He’s the first Greens candidate to be elected to Queensland’s Parliament and Michael Berkman, who won the seat of Maiwar from former Newman government minister Scott Emerson, already has plenty on his to-do list.
At the very back of the Queensland parliamentary chamber, to the left of the Speaker, and underneath the ornate iron railings of the public gallery, lie what could be best described as the cheap seats.
With the Government occupying the Treasury benches to the right, and the Opposition and spill-over government members on the left, this is the lower end of real estate reserved for the Independents and minor parties. In seat number 91 (in a 93-seat house), smack between the rough nut and often-rumpled suit of Katter’s Australia Party member Shane Knuth, and the pest-controlling, pig-shooting presence of One Nation’s Stephen Andrew, Queensland’s first Greens MP Michael Berkman took his place this week.
This corner of the chamber is not so much a cross bench as a multi-hued hybrid, populated by three KAP members, One Nation’s lone contribution to the 56th parliament, Noosa Independent Sandy Bolton, and of course the inner-city, flat white coffee (not latte) sipping inner-city Green, Berkman. For Berkman, and indeed most of his compadres in the corner seats, it will be a steep learning curve. An arc given that extra bit of edge with the knowledge that, as Knuth rather indelicately put it recently, with a two-seat majority the Palaszczuk Government is just “a hiccup and a heart attack” away from needing to rely on the cross bench for support.
For everyone else, Queensland’s first Greens MP is an unknown quantity; an urbane and immaculately coiffured enigma who may either represent the vanguard of the Greens’ rise in Queensland politics, or become another passing minor party aberration as the state reverts to its traditional two-party pendulum. He’s a scientist and a father, managing shared parenting duties with his ex-wife Angeline, a musician and children’s educator who he met in high school in Toowoomba. His partner now is Daile Kelleher, 34, who he met through his involvement in the Greens. Kelleher was the Greens candidate for Clayfield – held by former opposition leader Tim Nicholls – until she opted out of the race when she landed a job as state director for the Girl Guides.
“That was,” Kelleher says while trying to wrangle the two Berkman children, Noah, 8 and Bonnie, 6, and their scooters at Perrin Park in westside Taringa near the couple’s home, “where I was living at the time and the thought of going up against (former treasurer) Tim Nicholls (laughs) was appealing.”
“It (Kelleher winning Clayfield) certainly would have made the choice of residence more difficult,” Berkman quips.
For her part, Kelleher says she always thought Berkman could win Maiwar, based around the old seat of Indooroopilly in Brisbane’s inner west, taking in suburbs such as Auchenflower, Toowong and St Lucia. While the Greens contested every seat, Maiwar was one of three (along with Deputy Premier Jackie Trad’s seat of South Brisbane and the inner-city seat of McConnel) specifically targeted.
Berkman was more circumspect. “My take on it was it was probably more likely I wouldn’t win than that I would,” he says, “but at the same time there were so many intangible factors.” The biggest of these was who would come second to incumbent Liberal Scott Emerson in a race between the Greens and Labor challenger Ali King, with preferences (now compulsory) being swapped among Emerson’s opponents and deciding the outcome.
So when did Michael Berkman, the boy from Toowoomba who was most recently working in the Environmental Defenders Office as a lawyer, actually think he was half a chance?
“Towards the end of the campaign one of the volunteers, Andy, got off the phone having called someone who said she was just in the middle of a conversation with the neighbours about how they’d been doorknocked and were very impressed with the person at the door.
“That was when you got the sense we were making real inroads and creating a presence in the community.”
BERKMAN, 36, IS NO STRANGER TO CAMPAIGNING. He was blooded as a candidate in the seat of Ferny Grove in Brisbane’s north in the 2015 state election, stood unsuccessfully for council in the Moreton Bay region in the following year’s local government elections, and then ran against Peter Dutton in Dickson in the last federal election, securing nearly 10 per cent of the primary vote and helping render the Immigration Minister’s seat one of the Coalition’s more marginal.
