Why we support Lee Rhiannon

Senator Lee Rhiannon. Photo: Australian Greens
June 27, 2017

NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon is again the target of a very public attack. This time it is not being led by the Murdoch press but by the Greens federal parliamentary caucus. Former Greens leader Bob Brown has also stepped in and repeated his demand she step down.

Attacking Rhiannon for sticking to her principles has become a passtime for the right-wing of the Greens.

The ferocity of the current attack is striking, particularly as it seems to stem from Rhiannon’s support for the party’s original position on Gonski funding for schools.

On June 24, it was revealed that a letter of complaint against Rhiannon — signed by all federal Greens MPs — had been sent to the Greens’ National Council. The council has the power to stand her down from the party room.

But on June 28, the federal Greens MPs decided to exclude Rhiannon from the party room — for an indeterminate time. The motion was supported by all except Melbourne Greens MP Adam Bandt and Rhiannon herself.

They alleged that Rhiannon had sabotaged their ability to amend the government’s education funding bill (“Gonski 2.0”), citing her authorisation of a leaflet distributed by its Port Jackson branch.

The leaflet said the Greens did not support the government’s bill, which would strip $846 million from public schools in 2018–19. It also said it supported the original Gonski proposition, which called for a bigger increase in funding for public schools.

The federal Greens MPs said the timing of the flyer’s distribution was tantamount to a breach of “faith of the party and party room”.

Rhiannon rejected this saying, on June 27, she was “proud” that the Greens had voted against the final education funding bill. She said “public schools would have been better off under the existing Commonwealth-state agreements than they will be under the [Malcolm] Turnbull package.”

She also defended her actions saying she had been faithful to Greens policy and processes “at all times”. “My work did not impact on the Greens negotiations with the government”, she said. “It was the Turnbull government’s decision to do a deal with the crossbench Senators that killed off negotiations with the Greens. I had no role in that.”

The context of this latest extraordinary attack on Rhiannon is the difference in approach among the Greens’ parliamentary leadership to the Coalition government, and in particular to its education funding bill. 

On May 3 in response to the Coalition’s pledge to provide close to $20 billion to education over the next decade, Greens education spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young rushed to declare the Greens were “hopeful” the model would give schools long-term certainty. 

A day or so later, Hanson-Young’s enthusiasm had waned as she declared the Greens would have to “scrutinise the detail” of the funding model.

Later on, the Greens put up several amendments — some of which were included in the final package that went through the Senate on June 23, supported by 10 crossbenchers. Labor opposed the bill, citing the Australian Education Union (AEU), research which showed up the Coalition’s ruse.

“Public schools lose out”, Rhiannon declared, adding that she was proud to stand with the AEU which called out the Turnbull package as prioritising private over public schools.

“Much of the commentary written about the school funding bill is inaccurate,” she said. “The new funding regime is neither sector blind nor needs based.” 

Party sources said Rhiannon had consulted the NSW MP responsible for education, the education working group and the federal parliamentary liaison committee before taking a position against the fraudulent Gonski 2.0. She had also been contacted by many local groups and teachers urging her to block any Gonski 2.0 deal. 

So why is Rhiannon’s integrity repeatedly being called into question? Why is she under such sustained attack from her own colleagues?

From the outside, the attack on Rhiannon can only be understood as part of a long-running campaign by centrist and pragmatic sections of the party to intimidate and beat back the left wing of the Greens.

The first of the Greens party room motions adopted on July 28, which Rhiannon voted against, called for an “end the practice of NSW MPs being bound to vote against the decision of the Australian Greens Party Room”.

This is part of Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s push to give the party a more “responsible” image. He wants the Greens to be seen as a possible coalition partner of the Liberals and so has supported the Turnbull government on a number of occasions.

Rhiannon has long been the focus of Brown’s ire: he has publicly demanded she step down many times. This is despite her being democratically pre-selected in 2014 to run for the Senate position by the NSW party. Now, they seem to be preparing the ground to thwart her chances of being pre-selected for another term.

The Socialist Alliance, and the movements in which we work, have been inspired by the huge groundswell generated by British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s call for people to remain active and committed to principled, practical anti-austerity politics. What that showed was that many people — especially younger people — are repelled by the sort of opportunist and unprincipled politics being pushed within the Greens by Di Natale and his supporters.

The NSW Greens has rejected the bid by the Australian Greens to overturn the NSW Constitution by edict.

We support Lee Rhiannon for standing up for her principled and progressive politics. The sustained attacks on her will backfire on the Australian Greens, which face a choice of going down the road of the Democrats, or not. 

[Pip Hinman is a member of the Socialist Alliance national council.]

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