Divided We Fall
The Australian Greens Party
The Greens party room, December 2011. © Australian Greens
The Australian Greens wield more power than ever, but face amplified divisions within the party – leadership versus grassroots, pragmatism versus principle, moderates versus radicals. Can they survive their own success?
Nine days after the Christmas drinks in Canberra, a far more toxic atmosphere prevails as the NSW Greens assemble for their bi-monthly meeting of the State Delegates Council (SDC) at the Indigenous Yaama Dhiyaan centre in Darlington. It’s been a tortuous year for the party in New South Wales, with festering tensions brought to a head by an ugly bunfight over BDS, the ‘Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions’ campaign targeting Israel that was adopted by the state party as policy just over a year ago. The fracas has culminated in a motion condemning three state Greens MPs who failed to support the policy, MLCs Cate Faehrmann, Jan Barham and Jeremy Buckingham. The motion states: “MPs who do not support the position and policy of the SDC, thus being in violation of the NSW Greens Constitution, will be asked to resign their seat in parliament.”
Tempers erupt as the motion is moved, its backers arguing the renegade MPs should be punished for splitting the party, opponents condemning it as an outrageous bid to deny the MPs a conscience vote. “This proposal really does leave me speechless,” one party member opines. “That there are people in the NSW Greens that think this sort of pettiness is OK really does suggest that we are far from ‘doing politics differently’.” At least one delegate walks out in disgust. The motion fails to carry and the issue is referred to a working group. (Motions are generally not ‘defeated’ in the Greens as decisions are made by consensus, a process described thus by Scott Ludlam: “Things get debated till you want to bang your head on the table and then they get resolved and you move on.”)
“It’s been a difficult year,” sighs Barham after the event. The Greens mayor of Byron Bay (since 2004), who was elected last year as one of six Greens in the NSW parliament, says the BDS furore reflects a “struggle for identity” in the party. “We are going through the sometimes painful process of making sure where we stand,” she says.
It’s in New South Wales that the ructions in the Greens have been most severe. The split over BDS reflects a much wider schism over the raison d’être of the Greens, how the party should be run and what its future direction should be.
It all goes back to the party’s origins in the 1980s, when the name ‘The Greens’ was first registered in Sydney by a band of inner-city radicals committed to resident action, nuclear disarmament and urban environmental causes, such as stopping expressways and preserving parklands. They started as the Sydney Greens then evolved into the Green Alliance, whose 1989 founding conference declared, “We don’t want to form a traditional hierarchical party”. It was essentially a collective, explicitly ‘anti-party’, espoused the “democratic empowerment of members” and believed that parliamentarians, if and when they were elected, would be there to implement the collective’s will, not their own.
Sydney Greens’ co-ordinator from 1984 to 1991, Hall Greenland, recounts the first moves to hook up with Bob Brown, who had founded the world’s first ‘green’ political party, the United Tasmania Group, in 1972. Greenland recalls that Brown was hesitant “because of the anarchic leftism of the people involved in Sydney and elsewhere”. In those days there were 13 separate registered green parties, nine in New South Wales alone. In New South Wales and Western Australia in particular, there was strong resistance to establishing a national party, for fear of undercutting local autonomy. Brown recalls how the first attempt failed in 1986. “We came up from Tasmania and held an Easter meeting at Sydney Uni to see if we could form an Australian Greens, and 500 people came and voted ‘no’ … People said ‘no, we’re a party in which local groups think globally and act locally and local groups are where the future is.’”
“Bob is instinctively a centralist and he and the Tasmanians were very intent on setting up a party with a national organisation and structure,” says Greenland, “whereas the NSW view was that it should come from the bottom up rather than the top down.”
Brown was also alarmed by the extent of Democratic Socialist Party (formerly Socialist Workers Party) involvement in New South Wales, and argued for a rule change preventing members of other parties belonging to the Greens. Eventually Brown prevailed, the disparate groups united and the Australian Greens was formed in 1992.
But the battles continued. In the mid 2000s there was trenchant resistance from the NSW Greens to Brown being appointed formally as leader of the Australian Greens. Long-time adviser Ben Oquist recalls he and Brown roughing out rules for the leadership on the back of an envelope in a Hobart hotel room, then taking the plan to a national conference where they found themselves “completely out-numbered” by opponents saying “that is so un-Green”.