In Maiwar, Berkman was out of the blocks early. After being pre-selected as Greens candidate in September 2016, he hit the streets. Given the party’s focus on three seats, volunteers streamed in from the outer suburbs such as his old branch at Pine Rivers, and by the end of the campaign more than 100 people were on hand to assist with doorknocking and phone bank duties. He describes the campaign as a gradual process: “We did almost exclusively doorknocking until the last couple of months – you realise how effective direct engagement can be.”
At this point, Noah scoots back to the picnic table and, when asked what he thinks of having the first Greens MP in parliament for a dad, replies “awesome”. His sister Bonnie rolls up a few minutes later and echoes the sentiment.
After finishing at Toowoomba State High School, Berkman moved to Toowong to start a science degree at the University of Queensland, before transferring to Griffith and graduating in 2009 with a dual degree in environmental science and law. The science background, he says, “steered me in the direction of environmental regulation and protection long before I seriously contemplated being directly involved in politics”.
He started off in private practice working for leading law firm Freehills, which, he says, with a slight roll of the eyes to accent the understatement, “was not a particularly fruitful avenue for advocating for stronger environmental protection”.
“In general you’re just helping the big end of town wend their way through the existing relatively weak legislation.”
Then came a move to the Office of Climate Change in the latter stages of the Bligh government and, perhaps not surprisingly, a redundancy soon after the Newman government came to power in 2012 and embarked on its public service purge. Berkman was lucky, fairly quickly landing a job in the Environmental Defenders Office.
Politics, even then, wasn’t really on the radar. “Like a lot of people I didn’t initially see the Greens as being much beyond a party of environmental concerns, and I didn’t see myself engaging with Labor directly because it felt like politics as usual. You can’t hope to address environmental concerns without also addressing the full social context – inequality … the full suite of justice concerns.”
SO WHAT MOULDED THIS SENSE OF ENVIRONMENTAL EVANGELISM and social justice in a lad who grew up in what would be considered one of the more conservative cities in Queensland? He describes his parents, Craig and Jan, both 63, as “very socially conscious people”, though not particularly politically engaged, and says that, perhaps not surprisingly for a kid who grew up in Queensland’s city of churches, religion played a part in his upbringing.
“I was brought up in the (Presbyterian) church and I think that Christianity takes many forms, but there was always a strong sense of social justice. I guess I was always a bit interested in politics and how that results in certain outcomes.” And this was an ordinary white-bread childhood; Craig Berkman worked in TV and video production, and as a perk of the profession a young Michael and his brothers David, now 38, and Paul, 33, were able to see movies for free, “so I saw pretty much everything that was on in the cinema”.
Outside the movie theatre there were books – fantasy author Raymond Feist figures large – school bands, and burying his nose in computer games whenever he could convince his parents to rent a console. As a new MP, perhaps the eternal conflict of Feist’s Riftworld series might have prepared him for parliamentary life.
However, on election night, with the Greens convening to watch the count at the barn-like food hub Wandering Cooks in South Brisbane, he was left hanging as an exceptionally close count unfolded.
“It was clear fairly early in the evening that Amy (McMahon) and Kirsten (Lovejoy) (Greens candidates for South Brisbane and McConnel respectively) were pretty unlikely – on the numbers we were seeing – to be successful, and it’s hard to take that sort of news.” The Maiwair numbers, though, looked “pretty exciting for us, but there was no way we could feel anything other than anxiety about the possible outcome”.
A week or so later Emerson conceded defeat in what was once a blue-ribbon inner-city Liberal Party seat, but the preference count continued. “I jumped on the phone to him and had a chat,” Berkman says. “He was very open and congratulatory in terms of the outcome at that point.”
For his part, Emerson, who wishes his successor all the best and counsels him to remember to always put the electorate first, says he knew from the start it would be a tough campaign given changed electoral boundaries and the reintroduction of compulsory preferential voting. Those changes contributed to a result that saw the Liberal candidate win 41.9 per cent of the primary vote, but lose to Berkman on 27.8. “I was,” says Emerson, “pushing it up uphill, but I’m no quitter. I got into politics to represent this area”.
Andrew Bartlett, Queensland Greens convenor until his elevation to the Senate following Larissa Waters’ citizenship troubles, says of Berkman’s victory, “even I’m excited, and I don’t do excited”.
