The battle for the Greens

It seems the Greens don’t do politics so differently after all.

As we well know, Australian politics has been roiled by vicious political infighting since 2010. Gillard knifed Rudd, then Rudd spent years leaking against her to reclaim the title, which he briefly held before losing to Abbott, then Turnbull knifed Abbott, and Abbott has spent almost two years trying to return the favour.

The Greens have often held themselves out as principled in a way the major parties aren’t. Like the Democrats. And like the Democrats, they have taken a turn to pragmatism that threatens to destroy the party’s credibility with its supporters.

In May 2015, Richard Di Natale became the new leader of the federal Greens party. Within a few weeks, he signalled that in the event of a hung parliament, he would be willing to compromise on the Greens’ asylum seeker policy in return for sharing power with the ALP. According to the Australian reported, Di Natale:

did not rule out supporting offshore processing in a Labor-Greens government if the yearly humanitarian intake were increased. ‘That’s something that we will come to if and when there is a close result and the need of negotiations post-election.’

The message was that the Greens had now become ‘pragmatic’. A symbol of this new approach was the plaudits from Fairfax centrist-in-chief Peter Hartcher, who observed that Di Natale ‘projects a matter-of-fact rationality that well serves a party seeking to lose its radical hue’. Now, Hartcher went on, the ‘Greens need to weed out radical ideological artefacts like Jim Casey’, the avowedly socialist candidate for inner-west Sydney electorate Grayndler.

This week’s events indicate that the party may be following Hartcher’s advice. On Wednesday, the Greens announced the following two resolutions:

  1. The Australian Greens Party Room request that National Council work with Greens NSW to end the practice of NSW MPs being bound to vote against the decision of the Australian Greens Party Room.(Supported by all MPs with the exception of Lee Rhiannon.)
  1. That NSW Senators be excluded from Party Room discussions and decisions on contentious government legislation, including within their portfolio responsibilities, until these issues are resolved. (Supported by all MPs, with the exception of Lee Rhiannon and Adam Bandt.)

The first indicates what the dispute is about, and is effectively an ultimatum: the Australian Greens Party Room wants the National Council and Greens NSW to change the latter’s constitution

The second means effectively suspending NSW Senator Rhiannon from being able to work within the Greens. Rhiannon will remain suspended and excluded from the party room until the NSW Greens submit on the first point. It is hard to regard this as anything but blackmail. Or as anything but stupid.

The NSW branch of the Greens is often regarded as more radical than its counterparts, mostly because it has a more decentralised system than in other states. As Max Chalmers reported in New Matilda last year:

NSW is decentralised, with local groups given total control over any funding that flows to them, the power to control how preferences are allocated on How-To-Vote cards in their electorate, and significant power to halt changes to the party’s central platform. Local groups send representatives to the State Delegates Council, where decisions are made on a consensus basis. Decisions can go to a vote, but need a super majority of 75 per cent support to get over the line.

For this reason, the grassroots in NSW have more control over the party than in other states. Admittedly, the democratic process that follows can be more cumbersome. Furthermore, NSW has stricter rules about accepting donations – the party won’t accept them from companies, or for sums over $2500.

Victoria, on the other hand, has a more centralised operation, which Chalmers identified as a:

more centre-heavy structure, including a full-time campaign staff of nine people who work between elections. Their number swells to 50 at the height of a campaign. Money flows to the centre then back out. Campaign skills and techniques are more easily transferred from one bout to the next.

The Victorian branch may be regarded as more ‘professional’ in the eyes of some, but the structure means the centre is able to disregard the grassroots. It’s for that reason that Di Natale can casually float compromises on party policy, in a way that Rhiannon, following her obligations in the NSW Greens, cannot.

If someone thought it reasonable to change how the NSW branch operated, a more sensible approach would have been to try to persuade members internally that the change was necessary or worthwhile. With this approach, the party wouldn’t be dragged into public disrepute, the Greens wouldn’t be airing their dirty laundry in public, and if the attempt failed, the party would still remain united.

As the situation now stands, if the party leadership doesn’t get their way, Rhiannon will effectively remain excluded from the leadership and its discussions on important issues. Either the leadership will back down – which appears unlikely right now – or the NSW branch will be forced to secede from the federal Greens. Such a result would be disastrous for the party, and could well split its vote. Now, instead of campaigning on important issues, the Greens will be forced to devote increasing efforts to inner-party squabbles.

In other words, there are constructive ways this dispute could have been resolved, without publicly shredding the credibility of the party, alienating members and the public, and turning on a senator who has served as a NSW Greens member in state and federal politics for the past 18 years.

