Former Greens senator Larissa Waters faces a more complicated path back to Canberra, with the announcement that Ben Pennings will challenge her for the party’s lead Senate spot.
The incumbent senator, Andrew Bartlett, who replaced Waters in the Senate when she resigned over her dual citizenship, said on Friday he also planned to nominate.
Pennings was third on the 2016 Queensland Greens Senate ticket, before leaving his job as a party media adviser to help lead the Stop Adani group.
The race for the lead candidacy is being billed by party members as the most important preselection contest the Queensland Greens have faced, with a divide emerging between members who support the more “established” candidates, such as Waters, and others who want the party to take a more radical position.
Pennings has taken aim at fears the federal party was losing relevance.
“The numbers are clear,” he wrote in a statement posted to his Facebook page on Friday. “We must do at least 50 per cent better than our 7 per cent vote last federal election, when we were saved by a double dissolution election.
“This requires change. Disaffected outer surburban and regional voters who supported us in 2010 have not come back, have instead flirted with the populism of Palmer and the horrors of Hanson.
“We must appeal to these voters, many who now see the Greens as part of the ‘inner-city’ political establishment. With the right candidate we can get a senator elected, instead of a Hanson candidate. People living in outer suburbs, regional towns and rural communities will vote for us in large numbers if we focus on their needs and concerns.”
Former Australian Democrats senator Andrew Bartlett, who had been next on the Senate ticket, stepped into the role in her place, but it had been understood Waters would return as the lead candidate for the next election. However, Bartlett confirmed to Guardian Australia on Friday he would also nominate again.
The party’s federal leadership have stated their desire to see Waters returned to Canberra, but have repeatedly said the decision lies with the Queensland party branch members.
The Queensland Greens have experienced a small resurgence in popularity, with Jonathan Sri, known federally as “rainbow scarf man”, winning a Brisbane council ward from Labor in 2016, and Michael Berkman becoming the first Greens MP in state parliament after winning former Newman government minister Scott Emerson’s seat in the 2017 election.
Waters remains popular within the Queensland Greens, but the party has wrestled with some of the same issues affecting the New South Wales branch.
Bartlett, who may face a section 44 challenge of his own over his university work, depending on the outcome of a parliamentary inquiry into the contentious constitutional section, is yet to state his intentions for the preselection battle.
Waters has been contacted for comment. Preselection opens on Saturday, with a decision to be made in March.