“I have absolutely zero doubt he’s got the capacity to do the job and do it well, though it is a huge challenge for anybody to be the sole representative of their party in the Parliament,” says Bartlett, who is convinced the Greens can build further on this initial success, adding that “we are not getting genuine three-way contests across the board”.
“People are prepared to change their vote, and are looking to; they just want to be convinced of the alternative.”
NOW, FOR BERKMAN, IT GETS REAL. PRIOR TO TAKING HIS SEATon the green leather bench, he has been quietly getting to know his new neighbours. There has been the formal induction process, or “parliamentary kindy”, as he refers to it, where new MPs are introduced to the arcane world of divisions, standing orders, committees and so forth.
Berkman has also, he says, “had a couple of chats with Robbie Katter along the way, as well as reaching out to the likes of Noosa’s Sandy Bolton”.
“They’re all really approachable people and as there are things we need to engage about, such as the committee roles, it will be important to have good relationships.”
Even with One Nation? “Oh, it’s all pretty amicable,” he says. “He (Stephen Andrew) is not the most conversational chap, so I’m not sure how he sees his role. He’s not from a political background, but then nor am I and that is a good thing. Having non-politicians engaged in parliament can only benefit the process.”
This is a recurring theme for Berkman – the public disillusionment and disengagement with a political process that they see as just delivering more of the same on an endless loop in which only the levels of bullshit tend to vary, and a growing cynicism about the ties between business and politics. The latter, he says, “is not the issue that defines my role but it is one that I want to focus on”.
The thrust here is on two fronts. Firstly Berkman argues that community voices often struggle to be heard, especially when they are competing with vested interests that have the financial means to make substantial donations and effectively buy access to the political process. “I want to be creating a space – a conduit – at every opportunity for the community to be heard.”
This leads to what Berkman argues is the “very clear public sentiment” in favour of reforming political donations, which he says comes with a clear expectation from larger corporate donors that they will get something in return. The second leg of Berkman’s stand here is the need to reform the wider system of electoral representation. No, he doesn’t see the reintroduction of an upper house as a solution (Queensland is the only unicameral parliament in Australia), but looks to New Zealand’s system of multi-member proportional representation, or Tasmania’s Hare-Clark model, as templates. “No proportional representation and no upper house means we are really starved of political checks and balances,” he says. “With the exception of minority government, we just see this pendulum swing from one side to the other, and I don’t think the committee system gives people a lot of confidence.”
But what of more achievable goals, pressure points where this lone Green may be able to exert some leverage? “I think meaningful reconciliation with Aboriginal Australians needs to be a top order priority along with moving towards a treaty. Government at every level needs to focus on this fairly and squarely.
“I want to see Adani put to bed. We can’t go into the Galilee if we want to see climate change kept under control. That coal needs to stay in the ground.”
No surprises there. Nor in his push to level the playing field and reduce fossil-fuel subsidies, which he argues “would see more rapid uptake of technologies which are already more commercially viable than new coal”.
“Governments have got to sink money into this. Climate change is the greatest market failure of all time. Markets can’t solve the problem and government needs to lead.”
This is as much about economics as it is about anything else, with Berkman arguing that “we need radical change to our economic systems, our social system, our energy systems, and the way we frame social justice and environmental justice within economic questions”. That sort of paradigm shift is unlikely to be achieved by a lone member in an 93-seat house, and Berkman concedes he will have limited capacity to introduce private member’s legislation, and will often be playing a somewhat reactive role.
Assisted dying legislation – in the wake of Victoria’s Euthanasia Bill – is a possible priority area, along with drug law reform. “It’s long overdue, and it can’t be dealt with as a police issue; it is a health issue,” he says. “We can’t expect improved social outcomes without treating it as such.”
The Greens’ campaign manifesto also included initiatives on value capture charges, which would effectively tax property developers when they receive a windfall gain from rezonings, and higher royalties, which Berkman says is not a tax but a fee for exploiting the resources that all of us own.
“Government should not be afraid of redistributing wealth,” Berkman says. “That is what they do. To pussyfoot around that issue and to pander routinely to the interests of the super-wealthy is the wrong way to go about it. Tax should not be a dirty word.”