Indeed, the two resolutions make clear that Rhiannon has been suspended for obeying the rules of NSW Greens – that the senator was bound to act as she has. Instead of accepting those limitations and/or working to change them, the party leadership has imperiously decided to try to impose change.

In their statement on the issue, the NSW Greens have predictably backed Rhiannon:

We believe the decision of Australian Greens party room tonight is unconstitutional.

We understand some federal MPs wish to review our governance. We do not believe there is support within the party to change either the Australian Greens or Greens NSW constitutions. There is a process for reviewing each constitution, and we are disappointed the federal party room is not following this process.

So the battle lines have been drawn. And rather than quietly trying to resolve this issue, the party leadership has decided to pick a fight which will be ugly and public. For years, there have been public criticisms of Senator Rhiannon by conservative elements within the Party. This came to a head over the last week, as party leaders and staffers began to leak nasty allegations against her.

The pretext for this campaign was a dispute over education policy. Greens leader Richard Di Natale and education spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young wanted to negotiate education policy in relation to the Gonski report with the sitting government. Senator Rhiannon, in the words of Gabrielle Chan, ‘maintained a line closer to the Australian Education Union and the NSW Teachers Federation, which strongly opposed the bill’. Rhiannon authorised a leaflet urging people to campaign against the bill.

The leaflet has been portrayed as an act of gross disloyalty by party leadership, who claim that it sabotaged negotiations with the government. (Of course, the bill ultimately received the backing of enough crossbench senators to make Greens support irrelevant.)

To justify the way that the Greens were turning on her, it was alleged that Rhiannon had been officially ‘censured’:

The ABC was told yesterday Senator Rhiannon had been censured twice by the Greens party room in the past.

This morning some media outlets — including the ABC — published articles saying her fellow Greens senators might now expel her from the party room, because the previous censures had not stopped her breaching the rules.

Note how the ABC set-up the story: Senator Rhiannon had already supposedly received two strikes, and still refused to cooperate with the rest of the party. If they were to expel her, it would be for her third strike.

Rhiannon denied these claims, and the Greens who had made the allegations in the first place conceded that they had lied:

Party sources brushed off Senator Rhiannon’s argument she had been targeted by fabrications.

They conceded there had not been a formal ‘censure motion’ against Senator Rhiannon, because that mechanism was not used in partyroom meetings.

But they maintained the party room had nonetheless formally criticised her twice in the past for breaching party discipline, which amounted to the same thing.

Which is … totally incoherent. Censure motion means a formal criticism. Now, they admit there was no motion of formal criticism, but the party still formally criticised her. Such obfuscation could mean anything. It could be made up!

When asked about the matter later, Di Natale merely stated that ‘we have raised specific issues’ with Senator Rhiannon. Which is slightly less serious. It looks increasingly like anonymous sources have simply lied to the media.

Rhiannon has described the stories as a ‘vicious attempt to destroy my reputation’. And it seems clear that the point of these false claims was to justify Rhiannon’s subsequent suspension and possible expulsion: the Greens are right – surely! – to defend themselves against this kind of betrayal. The fact that zero Greens politicians have put their own names to these smears – nor have any repudiated them – indicates what credence the claims, and their sources, should be given.

Ultimately, the Greens party room did not suspend Rhiannon on the basis of these leaflets, or because of imaginary censure motions in the past. They suspended her because she was acting in accordance with the grassroots membership in NSW. The Greens’ grievances, then, are not actually with Rhiannon per se, but with the institutional mandates of the NSW party. Which also means that the party leadership is at odds with much of the NSW membership. Which means that those same members are set on a collision course with the party’s leadership.

The fight appears likely to become protracted: The leadership has all the power, and is largely united. But instead of civilly disagreeing about internal structures and rules, and saving their venom for political opponents, the Greens leadership have tried to leverage their power to impose changes upon a membership who may well come to regard the leadership as their primary political opponents. Even if half of the NSW party were to agree with the leadership, and supported diminishing their own control over politicians, the two motions are likely to introduce acrimony and intense in-fighting. It makes a permanent rift seem like an increasing possibility.

On the evening when the decision to suspend Rhiannon was made, I received a fundraising email from the Greens. They stressed that one of their priorities was reaching out to young people, who had achieved so much in fighting for Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. The passionate support of millennials was, of course, a crucial part of Corbyn’s victory. And yet, it was also Corbyn’s responsiveness and accountability to the grassroots that helped generate a manifesto responsive to the needs of grassroots activists, and the enthusiasm that followed.

