Crashing the party
The Greens should be celebrating their 25th birthday
We sat down in the usual circle – a procedural throwback to the hippie days of peace, love and understanding. Normally used for boxing, the gym at the Alice Springs Youth & Community Centre would today be the venue in which a few dozen Greens thrashed out a consensus on the Turnbull government’s contentious Gonski 2.0 school funding package. So far the party’s May national conference had been humdrum, but if there were going to be fireworks this would be the session. The Greens’ education spokes-person, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, had flown up specially to brief the members. The convenor laid out the ground rules; this would be a clean fight. The party’s leader, Richard Di Natale, was there with a sprinkling of fellow senators, including feisty Lee Rhiannon from New South Wales.
Having come so far, and with a ringside seat, I was hoping for something more than earnest policy-waffle. Public education is an article of faith for the Greens: the party’s membership is flush with higher degrees, and a good chunk of the members are schoolteachers or university lecturers. The government’s own figures showed a $22 billion cut on Labor’s original Gonski school funding. Why would the Greens compromise on public education? Why help a dysfunctional, divided Turnbull government?
Hanson-Young began. It was a judgement call, but she was not interested in just saying “no” from the outset. As discussion got underway there were grave concerns – not just from NSW but also from Tasmania, from Queensland, places where the party’s commitment to the “full Gonski” had proved a vote clincher in the 2016 federal election.
Rhiannon kept quiet, but after a while her partner, Geoff Ash, spoke roundly against the package, which he dismissed as a con job. A long-time convenor of the party in NSW, Ash is a backroom player, one of the toughest, who earned his stripes kicking socialists out of the Greens in the very early days. Today he was restrained but forceful: the party would be going out on a limb to support it; the support base, in the unions, was against it; the issue was hurting the Greens. There was no acrimony, nothing low or personal. Someone raised the fabled emissions trading scheme precedent in 2009, when the Greens voted down Kevin Rudd’s carbon price: would the party once again appear obstructionist, making the perfect the enemy of the good?
With a brave face, Di Natale summed up: he was hearing a lot of agreement in the room. “No one has said we should’ve shut the gate,” he said.
“I didn’t say it,” Ash shot back, “but I think it.”
Di Natale deflected – sorry, his mind-reading powers were not that great. But he had a result: consensus, or at least a brooding acquiescence, to keep pushing for improvements to the Gonski package.
For now, the issue seemed defused.
Barely two months later, Gonski 2.0 blew up, spectacularly, right in the Greens’ face: the talks wedged the party, and the government got its package through anyway. There is now trench warfare between Di Natale and Rhiannon, and the rift between the Australian Greens and its biggest financial supporter, the party in NSW, is widening apace. And at the culmination of a gutter month in Green politics, a black swan event: in July a mysterious lawyer discovered that co-deputy leader Scott Ludlam, born in New Zealand, had dual citizenship and was never eligible to be a senator. Ludlam, who secured a high-water mark 14% of the statewide vote in the 2014 Western Australian by-election, was the Greens’ best communicator when on song, and one of the few Greens politicians who could stitch the left and the right of the party together. When Di Natale’s other co-deputy leader, Queensland senator Larissa Waters, resigned four days later for the same reason – an even more technical technicality – the Greens’ run of bad news went from terrible to surreal. You could not make it up.
Will the Greens finally split? Will Di Natale survive? The end of this month marks the party’s 25th anniversary. No celebration is planned. It is hard to tell whether the party is crashing, or going to crash through.
The formation of the Australian Greens, trumpeted as a historic breakthrough to rival the creation of the Labor Party a century earlier, was announced in Sydney on 30 August 1992. Not one TV crew turned up to the press conference, the party’s founder and former long-time leader Bob Brown often recalls, because the Harbour Tunnel was opening that day.
The Greens’ roots went back 20 years earlier, to a more spirited, radical time. The forebears were a diverse bunch: left, right and in between. People like conservationist Milo Dunphy, who stood for the Australia Party in 1971, the first greenie to run for parliament; Richard Jones, whom Dunphy helped found the United Tasmania Group in 1972, and who came from Queensland’s Country Party; and Jack Mundey, the communist builder’s labourer who started the “green bans”, giving this new political movement its name. The Tasmanian Wilderness Society was formed from the remnants of the campaign against the flooding of Lake Pedder and led by twice-unsuccessful United Tasmania Group candidate Bob Brown. It blockaded the Franklin River in 1982, setting up Australia’s greatest conservation victory. The following year Brown vaulted straight from Risdon Prison, where he had been locked up for 19 days following a protest, into the Tasmanian parliament to sit as an independent. Brown would stay in that parliament for a decade, gradually joined by more colleagues – standing at first as independents, then as Green independents, then as the Tasmanian Greens. A stick-thin, openly gay medical doctor who radiated conviction, Brown was something brand new in Australian politics.
