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The suspension of Greens NSW senator Lee Rhiannon is less about Gonski than it is about ongoing animosities and a federal push to reform the party’s decision-making processes. By Karen Middleton.

Inside the bitter Greens civil war

Back in early May, New South Wales Greens senator Lee Rhiannon was on a visit to the Riverina region of New South Wales when the subject of schools funding came up.

Driving from Wagga Wagga to Narrandera, Rhiannon and a group of Greens supporters were discussing the government’s announcement that it had enlisted the architect of Labor’s schools funding overhaul, businessman David Gonski, to design what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was calling “Gonski 2.0”.

With Labor opposed because the package offered billions of dollars less than the original version, the government was going to need crossbench senate support to pass it.

Within 24 hours, Greens education spokeswoman Senator Sarah Hanson-Young had indicated her party could be willing to negotiate. “People are sick of the argy-bargy between the states and the federal government,” Hanson-Young told ABC Radio’s AM program the morning after the announcement. 

“They’re sick of the hyper-partisan fights between the government and the opposition. We’ve got to get the politics out of this because the political fight has forgotten what this is all about – our education of our children – and making sure that those that need the support the most get it.”

Out on the highway, they weren’t happy. In the car, the view was that the Greens had gone to last year’s federal election campaigning for “the full Gonski” – all of Labor’s promised funding – and should demand nothing less. They resolved to urge their local Greens supporters to demand local MPs vote against the package. They wanted a protest leaflet. Rhiannon agreed to authorise it.

The flyer outlined funding implications for local public schools wherever Greens organisers requested it: in the inner-western Sydney seat of Grayndler, held by Labor’s Anthony Albanese; Turnbull’s own eastern suburbs seat of Wentworth; and the regional seats of Dobell, Farrer, Robertson and Riverina.

It’s ostensibly that one-page leaflet, calling for the government’s funding package to be blocked just as Hanson-Young and Greens national leader Richard Di Natale were starting complex negotiations aimed at improving and passing it, that prompted a showdown.

The leaflet came to light as the negotiations were reaching a crucial stage and the other Greens say it undermined their position. Rhiannon believes that’s an excuse and that she and her state colleagues had nothing to do with the Greens’ failure to strike a deal.

While Di Natale and Hanson-Young were still negotiating – or thought they were – the government announced it had struck a deal with other crossbenchers instead, and the Greens were left out.

In the end, they opposed the legislation they had been potentially prepared to support – the position Rhiannon had wanted all along.

As parliament rose for its winter break, the nine other Greens signed a letter of complaint to the party’s national council, the delegates from around the states who then answer to the party’s national conference, about Rhiannon’s conduct in authorising the leaflet without their knowledge.

But both Rhiannon and Di Natale acknowledge this battle is about more than a piece of paper.

The confrontation between the NSW Greens and the party’s national representatives is either the greatest challenge to Greens’ cohesion in more than two decades or its best chance to repair historical fault lines, depending on whom you ask.

There’s been simmering hostility for almost 25 years and now that the Australian Greens have directly objected to the determined – some critics call it destructive – independence of their NSW party, it has erupted into civil war.

The Australian Greens are a federation of state-based parties, whose decision-making processes are based on consensus. But there are differences over exactly how and where consensus should be formed – in the federal party room, among the Greens’ national representatives, or, in the NSW party’s view, in its state council. 

The NSW Greens are alone among the states and territories in having historically insisted on a constitutional provision allowing them to bind their federal parliamentary representatives to their state council’s position regardless of any federal party room decision. Without that provision, they refused to join.

That means their federal MPs and senators – currently, Rhiannon is the only one – can refuse on the state party’s orders to support what the rest of the parliamentary party decides.

The other jurisdictions have given their representatives a conscience vote, the freedom to make their own decisions about policy, in line with the party’s federal and state platforms, and be answerable for them.

Twice before, Rhiannon’s independence has led to a rebuke – Di Natale and Rhiannon disagree over whether it amounted to “censure” – but this time the rest of Rhiannon’s colleagues decided to go further. After an almost five-hour meeting in Melbourne on Wednesday, their second lengthy emergency meeting in three days, the parliamentary Greens emerged to declare they had sanctioned their NSW colleague until her state’s party agrees to give up its constituted right to go its own way.

