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As the Greens continue to fight internally ahead of the NSW election, their dysfunction across branches is threatening the party’s prospects federally. By Mike Seccombe.

Greens split by factional war

Federal Greens leader Richard Di Natale.
Credit: AAP Image / Steven Saphore

Old habits are hard to break for New South Wales MP Jeremy Buckingham, who keeps lapsing into use of the word “we” when talking about the New South Wales Greens, even though there is no longer any “we” to speak of.

It’s been close to seven weeks since his spectacular, angry split from the party, after allegations of “sexual violence” were levelled against him in parliament by one of his party colleagues, Jenny Leong. Buckingham denies the claims.

He’s now running for next month’s state election as an independent, but still struggles with the terminology of separation, periodically talking as if he’s forgotten he quit the Greens with a promise to run a “real green” platform to “challenge the party’s Marxist agenda”.

“At the 2013 election,” he tells The Saturday Paper, “we went very close to winning a record number of seats. We won three – Newtown, Balmain and Ballina – and nearly won Lismore, and went from one to four seats.

“In 2019 we should be in a position to win six or seven, and be in a position like the National Party is – a junior Coalition partner, maybe having a seat at the cabinet table, balance of power, chairing [parliamentary] committees.”

Separation issues aside, he makes a good point. If ever the temper of the times should have suited the Greens, it is now.

The whole country is in the grip of a sweltering summer, and the exceptional heat is forecast to last at least until April. The Darling River is drying up and is blanketed with dead fish thanks to the mismanagement of all the major parties, but particularly due to the corruption of water policy by the Nationals. There is a worsening drought across most of eastern Australia, fires in parts of Tasmania that haven’t burnt for 1000 years. And in Sydney, they have switched on the desalination plant to supplement the water supply.

The conservative side of politics remains divided over the threshold question of whether climate change is even real, and Labor is narrow-casting different messages about fossil fuels depending on whether they are campaigning in coal country.

At the March 23 state election, a substantially unpopular premier will face a substantially unknown opposition leader. The polls and pundits point to a close result, possibly a hung parliament in which minor parties could have major power and influence.

A couple of months after that, Scott Morrison’s federal government, devoid of any credible climate policy, and with a poor record on the environment generally, not to mention a host of regressive social policies, will go to the people. Labor is odds on to win the lower house, but projections by The Australia Institute point to another big crossbench in the senate. These are propitious circumstances for a progressive party with an environmental focus.

Yet the NSW Greens party, the troubled child of the green movement in Australia, finds itself distracted from the external political contest by an internal one. Again. Even as the election looms, they are fighting over the selection of upper house candidates, at loggerheads over proposals for structural reform, digging dirt on one another, and contemplating the prospect of a major split.

And losing members, by the score.

A screenshot of the NSW membership officer’s annual report emailed to The Saturday Paper showed a drop of almost 15 per cent in the year to November, to a little over 3000.

“As you can see,” wrote the sender, “there has been a dramatic drop in membership of the NSW Greens. These figures are from before Jeremy ripped up his Greens membership. Since November, a significant number of additional members have resigned…”

Some quit in sympathy with Buckingham; others are going, they say, because they are sick of the struggle within the party’s arcane, supposedly democratic processes, described by one as “death by meeting”.

Worse still, the federal party has been drawn into the latest battle. After the ugly factionalism of the Victorian election, and a backwards slide in the state party’s primary vote, the federal leadership is now embroiled in NSW’s dysfunction. Both episodes could have a damaging impact on the party’s chances at the federal election.

“It’s been a very torrid time, and I’ve been through a few,” says one long-time party office holder. “This is the worst. People are choosing sides. People are really disappointed with the way the Greens are presenting themselves at the moment.”

The fighting in the NSW Greens has been going on so long it’s hard to know where to start.

But the recent, public escalation can be traced back to last August, when the ABC’s 7.30 program reported on multiple claims by women that the party had mishandled complaints about sexual misconduct and harassment.

One of the complainants was Ella Buckland, a former staffer for another Greens MP, who claimed Buckingham had “touched her inappropriately” after a night of drinking with him and another woman at his Newtown home in 2011.

Buckland said she was so “disgusted” at the flirtatious, touchy behaviour of the other two that she took a video, then left. She was standing in the street outside, she said, when Buckingham came up behind her, grabbed her and kissed her neck.

Buckingham denied the allegations, and the inquiry subsequently found there was “insufficient evidence available” and recommended “no adverse finding” against him to substantiate the complaint.