The Greens leadership appear determined to go down a very different path, one where the enthusiasm of the young is replaced by technocratic moderation. But it appears they have a fight on their hands. That fight will determine whether voters will have a viable and principled option to the left of the major parties.


Image: Can’t eat coal / The Greens

Michael Brull

Michael Brull is a columnist at New Matilda. He’s written for other publications including Fairfax, the Guardian, Crikey, Tracker and the Indigenous Law Bulletin.

More by Michael Brull ›

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  1. Yes, terrific piece. Thank you the work and thinking that runs through this piece. We are ina crucial period in the history of the Greens. One of those turning points. Looks to me right now like the NSW members will not be deterred from upholding their rights to a members-run party.

  2. I’m in the Victorian Greens and I find this article snobby, suggesting “we in NSW are purer and therefore better than you in Victoria”. Yes, you’re purer. But I don’t care about purity, I care about progressive change. If that means looking more professional and negotiating for better outcomes, so be it. For example, sometimes people from other parties do have good ideas and it’s worth working together to make it happen.

    On that note, I think of a quote from Gough Whitlam (who brought us free education and many other things that almost all of us on the left agree were wonderful): “Only the impotent are pure.”

    Screw purity, I want real change: legislative change, structural change. It’s unhelpful for people to sook around the edges, sneering at people who are actually getting things done.

    1. Ironic that you quote EG Whitlam given it was the intervention by the Federal Executive into the Victorian ALP, instigated by him, that led to the improved electoral performance in that state, which resulted in the Labor winning the 1972 elections

    2. My article doesn’t exactly say NSW is “purer” than Victoria. Also – it’s a bit strange to say people from other parties do have good ideas and it’s worth working together. NSW hasn’t tried to ban another state from Party Room discussion of “contentious” legislation. Lee Rhiannon has tried to work together. If her hands are tied, this is not a very constructive way to deal with that. You don’t seem to get that I regard that as the central issue here.

      1. It really is ironic that some Greens are recalling Whitlam’s quote from the anti-leftist purges of the 1970’s and 80’s. I wonder which party many of those activists and militants helped found after their ALP expulsion? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  3. Very interesting article thank you. It maybe that fight dies not happen though because there are some Senators who might read this article and agree about how the party process does work so why disturb it. They may even back off regardless of how the media presents that action because there are greater battles to be had then with each other.

  4. The best discussion in the media of the issues at the heart of the debate that I’ve read. The great irony of the attack on NSW has been its unifying effect on NSW members who until now may not have engaged fully with the issues, especially the substance and implications of grassroots democracy. A marvellous, well deserved, own goal by the hierarchical centrists.

      1. Not at all; in fact the NSW Greens have had a great upswell of support from grassroots members and former members in other states, frustrated with the autocracy of their state parties. Viva la revolution!

  5. An excellent analysis of the fundamental contradictions at the core of the Greens’ raison d’être, and a good argument for why those Greens who want parliamentary change should be in the Labor Party.

  6. The article ignores the fact that the senators from WA, Tas, SA and QLD also voted in favour. This isn’t a Victoria versus NSW issue. It’s a NSW versus everyone else issue. Who is out of step?

    1. There isn’t an ‘in-step’ or ‘out of step’ way here. This doesn’t need to be a contest – and it wasn’t a contest for over 20 years. The Greens NSW have always worked quite well alongside other state parties, in our quirky way. Why now?

      1. I was very active in the Vic Greens when Kerry was NSW senator. And yes, it was an issue back then. Why now? Because the recent decision by NSW was the final straw.

        Here’s the crucial point. The parliamentary party consists of 10 members. 9 voted against NSW. Why?

  7. I have been an admirer of Michael Brull’s journalism. His forensic dissection around the death of Ms Dhu, published in New Matilda, was superb. It is a pity this contribution falls way short of that standard and comes across as a piece of North Korean propaganda. To be uncritically quoting the Murdoch press FFS, who use every manipulative trick in the book to undermine the Greens, well actually this piece from Michael is so flawed it would go down well in the Murdochrity because it contains more hints and innuendo than hard fact. He unquestioningly accepts that Ms Rhiannon is more accountable to the ALP-aligned AEU than she is to her own parliamentary colleagues.