“It was very unfashionable to argue for a national leader, or for a leader at all,” says Oquist. “It was seen as doing politics in the same way as the major parties – hierarchical and centralised – as opposed to having a more anarchic structure.” Again, Brown and his supporters prevailed.
The NSW Greens remain officially leaderless. “We don’t buy into that cult of personality,” says MLC David Shoebridge. “One of the issues about having a leader is you tend to have a focus on one person … It’s not so much Labor–Liberal–Greens, it’s Julia–Tony–Bob, and politics should be more than just about three people.”
Long-time former Greens MP Ian Cohen, who spent 16 years in the NSW Legislative Council, says not much has changed. “There are those in position in New South Wales who are pretty much old industrial left. That has led to significant clashes.” Others, off the record, are more scathing. Says one: “They operate like Leninists, democratic centralists – that is, a small cadre of tightly bound, ideologically attuned people controlling the committees and decision-making structures of the party, and it’s actually the antithesis of grassroots democracy.” Says another: “They are stuck in an old rut which is all about running the show, controlling the structure, maintaining a code of silence. This old guard, this control clique, has done a lot of damage to the Green brand in NSW.” They’re jokingly referred to as “the Eastern Bloc – because they live in the eastern suburbs, and they’re all communists”.
The lightning rod for much of this critique is Lee Rhiannon, who served 11 years as an MLC before moving up to the Senate last July. Rhiannon’s membership of the Socialist Party of Australia in the 1970s and ’80s and her editorship of the magazine Survey, devoted to news of the Eastern Bloc, has been well reported. The records of a seminar held in 2000 to commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the Communist Party of Australia report that Rhiannon “argued that the Greens is closest to the best of the CPA’s politics and methods”. While she’s still referred to in private by her detractors in Greens circles as “a fucking communist”, she has also carved a name as a tireless campaigner on issues such as gun control, foreign aid, political donations and urban renewal.
Rhiannon is routinely held up in media commentary about the ‘watermelons’ (red on the inside) dragging the Greens leftwards; however, she says the faultline is not the left versus environmentalists. “The real tension is focused on differing visions for the future of the Australian Greens. There are those who believe that is best served by centralising party decision-making power and assets with minimal accountability of the MPs. The other view, that has strong support in the NSW Greens, promotes a democratic model committed to involving and empowering the membership. I am a firm advocate of this grassroots democratic approach.”
Her line about those who believe in centralising power is a reference to Brown and his cohorts in Canberra. While both Brown and Rhiannon insist they “work well together” – and others attest to this – there is little love lost between them. “I know Bob doesn’t like Lee and I know Lee doesn’t like Bob,” says one insider.
In 2009 Brown opposed Rhiannon’s nomination for the Senate, instead backing Cate Faehrmann, the then 39-year-old executive director of the NSW Nature Conservation Council, who went on to win election to the NSW upper house. “We need to be bringing new blood into the Greens. Those of us who came out of the 1980s have contributed a lot, but our job is becoming one of elder statespeople,” Brown said, in a pointed reference to Rhiannon.
The NSW branch also repeatedly refused to preselect Oquist, who is now Brown’s chief of staff. “I was a big champion of a national political party and I’m not sure that went down very well with people who saw that as being against the existing state-based structure,” says Oquist. Rhiannon, whose relations with both Faehrmann and Oquist remain testy, says the suggestion she blocked them is “absolutely outrageous”. “Both Ben and Cate have run for preselection and it’s a democratic vote, and the voters vote. I don’t determine that vote in any way … I’ve worked constructively with these people. If they don’t get elected, to blame me for that is wrong.”
The NSW group – who habitually refer to ‘the Australian Greens’ as though it is another party – has staunchly resisted Brown’s attempts to strengthen the Greens’ national organisation. Members of the old guard have been heard referring to Brown as “a megalomaniac”. Another insider says: “They have poisoned Bob’s image in New South Wales. They’ve made him out to be a centrist and trying to bully them and control everyone and take away the power of states’ rights. They’re into that fortress mentality. It’s crap, it’s a reflection of their barricaded world.”