Brown’s early political leanings were conservative. The son of a policeman, from a quiet country town in NSW, Brown grew up admiring Menzies. He nearly joined the Liberal Party, turning up at head office to find it shut, and never going back. As a young medical student in 1966, Brown was outraged when anti-Vietnam protesters disrupted the motorcade of US president Lyndon Johnson. He didn’t get caught up in the excitement of the “It’s Time” election of the Whitlam Labor government in 1972; he voted informally, scribbling “Save Lake Pedder” on his ballot paper. Conservative or otherwise, Brown was hardwired to fight dams – his mother’s hometown of Adaminaby was flooded in 1957 as part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Brown thought it an act of callous government, befitting communist China.
The Franklin campaign, a key to Bob Hawke’s election in 1983, put the environment squarely and permanently on the national agenda. While Tasmania was the crucible of the new ecocentric politics in this country, helped by proportional representation in its lower house, the impetus was bigger than one state or issue. The rise of Thatcher and Reagan had stirred the left, and when Die Grünen stormed Germany’s Bundestag in 1983 in the name of the famous “four pillars” – ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice, and peace and non-violence – it became a torchbearer for Greens worldwide.
In 1984, the Sydney Greens was founded by socialists Tony Harris and Hall Greenland, who had been kicked out of a Labor Party they saw was drifting to the right under Hawke and Keating. They adopted the four pillars and secured the first registration of the Greens party name. There followed years of argy-bargy over who could call themselves Green. Meanwhile, Western Australian farmers’ daughter Jo Vallentine won a surprise Senate seat for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1984 election, and suddenly found herself the world’s first anti-nuclear parliamentarian. She soon quit the NDP (which had been infiltrated by socialists), turned independent and, in 1990, became the first Greens member of the federal parliament, retaking her Senate seat for the then standalone WA party.
Conservationists and feminists, unionists and socialists, peace and anti-nuke campaigners: it was a heady, volatile mix. Bob Brown and Drew Hutton, the former anarchist and academic who founded the Queensland Greens, tried to pull these disparate strands together and form a national Greens party at a “Getting Together” conference at Sydney University in 1986. Hutton, who contracted a migraine, recalls it as one of the most painful meetings of his life. “[In NSW] they wanted a green party in every shared household in the country, rather than an Australian Greens.” Brown said last year that the same people who blocked formation of a national party at that conference were still in control of the party in NSW. Were it not for their delaying and obstruction over the ensuing 30 years, Brown said, the Greens “would now have 20 senators and half a dozen people in the lower house”.
The decisive breakthrough came when Tasmania and Queensland agreed that NSW could be exempted from the clause in the draft Australian Greens constitution allowing parliamentarians a conscience vote. In the spirit of grassroots democracy (one of the four pillars), the NSW party believed its parliamentarians must be bound to vote as directed by the members. Without that compromise, the confederation of state parties may never have existed. As it happens, however, it was a sterile debate: the conscience vote has rarely been exercised.
Another flashpoint emerged: should the anti-authoritarian Greens have a leader? Brown was quickly accepted, by media and punters alike, as de facto leader of the Greens, and as the number of parliamentarians grew, the question became less academic and more practical. But it would take many in the party, particularly in NSW, years to acknowledge any leader at all – at a state level, even with eight MPs, they still don’t. Perhaps as a consequence, the state party has never pulled together. Forest protester, peace activist and sometime BUGA-UP spray-painter Ian Cohen won the Greens’ first state seat, in the upper house, in 1995. Lee Rhiannon, from a family of staunch communists who stayed loyal to the Soviet Union to the bitter end, joined the Greens in 1990 and was elected at the 1999 state election.
