When Alex Greenwich achieved what many before him had failed to do by getting voluntary assisted dying legislation through the New South Wales parliament, it was a triumph for the independent MP’s trademark unifying tactics.
The bill introduced by the progressive MP for Sydney was co-sponsored by 28 MPs, more than any bill in Australia’s history. When it passed parliament in May this year NSW became the last state in Australia to allow euthanasia for people suffering from terminal illness.
Andrew Denton, the television presenter and founder of the advocacy group Go Gentle Australia, says steering this “controversial and heavily resisted” legislation – both the Liberal premier, Dominic Perrottet, and the Labor leader, Chris Minns, opposed it – was a big achievement for a “formidable parliamentary operator”.
“Alex was the most disciplined, organised and charming advocate within parliament I’ve seen – especially his ability to speak to everyone in a measured way, yet also connecting emotionally,” he says.
Greenwich says his first reaction after the vote was to collapse on to the couch in his parliamentary office, exhausted. “I almost declined the celebration dinner with supporters – I just needed sleep!” he says.
But he loved the process. “To me, there’s nothing more exciting than the amendment stage of a conscience vote and persuading MPs to support an issue the major parties won’t,” he says.
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Voluntary assisted dying marked the trifecta of major progressive law reforms he has been instrumental in securing from conservative governments, alongside marriage equality in 2018 and the decriminalisation of abortion in 2019.
It’s something he plans to do a lot more if re-elected in March.
‘Find common ground’
Today Greenwich, 42, is relishing the challenges ahead. “Parliament’s like a family,” he tells Guardian Australia in an interview marking the 10-year anniversary of his election. “You don’t pick your colleagues!”
The former Australian Marriage Equality head cites his unlikely alliance with the notoriously homophobic and ultra-conservative Fred Nile, 87, as evidence of his enthusiasm for collaboration. “You can put people in a box, refuse to work for them,” he says. “Or you can do what Fred and I did: find common ground [on the Aboriginal culture bill].”
He cites being a middle child of divorced parents as the training ground for bringing opposing sides together to achieve results. “You have to discover the motivations and vision of your opponents,” he says. Relentlessness is also crucial. “Any minister will tell you, I’ll hassle them until I get a result. And I’ll give them the evidence to demonstrate public support.”
His priorities for the next term include the omnibus bill for anti-discrimination, housing and homelessness, and climate change and energy – he looks forward to working further with the energy minister turned treasurer, Matt Kean.
Greenwich names the equality bill as his No 1 priority. “It’ll include banning LGBT conversion practices, preventing discrimination in schools and removing the need for surgical intervention before someone transitions gender,” he says. He plans to leverage Sydney hosting next year’s WorldPride event to win commitments from the major parties.
“I’m the only LGBT person on the floor of the NSW Legislative Assembly,” he says. “When I deal with law reform it has to be through that lens. If I’m not there we lose that.”
Well-versed in sticking his neck out for trans people, Greenwich threatened to withdraw supply to Perrottet’s minority government when the premier echoed concerns expressed by the controversial Liberal federal candidate Katherine Deves about trans people’s participation in sport. What happened next impressed him. “Within days, the premier met me and nine trans and sporting advocates to learn about the tough reality of their lived experience,” he says.
Keeping the party going
Despite his good working relationship with the Coalition government, Greenwich has grown in confidence to challenge it robustly, including the refusal to allow UN inspectors to visit NSW prisons. “If there’s nothing to hide, let them in,” he says.
He has learnt a lot since he walked into Macquarie Street a decade ago. “It was intimidating, trying to fill Clover’s heels,” he says of succeeding the former Sydney MP turned lord mayor, Clover Moore. “But then I got into the groove. My constituents now know, in the next parliamentary term, I’ll be unafraid to tackle more difficult issues.”
Upon his election in 2012, the Daily Telegraph described him as a “gay party boy”. He’s now using the clipping to announce his re-election campaign “to keep the party going” because – as constituents tell him – they want real, relatable people in politics.
Greenwich has been holding campaigning workshops to coach Sydney independents looking at the cluster of seats around Willoughby, Lane Cove, the north shore and Pittwater.
“They’re so excited they got people elected to federal parliament from their community, they want to carry that through to the state election,” he says. “I say go for it. Don’t see this as an unattainable position because major parties have dominated politics – there’s never been a better time to be an independent.”
He’s looking forward to working with them on the dearth of community housing and tackling homelessness among older women: “The government is approving large developments without clear affordable and social housing targets, which we’ll pressure them to do,” he says.
He has high hopes. “The only question is whether the Coalition loses more seats to Labor or independents,” he says. “The next parliament will be very different.”