Brown and Rhiannon are also at odds over political donations, which is currently a fraught issue for the Greens, with Brown facing a privileges committee inquiry over a $1.6 million donation from Wotif founder and environmental activist Graeme Wood. Wittingly or otherwise, Rhiannon has compounded Brown’s discomfort by continuing to crusade loudly against donations, which have now been capped at $5000 in New South Wales as a result of her campaign. On the Wotif donation, Rhiannon says: “We [the NSW Greens] would have considered that a large donation from one person – considering we have worked very hard and in some ways we have led the campaign around political donations – that may not have been wise for us.”
Newcomers to the party have been disconcerted by the hard line taken by the old guard in the state. Jeremy Buckingham is one of a new breed of Greens, a former country boy turned stonemason whose father owned a sawmill in Tasmania, where he watched the environmental pillage of woodchipping. After moving to New South Wales, Buckingham became the first Greens councillor east of the Great Dividing Range when he was elected to the Orange city council in 2004. Buckingham spends much of his time footslogging around rural New South Wales on issues such as water, food security and the rising environmental concerns over coal seam gas exploration – an issue that has proven a political gift to the Greens as they seek to expand their rural vote.
“I’m working desperately hard to build bridges to rural and regional communities and to farming communities,” says Buckingham, who is up there with Barnaby Joyce for bush-cockie charm. “We have to use the language that people use, like talking about ‘the land’ rather than ‘the environment’, because that’s where I’m from and that’s how we talk.”
When he sought preselection to move from local to state government, Buckingham felt a distinct cold shoulder from the old guard of the NSW Greens. “It was, I believed at the time, based on the fact that I was independent, that I was perceived by some not to have the ‘correct’ ideology [because] I was more interested in a new project, the project that is close to Bob Brown’s heart – that is, creating an ecocentric paradigm in politics – as opposed to a classic old-left ideology about notions of class struggle and a more centralised control of economies.” Buckingham says the fact that he is an independent thinker “is a difficult thing for some in the Greens to accept, especially in New South Wales, because there are elements in the Greens that expect a very, very high level of discipline and cohesion when it comes to how we vote, how we operate and how we communicate.”
In the NSW party room Buckingham has found himself aligned with Faehrmann and Barham, while the other two MLCs, John Kaye and David Shoebridge, are seen as firmly in the Rhiannon camp (although she insists “I don’t have a camp”). Kaye dismisses the suggestion that they have a stranglehold. “If you look at the decisions made by the NSW Greens you can’t say we control it, that I control it or Lee controls it or anyone else controls it.” He says such accusations are often made “by people who have not been able to get their way”.
It was against this frayed backdrop that the NSW Greens decided at an SDC meeting in December 2010 to adopt the policy known as BDS, supporting boycotts and sanctions against Israel over its occupation of the Palestinian territories. The Australian Greens had already decided against adopting BDS and Brown was known to oppose it. It was proposed by the then Greens MLC Sylvia Hale and backed by Rhiannon, who put out a press release to announce it. Hale, who has since retired from politics, says when it was discussed at the SDC three people spoke in favour of it and none against. “We thought there would be reservations [so] everyone came prepared, but the only people they had speaking were in favour of the proposal. I had no idea – and it was never suggested until it happened – that this was going to bring down the wrath of the gods on the Greens.”
Two weeks later, a Greens councillor at Marrickville in inner-western Sydney, Cathy Peters, moved for the council to adopt BDS and “boycott all goods made in Israel and any sporting, academic, government or cultural exchanges”. Peters, a former ABC Radio staffer whose father is Jewish, says the move had strong local support. Marrickville is a sister city of Bethlehem and hosts a range of local activist groups, including Friends of Hebron and Jews Against the Occupation. The left-leaning council has embraced other international causes, such as flying the Tibetan and West Papuan flags and requiring companies that do business with Burma to disclose this when tendering for council work. The BDS move was supported by the four Labor councillors.
Then, two months before the March 2011 NSW election, the local federal MP Anthony Albanese entered the fray with an opinion piece in the Australian condemning BDS as “unfortunate and misguided”. Albanese had a strong personal interest in the issue. Apart from facing a ‘greenslide’ in his own seat of Grayndler, where the Greens polled 25.9% last election, Albanese’s wife, state ALP frontbencher Carmel Tebbutt, was being challenged in her electorate of Marrickville by the local Greens mayor, Fiona Byrne, a BDS supporter, who was widely tipped to win.
