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The Greens and Fundamentalism

By Mark Aarons 
Cover: May 2011
May 2011Medium length read
 

From 1 July the Senate will have a genuine centre-left majority for the first time in 60 years. The 1951 double dissolution election stripped Labor of its Senate majority; it has never again held or shared a majority with an avowedly left-wing party. This will change when nine Australian Greens senators (four newly elected) assume the balance of power, including Lee Rhiannon, who was recently embroiled in a public dispute with her leader, Bob Brown, over the NSW Greens’ Middle East policy.

Despite the new reality in the Senate, there are ominous signs for centre-left politics. The bitter invective recently directed at the Greens indicates Labor is rattled. Julia Gillard is desperate to shore up her flagging support among Labor’s traditional working– and lower middle–class base, and simultaneously win back left-wing voters who defected to the Greens because of Labor’s cowardice over climate change policy.

More alarming for both parties is the collapse of their combined vote. Two years ago there was talk of an emerging, long-term centre-left political ascendancy. Polling indicated a Labor–Greens primary vote of between 52% and 56%. At the August 2010 election, they did not reach 50%; recent polls place their vote 10% below the 2009 high.

Labor led this collapse. Kevin Rudd’s abandonment of his climate change platform frittered away his commanding lead in the polls. Gillard rendered this situation worse: by adopting a fake climate change policy during last year’s election campaign; then by ruling out a carbon tax; and, finally, by breaking this promise. No compelling explanation or policy detail has been proffered for these changes.

Newspoll tracked the unfolding disaster: Labor has lost up to 15% of its primary vote since 2009. The Greens have gained between 3% and 6%, but most of the support Labor has lost has bled to the Coalition, which is well positioned to win the 2013 election. Tony Abbott has promised to dismantle any carbon tax introduced by Labor with Greens’ support. So the battlelines are drawn on the environmental issue that defines the Greens. How they handle this will be a test of the party’s maturity.

The Greens’ two most recent electoral tests were in Victoria and NSW but, despite great expectations, its performance was disappointing. Before last November’s Victorian election, Newspoll had the Greens on 19%; it looked set to take several inner-city lower house seats. But its support collapsed to 11% on polling day; Labor withstood its challenge, but narrowly lost government. Similarly, in NSW’s recent election the Greens fell from 17% to just over 10%. It scraped home (with Labor preferences) to take Balmain, its first lower house seat, and also won three upper house seats, narrowly defeating Pauline Hanson on Labor preferences, having refused to reciprocate.

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The Greens seek to attract support with their professed commitment to a “new politics”, repudiating the dirty tactics used by the old parties. Their rhetoric condemns Labor’s spin, character assassination and underhand tactics. During the recent election, however, the NSW Greens were strongly criticised for supporting the international Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which notoriously compares Israel with apartheid-era South Africa. Launched in 2005 by ‘Palestinian civil society’ groups, the BDS has attempted to mask its real aim, which – in the words of one BDS founder – is to establish “a Palestine next to a Palestine, rather than a Palestine next to an Israel”. That is, Israel would disappear in a ‘one-state’ solution.

The NSW Greens adopted the BDS campaign last December; the leadership immediately prevailed on Marrickville Council to embrace it. The mayor, Fiona Byrne, was the Greens’ candidate for the state seat of Marrickville and was expected to defeat Labor’s left-wing deputy premier, Carmel Tebbutt. Labor’s state-wide vote collapsed but Byrne failed to unseat Tebbutt, despite a Galaxy poll predicting a comfortable win. The BDS policy contributed to this result.

The NSW Greens leaders behaved just like the old parties. Byrne erred in denying that she had undertaken to bring BDS into the NSW parliament if she won Marrickville. She was damaged when the recording of her statement was produced; she exacerbated this error by denying she had agreed to speak at a BDS rally, only to have a flyer produced flatly contradicting her. The Greens dismissed these blunders, claiming they were a Labor “dirty tricks campaign”. This might have worked in the past, when there was little scrutiny of Greens’ policies. But the words of both the party’s policy and Marrickville Council’s resolution expose a determination to impose BDS as state (and federal) government policy.

The policy is so extreme that even those, who, like me, are critical of some of Israel’s policies (the West Bank occupation and continuing construction of settlements, for example) found it offensive. To compare Israel’s actions with apartheid is shallow and inaccurate: in one case, a white minority refused voting, civil and legal rights to the black majority; in the other, voting, civil and legal rights are universal. Israel is a fully functioning democracy where governments change after elections; an independent judiciary and media hold the government to account; and minorities (including Palestinians) are represented in parliament (under the Greens’ preferred system of proportional representation). Furthermore, the NSW Greens’ policy is silent about decades of Palestinian terrorism and aggression by Arab dictatorships.