A disciplined campaigner, Rhiannon quickly clashed with the more freewheeling Cohen, a veteran of the Franklin who aligned with Brown. Their feud is the stuff of party legend: Cohen, who had backed Rhiannon for preselection, recalls his first moment of doubt came even before she was elected, during a North Coast road trip to introduce his new intended parliamentary colleague to movers and shakers in the conservation movement. On their way home, Cohen asked casually whether Rhiannon – who had been jotting down names and numbers – might send him the contact lists. “She looked at me and said, ‘No, they’re mine,’” he recalls. “I thought to myself, What the hell have I got myself involved with here?” The chill set in and things went downhill from there: a few years later Rhiannon launched a fierce but unsuccessful campaign on “limited tenure”, designed to stop Cohen running for a second, eight-year parliamentary term. He stood again anyway, and won.
Rhiannon and her supporters also clashed repeatedly with Brown: over his mooted willingness to deal with John Howard on the privatisation of Telstra in 1997, over his hopes for right-hand man Ben Oquist to be preselected as Greens senator for NSW in 2003, and over the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel in 2010.
But Bob got results. Under his leadership the party grew steadily for its first 20 years, winning increased representation, state by state, council by council. Brown’s compassionate response to the Tampa crisis – an immediate, unequivocal declaration that Australia should welcome the trapped asylum seekers – doubled the Greens vote nationally. Now, with one MP and nine senators in Canberra and another 26 parliamentarians around the country, as well as a hundred-plus local councillors, the Greens have outlasted the Democrats, and the DLP, to become the most successful minor party in the country’s history. Still, the Greens have had a solid, rather than barnstorming, first quarter-century. Labor went from a standing start to government, state and federally, between 1891 and 1910.
By the time Brown announced his retirement in 2012, the tide was turning against the party. The leadership went straight to Christine Milne, who had followed Bob throughout her political career, from Tasmanian parliament and state leadership into the federal Senate. The experience of sharing power with the riven Gillard government had taken a toll on the Greens. By the 2013 election, as Milne told me last year, the tide was coming in for Tony Abbott: “My strategy was to hold all our seats and try and win one more. So it was put the anchor down, and try and win one more, and lose none.”
When Milne resigned two years later, Di Natale took over the leadership in a succession that still jars. It was uncontested. A stitch-up. All sorted in under two hours. Journalists scratched their heads, but most were content to report a smooth transition and move on. What the party missed was the opportunity for a contest of ideas about its direction.
Perhaps the pent-up differences have made the present identity crisis messier. The party room was not really given a choice of leader, and Di Natale arguably has less authority as a result. Why is Di Natale leader? It is not because no one else wanted the job. Adam Bandt was the deputy, but had crossed Milne and her office, and was not in the Senate. Ludlam was the most popular, but not the most hungry. Hanson-Young was ambitious, but could not carry her colleagues.
Low-profile Di Natale seemed the sensible compromise candidate. But his ascension, after just four years in parliament, was risky and marked more than just generational change. A doctor like Brown, Di Natale had a background in health, not environmental protest. He was not a “green greenie”. He had never been arrested. The former Victorian league footballer, from a working-class Italian family in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, was written up as Labor’s worst nightmare. In his first speeches and interviews as leader, Di Natale set out a roadmap: he would be pragmatic, not ideological; he thought the party could win more than 20% of voters in a decade, and should aim to be a party of government, first by chasing the balance of power. He used the M-word that has stuck with him: “We are the natural home of progressive, mainstream Australian voters.” For some Greens members, mainstream seems anathema. Yet those same members want to connect with the working class.
Richard Di Natale’s formative political experience was as far from the bourgeois-yuppie-hipster Greens heartland of inner-city Melbourne as you could possibly get. It was in Tennant Creek, a remote Northern Territory town, where he lived for a year and a half, working as a doctor fresh out of medical school, at the Anyinginyi Health Aboriginal Corporation. Here Di Natale played footy for the Tennant Creek Eagles, and in his maiden speech as senator Di Natale gave a shout-out to the “young, barefoot Aboriginal men [who] would dazzle the crowd with their sublime skills on the dusty oval”.
They remember it well. In May, before the national conference, he returned to Tennant for the first time in 17 years. As we got off the flight from Alice Springs, a big homemade sign – “Welcome Back Dr Richard” – flapped against the metal fence around the shed-size “terminal”. A small party was there to greet the Greens leader: elder Ross Jakamarra Williams, the Anyinginyi chair who set up the Eagles; Barb Shaw, Anyinginyi general manager and mayor of the vast Barkly region (population 8000, in an area much bigger than Victoria); and Darryl “Tiger” Fitz, Eagles captain when Di Natale was on the team. “Such good people,” Di Natale mutters as we – the leader, two aides, a cameraman, myself – walk up to shake hands.