Albanese’s intervention triggered a political firestorm. Hale calls it “a media beat-up”. Ian Cohen says: “It made us look like lunatics, dealing with an international issue on a local and state government level. It made a very paranoid and powerful enemy of the Jewish community and they reacted very strongly.”
Max Phillips, a staffer of Jeremy Buckingham and a Marrickville Greens councillor, would later help overturn the council’s BDS policy. “It was tearing the party apart, harming us electorally and sucking our ability to campaign on core issues,” says Phillips. It ended with the Greens failing to unseat Tebbutt and winning just one lower house seat, neighbouring Balmain, where the former mayor of Leichhardt, Jamie Parker, defeated Labor frontbencher Verity Firth.
The result unleashed months of rancour within the NSW Greens. Views are still polarised on whether BDS cost them the seat. Brown argues it did, calling it “a mistake” and “badly handled”. Phillips says, “It was a massive distraction from the campaign, it threw out our messaging, and it was a dream for Labor.”
The pro-BDS camp denies this, Rhiannon arguing afterwards the policy should have been prosecuted harder. “For those who say it cost us Marrickville, there are as many who say it gained us votes,” says Cathy Peters, pointing out the Green vote in Marrickville rose by 3.3%, double the average increase state-wide. “Marrickville achieved the highest [Greens] primary vote of any NSW electorate.” Byrne offers, “Maybe if we had done an exit poll there’d be a definitive answer.”
The question of exit polling on the issue was equally fraught. The Greens’ election campaign committee had planned to exit poll on five issues and there was an obvious case for making BDS one of them. But the proposal was blocked. An insider says that with recriminations already flying, “they didn’t want witch-hunts internally”. The decision infuriated some in the party. “The lack of an exit poll is a selective oversight that manipulates the internal politics of the organisation,” says Cohen, whose relations with Rhiannon have been antagonistic for years. “We all had a right to see and assess proper polling on something that was so cataclysmic.”
“There was a bunker mentality,” says Phillips, “and just an unsophisticated attitude to the media and politics – ‘you can’t back down; stand your ground; don’t give in to the Murdoch press’ – rather than a more realistic assessment of how it was being received in the community.” Even now, he says, “There’s been no real discussion of whether it hurt us politically, and if it did – ‘too bad, that’s what the Greens are about, standing up on issues’.”
After the election, the newly elected MLC Cate Faehrmann wrote an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald arguing that BDS had been an “unnecessary distraction” and calling for “a reality check and some soul-searching”, noting that despite a massive swing against Labor the Greens’ vote increased by only 1.5% across New South Wales. Faehrmann was blasted within the party for speaking out.
“People weren’t happy about her going public with her views before she’d even attempted to air them within the Greens and have a discussion about the accuracy of what she was saying,” says Hale. “We should have those discussions within the party, not within the broader media,” says Shoebridge.
Faehrmann’s perceived misdemeanour prompted the state party to formulate a new protocol to effectively gag MPs. It states: “Greens NSW MPs are prohibited from public criticism in relation to: 1. internal party matters; 2. activities of local groups and local councillors who are accountable to those local groups; 3. matters where there are different views between Greens MPs; 4. Greens NSW policy.” It calls for “discussion on a procedure [to be adopted] should an MP or MPs breach this resolution”.
“It’s the politics of control,” says Cohen of the bid to gag MPs. “There’s a culture of ‘we want to tell them what to do’, ‘we’ being the party machine. MPs have massive responsibility and I believe they should be able to express themselves more freely than what the party machine should be able to dictate.”
“In the end what we saw play out, both internally and publicly, was about much more than BDS as a tactic,” says Faehrmann. “It represented a reluctance to reflect in an honest and critical way on our own performance and ourselves more broadly.”
The schism was aggravated when Rhiannon went on commercial radio in August and vigorously defended protests organised by the Socialist Alternative against the Israeli-owned Max Brenner chocolate company under the banner of BDS. Rhiannon’s colleagues were appalled that she was still publicly advocating a policy that had already split the party and was by now under review. One called it a “train wreck”. Jeremy Buckingham publicly criticised the protests and pointedly joined both the Parliamentary Friends of Israel and Palestine. The following week, when Liberal MLC David Clarke moved a motion opposing BDS and the Max Brenner protests, Faehrmann and Barham spoke in qualified support of it.
