Last week Brian Greig ignored the dysfunctions of the Australian Democrats and used his first speech in this parliamentary session to do something he had done many times before -“ called for gay and lesbian law reform. He was talking about changing the Marriage Act to recognise gay, lesbian, transgender and intersex marriages. But his speech was given little media coverage -“ it was considered pretty regular behaviour from the man who has become Australia’s most outspoken politician on gay and lesbian issues.
A few days later, the red-haired senator’s image was the front page splash on newspapers across the country. The Democrats national executive had elected him the interim party leader in the wake of Senator Natasha Stott Despoja’s resignation. The vote effectively handed Greig the title of first openly gay parliamentary leader of a recognised Australian political party (the Greens do not have the required five elected members to let Bob Brown take this honour), and also overlooked the more conservative and well-known Democrat Aden Ridgeway, who has since stood down as deputy leader.
Since then Greig has copped a fair amount of comment from supporters and detractors both inside and outside of the Democrats. Fellow senator Andrew Murray called his appointment profoundly undemocratic while ousted leader Natasha Stott Despoja said Greig deserved the unconditional support of everyone in the party at least until a permanent leader was appointed. And last night, former ally and fellow Stott Despoja supporter Andrew Bartlett threw his hat into the ring.
So Senator Greig has been given at least six weeks at the helm while the party membership decides. He has appeared to cope well with the new profile, standing up to the television cameras and intense scrutiny and maintaining his quiet sense of humour. At 11pm on Monday night, he emailed the Star about the strange turn his life had taken.
It has been physically and emotionally exhausting. I miss my partner -“ he’s in Perth -“ but I have been surrounded and protected by a close group of friends here, along with great staff, Greig wrote.
Greig has served as a senator for almost three years. When he was sworn in, the Democrats were a respected alternative. Times have changed, and last week’s appointment came in what will possibly be remembered as the darkest period in the Democrats’ history -“ if the party survives the next few months.
He’s been philosophical about the party’s problems -“ the defection of long-term Democrat senator Meg Lees, the forced stand-down of leader Natasha Stott Despoja and threats from four senators to leave the party unless their demands were met. Greig said the trouble started with differences between senators and party members, and compounded when senators refused to support Stott Despoja’s leadership.
Members felt let down, and senators became aloof and out of sync at times with the philosophy and aspirations of some members. I guess better communication is the key. All senators must realise that a popularly elected leader deserves their full support, irrespective of policy or personality differences.
Some have said Greig could be a bridge between those personality differences. Even some of his opponents have come out this week and described him as a nice guy. Senator Andrew Murray cooled off and told the press he would stay in the party and support Greig as a leader. Not everyone, however, has called him the man to take the Democrats forward. His close connection and loyalty to the ousted Stott Despoja has stirred up talk of a split in the party.
Greig’s announcement on Tuesday he would stand for the permanent leadership was not a decision made lightly. He told the Star he was unsure of his chances, and had nominated when he believed he would have the competition of Ridgeway, to give members at least two options. He said yesterday a competition against Stott Despoja camp colleague Andrew Bartlett would not be a good enough test of the issues currently facing the party.
It’s very hard to say [how I will go]. I have received a deluge of wonderful emails, letters, faxes, phone calls and bunches of flowers. I feel that I have read the mood of the members and the voters correctly, and it’s a feeling I share with them. I’m not taking anything for granted, but I will give it a go. I think competition is needed in the ballot, to give the new leader, whoever that might be, some kind of mandate so the party can move forward.
And he has vowed absolute, without question support for Bartlett if he were to emerge as the leader.
South Sydney councillor Peter Furness was one of 17 Democrats national executive members who voted on the interim leadership. The vote was 11 for Greig, three for Ridgeway and three abstained votes.
Furness said if Greig were to win, his leadership would bring humility back into the party room.
I think [Greig] would be very keen and very effective on putting issues on the table that the major parties don’t want to deal with. He’ll take it right up to the government and the opposition. He’s a person of integrity and I think it’s important to have openly gay or lesbian parliamentarians elected to office and able to lead national political parties, Furness said.
Tasmanian gay and lesbian rights activist Rodney Croome met Greig in 1989 when they were both campaigning for gay and lesbian law reform. They have been friends since.
Can Brian save the Democrats? He’s got as much chance as anybody, Croome told the Star.
There’s no better training for this kind of situation than having been a rights activist. He’s got the support of his partner and it seems quite a lot of support from the Demo-crats.
Croome said he did not know who was the best Democrat for the leadership job, but believed Greig’s sense of humour and compassion would put him in a position to do some good in the party. What did concern him was the reaction his leadership would get from some members of the senate.
I’d rather go and talk about gay and lesbian law reform in an RSL club than the federal parliament. When it comes to gay and lesbian rights, the federal parliament is the worst in the country. To be openly gay or lesbian in that environment is extremely difficult. I’ve no doubt in my mind there would be attempts to undermine him as leader. Some people think Bill Heffernan was a lonely figure but he’s not, he said.
Six-year Greig colleague and former Kernot adviser John Davey said Greig’s humanity could be the thing that sees the Democrats through their current crisis.
He’s demonstrated a calmness and a collectedness about what’s going on around him. He really does tap into the humanity of any argument. He’s acutely professional, even in the face of some of the nasty things that have been said about him.
Greig agreed he would need to rely on his mild manners and calmness to bridge the personality gaps between some of his party colleagues.
I think I am a moderate and considered person. I am also loyal and committed to the party. I believe I can heal the rift in the party room because of the mutual respect I have engendered with all of my colleagues over the last few years, he said.