The Greens – a house of many mansions

January 24, 2017

So now former Greens parliamentary leader Christine Milne has come out of political retirement to invite — via the pages of Fairfax media — the young lefties in the Greens NSW who have formed "Left Renewal" to leave the building and establish their own party. She's even called on two Greens MPs identified as "left-wing", Senator Lee Rhiannon and David Shoebridge MLC, to help them through the door.

This follows a similar response from the current federal parliamentary leader Richard Di Natale.

This intolerant response is something new in our ranks and deserves to be nipped in the bud. Christine and Richard are scandalised by Left Renewal’s talk of overthrowing capitalism, but no less so than many of us were by Christine and her co-thinkers sudden coup in securing the dropping of the Greens’ commitment to a mild inheritance tax at the 2012 national conference. It was part of a turn-to-business strategy.

Back then opponents did talk of "neoliberals on bikes" but no one dreamt of suggesting they pedal right out of the party. Instead, supporters of an inheritance (or wealth) tax did our best to keep the discussion going – and the publication of Thomas Piketty’s book the following year certainly helped. At the 2016 national conference there was a move back towards adopting an inheritance tax.

It’s a pity that Christine and Richard have not adopted a similar approach. Many of us — and not just in the ranks of the Left Renewal supporters — would be interested in hearing from them about how "really existing capitalism" can, for example, solve the climate emergency that we now face.

Besides contravening the Greens’ commitment to debate rather than organisational measures when sharp differences arise, the advice to the young leftist rebels to leave runs counter to the party’s history, nature — and, importantly, its future.

The implication in Christine’s and Richard’s advice is that the party belongs exclusively to people like them. It doesn’t and never has.

In fact, the original party registration of the Greens was taken out in 1985 by a collection of inner-city radicals of various types — left-wing expellees from the Labor Party, environmentalists, feminists, socialists, trotskyists, anarchists, pacifists and deep ecologists. There was even a German draft dodger among the founders.

What united us was the inspiration of the German Greens whose founders were very much in the same mold as us. The German comrades were leading the European movement for nuclear disarmament. They were pro militant unionism (the green bans of the Jack Mundey-led Builders Labourers Federation in Australia had deeply impressed them) and were sympathetic to new, experimental forms of cooperative living and working. They championed participatory democracy. They had adopted a twin approach of parliamentarism and extra-parliamentarism as the means to fundamental social change, in other words running for parliament as well as marching in the street,

But above all else, and this was the Germans’ central contribution to modern politics, was their insistence that all politics must be framed by the ecological imperative to protect the living environment.

In this the German Greens were theorising our own evolving views. We had, for instance, been involved in environmental struggles here, whether at Terania Creek, or saving the Franklin or against the plans for motorways to plough through the inner-city suburbs of Sydney. We were already reading Murray Bookchin, Alan Roberts,Rudolph Bahro and Petra Kelly

From the outset, the radical founders in Australia claimed no exclusive moral right to the ownership of the Greens’ party label. We were willing to share it with anyone who subscribed to the four founding principles of the German Greens — ecological sustainability, participatory democracy, peace and non-violence and social justice.

That "anyone" eventually included the Tasmanian Independents and the victors in the epic battle to save the Franklin grouped around Bob Brown and Christine Milne. (Originally, it also included some members of the then Socialist Workers Party but that possible conflict of interest was resolved by banning dual party membership.)

The point of this historical excursion is that the Greens have always been a broad church, a confederation of various traditions and political philosophies. Our history certainly highlights the fact that the Greens are not the exclusive property of Christine Milne, Richard Di Natale and those who agree with them.

From what I’ve seen of the Left Renewal thinking — a little too conservative from my point of view — it falls within the broad political parameters of our roots. Organisationally their explicit insistence on their supporters caucusing and then toeing their caucus line could run counter to the more free-wheeling and consensus decision-making rules of the Greens, but it is likely that this caucusing will prove impossible in practice. (In fact, Left Renewal have since clarified their organisational approach to be in line with the grassroots/delegate conception of democracy within the Greens.)

From the evidence available, the establishment of Left Renewal is a unilateral initiative of some Young Greens. Rather than being result of behind-the-scenes encouragement from Lee Rhiannon and David Shoebridge as Christine Milne has suggested, Left Renewal is the result of discontent among younger members with what they see as political exhaustion or moderation among older radicals within the party. It is also a healthy response to the faltering of the more radical left in the Greens in the wake of the death of the redoubtable John Kaye.

Older Greens radicals — certainly the two or three that I’ve spoken to – are a little annoyed that their advice and counsel were not sought before the launch of the Left Renewal. The name Left Renewal says it all — the old left is tired and going nowhere, so we need to renew.

That conclusion is wrong as Senator Rhiannon’s leadership in the campaign to stop the deregulation of university fees and David Shoebridge’s on issues as diverse as justice for the Bowraville families and opposition to the abolition of genuine local government, illustrate.

Nevertheless, the young Greens leftists could be half right. Young people now face a world of climate threat, crisis-ridden capitalism and precarious work futures, obscene and growing domestic and global inequalities, hollowed out democracy, endless wars and recrudescent hatreds. It is a world in need of urgent and radical transformation.

In countries where this comprehensive crisis is more pressing, large numbers of young people are turning to radical left figures and movements such as Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Bernie Sanders in the US and Podemos in Spain. They are expressing an interest in critiques of capitalism and the possibilities of a post-capitalist future. The advent of Left Renewal, like the founding and growth in membership of the Young Greens in recent years, may be what futurists call "early signals".

Certainly the hope must be that once the left radicalisation visible among the young overseas does arrive in Australia, it finds a home in the Greens. For that to happen, the doors to the Greens must stay open and the welcome mat stay out.

[Hall Greenland was convenor of the Greens NSW from 2013 to 2016 and was among the founders of the Greens in Australia. Reprinted from his blogs with pernission. Left Renewal is organising a meeting in Canberra on January 29 at 8pm at the Food Co-op Shop and Cafe.]

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