Over the next two days we do a string of meet-and-greets, recording grabs and taking notes as we check out the facilities: a medical clinic, the public health unit, a drop-in centre, the women’s refuge. Di Natale is introduced as a Victorian senator – there’s no talk of the Greens – and makes clear he’s there to listen, but would do what he could when he got back to Canberra. “We don’t write the cheques,” he says more than once.
The trip is short, but it’s heavy. In the Anyinginyi boardroom, Barb Shaw tells it to us straight. The Territory government has abandoned Tennant, where the population has shrunk from 20,000 to 3000 since the Peko goldmine closed 30 years ago. The town is now 60% Indigenous – mainly Warumungu people, also Warlpiri, Bidjara and Arrernte – and that proportion is rising. Gainful employment barely exists. “They treat us like a ghost town,” says Ward. As an unnamed senior Territory official told her, “Why would you sink money into Tennant Creek?” The Barkly region has the highest rates of chronic disease in the nation. Yet the Department of Health is withdrawing services from the local hospital. There is no longer anywhere to give birth, for example. Women have to do the 12-hour round trip to Alice.
The Territory is cost-shifting, leaving Aboriginal health to the Commonwealth, and adding to the burden by referring non-Indigenous residents, who make up roughly a quarter of all visits, to Anyinginyi, with no extra funding.
The number one problem in Tennant is housing: we hear that no new homes have been built since 1985. Aboriginal homes have an average of 15 residents. Overcrowding leads to fighting, drinking and disease. Police cars sit permanently outside each of three bottle shops. Cardboard camps ring the town, with hundreds of people sleeping rough, and at night the shouting and fighting carry far and wide. The caravan park, packed with grey nomads, has a high fence and security gate. Spray-painted nearby is a swastika, and the message “fuck you black cunts”.
But Di Natale has fond memories of his time in Tennant, and in one presentation slide we get a glimpse of the young doctor as he was: board shorts, loud shirt, stretched out on a bed in the clinic. Not an up-and-comer, not going places. We drive past the house he shared with his wife, Lucy Quarterman. Tin roof, bland, possibly a nice garden once – a suburban block in the middle of a desert. Early on our last morning in Tennant we go to the local dam, where a diving platform sits empty, waiting for summer, and hawks circle close above. It has its beauty, this place: flat, hot, quiet, and bursting with flowers at this time of year.
Tennant is reeling from the Northern Territory Intervention, yet people are trying to make a fist of it, black and white, going to the same school, same shops, same pubs together. Shaw herself is grimly positive even after nine years as a councillor: “It’s not all doom and gloom.” And when we get down to the town’s one playing field, which is surprisingly green, everything lights up. Kids, teenagers everywhere. A training run with the Eagles squad? Highlight of Di Natale’s day, no question. The knees aren’t what they were, but the senator nurses himself through a few drills. The team members don’t say much, but they don’t mind passing to him.
That night, at a farewell barbie, plastic tables and tea lights dotted around the town pool in the desert, there is a happy vibe. No grog, just conversation. I interview Barb Shaw, who remembers Di Natale as “a wonderful doctor”.
“He wasn’t a make-believe person. He was absolutely genuine and what really showed, how you could tell, was how he actually mixed with the Aboriginal community. He engaged with them. He lived in this town, and he was part of this town.”
It made all the difference that Di Natale was not there as a locum but lived there (until Lucy got a job with Oxfam that sent the couple packing to Melbourne). It’s how he got to play with the Eagles, Shaw says, which had always been an all-Aboriginal club. “Because of his engagement with the Aboriginal community, and the relationships that he forged, he became one of the footy players with the team … the only whitefella. People loved that.”