There the matter might have ended, but it didn’t. On November 13, the Greens’ MP for Newtown, Jenny Leong, delivered a speech to parliament, calling for Buckingham to resign.

“To Ella Buckland, who has shown strength by speaking out publicly about Jeremy’s act of sexual violence towards her and the subsequent disgusting behaviour she has endured, let me say on the record that I believe you,” she said.

Leong further alleged, but did not detail, other incidents of unacceptable behaviour by Buckingham. Leong’s speech was strong on rhetoric but short on detail. Afterwards, she issued a joint statement with the federal Greens senator from NSW, Mehreen Faruqi, reiterating the complaint.

In short order the national leader, Richard Di Natale, issued a statement on behalf of the federal party room, calling for Buckingham to stand down.

“This is ultimately a matter for the Greens NSW, but in light of the serious issues raised in NSW MP Jenny Leong’s statement today, I believe the most appropriate course of action is for Jeremy Buckingham to stand aside as a candidate for the next election,” Di Natale said.

“I have communicated that to Jeremy today on behalf of the federal party room.”

Buckingham resisted for a long, damaging, morale-sapping month, and then he quit.

There is a continuing dispute over the party’s upper house ticket, which was decided last April before the scandal broke, and on which Buckingham was placed third. As it stands, the ticket has the left’s David Shoebridge, a current MP, in the top spot. Abigail Boyd is in the second, winnable position. Because of the party’s policy of gender balance, she was elevated even though Buckingham got more votes. Now a section of the party wants her replaced by Dawn Walker, also a sitting MP, on the basis that, with Buckingham gone, his preferences give Walker more votes than Boyd.

This is the kind of arcane factionalism that causes great angst within the NSW Greens. The dispute is fuelled by competing mathematical calculations – on which basis the Walker forces have a strong case – and arguments about precedent – on which basis the Boyd forces have a strong case. This will continue for at least several more weeks, pending a meeting of state representatives, which will probably simply elevate Walker from the unwinnable fourth spot to the almost unwinnable third spot.

And that brings us to the nub of the problem with the Greens in NSW, which might be arithmetically described as factionalism times process.

Talk to anyone with a history in the party and they can explain the factionalism bit quite easily. Buckingham himself puts it succinctly.

“In the 1980s,” he says, “the green movement was a sort of counterculture, eco-ethics, environmental movement that became political. At the same time, communism was collapsing. A lot of people from those socialist movements saw an opportunity to involve themselves.

“And for a time it was quite a comfortable arrangement. The ideas weren’t mutually exclusive, and we weren’t electorally successful. The duality was never really tested until we got into positions of power.”

Then the divisions became quite plain. Put simplistically, on one side were the pragmatists, who tended to come from an environmental background, and on the other, the hardliners, who tended to come from more socialist beginnings. The “Tory tree-huggers”, as the left pejoratively termed the right, or “the Eastern bloc”, as the right called the left.

All political parties have factions, of course, but most parties have hierarchies to keep them in line, notes one political professional, who has worked with both the Greens and the Labor Party.

“You expect political parties to be roughhouse. You can’t operate as a loving collective – it’s bullshit,” the source says. “Any organisation needs structures in place to protect the organisation from the worst impulses of those within it. The Greens in NSW have never been willing to put those structures in place.”

But the party was set up to operate on as directly democratic a basis as possible, in which the grassroots called the shots. Which is what gave rise to the term “death by meeting”. Decisions were made by those who turned up. Trouble was, those who turned up tended to be the most ideologically dedicated or those with a lot of time on their hands.

“People with families and young kids can’t do it,” says another political professional. “One side is invested in society with kids and mortgages, and full-time employment. And the other side is either students or retirees with four houses and some superannuated old communists.”

Decisions were supposed to be made by consensus and, where consensus was lacking, there was something called the 75 per cent rule, which meant that on hard decisions “all we are doing now is blocking each other”, says a former senior official.

The factionalism is not only intractable, but expensive. A couple of examples illustrate the point.

Cate Faehrmann comes from the environmental stream of the party, having formerly worked as executive director of the Nature Conservation Council of NSW and chair of Sea Shepherd Australia.

Between 2011 and mid-2013, she was a state Greens MP, before resigning to run for the senate. She didn’t win. Subsequently, she was appointed chief of staff to the newly elected leader, Di Natale. It was a Melbourne-based position.