Barham says the association with the Max Brenner protests “did us some real damage” and “freaked people out”, because “it was misrepresented as a Greens position”. “There is this underlying fear about the Greens that they’re going to do things that are ‘out there’, and this fed into that fear.”
The cleavage culminated in the motion moved at last December’s SDC meeting censuring Barham, Buckingham and Faehrmann for “acting outside party policy and procedure” and raising the prospect of expulsion of MPs who don’t toe the party line. For some in the NSW Greens, this was the last straw. Cohen says the whole episode is “the defining example of all the things that have been problematic” in the Greens. “The nature of the NSW organisation is one of control. It’s a command-and-control political organisation rather than a broader communication model. That is not grassroots democracy. That is not open and fair.”
The three MPs will likely face further censure for continuing to speak out, but they – and others – believe it’s time for an open, frank debate within the Greens.
“Voters are frustrated when they think they’re getting spin, or they suspect someone is just a puppet of a party machine,” says Faehrmann. “We have to be very, very careful we don’t make the same mistakes that Labor and Liberal have.”
“We all work ferociously hard,” says Buckingham. “We want to get outcomes, not just be this force that drags politics to the left. We have to acknowledge we are in the tent, we are at the table. We’ve got to mature and stop hectoring people.”
“We’ve watched other parties self-destruct,” says Barham. “That’s a big test for us, to prove we’re different. We want to be able to find another way of balancing that political process where division can be dealt with and inform us in our decision-making and not be a point of resentment or real division, but part of our strength.”
The recalcitrance of the NSW branch – and other states-rights holdouts such as Western Australia – remains a source of frustration for Brown, and an obstacle to his push to strengthen the national organisation, seen as crucial to the party’s future.
“I’ve tried hard to build that and NSW, one of the founding parties, has been quite strong in opposing, for example, national membership of the Australian Greens,” says Brown. “We don’t have a single national membership fee and form; we’ve got six or eight states with different membership fees and different forms. They say ‘this is a states’ matter’, but … people who are joining the Australian Greens think they’re joining the Australian Greens.” Brown’s push is treated with open disdain in New South Wales. “Some of those are petty and second-order things, like the uniform form and fee,” says Shoebridge. “I support a stronger national Greens; what I don’t support is a transfer of powers from NSW to the feds,” says John Kaye.
Greens NSW has also led opposition to the establishment of a national Greens database, which would give Brown’s headquarters access to the entire membership. “Membership databases are important things for parties, they should be retained by the [state] party, and the membership should have control over it,” says Shoebridge, reflecting the view of the NSW branch. After great resistance the state parties have reluctantly agreed on a ‘protocol’ that gives headquarters limited access to their membership lists. The arrangement is so restrictive that Brown still can’t send a letter to all Greens members without the permission of each of the states.
Brown and his cohorts characterise the divergence between their and the NSW approach as professional versus amateur. “It’s an old-fashioned set-up which needs a good moving into the exigencies of [the times],” says Brown.
The NSW ‘new guard’ supports his push for a shake-up. “It’s not a power struggle but a challenge to a group that has been dominant for a long time,” says Phillips. “It’s about whether we stick with traditional ways and ideologies, whether we’re an opposition protest party, or whether we can work for negotiated outcomes rather than just stick with a ‘pure left’ position. It’s also about how we use the media and modern research methods, and how open debate should be.”
“We don’t have the same level of professionalism as they do at the federal level,” adds Faehrmann. “I want to see us step it up and get serious about where we want to be, so we’re not, for the next 40 years or so, simply going to be the 8 or 10% party.”
Right at the heart of this contest is a profound disjunct over what should be the ultimate aim of the Greens. For Brown and his supporters, it is self-evident: attaining power by being elected, where possible into government, in order to implement their policies. But for others the primal purpose is staying faithful to the grassroots origins and philosophy, without which the Greens would have no support and no future – even if it’s at the cost of attaining power.
“When I look to the Democrats and I look to what’s happening to Labor now, I think it’s pretty clear that what we need to avoid is excessive centralising, we need to keep that connection with the grassroots,” says Shoebridge, expressing the prevailing view in New South Wales. “If by doing that it limits our growth so we can’t become a governing party I’ll accept that, that’ll be the decision of the electors.”
That they remain polarised on this most basic of objectives suggests the struggle for the heart, soul and future of the Greens has a long way to go.