NSW Greens preselections: Contradictory results with a clear message

David Shoebridge won the preselection for top spot on the NSW Greens Legislative Council ticket.

There were mixed results in the recent Greens NSW Legislative Council preselections. But, that in itself represents a revival in the fortunes of the more radical (or red-ish) Greens who have suffered a series of losses in such ballots over the past two years. Those losses were welcome news to the self-styled “mainstream progressives” (or centrists) who lead the Australian Greens and have long chaffed at the presence of Corbyn-like elements in the Greens NSW. Now, writes former convenor of NSW Greens Hall Greenland, that losing trend is over.

Two preselections for Greens candidates were concluded on May 12. The first was for a replacement for Mehreen Faruqi who will take the place of Senator Lee Rhiannon in Canberra when she retires in mid-August. That poll was won by Cate Faehrmann. She boasts long associations with past and present leaders of the Australian Greens and has held prominent apparatchik positions in environmental NGOs.

In the lead-up to the poll her prospects were arguably boosted by what one Blue Mountains anarcho-Green called “rule-mongering”. Faehrmann transferred from the Victorian Greens and in the past such members were required to wait three months before assuming full membership rights in NSW. Such a wait would have meant she could not contest the preselection.

Her successful court action quashed that rule’s interpretation and positioned her as someone who could claim she wanted members to make vital decisions. In the event, she beat off the challenge of three lesser known, but impressive, women candidates.

The second and more fiercely contested ballot was for the Greens’ Legislative Council ticket for the state election next March. That result was very different.

Under the proportional voting system for elections to the Legislative Council in NSW, the Greens are usually guaranteed two elected MPs. Competition is therefore strong for the top two positions on the Greens ticket.

The contest boiled down to a straight contest between two “mainstream progressives” who emphasised environmental issues (incumbents Jeremy Buckingham and Dawn Walker) and two “Corbynista” candidates (current MP David Shoebridge and Abigail Boyd).

Buckingham and Walker were definitely in partnership. They had worked together and were backed by the same or similar people. Shoebridge and Boyd have had no such close association. They ran separate races, although they drew support largely from the same membership pool.

The Corbynista tag is more than useful shorthand — for Shoebridge in particular. Earlier this year he issued his Greens Manifesto, which attempted to chart the way forward for the Greens in a situation of stagnant and, on occasions, falling support. It carried on the cover — fully attributed — the subtitle of British Labour’s last election manifesto: “For the many, not the few”. (The second subtitle was “For the planet, not profit”.)

Nor was the Corbyn allusion just a matter of sloganeering. In the Manifesto, Shoebridge argued that corporate power was the basis of our social ills and ecological crisis. As a solution he advocated a revival in active, democratic citizen and workers’ power, leading to a redistribution of income and power and an enlarged public sector.

It did not hurt his reputation that Murdoch’s flagship broadsheet The Weekend Australian attacked him on its front page for wanting to tax the rich, set maximums for CEO pay, end state aid to private schools and nationalise key sectors of the economy.

In addition to naming the enemy and setting out an agenda of radical social demands, Shoebridge had a well-earned reputation as a successful campaigner for Aboriginal justice, workers rights, civil liberties and protecting local government.

Running on a similar platform was newcomer Boyd, a finance lawyer from the Central Coast, who also ran and lost in the preselection won by Faehrmann (the final result was 53.5% to 46% for Faerhmann over Boyd). One of the more amusing sidelights of the preselection was an anonymous Faehrmann source describing Boyd to the Murdoch press as “a banker pretending to be a Bolshevik”.

On the other hand, Buckingham and Walker, both sitting MPs, are constant campaigners who focus on environmental issues — particularly Buckingham on fracking and coalmining. Buckingham, moreover, is an outspoken and public critic of Left Greens and a close associate of the hostile Greens leaders from other states. He also has a huge social media presence.

The choice could not have been more clear. Shoebridge pitched his Manifesto line, his campaigning on a wide range of issues and emphasised a program that encompassed the “four pillars” of the Greens — participatory democracy, social justice, ecological sustainability and peace and non-violence. Buckingham ran on his high-profile anti-carbon activism, arguing that there could be no social progress on a dead planet. He also sought to counter Shoebridge’s radical social democratic appeal and support for unions by emphasising his own working-class roots.

In the event, with 64% of the 4000 members voting, Shoebridge topped the poll with 45%, Buckingham received 30%, Walker 13% and Boyd 11%. With preferences from Shoebridge flowing strongly to Boyd (and the implementation of the rule that one of the top two positions should go to a woman) Shoebridge and Boyd secured the one and two spots on the ticket. The third spot went to Buckingham.

The reading of the tea leaves of the somewhat contradictory results of these preselections will preoccupy members for a period. That’s only natural in a party where there has been intense political rivalry: a rivalry that has not distracted from extra-parliamentary campaigning, as the candidates actually sought to prove their credentials by encouraging and participating in such activity.

What is incontestable is that any threat to the political diversity of the Greens NSW has now passed. The Greens will not be bypassed by the general trend to the left.

[This article first appeared on Hall Greenland’s blog Watermelon Papers.]