Responsibility for the BDS catastrophe rests with the NSW Greens’ leadership, especially retiring upper house member Sylvia Hale (who initiated it) and senator-elect Lee Rhiannon. In the wake of the party’s poor showing in the March election, Bob Brown took the unprecedented step of publicly reprimanding Rhiannon. This underlines long-standing, bitter factional differences in the Greens.

In making his criticism, Brown reiterated the Greens’ national policy on Israel–Palestine. In contrast to BDS, this supports both a Palestinian and a Jewish state; it also rejects violence as a means of resolving the conflict (whether by a state or other groups), and advocates “negotiations to achieve the democratic aspirations of both peoples within an environment of mutual respect and equality”. In March 2010, NSW unsuccessfully attempted to impose BDS as national policy.

This issue is, however, only one instance of conflict between NSW and the national leadership. Over the past decade there have been several significant disputes: in NSW, these centred on struggles between supporters of retiring upper house member Ian Cohen and Rhiannon’s faction. This has been presented as a battle between Cohen’s environmental focus and Rhiannon’s social and political activism, but that is an over-simplification.

There have been several bitter pre-selection contests, especially for upper house seats, in which Rhiannon has demonstrated astute organisational skills. While she has not had unfettered victories in internal skirmishes, she has emerged as the best-known NSW Greens leader.

Individual disputes are indications of deeper problems. For some years, Brown and his supporters have worked to create a coherent national party; as the Greens’ membership and support base have grown, this has become a high priority. But Rhiannon and her largely NSW-based faction have resisted, skilfully exploiting the party’s founding ethos that control should be exercised by the grassroots, and using its ‘consensus decision-making’ process to stymie a national approach.

Rhiannon’s switch to Canberra has led to speculation of a confrontation with Brown. Ironically for a party that is built around an overwhelmingly youthful base, she will turn 60 this year while Brown will be 67. But she has virtually no support among the other Greens members of federal parliament, so a short-term challenge would be doomed. It would, however, be unwise to underestimate Rhiannon; she is a tough and seasoned campaigner who would shine as potential leadership material in any party. She has a significant weakness, though, in refusing to admit mistakes, even when it would be politically wise to do so. This was demonstrated in the aftermath of Byrne’s defeat in Marrickville. Most politically literate observers, including Brown, rightly concluded that the mishandling of BDS contributed significantly. Rhiannon stubbornly refused to concede, claiming that the policy should have been better promoted. This typifies her approach. Marrickville Council’s attempt to introduce BDS has since collapsed, amidst widespread criticism and internecine warfare inside the NSW Greens.

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Born in May 1951, Rhiannon’s parents were Bill and Freda Brown, leading members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Lee Brown (she later changed her name to Rhiannon) and I grew up together as young communists and cut our political teeth in anti–Vietnam War and anti-racist campaigns. The August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia precipitated a bitter struggle inside the CPA. The majority condemned Moscow but a vocal minority supported the invasion. Recently, Rhiannon has sparred with Gerard Henderson about her parents’ role in the pro-Soviet faction; her defence has largely obscured the truth.

Soon after the invasion, Lee’s parents formed a clandestine relationship with the Soviet embassy, which directed and financed those who opposed the CPA’s principled stand on Czechoslovakia. By late 1971, it was clear they could not seize back control of the CPA. So the dissidents formed a new, pro-Soviet communist party, the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), which uncritically supported and promoted Soviet policies.

Lee joined the SPA, attending its founding congress. She became a senior office-bearer of the youth wing, serving on the central committee’s youth subcommittee; attended Australia–Soviet Friendship Society meetings; and developed close relations with Soviet, Czechoslovak and East German communist youth groups. In 1977, Rhiannon led an SPA delegation to Moscow at the invitation of Leonid Brezhnev’s neo-Stalinist regime. Persecution of Soviet dissidents was widespread in 1977, with psychiatry routinely used as an instrument of torture. Repression of Jews and the wider population was also endemic under the most pervasive secret police regime in history. All of this became even clearer after communism’s collapse but was apparent well before 1977.