Back in 1999–2000, the plight of Tennant Creek drove Di Natale into politics. The health service was fighting hard for funds, and with the Country Liberal Party in power in the Territory for more than 25 years the system felt structurally, if not actually, corrupt. “It was about people being awarded contracts that weren’t the subject of an open and transparent tender,” Di Natale says. “For example, people being awarded jobs because of their relationships.” He had a few friends in the Labor Party, including the local member in Tennant, Maggie Hickey, who was also Opposition leader in the Territory parliament. Di Natale attended a few branch meetings but never joined up. “I went along because it was the only option … there were no Greens in town. [It] wasn’t particularly inspiring, and wasn’t ever done with a view of joining the Labor Party. It was really just, ‘Shit, I’ve got to get active and involved in politics, because this is the vehicle through which to do all this stuff I couldn’t do as a doctor.’” When he moved back to Melbourne, one of the first things he did was call the Greens. He set up the Wills branch (now Moreland), and soon stood as a candidate.
Shaw herself was once heavily involved with Labor, and remains a supporter, but she is retiring from the council, and tends to stay out of party politics nowadays. Her niece (also Barb Shaw) has stood twice for the Greens in the Territory, and the mayor thinks a major shift is underway, as the Greens pick up where Labor left off. “I’ve always found the Greens to be a ‘people’s party’,” says Shaw. It’s a potent formulation, an answer to all those years of criticism that the Greens cared more about trees than people. It was never true, of course, but it’s an argument that simply can’t be hurled at Di Natale. When I put the “people’s party” thing to him, it hits home: “If there was one slogan, if there was one thing that people could take away from us, about who we are – that, for me, is the highest compliment.”
I didn’t have to wait long for a concrete example. As we boarded the plane back to Alice, my mother-in-law, Maureen, shot me a text: “You can tell Richard Di Natale your rusted-on labour voting Ma in law is changing to the Greens.” Maureen, 70, lives in a housing commission flat in south Sydney, and is a sharp observer of politics. When I texted back – “why, Mauzie?” – the answer came clear as a bell: “Well firstly I’m sick of the self-serving parasites in both Labour and Libs but what really tipped me over was his response to the proposed drug testing of welfare recipients.”
From day one the Greens had slammed the proposal, as a “new low” and a rights violation, and Maureen referred specifically to an opinion piece Di Natale had written in the Guardian a week earlier, a moving account of a former patient who’d beaten heroin addiction, kept her kids, found work and turned her life around. Di Natale thought that if she’d been kicked off welfare in that delicate process, as the federal government was now proposing, she’d probably be dead by now. Maureen’s text went on: “It was the genuine humanity he demonstrated. I was well impressed.”
I handed Di Natale the phone, and as the propellers whirred up and our little plane taxied down the runway he sent her a text: “Hi Maureen. It’s Richard here. Paddy showed me your text so I hope you don’t mind me responding. I appreciate the support. You won’t regret it … Good to know there are lots of decent people out there.”
The Greens are often portrayed, especially in the Australian, as somehow at odds with Aboriginal Australia. They have been accused of stifling Indigenous development aspirations by supporting legislation to protect wild rivers in Far North Queensland, or of undermining traditional owners in the Galilee Basin and hijacking native title negotiations to campaign against the Adani mine. Di Natale confounds such portrayals. He also sees it as an unrepresentative view. “I’ve never had that experience, ever,” Di Natale says. “The whole Queensland Noel Pearson ‘wildos v blackfella’ stuff, I don’t think that represents a tension at all.”
Quite the contrary, in fact. At a National Congress of Australia’s First People breakfast earlier this year, timed to coincide with the release of the 2017 Closing the Gap report, the prime minister, the Opposition leader and the Greens leader all spoke. When the Greens’ long-standing spokesperson for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, Senator Rachel Siewert, was mentioned, the Mural Hall of Parliament House, full of Indigenous representatives, broke out in a standing ovation. “It was a real source of pride to me,” Di Natale says, “to know that the work we’re doing has been recognised by the Indigenous community right across Australia.”
If the Greens do their best work when they are taking positions outside the Liberal–Labor consensus, Siewert says the party has a strong track record of doing exactly that on Aboriginal issues. Bob Brown championed non-sniffable Opal fuel; in 2013 Siewert finally got a private member’s bill, mandating low aromatic fuels, through the Senate – a major legislative achievement. Siewert says the Greens were the only party to consistently oppose the NT Intervention, which failed to deliver on any of its objectives, and have maintained opposition to the cashless welfare card, a form of income management targeted at Aboriginal communities. The Greens are not shy about talking of sovereignty – the issue everyone else ducks – and Siewert is right behind the recent Uluru Statement. “We absolutely support it,” she says. What more could you want from a progressive, mainstream party?
