Bob Brown ups the ante on his own party

NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon.
August 4, 2016

To the surprise of many, former Greens leader Bob Brown used the ABC's 7.30 on July 29 to launch a blistering attack on recently re-elected NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon.

Brown told the ABC that Rhiannon had given “great service” but that “the old guard that runs the office in New South Wales” needs changing.

Brown said that “voters” were looking for something “new, young, bigger, environmentally-based, economically sound, socially progressive concerns about health and education — all the things that me and my turn have done in the past...

“And the incumbents in New South Wales — certainly that's Lee, in the Senate — have given great service, but are not hitting a chord with the voters at the moment. And we need to move on.”

Brown's double standard is glaring. There was no party-wide election when Christine Milne replaced him in 2012, or when Richard di Natale replaced Milne last year. Brown was spokesperson for the Greens Party for about 20 years.

Green MLC Mehreen Faruqi pointed out in an opinion piece in the Guardian that Rhiannon was “pre-selected by the largest grassroots process in the country” to run in the federal election and she has been re-elected.

In contrast, the South Australian Robert Simms, appointed to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate last September, was not re-elected. Controversially, Simms had been allocated the higher education portfolio by di Natale, a portfolio then held by Rhiannon.

But Brown did not mention the South Australian disappointment.

High-profile Senator Sarah Hanson-Young was re-elected there, and at least some of the Green vote went to the Nick Xenophon team, which ended up with two Senators. The swing against the Greens in SA was -1.22%.

The Greens received 10.2% of the national vote in this federal election, a gain of 1.6% on the 2013 election. But rather than analyse why the Greens' vote did not go higher, Brown used an anecdote to underscore his campaign against Rhiannon. He implied that her candidacy had prevented the election of a second senator in NSW.

“I've been approached in the streets in Sydney and people are saying: 'I'm a Green, but I'm not going to vote for the candidates you put up here in Sydney.' Well, that's not, you know, that's not the feedback I get in Melbourne or elsewhere around the country,” he said.

Brown, and later Rhiannon, affirmed to 7.30 that he had asked her several times not to recontest the NSW Senate.

Oblivious to the double standard, Brown went on to decry factionalism.

“We don't want factionalism. We want the best candidates to get up”, he said referring to the NSW Greens pre-selection for a vacancy left by the late John Kaye in the Legislative Council.

The connection between Brown's disendorsement of Rhiannon and the NSW pre-selection process was not made very clear, but it appears that Brown supports one of the candidates — Justin Field — and implied that there was some sort of foul play afoot by the other candidates because some had mentioned each others' names in their candidate statements.

But Kaye's widow Lynne Joslyn responded to Brown's statements, telling Fairfax media that Kaye had grown increasingly concerned about the prospect of Field being chosen to fill his spot in the NSW upper house.

“This year as John became more ill, on more than one occasion he told me how troubled he was that Justin might replace him”, she said.

“John feared that if Justin was elected he would betray John's legacy because he did not share John's views on collective action, working in solidarity with the party or social justice.”

Brown said: “I've never been a member of a faction. I'm a progressive Green MP. I don't want to be labelled as being on this side or that side. I want to get behind whoever's in there.”

That largesse does not, apparently, apply to Rhiannon.

Some observers think Brown was also having a go at Jim Casey, the candidate for Grayndler, and Sylvie Ellsmore, the candidate for Sydney. Both are known as “left” candidates.

Casey, a proud socialist and secretary of the Fire Brigade Employees' Union, put the wind up Labor incumbent Anthony Albanese so much that the Murdoch media jumped in to help out Albanese's red-baiting campaign.

Brown had the opportunity on 7.30 to assess how Richard di Natale's pledge to make the Greens the party for “mainstream progressives” impacted on voters, but instead he decided to continue the red-baiting.

Another difference within the Greens is its policy on Palestine.

The federal Greens support a two-state solution. Rhiannon has long been a campaigner for the rights of Palestinians, including supporting the NSW Greens' policy — which was overturned in 2011 — to support the global boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.

At the time that this was a big debate, Brown made clear his disappointment with Rhiannon and the NSW Greens.

Di Natale wants the party to appeal to the “progressive mainstream” which, he believes, will win it 20% of the national vote by 2026. This would amount to watering down the party's left positions and will undoubtedly mean a debate over the party's political character.

As Faruqi noted: “With the growth of the party has come the added diversity of views ... and an intensification of debate.”

The question is how the Greens deal with this.

Kaye had a clear view on where the Greens should be heading — and it seems to sit diametrically opposite to that of Brown and di Natale.

In a final message to his party, Kaye said: “The next 15 years for the Greens are going to be incredibly challenging, and it's one of my great regrets that I won't be there to watch, to be delighted, to help where I can, but mostly just to hope that we remain a force for profound social change ... the critical outcome for the Greens is to not be caught into parliamentarianism, to not be caught into the trappings of power.”

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