As battlelines are drawn between ‘the Tony Abbott’ of the Greens and the party’s elders, deeper questions have emerged about style and purpose. By Karen Middleton.

Inside the fight for the Australian Greens

Last Sunday, members of the Australian Greens’ national council met in Sydney and discussed the activities of a new Greens splinter group agitating for a sharp shift to the left.

Formed late last year, the Left Renewal group had blasted their party’s direction and declared itself opposed to capitalism, vowing to press from inside for the Australian Greens to do the same.

After the meeting, the national council issued a statement that amounted to a warning shot, restating its objective to remain “a grassroots, member-driven organisation” whose members decided on its policies, and to ensure its processes remained “democratic, collaborative, respectful and inclusive”.

In a statement, the party’s national co-convenor, Alex Schlotzer, said: “We reject as fundamentally inconsistent with our principles of egalitarian and collaborative consensus-based decision making the formation of formal factions in the party. Furthermore, the formation of formal factions is incompatible with our party structures and rules.”

But the brewing showdown over Left Renewal is only the ripple on the surface of what is emerging as a broader concern in some sections of the Greens about the party’s overall public presentation and its electoral fortunes.

Some are asking whether in light of the dramatic rise of Donald Trump in the United States – and the surprisingly resonant campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders in seeking to become the Democratic Party’s nominee – ideological divides need to be more sharply drawn in Australia and values more passionately and definitively expressed. 

In other words, with the Greens’ vote flagging in key states, they are asking: Does the party need to reposition itself less as pragmatic dealmaker on the floor of parliament and more as the real true believers?

1 . ‘A sideshow’

Former Greens leader Bob Brown has dismissed the debate over Left Renewal as “a sideshow”.

But the emergence of the group – whose ideas the Greens’ current national parliamentary leader, Richard Di Natale, described as “ridiculous” – has reignited a longstanding hostility between Brown and fellow party stalwart Lee Rhiannon. 

Senator Rhiannon is from the same section of the party that has given birth to Left Renewal – the New South Wales party’s hard left.

That’s the group some of their colleagues dub the “Eastern Bloc” or the “Watermelons” – for being green on the outside but essentially red within. 

Brown is from the party’s less radical majority, whose like-minded NSW colleagues are, in return, labelled “Tree Tories” for being too conservative.

To say there is no love lost between Brown and Rhiannon would be to understate the extent of their longstanding differences.

Brown believes Rhiannon and her supporters are holding back the Greens’ progress in NSW and has begun calling publicly for her to resign amid signs her previously dominant group’s influence is waning.

In the past year, candidates from Rhiannon’s section of the NSW Greens were defeated in two state preselections. 

“I think we’re seeing actually not the start of something new in NSW but the end of something old and proven to have failed,” Brown told The Saturday Paper. “I’m very happy about that. I think post-Lee, NSW is going to be transformed.”

2 . ‘Sour grapes’

Rhiannon dismisses Brown’s criticisms as sour grapes prompted by the NSW Greens repeatedly refusing to endorse his preferred candidates in the past. 

One of those was Brown’s former chief of staff and protégé Ben Oquist, whose political skills are respected well beyond his own former party. Now executive director of The Australia Institute, Oquist eventually abandoned attempts to enter parliament after being repeatedly blocked by the hard left in NSW. 

Some in the Greens are concerned that the public spat between Brown and Rhiannon will be perceived as nothing more than an old clash of personalities, obscuring genuine concerns about where the Greens are headed.

While some on the party’s far left are crediting the likes of Left Renewal with helping to push the national leadership to be more outspoken, Brown told The Saturday Paper that Left Renewal is “not where the Greens are going”.

Where Brown and Rhiannon seem to agree is that the political climate created by the rise of Donald Trump represents an opportunity for the Greens.

“I think they are going to become increasingly relevant in the age of Trump,” Brown said. “… Attention is diverted to the bread and circuses of right-wing politics at the moment, not just here but globally. But that will settle down and people will look for answers.”

3 . Sanders synergy

Brown said much of what Bernie Sanders was advocating in the US mirrored the policies of the Australian Greens.

It was a message Richard Di Natale also had at a news conference on Monday.

“I think the Bernie Sanders experience offers us a good example of how many people around the world are actually attracted to policies like Bernie Sanders and the Greens are putting forward,” he said. 

Among the issues the Greens would highlight, Di Natale said, were inequality and climate change to make it “very clear that we are the genuine alternative to politics as usual”.

Sharing the podium with him was the Greens’ only house of representatives member, Adam Bandt. He told The Saturday Paper later that part of the Greens’ job in 2017 was to “shift the national discussion … to remind people that we are the only ones serious about tackling those issues”.

“Labor postures from the left in opposition but then they govern from the right in power and part of our job is to remind people that we are the only genuine alternative.”

Lee Rhiannon, who declined to comment to The Saturday Paper, told Radio National last week that the Sanders campaign challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination was proof people espousing radical and anti-establishment policies could win mass support. She also said the Greens in Australia espoused just such policies.