This would be simply history if Rhiannon had admitted her youthful errors and moved on. But, in a lengthy blog posted last August, she defended her parents’ and her own political records, noting that like “so many of their generation who joined the Communist Party my Mum and Dad worked hard for a more just and peaceful society”. This is partly true but many communists also faced up to the awful reality of Soviet mass crimes and publicly condemned them. Rhiannon’s explanation of her mother’s silence on such matters was to refer to an SBS documentary, in which “my mother talked about the internal problems that she saw in the socialist world, but commented that previously she had not gone public with those criticisms. In the context of the cold war she was unwilling to add her voice to the criticism of the socialist world.”

Rhiannon also remained silent, but now lauds “my youthful past, of which I am proud”. There are things of which she can be proud, including opposing the immoral Vietnam War and apartheid (the real version). But nowhere does she acknowledge how dreadfully wrong she was about the Soviet Union, nor express regrets for her gullible admiration of this abominable system. In failing to deal with her history honestly, Rhiannon places a question mark over her suitability for any leadership role, especially in a party supposedly built on integrity.

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Rhiannon’s comments at left-wing conferences are also revealing. At an October 2000 seminar commemorating the CPA’s founding, she reportedly “argued that a broad-based left movement is being built already, and argued that the Greens is closest to the best of the CPA’s politics and methods”. In May 2010, she addressed the Left Renewal Conference, lamenting her job in keeping the Greens on a left-wing trajectory:

 

… the challenge to keep the Greens Left is huge and I’m convinced social movements are the key to that. This is the way to keep the pressure on left parliamentarians so that they work to advance the social objectives of our movement not just their party’s political interests.

 

What Rhiannon means by “Left” is her own brand of fundamentalism; by definition, others who have different left politics are wrong and have to be opposed in order to impose her own version. This is overlooked by right-wing commentators and political leaders – Coalition and Labor alike – who dismiss the Greens holus-bolus as unrepresentative ‘extremists’: there are, in fact, several tendencies within the Greens, most of which are not extreme or fundamentalist.

The debate about BDS illustrates this; for example, after the disappointing NSW election result, party elder Drew Hutton and emerging leader, NSW upper house member Cate Faehrmann, took the Rhiannon forces to task. Such people identify themselves as ‘progressives’ and on the Left. But they want the Greens to be a serious force with the capacity to grow its support base by demonstrating good policies that can be implemented in government. They reject fundamentalism because it does not connect with Australians and has prevented the Greens from making further electoral gains.

There are also problems beyond ideology, especially tension between policy formulation and practical politics. The Greens routinely adhere rigidly to their policies, even when political realities indicate that short-term compromise might be more effective in achieving longer-term objectives. This is frequently expressed in ‘holier-than-thou’ terms that are not suited to the realities of coalition with Labor, which remains the only route to government (state or federal) for the foreseeable future.

An example was the Greens’ decision to vote against Rudd’s emissions trading scheme in late 2009, because – among other reasons – of the risible greenhouse gas reduction target of 5% and the generous compensation offered to ‘big polluters’. Such deficiencies were real but in 2009 public debate had drifted away from a solid majority favouring action towards climate change scepticism.

Abbott’s defeat of Malcolm Turnbull was a stark warning. With bipartisanship swept aside, major reform became extremely difficult. At this point, the Greens should have voted for a scheme they believed was inadequate, while reserving their right to improve it. This would have allowed Labor and the Greens to fight the 2010 election from a position of strength: united around action against the greatest moral and economic threat of our age, with the Greens free to criticise the scheme’s shortcomings and propose major improvements through legislative amendments.

As things now stand, Australia has nothing on the books; the centre Left presently seems becalmed on polling figures that would win government for Abbott and the deniers in an election fought on a carbon tax passed by a Labor–Greens dominated Senate. The Greens blame Labor, citing Rudd’s spineless capitulation and Gillard’s gutless election policy; Labor blames the Greens for being extremists who will not compromise.

The Greens face a well-worn dilemma: how does an emerging minor party promote its key principles, and simultaneously practise ‘the art of the possible’? Even without a fundamentalist faction, the Greens would have to face this dilemma and deal with it on a case-by-case policy basis. The carbon tax debate will test whether they can balance principle and pragmatism.

But while the centre Left is in disarray, Abbott can sit back and oppose everything Labor (and the Greens) support. This is Abbott’s tactic: simply to oppose the government out of office. In this situation, Labor should deal sensibly with the current Greens’ leadership, who should accommodate themselves to the prospect of long-term coalition with Labor. The alternative is another long period of conservative government, both state and federal.

About the author Mark Aarons
Mark Aarons is the author of The Family File and War Criminals Welcome: Australia, a Sanctuary for War Criminals Since 1945. From 1996 to 2006 he was a senior adviser to the NSW Labor government.