Inconvenient truths about the Greens

Paddy Manning's Inside the Greens looks at the history of the Greens from the viewpoint of Bob Brown and Christine Milne,

While there are serious flaws in Inside the Greens, author Paddy Manning is too good a journalist to suppress vital information. Some of it is explosive.

For instance, during the recent conflicts in the Australian Greens between The Greens NSW and Bob Brown devotees, some in the later camp pushed for the wholesale expulsion of the former.

That was not the only example of such blow-up-the-ship thinking.

According to Manning’s sources, in the wake of David Shoebridge’s victory in the member’s ballot for top position on the 2018 NSW ticket, Brown met with the Greens NSW MPs from the right of the party and pledged support if they split The Greens NSW. This pact was sealed with a weird handclasp, captured in a photo that Manning has seen.

So rabid were these forces that, on top of the chaos in Victoria over the sabotage of Alex Bhathal, they drove an exasperated Richard Di Natale, the Australian Greens parliamentary leader, to the brink of resignation, Manning says.

These events form the climax of the historical narrative which constitutes the major part of Inside the Greens. If Manning indicates no sympathy for these manoeuvres, he certainly is not expressly critical of them.

With three of the four plotting NSW MPs either defeated at the polls or resigning from the Greens, a surface calm now reigns.

The danger is obvious.

The Australian Greens has always been a collaboration of diverse forces, all of whom realise the central issue is the protection of our endangered living environment. Internal intolerance will not bode well for the even wider collaboration that is required to resolve the ecological crisis.

The Greens NSW has brought real benefits to this collaboration: an insistence on grassroots democracy; a critical attitude towards capitalism; and a more relevant left-wing politics.

The fact that then NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, backed by The Greens NSW, prevented her colleagues from doing a deal over Gonski 2.0 (which privileges federal aid to private and religious schools) demonstrates this.

In the wake of this crisis, the right-wing took aim at the left-wing briefly expelling Rhiannon from the party room and demanding that NSW abandon its requirement that MPs follow policy determined by members.

These conflicts reflect the different origins of the Greens. An early chapter of Inside the Greens quotes the Sydney Greens in 1984 describing themselves thus:

“The Greens in Sydney come from many backgrounds. Environmental and resident activists. Nuclear disarmers. Dissidents from the Labor party who have witnessed betrayals by both wings of that party. Feminists. Anarchists. Those inspired by the German Greens. Socialists of various kinds.”

Manning then comments: “It was as good a summary of the origins of the party as has ever been written.”

Inside the Greens certainly fleshes this description out, and significantly modifies it.

Manning argues strongly that the major roots of the Australian Greens lie in the earlier iterations of a “third party” in Australian politics, namely the Australia Party (1966–75), the United Tasmanian Group (1972–1990) and the Australian Democrats (1977–?).

The argument that they are the main progenitors of the Australian Greens gets strong support from the fact that Brown and the other Tasmanians emerged from this milieu. Brown’s preference in 1990–91 was for a merger of his Tasmanian independents with the Australian Democrats to form the Green Democrats. A coup inside the Democrats scuppered this and Brown returned to collaborating to form the Australian Greens.

This connection to earlier “third party” efforts helps explain the preference pussyfooting with the Liberals and other conservatives that Greens in eastern states — other than NSW — have indulged in, notoriously the deal with Clive Palmer in 2013 and talks with the Liberals in Victoria in 2016. 

These earlier “third” parties were also parliamentarist outfits that eschewed civil disobedience and direct action.

This was not true of the left Greens, who were proud of their connection to the Builders Labourers Federation-led Green Bans movement, the original forest blockade at Terania Creek in NSW in 1979, the women’s anti-nuclear pickets at Pine Gap in 1983 and the Franklin campaign in the early 1980s.

When Inside the Greens gets down to the history of the Australian Greens, it is very much the Bob Brown-Christine Milne version. The bias starts with its account of its formation. On one side are the reasonable initiators and, on the other, the obstructionists — the Tasmanian Greens and Greens NSW respectively.

Except it wasn’t quite like this.

The fact that the talks, the formation and the launch for the Australian Greens took place in Sydney should have alerted Manning to the fact that NSW was playing a central role.

The Greens in NSW held the all-important electoral registration of the party’s name, which it shared widely with the idea of building-up a loosely federated party with local roots.

By 1991, the Greens in NSW had already succeeded in getting a councillor elected to both the Newcastle and Marrickville Councils. Moreover, the lower house election results for NSW Greens candidates in the 1990 federal elections were, if anything, better than the Tasmanians. The first electoral successes on the mainland were in WA and NSW.

The Greens in NSW were a key partner in the formation of the Australian Greens, not a recalcitrant foreign body, as presented. When, for instance, Brown repeats his claim that the “old guard” of the Greens NSW derailed the attempt to form a national greens party at the Getting Together conference in 1986, Manning lets it stand — despite any evidence.

It is possible to acknowledge the valuable contribution that Brown and Milne have made to the Greens without adopting a reverential attitude. It is equally possible to acknowledge the essential contributions of the Greens NSW.

While the bulk of Inside the Greens is a history, its final 90 pages are a discussion of the party’s policy dilemmas.

Manning peppers these chapters with a few radical voices: Jonathon Sri on Brisbane Council is given two pages for his libertarian socialist views and Tim Hollo’s ideas on the commons and ecological democracy gets an airing.

But, in general, Manning’s centrist politics prevail — especially when he dismisses Shoebridge’s policy ideas, which are the closest to the ecological social democracy of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as you are likely to get in the Greens. 

None of this is meant to deter a reading of Inside the Greens.

In addition to the excellent early chapters, Manning is too conscientious a journalist not to equip observant readers with some of the facts that run against his own predilections.

[This is an edited version of one of the articles on the website Inside Inside the Greens compiled by Lee Rhiannon, Geoff Ash and Hall Greenland which is devoted to remedying errors in Inside the Greens.]

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