Senator Lee Rhiannon talks up rise of mass social movements

Lee Rhiannon.
Sunday, July 9, 2017

NSW GREENS SENATOR told the ABC’s Insiders program on July 2 that, globally, mass movements are on the rise and that she could see a change in how politics works. She also said that parliament was “important to me, but it is not the main game”.

Green Left Weekly’s SUSAN PRICE caught up with Senator Rhiannon at the Students of Sustainability conference in Newcastle on July 4 and asked her about politics today. 

Her comments were made just before a national and state meeting of Greens party bodies, July 7-9, where her expulsion from the Australian Greens party room was going to be discussed.

The dispute erupted after the federal MPs voted on June 28 to exclude Rhiannon alleging she had sabotaged negotiations on the Gonski.2.0 funding bill.

Rhiannon said in a letter to NSW Greens members that the federal party room knew of her opposition to any watering down of Gonski. She also said was disappointed her colleagues had sent a complaint without informing her or providing her with a chance to respond.

With the exception of Victorian MP and Greens co-deputy Adam Bandt, the federal Greens MPs, resolved to exclude Rhiannon until the Greens NSW had changed its constitution to drop the binding provision. Rhiannon defended the NSW Greens, while also saying that MPs did have the flexibility to consider bills on their merits or otherwise.

In the interview on Insiders you highlighted the movement around Jeremy Corbyn. What sort of politics do you think is needed in Australia today given the political challenges we face here and where do the Greens fit into that?

We need a very well-organised, strong, left radical politics that is building into a mass movement. The mass movement phenomenon is moving around the world. Australia has been part of that in the past and I’m sure we’ll be part of it now. 

I’ve heard from many people here at the Students of Sustainability conference who are inspired by what is happening in Britain. It’s a reminder that movements do rise and fall and at the moment it looks like it’s on the rise.

How widespread is that anti-capitalist or that pro-Corbyn sentiment in the Greens. Is NSW unique or is it a common view?

The Greens are a left-of-centre, broad church party. I’m finding that the Corbyn experience is inspiring people of different persuasions on the left and I hope it continues to do so. There are many lessons to be learnt and I share the excitement of seeing a movement grow so quickly, particularly in defiance of the upper echelons of their own party [the British Labour Party].

The resonance among young people was pretty special, don’t you think?

Yes, that’s huge, absolutely huge. It looks like that was the wave that increased his vote enormously. It’s cross-generational — that must be acknowledged — and the way Corbyn was able to win so many young people by going back to some basic policies like renationalising the railways, is fantastic. Free higher education, democratising workplaces are all issues we have not heard talked about for a long time.

Could you clarify the mechanisms by which the NSW Greens keep MPs accountable at both the state and federal level, particularly the way the parliamentary liaison committees operate.

Elected Greens in NSW are bound by policy, so we don’t have a conscience vote and that is set out very clearly in the NSW constitution. MPs in other states do have a conscience vote but not in NSW. That comes from our history of committed collective struggle. People have a right to have an input but getting people elected to do their own thing was not what we were founded on. 

We have many different bodies within the Greens including working groups on specific issues. We have a parliamentary liaison committee for state and federal MPs and its purpose is to be the bridge between our parliamentary work and our membership. That’s really all it is. It talks through tactics on a range of issues, which I find very useful.

Back in 2014, when former PM Tony Abbott was trying to push his horror budget through, there was a lot of discussion about the potential of having Greens MPs, particularly you, block that budget. Was that a product of the discussions in the Greens’ parliamentary liaison committee?

No, that discussion was right through the party. We organised a few public meetings, although they were probably mostly attended by Greens members. There was one at Strathfield to discuss the tactics. 

We hadn’t been through that before. But what happened in 1975 [when the Governor General dismissed Labor PM Gough Whitlam after a hostile Senate blocked the budget appropriation bills] put a lot of the Left, and some of our own people, into a bit of trauma about blocking a budget. However, we did have some useful discussions about what we could and couldn’t do in parliament. 

You have an important meeting coming up on July 8-9 [NSW Greens State Delegates Committee]. Can you comment on what you would like to come out of it?

I’m sure it will be a good meeting. Those meetings have been averaging more than 120 people. We have them every two months. It’s not only a very important and useful body, but it also demonstrates that we are a member-driven party.

It is fair to say that the situation right now is a battle for the heart of the Greens?

I can’t comment on that.

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