In March last year, she sought candidacy for an upper house vacancy back in NSW. She was told she couldn’t run, on the grounds that her membership had lapsed while she was a member of the Victorian party. She took the party to the Supreme Court and won. The party was ordered to pay costs, understood to be some $70,000.

A couple of years earlier, Carole Medcalf was hired to be the NSW party’s first executive officer, as part of an effort to professionalise the operation. She lasted about two years before the left faction moved against her, claiming she was guilty of misconduct. Legal action ensued, the party settled, Medcalf was paid out a year’s salary and she forced her accusers to withdraw the allegations, in writing and published to members.

The problems of NSW have bedevilled the Australian Greens for years. Bob Brown tried to sort it out when he was leader. So did Christine Milne.

The formation of a new party, says Brown, has been “seriously mooted for several years”.

“But the Australian Greens constitution does not allow for other entities within states to become part of the federal Greens. It ought to, but every time there has been a move to change the constitution it has been blocked by NSW.”

The party faces a catch 22.

“It is extraordinarily frustrating.” Brown says, “because it really is an anti-environmental power base.”

He is perhaps a little harsh. The NSW Greens’ star candidate for the upcoming state election is Sue Higginson, former chief executive of the NSW Environmental Defenders Office, and a very green, very savvy operator.

She insists the internal ructions have not affected her campaign. She is exceedingly well supported, she says, in her campaign for the marginal seat of Lismore, with a volunteer team of 180 people.

There are other positive signs, too.

David Shoebridge, who was a bête noir for Buckingham, says the party is emphasising its green credentials in the broader campaign, along with issues relating to economic inequality.

“We have preselected candidates in 81 of 95 seats,” he says. “We have already made four times as many voter contacts as at the last election.”

It may be that the Buckingham affair will produce something even more positive. Under heavy pressure from Di Natale and the Australian Greens, the NSW party has agreed to take part in a review of its structures and processes.

It wasn’t easy. It took the threat of a split to achieve it.

On December 12, at the height of the crisis, two state MPs, Cate Faehrmann and Justin Field, sent out a message to “all Greens members, local groups, office bearers, councillors and Greens MPs” warning that they were close to pulling the pin on the party.

“Unfortunately,” they wrote, “recent events have damaged the NSW Greens standing in the eyes of members and the wider community. This has become a crisis that not only threatens to derail our upcoming election campaigns but the party itself.

“The recent actions of one of our Greens colleagues [Leong] using parliamentary privilege to make unsubstantiated allegations against Jeremy Buckingham to pressure him to resign was distressing for many members, including us.”

They demanded a recount of the upper house ticket. They also complained that the party had been “undermined by a deliberate and systematic effort by a small group of members motivated by extreme left ideology”.

“Left Renewal was formed almost two years ago and since then a large group of people from the entryist ‘revolutionary socialist’ organisation Solidarity have joined and become active in the NSW Greens. Their involvement and combative approach to the party has been endorsed and encouraged by a few current and recent Greens MPs and senior party officials,” the pair wrote.

“As a result, as Greens MPs who have dedicated decades to supporting, building and representing this party, we are giving serious consideration to whether we can continue as members of the NSW Greens.”

They demanded that “Solidarity and the NSW Greens ‘socialist tendency’ called Left Renewal be added to the list of proscribed organisations, and their members be immediately expelled”.

And then they backed down on their threat.

To some in the hard left, it looked like a defeat, but it was actually more in the way of a strategic withdrawal.

Quite suddenly, after years of resistance to reform, the state party agreed to embark on a process of reform.

It has not moved far yet, but the plan is for a representative of the Greens federal party room, the co-convenor of the Australian Greens, and a representative of the state body to begin the long-overdue process of reform. Di Natale drove it. The review is to report by August.

Of course, it still is possible the hard left of NSW will do as they have before, and refuse to change.

But when The Saturday Paper spoke to Jenny Leong this week, she was sounding conciliatory.

“It is not surprising that our party structures have not kept up with the pace of growth,” she said. She thought a review was “absolutely necessary”.

It is also absolutely necessary that the movement straighten out its biggest affiliate.

When we contacted Richard Di Natale, he offered a fairly anodyne comment.

“We are working hard to ensure the independent review of the NSW Greens succeeds, so we can be stronger and more effective in fighting for a better future,” he texted.

But the threat remains: reform or split. Di Natale and his former chief of staff, Faehrmann, seem to be doing a good cop/bad cop routine.

Time will tell if it works. And what impact it will have on the party’s chances federally.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 2, 2019 as "Greens split by factional war". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.