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:
- 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.)
- 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.
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