What to make of NSW Greens preselection result?

November 26, 2017
Lee Rhiannon and Richard di Natale.

What to make of the NSW Greens preselection result, which delivered a 60–40 win for Mehreen Faruqi against Lee Rhiannon?

To close observers it was not a surprise. In the two preselections last year in the NSW Greens, what we might call the Brown Greens pipped the left or red Greens on both occasions.

Faruqi, as well as being favoured by that more moderate bloc, brought with her (as a “progressive”) a section of those who voted for the red Greens in last year’s ballots. It was always going to be a winning combination.

It was a true test of members’ views. About 64% of eligible members (or 2152 out of 3310) voted in the online ballot, both the biggest percentage and largest number ever.

Rhiannon did not expect to win. After all, the past and present leaders of the Australian Greens — crucially Bob Brown — had made it clear they wanted her gone. She had little or no support from current Greens MPs and had been characterised in the media as troublesome and divisive. She had also been an MP for the past 18 years.

These added up to a terrific handicap she was not able to overcome, despite strong support from predominantly younger members.

Their support rested on the fact that she was clearly the candidate most committed to a member-driven party, extra-parliamentarism and left policy positions. This had been exhibited in her controversial support for members, unions and policy when other federal MPs were inclined to do a deal with the Malcolm Turnbull government over Gonski 2.0 and the privileging of non-government schools.

It appears, however, that the result did not boil down to political positions. All the candidates supported leftish policies.

More telling was the distribution of votes for Abigail Boyd, who most observers would put closest to Rhiannon on policy. When preferences were distributed, of her 281 votes, 201 went to Mehreen and just 80 to Lee. There was clearly something else operating here.

The central impetus appears to have been a preference for a fresh candidate promising unity with the federal Party Room and not burdened with the fatwa from Bob Brown.

This result will be seen as a victory for the current MPs and the party’s present establishment — and their political strategy. This has been enunciated by the federal parliamentary leader as "mainstream progressive". On the horizon of this approach is coalition governments — even apparently with the Liberals.

It is a strategy that will win some inner-city seats and is a repetition of the approach of European Green parties.

It is not one that promises any more success than the limited and uneven success of the European colleagues. In the recent German elections, the German Greens, the oldest of the Green parties, received about 8% of the vote.

Nor is this strategy of the ambition that is required in our present dire planetary and social circumstances. No one has that requisite strategy at this moment. It will require not more MPs, but mass extra-parliamentary movements of active citizens challenging the socio-economic system that threatens the biosphere and generates the social inequality that stunts human possibilities and democratic life.

Rhiannon and her supporters understood this. This defeat is a setback. However, the debate they have initiated inside the Greens is a huge victory. We have not heard the end of it.

[Hall Greenland is a former NSW Greens convenor.]

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