Descending into Alice, on the Friday before the national conference, we passed over the storied white radar domes on red dirt, instantly recognisable. Shortly after we landed, texts went around, from Scott Ludlam, calling a “SNAP RALLY” at Pine Gap to protest “illegal drone strikes, mass surveillance and nuclear weapons targeting”. Spontaneous. Risky? Fun! The conference wasn’t just a talkfest. With Pine Gap only half an hour’s drive away, dozens of us turned up at the designated car park. There was an anxious wait – would there be enough cars for our daggy little flash mob? – before the convoy set off.
Continuing past the “No photography from this point on!” sign (also “TURN AROUND NOW”) we rolled up to an old drive-through security gate, a long fence stretching out either side. No domes in sight. In fact, nothing to see. Then Ludlam, in heavy overcoat and T-shirt, flanked by Lee Rhiannon and fellow senator Janet Rice, started to speak. Serious, matter-of-fact, no microphone, he rose to the occasion, and lifted it.
As federal police stood close by, watching and listening, Ludlam did not fence-sit or pollie-speak. This was a murderous military base, a key part of the Five Eyes network, he said. Sovereignty was never ceded by the traditional owners, and it was never knowingly handed over by the rest of us either. When operations began in 1970, locals were told it was a weather station. The place was literally “built on a lie”, Ludlam continued. It was a gigantic electronic vacuum cleaner, indiscriminately sucking down telephone calls and data, and bouncing it all back to the US military via the CIA, the NSA and the rest. Pine Gap directly implicates Australia in the militarisation of civilian communications, the burgeoning illegal US drone assassination program, and targeting of genocidal nuclear weapons, warned Ludlam. “One day we might wake up and wonder why everybody’s turned white and is glued to the television, and find that the Trump administration has launched a nuclear strike somewhere in the southern or eastern hemisphere. This place was involved. I didn’t vote for that.”
In the flesh, Ludlam was electrifying, a proper activist, with a crystalline purpose. Looking back on it, now he has gone, only underlines the loss to the party. He handed over to Rhiannon, who had been there way back in 1983, at the original Pine Gap women’s camp, and whose own call echoed down the years: “This base must close.” Speeches over, we grouped together for a few photos, but then the stirring common cause of the past ten minutes was shattered – “NSW photo!” someone called out. Could anyone not in the NSW Greens please get out of the shot?
It was embarrassing: unfriendly, petty nonsense. The scene broke up and everyone headed back to Alice for drinks.
The Greens’ fight over Gonski is no longer about Gonski, or the hoary debate about the merits of a conscience vote versus grassroots democracy, or even about where the party sits on the left–right spectrum. It goes deeper, and it’s personal. No one inside the parliamentary party will come out and say as much, but the leadership of the Australian Greens believe there are elements of an unhealthy culture in the party in NSW, a branch they see as riven with factionalism, beset by messy preselections and legal disputes, under-performing, and run by a small cabal more interested in maintaining fiefdoms, and throwing rocks from the sidelines, than they are in getting things done.
All this is squarely in line with blunt criticisms made by former leaders Bob Brown and Christine Milne, who are both backing Di Natale to the hilt. But if the party room was intending to root out the unhealthy culture, or see off Rhiannon, they appear to have scored an epic own goal in the past few weeks. The party’s image has been sullied, there is no clear pathway to resolve the constitutional differences between the Australian and NSW Greens, Rhiannon’s preselection chances have been boosted, and Di Natale’s leadership is being openly debated. How did it go so wrong?
In the final week of the Gonski negotiations, there was a telephone hook-up between the party room and the national council to decide the party’s position ahead of an expected vote in the Senate the next day. At that meeting, on the night of Tuesday, 20 June, one of the national councillors for NSW, Eliza Scarpellino, also a member of the federal parliamentary liaison committee that interacts between MPs and the membership, announced that Rhiannon was bound to vote against the final package – effectively, she would cross the floor. This was a bombshell, and shocked Rhiannon’s colleagues, including Di Natale and Hanson-Young, who had been negotiating in good faith with education minister Simon Birmingham on the basis that they could deliver nine votes in the Senate. Now they were down to eight – still a crucial bloc, but from the government’s perspective it only made the alternative of negotiating with other crossbenchers more appealing.