    Brull clearly does not understand how the Victorian Greens operate and so can freely put out inaccurate bias fed to him by antagonists. He fails to mention that, like it or not, the trajectory of Victorian Greens is strongly supported by members there and the public vote for the so-called ‘centrist’ style continues to grow. Meantime in NSW the Green vote flounders; if there had only been a half-senate vote last election Ms Rhiannon would probably no longer be an elected member. Michael is surely aware how much the situation within NSW Greens is disputed space. To laud the grassroots democracy in NSW and fail to mention the deep bitter factionalism is akin to posting a photo of Lenin on a podium and omit Trotsky.

    I would agree with Michael this attack on Lee and the NSW Greens is stupid and an own goal. It is counterproductive and has has the opposite effect to that intended, namely that people are uniting behind Lee and NSW. Still, when all the parliamentarians from every other state, including those who are often close to Lee, have signed a letter and adopted two resolutions (Adam dissenting on the second), indicates a very deep level of dissatisfaction (in other words, pissed off). The issue is more than suggesting it is just some sort of parochial state vs state power struggle.

    Recently I mentioned to a Green friend that in the 80’s I was in Germany during the realo / fundi debate. He wisely said that at least they had a debate; here we are sleepwalking in one direction. IMHO all Green politicians claim adherence to both parliamentary politics and community activism, yet there is a distinction between those that drive the grassroots approach and those that turn up for the photo shoot. I hold many differences with the ‘pragmatic’ approach. If this is the debate the Greens need to have, then let’s get it out there and have it. But it won’t be served by mouthing simplistic biases. Please Michael, get back to the standard of reporting you are capable of and drop this cheap shit.

    1. I second your views Phillip. All the state parties have a strong membership base. I know (knew rather – I’m out of it now) both Richard and Janet well. They are where they are now because of the support of the membership. Janet is one of the founders of the Victorian party and she has worked tirelessly with the membership at all levels.

      You are right to recall the German realo/fundi debate. How many know that the German party was based on Tasmanian Greens?

      It is simply wrong to characterise this as an ‘evil centrist’ versus ‘grassroots membership’ issue. In the case of Victoria the current structure was developed by the grassroots members. If they wish to change things, they can. I suspect they won’t.

      So what is this really about? It’s about trusting the parliamentary members, not micromanaging them. They simply would not, and could not, be where they are if they did not understand Greens’ policy. The selection process is rigorous (I know, I went through it).

      Is this decision stupid? In a sense, but it was also inevitable. A showdown has been brewing for years. Yes, in the immediate term some NSW members will rally around Lee. But I suspect that the members in the other states will in turn rally around their representatives. This will take months to work its way through the various state processes and each of the senators will face tough questions from the members. But I suspect they will eventually be supported.

      So counterproductive? For NSW eventually. They may just succeed in really pissing off all the other states.

  8. Possibly the laziest and stupidest attempt to shove top down political control with arrogance and ineptitude via anonymous media briefings. Seriously.

    Regardless of the merits of any education reforms or negotiations, this latest escalation by the parliamentary party shows very clearly they want to run the show. While telling members to stick it.

    Way to score an own goal!
    First: stuff up your own negotiations with the Turnbull Liberal government (because the crossbench sold out much more cheaply!).
    And now: way to unify your largest state and membership to fight for the future of a true Grassroots Green Party!
    Surely couldn’t be any more stupid?
    I hope so!!

    (As per our key foundational principles, literally taken from federal The Greens webpage:
    “The Australian Greens are a political party based on four key principles: ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice and peace and non-violence.
    We have the courage to put people and our future first. That means that along with meaningful and smart solutions to ensure future generations of Australians have clean air, clean water and clean soil, the Greens are also working in many other areas to champion integrity, decency and fairness.
    As well as representing constituents, the Greens speak on behalf of those who wouldn’t otherwise get much of a say inside parliament: children, refugees, students, individuals and families living in poverty and, of course, our natural environment.”)

    1. The parliamentary party is made up of dedicated Greens’ members selected by the various state memberships. They are there because of the members.

      It’s not top down at all.

  9. Thank you for this article. Clearly, this is an important time in our history – and an even more important time for the wider Australian community. My concern is that the centrist strategy which some are pushing for will put us on the same disastrous trajectory as the ALP. So it is encouraging to see how strongly NSW members feel about their involvement in decision-making and their support for Lee. We have united in the face of injustice and this can only make us stronger.

  10. Bandt’s decision to not vote for Lee Rhiannon’s suspension is morally intelligent, yet his vote to blackmail the NSW Greens using Lee as a sacrificial lamb was stupid gutter politics.

    How dare the Greens exclude the Senator for NSW “from partyroom discussions and decisions on contentious government legislation, including within their portfolio responsibilities, until these issues are resolved”.

