The integrity push that’s driving a confidence boost for the Victorian Greens

The Greens may have made their name campaigning on the environment, but lately the issue voters raise more often than not with the party’s Victorian leader, Samantha Ratnam, is integrity.

“Integrity has emerged as a really important issue for voters – they’ve seen what happens when you don’t act,” Ratnam tells Guardian Australia, at the end of a parliamentary sitting week in which the issue again dominated headlines.

This week, it was the opposition’s turn in the spotlight after revelations the chief of staff of Liberal leader, Matthew Guy, proposed to ask a Liberal party donor to make more than $100,000 in payments to his business.

The Labor government seized on the scandal – but it has also endured several of their own since coming to office.

Just two weeks ago the premier, Daniel Andrews, was forced to apologise after an inquiry by the state’s anti-corruption body and ombudsman uncovered extensive misconduct by Labor MPs, including widespread misuse of public resources, nepotism, signatures being forged and attempts to interfere with government grants. Two more inquiries embroiling the government continue.

Ratnam says voters are abandoning the major parties, having grown “sick of scandal after scandal, week after week”, citing the record 14% primary lower house vote the Greens attracted in Victoria at the recent federal election.

She anticipates her party will be able to build on that momentum at the November state election by winning Albert Park, Northcote and Richmond from Labor in the lower house, and at least doubling its representation in the upper house.

On Saturday, the party will announce its upper house ticket, which includes Port Phillip councillor Katherine Copsey for the southern metropolitan region, where it believes it has its best chance.

The region takes in the lower house seat of Prahran – which is held by Greens MP Sam Hibbins – as well as Sandringham, Brighton, Hawthorn, Caulfield and Kew – all electorates where “teal” independent candidates are considering running.

Copsey, a former environmental lawyer, says she wants to bring integrity back to politics, citing the Greens pledges to increase funding for the Independent Broad-based Anti Corruption Commission and ban donations from property developers, fossil fuel companies and gambling firms.

Victorian Greens upper house candidates Sarah Mansfield, Aiv Puglielli, Katherine Copsey, Mat Morgan, Alex Breskin and Bernadette Thomas, with the party’s leader, Samantha Ratnam, outside Parliament House.
Victorian Greens upper house candidates Sarah Mansfield, Aiv Puglielli, Katherine Copsey, Mat Morgan, Alex Breskin and Bernadette Thomas, with the party’s leader, Samantha Ratnam, outside Parliament House. Photograph: Christopher Hopkins/The Guardian

“These sorts of things will have a real impact on the outcomes we can achieve in parliament and they’re being very well received by the people in my community,” she says.

Among those who will run for the party are software designer Alex Breskin in the South Eastern Metropolitan region, Geelong councillor and GP Sarah Mansfield in the Western Region and multidisciplinary artist Aiv Puglielli in North Eastern Metropolitan region.

Kosmos Samaras, expects to see a surge in the Greens vote across the state, driven largely by people in their 20s living in Melbourne’s inner-city.

“Some of these people have never voted for a major party before. To these voters, they see the major parties as being in the business of being in power, rather than being in the business of actually representing the community,” he says.

Samaras says events at parliament this week will fuel the perception the major parties are “just as bad as each other”.

“It will push voters to search for another option,” he says.

Climate change also remains a central pillar of the Greens campaign, as the party seeks to end new coal and gas projects in the state and move to 100% renewable energy by 2030, while policy initiatives on addressing the rising cost of living and housing affordability are set to be announced in coming months.

“We’d like to see caps on rent increases, better protections for renters as well addressing that power imbalance between landlords and tenants, and the building of a lot more affordable housing, including public housing,” Ratnam says.

She maintains the prospect of “teal” independents isn’t a threat. Of more concern to Ratnam is the “undemocratic” upper house voting system that allows voters to choose just one party above the line on their ballot, after which their preferences are allocated by the party.

At the 2018 election, Labor preferenced minor parties ahead of the Greens, which contributed to the party’s loss of four upper house seats.

In any other Australian jurisdiction, with more than 10% of primary votes, the Greens would have picked up four or five seats.

Ratnam urges Labor to “put policy first” when determining its preferences ahead of this election and to work with the Greens rather than rightwing micro-parties.

“If they don’t take that opportunity, we’re going to see an upper house that continues to lurch further and further to the right, occupied by a number of very micro-parties that aren’t representative of their constituency,” she says, citing several MPs currently sitting on the crossbench who received less than 1% of primary votes.

Ratnam says the current makeup of the chamber meant Victoria came “dangerously close” having no public health restrictions in November last year, as the government struggled to get support for its pandemic legislation.

The party is gearing up to run a grassroots campaign and is in discussions with progressive parties to negotiate a group voting ticket.

Ratnam says her upper house ticket is majority women, and includes candidates of all ages, cultural backgrounds and professional vocations.