Can political diversity survive in the Greens?

July 14, 2017
Greens leader Richard di Natale and NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon in March.

The dispute between the Australian Greens and the NSW Greens, which erupted during the debate over the federal Coalition’s Gonski 2.0 funding bill, is puzzling to many.

This is because both Green parties agreed not to support the Gonski package on the basis that, even after amendments, it was still inequitable.

However, it appears that NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon become the patsy for another, more significant, battle in the Greens — one which goes to heart of the type of party it aspires to be.

Rhiannon has been expelled from Party Room discussions and decisions on “contentious government legislation” — an unusually vague description. She has appealed, and the NSW State Delegate’s Council on July 8 also sent the federal Greens a request that Rhiannon be “fully reinstated without restriction” to the federal Party Room for all meetings. However, on July 13 the federal Greens issued a compromise.

After being appointed leader in May 2015, Richard di Natale made clear he wanted to shift the party to include people with “progressive mainstream values”, which most interpreted as wanting to shift the party from the left to the centre.

He also said he wanted to double the party’s vote to 20% in a decade. Shortly after this, former Greens leader Bob Brown began his very public campaign to force the NSW Greens to dump Rhiannon, a campaign he is continuing.

Another former leader Christine Milne has also weighed into the dispute, saying the debate was about “democracy” in the party, which the NSW Greens were hampering by refusing to allow their MPs a conscience vote.

“How is it democratic or effective for all our other MPs and senators to negotiate with the government of the day and try to come to a consensus decision after consultation with the members around the whole country – and then find that a parliamentary liaison committee in NSW has determined before that negotiation is over that it will oppose that decision and campaign against it?”, asked Milne in the July 8 Guardian.

“The undemocratic exemption to the Australian Greens constitution given to NSW in 1992 is what is being challenged in 2017”, she said.

Green Left Weekly’s PIP HINMAN asked former NSW Greens convenor HALL GREENLAND about the dispute.

* * *

What caused the dispute and what is at stake here?

What I can say definitely is that the real issue is not what the [federal] Party Room is claiming. The practice and Constitution of the Greens NSW to bind its MPs to policy and members’ decisions has existed for decades and caused no breakdown in the Party Room processes. It didn’t over Gonski 2.0 either.

Even in the letter of complaint [against Rhiannon] which kicked off this crisis, the Party Room only complained of the “potential” that binding Lee might have had on negotiations.

That said, most of the Party Room see themselves as representatives with freedom to manoeuvre and, via the right to a conscience vote, to even vote against or disregard policy as determined by members.

The Greens NSW refuse to accept that, as far as their own MPs are concerned, and their argument is that all MPs from other states should also be “delegates” has been a point of difference for some time. That difference goes to what kind of party we want to be: politician dominated or member driven?

The other difference is over orientation. The federal parliamentary leadership has a declared a big interest in pragmatic deals with government. The Greens NSW do not rule out occasional agreements but put the emphasis on extra-parliamentary campaigning and policy.

As for policy, the Greens NSW have a wider and more critical focus. More Greens in NSW accept that we face a double — and linked — ecological and social crisis and that in solving them we need to move beyond capitalism.

The emergence of the explicitly anti-capitalist Left Renewal tendency in NSW is no accident. And there is no doubt that very many Greens in NSW are inspired by [British Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn and [former Democrat presidential candidate Bernie] Sanders’ surges.

How does this fit into the broader political situation?

The world over, under the impact of a planet being cooked and an unacceptable capitalism, social democratic and Greens parties are undergoing internal differentiation and debates. That is healthy. What is not healthy are attempts to close down such debates and exclude people.

How do you think things will develop?

We are at a stalemate at present, but talks are still going on between the Party Room, the National Council and Greens NSW, all looking for a way out of the current imbroglio.

The Party Room is suggesting a fudge that could settle things.  Rather than exclude Lee from Party Room discussions of contentious legislation (which is unconstitutional) it is suggesting setting up a special subcommittee to consider such issues and the subcommittee would not include Lee. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say.

The Greens NSW members are angry but conciliatory: we want to get on with the urgent priorities that confront us. But members are standing firm behind Lee and their internal grassroots democracy.

I must add that there is little doubt that one of the key aims of the people driving the current offensive inside the Greens is to get rid of Lee as the standard bearer for a more radical politics. That makes the pre-selection for the NSW Greens Senate ticket later this year a pivotal event.

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