    This was not just a vote to exclude an individual but to exclude the people of NSW whom Lee represents and fights for and all the children in NSW schools who are to be ripped off by Gonski 2.0. ( let alone the children in the states whom the other Greens represent).

    Greens’ disloyalty reminds me of the scenes of the mass meetings, shown this week on ABC Australia through American Eyes, where Qld’s police obscenely voted to support Chris Hurley who had battered to death Cameron Mulrunji. Matt Bond, then an indigenous police officer, was devastated by his colleagues’ stand. Lee may not be devastated, but I bet she was hurt.

    Brown’s and Di Natale’s vision to mainstream The Greens brings to mind the fate of the Democrats who went down that path.

    Like Australia needs another mainstream party!

    The Federal Greens have changed for the worse; there’s a lot of self-interested ambition in that party room and.. sheep mentality. And Brown’s interference has the Rudd-Abbott hallmark.

    I admire Lee enormously, particularly on her commitment to freedom for Palestine. Bob Brown lost me, when he shamefully turned mainstream with his anti-BDS, now Greens policy, position.

    Lee’s strength is she is ambitious for human and environmental rights and for that she is hugely respected, admired and valued.

    1. How dare they? They have every right.

      Brown’s and Di Natale’s vision? In case you forgot, this decision was supported by every other state. Do you think that only NSW matters? What about WA, SA and Qld? NSW only has one federal representative. Vic has 3, WA has 2, Tassie has 2. Their opinion matters.

      Greens’ disloyalty? To whom? What about NSW’s disloyalty to the other states?

  11. Another article that uses terms like “grassroots” and “centralised” without really explaining how they play out for actual members. Another article that positions Victoria against NSW. I do think there are important discussions to be had about how structurally the AGV operates, how viable it is to have individual branches sitting on lots of cash when trying to advance electoral political gains at a state and national level and why the biggest state in terms of population does not reflect that as could be expected in membership numbers, also how to manage consensus in the party and in the party room are also important. But this reductionist Vic versus NSW, centrist versus grassroots, progressive versus conservative claptrap does not help the progressive cause, the Greens or general understanding. So I’m left wondering what’s the point of this article?

  12. Public schools, the AEU and ‘public education activists’ should be grateful to SHY and RDN for negotiating improvements to Gonski 2.0 that mean more money for public schools. The Greens should stay right away from the ALP AEU campaign running into the next election to restore the absurd Gillard version of Gonski that locked in all the Howard era private school rorts.

  13. my views
    – that the Greens are mistaken in trying to be the third LibLab party.
    And that the Greens are too soft on nuclear.
    And that the Greens have completely lost the plot on cannabis.

  14. Excellent article.. Highlights the focus of NSW Greens independence from centrist politics and policy of the Greens Federal machine… The Greens as a Federal entity should give regard to the grass roots nature of the State branches and allow negotiations around issues. Lee Rhiannon was well within her mandate within the NSW Greens Policy in rejecting the Federal line on Gonski. She deserves to be treated better. She is ‘far left’ but the Greens becoming mainstream will not help the party. We will become the ALP’s poor cousins.

  15. People can argue the merits or otherwise of what is going on within the Greens all they want. I have voted Green before, and I never will again. I don’t need the same rubbish that goes on in other parties. The Greens were a party for social justice and the environment. When I read comments like “snobby” and “It’s a NSW vs everyone else issue. Who is out of step?” I realise that the focus on the issues has gone and the lust for power and control is just as strong as all the other political parties. If the Greens have lost me, they have lost. I am the swinging voter. Abject stupidity and waste…

  16. I’m a fan of your articles, Michael (New Matilda). And I’ve been working backwards on your articles to see what else you have to say. Sorry to say: This is a lazily researched article. It is unfair for me to compare the 4Corners (Aug 17) with this article (Jul 17), as ABC would have had more manpower in researching too. Yet this article is so strongly biased to warrant strong criticisms as outlined by other comments.

    Plus it didn’t mention that Bob Brown, Christine Milne and now Richard DiNatale have had particular difficulty working with Rhiannon.

    And Lee Rhiannon basically lied to the rest in supporting the move to negotiate, and behind their backs was signing off on the phamplets to outright oppose Gonski 2.0.

    We definitely need more firebrand in Aus Greens, but not via the duplicitous & cantankerous ways of Rhiannon. And unsurprisingly, NSW Greens members had voted to support a different person in the next fed election senate election.

    I’ll keep learning from your other articles.

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