The Greens’ acting parliamentary whip, Tasmanian senator Nick McKim, revealed the decision after 7pm on Wednesday. “To function as a national party room and to be a genuine alternative to politics as usual, we need to have faith and trust in our processes,” he said. “This issue has highlighted a structural issue that we believe needs to be addressed.”

He said they were asking the party’s national council to “work with Greens NSW” to end the practice of NSW MPs being bound by state decisions. He said NSW senators – the plural accounts for any future additions – would be excluded from party-room discussions and decisions on “contentious government legislation” until the issues were resolved.

They don’t say what constitutes “contentious” legislation and Rhiannon says she doesn’t know.

Nine Greens endorsed the first request – all except Rhiannon – and eight the sanction. Victorian MP Adam Bandt, the party’s only lower house representative, also opposed it. He says the more the Greens talk about themselves, the less they’re talking about “people and the planet”.

“I deeply respect my colleagues and want the whole party room to work together, but I genuinely believe excluding people is not the right thing to do,” he says.

In a midnight statement, Greens NSW declared the move unconstitutional.

“We understand some federal MPs wish to review our governance,” Greens NSW co-convenors Debbie Gibson and Tony Hickey said. “We do not believe there is support within the party to change either the Australian Greens or Greens NSW constitutions. There is a process for reviewing each constitution, and we are disappointed the federal party room is not following this process.”

The NSW party also affirmed its own stance and support for its senator, declaring itself proud backers of both public education and participatory democracy.

“We are proud of our democratically elected Senator Lee Rhiannon,” Gibson and Hickey said. “We look forward to working with all members and supporters across the country to find consensus on these issues.” 

The state delegates’ council of the Greens NSW will meet next weekend to discuss a formal position. The rest of the Greens believe NSW’s approach makes it impossible to reach a genuine consensus. NSW argues its approach is true democracy.

To preserve their consensus approach, the parliamentary Greens have had to resort to majority rule.

Di Natale argues that suspending the NSW representative – he and his colleagues are trying to avoid making it about Rhiannon herself – is necessary to force change because the NSW party’s approach naturally undermines the consensus process by bringing a fixed position to discussions that does not countenance compromise. This way, Di Natale and his colleagues argue, they have a greater chance of reaching consensus among the rest.

The party’s elder statesman and first national leader, Bob Brown, disputes the NSW Greens’ belief that the decision is unconstitutional. Brown has long clashed with Rhiannon and her NSW colleagues and says the party-room push-back is a good thing and it’s now “the end of the line” for the NSW Greens’ approach.

“The NSW membership is changing rapidly and is going to leave this behind,” Brown told The Saturday Paper.

Brown predicted if the NSW Greens resisted the request for change, it would go through the party’s national conference to a referendum and be passed. He said there is a “great and growing membership of the NSW Greens who think the Australian Greens deserve an end to this”.

Rhiannon responded that Brown’s work for progressive causes is “legendary” but he had “never been strong on internal organisational democracy”. 

She said she believed Greens NSW would mount “an almighty campaign” to improve internal democracy in the whole party if the issue went to a party referendum. “Life moves on fast,” she said. “Many members don’t remember Bob’s heyday and many are angry with him. They feel his views on membership are out of touch. Greens NSW members want their MPs to be accountable, not to do their own thing and vote according to their personal interests. Our members do recognise the strength of a collective approach and that means the MP or an ex-MP is not the top dog.” 

Brown’s successor as national leader, Christine Milne, told The Saturday Paper she also welcomed the parliamentary party room’s decision. “This is about sorting out once and for all this internal tension which has dogged the party for years,” Milne said. “…I am pleased that the National Council has been asked to address the issue at last. The party has known full well that this has been an issue for a long time.”

Both Milne and Brown said resolving the conflict between NSW and the rest was overdue. “I think Lee and the NSW Greens have for a long time traded on the good nature of the Australian Greens, that the Greens would always avoid a public showdown,” Brown told The Saturday Paper. “But it’s gone too far.”