“But I would like more people to see us that way. That’s what I think is urgently needed … Let’s look at how the Greens are viewed. How do we get our message across? How do people hear what we stand for right across the board from the environment to wealth distribution to climate change action?”

Rhiannon was responding to a public salvo from Brown in which he effectively accused her of undermining the party’s national leadership and called her “the Tony Abbott” of the Greens, an allegation she strenuously rejected.

Now Brown has taken another swing at Rhiannon and her supporters in NSW, telling The Saturday Paper: “If you asked Bernie if he was in favour of some of the things coming from the Lee-backed cohort in NSW, he would say, ‘Not on your life.’ ”

Rhiannon said last week that her comments were not meant as a criticism of Di Natale and that she also took responsibility for the way the party’s message was being expressed. But she believed the Greens needed to look at how their “excellent” policies were presented to ensure their message was being heard.

Others in the party say they, too, believe a rethink may be needed on how the Greens have positioned themselves.

Some are suggesting that, given the way debate has shifted, they may need to shed the pragmatic deal-making image forged under Di Natale.

They stress they are not advocating a change of leadership but a change of emphasis under the current leader and his co-deputies, West Australian senator Scott Ludlam – now back at work after time off due to depressive illness – and Queensland senator Larissa Waters.

4 . Competing voices

Some are frustrated that both One Nation and Labor are moving into traditional Greens territory, voicing the same concerns and in some cases espousing similar changes but getting credit where the Greens were not. Some also acknowledge that the crowded crossbench means more voices competing for the attention of the national media.

Di Natale issued a statement after Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s address to the National Press Club this week, pointing out that while Shorten had called for a national integrity commission, he had also refused to support an existing Greens bill to set up a national independent commission against corruption.

Asked if he needed to renew his emphasis on differences in ideology and values between the Greens and the other parties, Di Natale told The Saturday Paper: “The Greens have always been a values-based party, which is one of the things that has always helped to distinguish us from Labor and the government. We don’t have any plans to change that because our values are what make us strong and what will ultimately help us win this fight.”

But he also sharpened his attack on both Labor and the Coalition.

“Bill Shorten and Labor continue to accept massive corporate donations from the coal industry, the mining industry, the gambling industry, the banks and developers,” Di Natale said. “They have fought tooth and nail against the Greens’ plan to establish a national anti-corruption watchdog. While Labor has now read the writing on the wall and supported an inquiry, talk is cheap and we need action.”

He also criticised Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. “The only world leader not to criticise Trump’s immigration policies is Malcolm Turnbull, and Bill Shorten’s comments have more than [a] whiff of hypocrisy given their approach to innocent people seeking asylum in this country. I call on Bill Shorten and Labor to join the Greens in challenging the value of the US alliance, because linking our security and prosperity to Donald Trump is a recipe for disaster.”

5 . ‘A good bloke’

In some respects, Di Natale is a political leader from central casting. His Italian heritage and credentials in both science and sport – as a medical doctor and a former VFA footballer – provide potential connection with a broad section of the Australian community. His penchant for wearing black turtleneck jumpers saw him dubbed “The Black Wiggle” and also captured a bit of free publicity. 

“People see him as a very good bloke,” Bob Brown says. “And that’s not such a common epithet you hear of politicians these days.”

He insists Di Natale and the Greens are “doing well”.

Yet the Greens’ vote was down at last year’s federal election, with South Australia and New South Wales among the states going backwards. Had they been facing a normal half-senate poll and not a double dissolution in which the quota for winning seats was reduced from about 14 per cent to 7, they could have lost more seats.

Nationally, the party’s primary vote in the senate was down at 8.65 per cent. Back in 2010, it was 13 per cent.

In the senate in 2016, its vote fell in NSW almost 0.4 points from 2013 to 7.41 per cent. In Western Australia, it fell almost 5 points from 2013 to 10.53 and in South Australia it was also down. 

Di Natale attributes at least part of that to the tough media environment in which other parties’ candidates are willing to say “outlandish things” to get attention.

“Sensible policy initiatives just aren’t as sexy to the media as blatantly racist and bigoted comments, using a mass killing to call for more guns on the street or arguing in court that the Commonwealth doesn’t exist,” Di Natale says. “We can always do better, but I’m not going to apologise for sticking to doing what I think is right, which is making real arguments for how we can make Australia a fairer, more just and equitable society.”

Asked to rate his policy priorities, he nominated cleaning up democracy and reducing the influence of vested interests through root-and-branch donations reform and a national anti-corruption watchdog; protecting the environment from climate change, including seeking to stop the controversial Adani mine in Queensland; expanding Australia’s renewable energy industry; housing affordability and drug law reform.

“Of course, it’s important that we stand up to block unjust policies put forward by the government and we will do that whenever we have to,” he says. “But we have a positive agenda for change that we intend to push this year.”

With parliament resuming on Tuesday, the parliamentary Greens will also hold their first party room meeting for 2017. That’s where the real conversations about their image and direction will begin.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 4, 2017 as "Inside the fight for the Greens".

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