Next morning, Di Natale went on Fran Kelly’s RN Breakfast program; a deal with the government sounded close. But by then, Rhiannon tells the Monthly, the party room was frustrated. “This is an important point: by Wednesday, it’s not just me who was concerned about it. Several other party-room members had serious concerns for different reasons … sometimes policy, but they’re also thinking, Do we really want to annoy all these people over public education?” With members like Bandt, Rice and Tasmanian senator Nick McKim all voicing grave concerns, Rhiannon believes if the package had been put to a vote, needing two-thirds support as the party rules theoretically require, Di Natale and Hanson-Young “didn’t have the numbers”.
Privately, some in the Greens party room agree with this account, others reject it, but there is no question that many of them had serious doubts. According to one, only Hanson-Young herself was fully supporting the package by the end. It was lineball for everyone, but the party room works by consensus, not voting, so the numbers were irrelevant and were never tested.
Just before 10 am that Wednesday morning, the Guardian reported that the NSW Greens had directed Rhiannon to vote against the package. It was not enough to kill off talks with the government – Di Natale and Hanson-Young were still at the negotiating table – but when independent senator Jacqui Lambie backed the reform, Birmingham had the crossbench votes he needed and the Greens were sidelined. Hanson-Young had been instrumental in securing an extra $5 billion in funding, an independent school resourcing body, and more besides, but the Greens could not claim credit: they ended up voting against the legislation on the basis of relatively minor reservations. The whole thing was either an opportunity missed or a bullet dodged, depending on your perspective.
At the next day’s partyroom meeting, Hanson-Young confronted Rhiannon. She had found out via Twitter about an A5 leaflet, authorised by Rhiannon and distributed in a handful of NSW electorates, which called for support of the full Gonski package the previous Labor government had agreed on with the states. Hundreds were printed.
Similar leaflets go out almost daily. If it was a hanging offence, it was an unusual one, but for the party room it was the last straw. As Rhiannon tells it, Hanson-Young was “clearly furious … she and Richard said what I had done had undermined negotiations. I found it ludicrous.” Not all her party colleagues spoke against her, says Rhiannon, but quite a few did. “More than I’d expect.” She says Di Natale was especially grave. “It reminded me of being back at school. We were told my actions had to be reported to the national council [and] ‘there will be consequences’.”
Consequences there were: on the Friday the nine other Greens in the party room signed a letter to the national council, complaining about the leaflet and Rhiannon’s failure to tell Hanson-Young or any other federal colleagues about it while negotiations with the government were underway. The leaflet, of course, had not damaged those negotiations – nobody was even aware of it until it was all over – and the party room’s letter didn’t ask the national council to do anything in particular. It made no mention of Rhiannon crossing the floor. So what was the point?
Nobody knows who leaked the letter, but it had originally been sent to an unusually wide group – not just the office bearers but also every national councillor – so there’s plenty of cover for whoever did it. “I cannot remember sensitive material being distributed in that way,” says Rhiannon. “The usual process [was] not followed and then in record time the letter is leaked to the SMH and the journalist has found a senior Greens source and [another] Greens source to comment. Yes, it was upsetting.”
The leak was not smart. Even Greens who supported the complaint against Rhiannon were aghast at the way it got out. Says one: “There are a number of us who in hindsight wouldn’t have signed the letter, given that it wasn’t kept confidential.”
From that point on, the dispute played out all over the media. The national council batted it straight back to the party room, which, after a marathon five-hour meeting in Melbourne the following Wednesday, passed two resolutions: one, unanimous, calling for an end to the practice of NSW parliamentarians being bound to vote against the party room if the state branch directs them to do so; and another, to suspend Rhiannon from the party room while “contentious” issues were being discussed. Significantly, Bandt abstained from the second one. The NSW branch fired up, calling the resolutions unconstitutional, and an #IStandWithLeeRhiannon campaign took off, with education unionists even parroting the chant for UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, singing “Ooooh, Lee-ee Rhia-nnon” to the tune of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’. Judging from the stream of Facebook posts, it was not just Rhiannon loyalists who were dismayed at the party room’s position. Few could understand the game plan.
Rhiannon turned the tables, going on the ABC’s Insiders to express her “disappointment” in Di Natale’s leadership. Di Natale declined to retaliate, but tells the Monthly that “Senator Rhiannon was disappointed in Bob Brown’s leadership, she was disappointed in Christine Milne’s leadership, so it’s no surprise she’s disappointed in mine, especially as she doesn’t even believe the party should have a leader.”
