be considered “safe” and candidates would run in opposition merely to have their names on the ballot.
But, as Bhathal is quick to point out, this isn’t any other electorate – she’s got a real chance in 2016.
Bhathal has lived and worked in Batman for 30 years. A social worker by trade, she’s had a front-row seat to what are seen as some of the most pressing issues in the electorate.
Underfunded schools, polluted waterways and tax equity are all on that agenda, but, having come from a migrant background herself she’s also a vocal refugee advocate.
It was this policy area that Bhathal says pushed her from the Labor Party to the Greens more than a decade ago.
“I joined the Greens in 2001 as a direct result of the MS Tampa incident.”
“Bob Brown was the only parliamentarian who was able to stand up for what I believe in. That’s when I decided to join … I ran for my first candidacy for Batman that year,” Bhathal said.
Since then Bhathal has represented the Greens in Batman at the 2004, 2010 and 2013 elections, presiding over a substantial increase in popularity (11% in 2001 to 26% in 2013) that has even seen the Greens overtake the Liberal party at the polls.
The Liberals are now relegated to fielding so-called “dummy candidate” George Souris. Intriguingly though, their influence over the seat may have actually increased.
Because Batman has become such a close contest between the Greens and Labor, Liberal how-to-vote card preferences could actually be the deciding factor, with Greens sources recognizing their importance as “decisive”.
However, despite speculation surrounding the question of co-operation between the Greens and the Liberals, Bhathal staunchly maintains that there’s been no preference deal.
“It’s up to the Liberals what they want to do, they have had a tradition of preferencing the greens ahead of Labor,” she said.
The Liberal party preferenced the Greens over Labor in 2007 and 2010, with many analysts predicting them to do so again.
For the Liberal party the choice is strategic. Regardless of whether there’s a deal with the Greens, Batman represents an opportunity to take David Feeney —one of Labor’s factional power players —out of the picture.
For her part, Bhathal would much rather have the media focus on the issues that she and the Greens see as integral to Australia’s future.
Renewable energy and asylum seekers are the pillars of the policy platform that Bhathal is taking to this year’s election.
Aside from the fact that these policies have become the hallmark of Greens politics, they are also two areas that represent a stark difference to Labor’s policy – ammunition that Bhathal will utilise in the coming months.
“[Asylum seekers] is a key issue for people in the south of the electorate, and even in the north as well.”
“It’s one issue were Labor voters actually do move to the Greens … every week I have people phoning me and saying: ‘Look I just can’t stand it anymore, I’m going to vote Greens for the first time because I just can’t stand this approach to asylum seekers’,” Bhathal said.
“They’ve got it entirely backwards. If the system is going to work as a deterrent then it has to be extremely brutal, which it is – and yet it’s not really working as a deterrent,” she added.
Batman is also a hotspot for action on renewable energy, particularly at a local level, where non-profits are teaming up with Moreland and Darebin council to provide renewable energy options to residents.
Labor has committed to transitioning Australia to 50% renewable energy production by 2030, but the Greens have gone further, outlining a plan to move Australia to 90% renewables by that time.
According to Bhathal climate change is a hotly contested election issue in the electorate, and whilst Labor says their plan is far-fetched, Bhathal maintains it’s a key part of her vision for Batman’s new economy.
“We are seeing the end of the fossil-fuel based economy.”
“Part of what the new economy means to the Greens is the renewable energy sector and decentralized energy production.”
“The new economy to me means a renewed emphasis on local production and people buying and shopping locally. It also means a move to renewable energy,” Bhathal says.
The appeal of this policy platform to voters when Australia goes to the polls on July 2nd will define political strategy for both the Greens and Labor in the coming decade. If Bhathal is successful then the neighbouring seats of Wills, Higgins and even JagaJaga become more vulnerable in future elections.