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Brown, factions and the Greens NSW

Lee Rhiannon 3 Aug 2016

At the end of July Bob Brown, former parliamentary leader of the Australian Greens,  appeared on the ABC's 7.30 and called on me to step down as a Senator for NSW. Brown said the Greens “did very well nationally” in the recent federal election while speaking of his “long-term disappointment” with the Greens NSW results. 

There was no comment from Brown on the result in Queensland and South Australia where the Greens vote was lower than in NSW, or in Brown’s home state of Tasmania where the Senate vote since 2010 has nearly halved and is now a bit over 11 per cent. 

Brown in this same interview accused me of factionalism effectively attacking my work on behalf of the Greens. I found this very disturbing. Only a few weeks before the 7.30 interview Brown had been in NSW campaigning with me and lower house candidates. He wrote the foreword and helped launch our 32 page environment election booklet and joined me at a packed out event and local press conferences in Sydney. 

All this assistance was appreciated. At no time did Brown raise his concerns with me. 

I was not the only one surprised by Brown’s comment on national television. I appreciate all those people who subsequently contacted me to indicate their support for my work as a Senator and activist and their disappointment in Brown. One comment among many is memorable for me.

 A member asked if I was "collateral damage" in Brown’s attack. It was perceptive feedback. This was not the first time since I became a Greens MP that I have had that "collateral damage" feeling. In 2000 on the last NSW parliamentary sitting day of the year, Ian Macdonald, the former Labor state MP, made a speech about me. 

This is the same Labor MP that ICAC in 2013 found had acted in a corrupt manner. Sadly a Greens member had briefed Macdonald for his speech which kicked off the deeply offensive and inaccurate narrative that I was attempting to take over the Greens.

Ludicrous as it was in 2000 and still is 16 years later, it is disturbing that Brown in 2016 continued this type of narrative in the Monthly and in the Guardian, and that he used the national broadcaster to state that I am driving factionalism in the Greens NSW. In the intervening years some media outlets and a few Greens members have made similar statements to those of Brown and Ian Macdonald. 

My feeling of "collateral damage" that arises from the actions of Macdonald, Brown and others who engage in similar tactics comes about because as a Greens MP with a long history with the Australian left I have become a convenient vehicle for those who have wider agendas to misrepresent and discredit many more than just myself.

In many ways these attacks stem from political disagreements about the root causes of, and solutions to, social injustices and environmental destruction. Rather than engage with that disagreement in a constructive way, they choose to attack the person, not the politics. Hence a debate about the role of corporate exploitation in environmental problems becomes an attack on someone’s age, for example. Or a debate about MP accountability to the membership becomes an attack on who the MP associates with. 

Some of these tactics have an unsavoury Cold War McCarthyism flavour to them. This is how Crikey reported the Greens NSW Convenor Hall Greenland’s comments in response to the allegation of factionalism:

"Greenland rejects the notion that there were factions anything like what the Labor Party has, but he says informal networks in the Greens do exist. “Some have labelled the more left Greens the ‘Eastern bloc’ to falsely imply they are undemocratic extremists. The opposite is true. The extensive democratic rights of members in the Greens NSW constitution — very much the product of people like Lee Rhiannon and John Kaye — give the lie to that.”"

Brown's public attack on me and some preselection candidates, perceived rightly or wrongly to be close colleagues of mine, could be described as factional behaviour. While Brown clearly prefers particular preselection candidates, and campaigns for them, I agree with Greenland that there are no formalised factions. 

There are different approaches to policy and processes in the Greens. This can be a good thing. The development of contradictions through contrary views and the contest of ideas is a driving force of social change. No one person or party has a monopoly on the most appropriate response to the challenges we face in building an ecologically sustainable society. 

Yes – I work closely with Greens colleagues committed to promoting the right to strike, the need for wealth redistribution and why we should stand with oppressed people such as the Palestinians. I am also interested in promoting views that highlight the need to reduce inequality to successfully tackle climate change. This is only a microcosm of what I work on. 

These same Greens colleagues, like myself, are also committed to grassroots party democracy and oppose the hierarchical powers within the party preferred by Brown.

The area where there is most disagreement within the Greens is with respect to internal party processes and in particular MP accountability. I hope Greens MPs, current and future, are committed to being accountable to party members, support democratising ballots for Greens leaders and in NSW agree that local groups should retain the right to decide preferences, preselect candidates and control their own budgets. 

If we are going to be true to our principle of grassroots democracy this approach is critical. 

Although I find Brown’s accusations offensive I did want to put on the public record that I still acknowledge Brown’s contribution to the Greens and the broad progressive movement. 

MPs like Brown and former Greens Senator Kerry Nettle had the courage to interject when former US President George Bush addressed the federal parliament. When in 2012 I organised the Sydney farewell and thankyou to Brown for his 26 years of parliamentary service and many decades as an activist I presented him with the famous photo of this interjection moment. There is another copy of that photo framed in my office. 

The task ahead for the Greens and the progressive movement is immense. Ruling elites preside over obscene and growing inequality and environmental damage, while massive tax evasion robs young and old of a good life. 

The Greens have traditionally been united in our commitment to challenge ruling elites and work for a sustainable world respectful of nature, and based on an expanded democracy, equal access to the necessities of life, peace and non-violence, and justice. I work to foster unity on these objectives. 

I hope within those demands our current and future MPs will give leadership in the campaigns against privatisation, for free, universal and publicly owned public services for all and for wealth redistribution. I think it is vital to recognise that our leadership needs to extend to extra parliamentary activities. Our success in having our policies implemented is as much, if not more, dependent on the social movements we help build as it is on the number of Greens MPs elected. 

This is another point of tension within the Greens – do we just follow an electoral path of development or can the Greens continue to adhere to both an electoral and activist approach to social change?

History shows us that our critical campaigns can be won with a variety of direct action tactics, a commitment to building broad based alliances and with support for the right of workers to join unions to organise and to strike. 

This is how we can achieve the transformative change we need to build a democratic, equal society and end the damage inflicted by decades under an economy in which fossil fuels, profit and the market reign supreme.

It is not achieved by an ill-informed public attack on a Greens state party and a colleague. 

It gives me no pleasure to expose Brown's shortcomings, and I do so after many years of turning the other cheek, for the good of the Greens. If our party is to fulfil its potential and achieve its objectives there is no alternative but to expose such unprincipled attacks. 


Other links to relevant articles and speeches

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