So far, attempts to shut down the dispute have failed. The national council’s compromise solution was to enable the party room to set up a subcommittee whenever the Greens held the balance of power. This subcommittee would exclude MPs who were bound by their members (ie. NSW) or wished to exercise a conscience vote in the event of contentious legislation. Rhiannon, then overseas, was allowed back in the party room and replied with a provocative Facebook post welcoming her leader’s backdown and rejecting the substance of the national council’s proposed solution. “I do not think there is any need for this new ‘subcommittee’ and I think it sets a bad precedent, but I am pleased it does not have the power to make decisions.”
The national council proposal was not even discussed at last month’s state delegates council meeting in Sydney, although senators Rice and Siewert turned up to explain the federal party’s position. Rhiannon made one concession, admitting she should have told her colleagues she was bound: “What I am happy to apologise for – I think I could have said it earlier myself.” There followed spirited debate about what being “bound” means. Far from adhering to grassroots democracy, leaked emails ahead of the decision to bind Rhiannon show that, intentionally or otherwise, NSW’s parliamentary liaison committee itself may have flouted the proper process under the constitution.
It could have been different, Rhiannon says. “Richard could have called me into his room and said, ‘Jesus, Lee, you made it pretty rough this week,’ and talked it through.” The undoubted animus could have been saved for a good old-fashioned preselection brawl for the NSW Senate ticket in the next federal election. The Monthly understands that Rhiannon, trailed by Four Corners, will face a credible preselection challenger. Pakistan-born NSW upper house MP Dr Mehreen Faruqi is a civil and environmental engineer with cross-factional appeal and a strong legislative track record, and she could add to the diversity of the all-white federal party room – already an acknowledged problem. Rules prohibiting pre-selection endorsements are already contested, but if the likes of Bob Brown and Christine Milne swing in behind Faruqi, and against Rhiannon, Faruqi could find herself with heavyweight support. She would not comment for the Monthly. The left of the party lost two state preselection battles last year, but Rhiannon confirms she will fight for another six-year term, saying, “It’s all on track.” She says there is no rivalry with Faruqi. “I’ve always encouraged other people to run.”
Nobody is forgiving or forgetting. Off the record, some of Rhiannon’s federal partyroom colleagues remain scathing. One of them accuses her of “blatantly using this issue [Gonski] to campaign for preselection”. Rhiannon has kept at it since the suspension, posting on Facebook and speaking out in spite of an express edict from the national council that the publicity must stop. “Lee has continually pushed this in public, through media and social media, despite knowing our party would like that kind of behaviour to stop,” the same colleague says. “I’m sick of it.” Even on the left of the party in NSW, until things blew up, there was a view that for someone who argued so vociferously for limited tenure Rhiannon has had a long innings – 11 years in state parliament, six in the Senate – and maybe it was time to pass on the baton. That sentiment may now have evaporated.
It might all be worth it, if the present crisis would settle the differences between NSW and the rest of the party, once and for all. After the Waters resignation, a beleaguered Di Natale – minus his leadership team, a reshuffle upon him – announced a “root and branch” review of the party’s governance and processes. Can he succeed where Brown and Milne failed? It has fallen to Di Natale to deal with a backlog of unfinished party business as long as your arm. The make-goods and paper-overs that worked in the past are no longer working. Brown wants the party to have a national referendum, and perhaps it is time.
Reluctantly or otherwise, Brown is on the warpath. He wants Rhiannon to stand down from the Greens and run on her own platform, on something like the anti-capitalist manifesto the Greens’ Left Renewal breakaway grouping posted to such uproar last year. “[Rhiannon should] put herself to the people genuinely and honestly, as something different to the Greens, which she is,” Brown says. “But she’s unlikely to do that because [of] the need to limpet on the Greens as a means of electoral success … Everybody knows that if Left Renewal, Lee, Hall Greenland – who’s tried it – were to put themselves to the public as a separate entity they would lose. They would never win a seat.”
It’s the perpetual showdown, like 1992 again. Around the world, many Green parties are going nowhere, or going backwards. In Australia the party has suffered a thousand deaths by prediction, but one thing is clear: this is not where the Greens hoped they would be in 2017.