Rhiannon describes that as “nonsense”. 

“Bob has been attacking the Greens NSW for years,” she said. “We resisted his aggressive drive to centralise power and his demands that the party give the leader and MPs more power within the party. He would attack us when he wasn’t getting his way. The Greens NSW previously did not publicly criticise Bob and for a long time turned the other cheek for the good of the party. Now Bob’s public comments are providing a window into how he operated when he was active in the party.” 

Some in the NSW party have suggested they may withhold funds from the national party in retaliation. The NSW Greens account for some 30 per cent of the federal party’s income, in a state with a high population and where public funding is available for candidates in state – as well as federal – elections.

Brown says he believes the Greens are following the path of their counterparts in Germany, who faced a crisis in the 1990s involving their fundamentalist and realist wings. The split led to the party losing all of its seats in the German Bundestag but the party rebuilt itself – and the realists prevailed.

“I reckon we won’t see another Lee Rhiannon elected to the parliament in NSW or elsewhere,” Brown says, adding he also did not believe she would be returned at the 2019 election, if she seeks to run again.

“Bob has a long history of meddling in NSW preselections,” Rhiannon responded. “He has got very upset when on occasions the membership in a democratic ballot has not preselected his preferred candidate in NSW. Sadly it is a significant part of the reason why he publicly insults me.”

The many-stranded animosity between the Australian Greens and Greens NSW is a legacy of old tensions between the environmentalist Tasmanian Greens and those with more socialist roots two states further north. Rhiannon rejects suggestions of being founded on communist principles as misrepresentative “Cold War rhetoric”.

Those tensions have long played out as a personality clash between Brown and Rhiannon. The camps that sprang up around each have moved regularly to gazump the other’s candidates. 

Ahead of the 2001 election, the Greens were considered a good chance to win a senate seat. 

Brown’s adviser and protégé Ben Oquist sought preselection in what was his home state but Rhiannon and her supporters, suspicious that his closeness to Brown meant he would be less willing to exercise the independence they demanded, opposed him. Their candidate, Kerry Nettle, secured a narrow victory and went on to win the seat She became the first NSW Greens senator in federal parliament. Rhiannon’s forces successfully resisted Oquist’s further bids for preselection at the state level.

Rhiannon won preselection to run for the senate in 2010, resigning the seat she held in the NSW state parliament to enter federal parliament. But the battles between Brown’s forces and those loyal to the NSW party leadership continued, even after Brown quit the senate and retired from representative politics in 2012, making way for fellow Tasmanian, Christine Milne, to become leader.

With Brown’s backing, former Greens NSW MLC Cate Faehrmann quit her state seat and won preselection to contest the 2013 federal election in the top position on the NSW Greens’ senate ticket, angering Rhiannon’s forces. With little active help from her factional opponents, Faehrmann and her fellow candidates only managed to secure half a quota and none of them were elected.

When Richard Di Natale took over the party’s federal leadership and hired Faehrmann as his chief of staff, some who’d watched the age-old battles warned that might further ruffle feathers in NSW.

But despite the personality politics, the real contest is over policy, process and direction. The conflict with the federal party was in abeyance for several years after Nettle lost in 2007 and there was no NSW Green in federal parliament, but re-emerged when Rhiannon was elected.

Among the wider membership, the response has ranged from despair at the public airing of political dirty laundry to defiance and determination to resist and to prevail. And that’s from all sides.

NSW Greens state parliamentarians want to be constructive. 

“NSW Greens members will strongly defend our autonomy and right to determine how our senator votes in parliament, but it’s the protocol of how those decisions are made and communicated that clearly needs to be considered,” MLC Justin Field told The Saturday Paper

“…We can’t wall ourselves off from the other states. We need to cool things down and look at how our processes are reflecting member views and contributing to advancing Greens policies.”

Richard Di Natale insists the differences can be overcome.

“I think what we need to do is to work through these issues and come out of this stronger,” he says.

It’s a sentiment all the Greens share. They’re agreed on the destination, it’s the journey that is proving the problem.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 1, 2017 as "Inside the bitter Greens civil war". Subscribe here.

Karen Middleton
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.