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Responding to attacks on my family and political background

Lee Rhiannon 23 Aug 2010

As support for the Greens increases, inevitably so do the attacks on the Greens and on individuals within the party. As one of the public faces of the Greens, I have been in the firing line.

A much repeated line of attack draws on my parent’s involvement in the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) and my early involvement with the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) – and then draws a dubious line to the conclusion that I am a loony watermelon who does not care about the environment. See here and here, for example.

This characterisation is wrong and offensive. I have been a proud member of the Greens for 20 years. I want to use this blog to put on the record some facts about my family upbringing, my early political life and what I believe in. It is disappointing that often media outlets publish these opinion pieces and news stories without asking for comment on their allegations.

Apologies in advance for the length of this blog.

I want to respond up front to two of the main claims that have been pushed by some journalists and media outlets before going into my early political life and upbringing and finally look at more specific claims made recently by Paul Howes, Mark Aarons and Gerard Henderson.


Claim 1: I have no interest in the environment

It frustrates me no end that I even have to answer this. I have been an environmental activist for as long as I can remember, a Greens MP in NSW parliament for 11 years and an active member of the Greens for two decades.

I have worked on campaigns to stop the import of illegally-sourced rainforest timbers, to end wood chipping of native forests, to address human-induced climate change and the environmental impacts of coal mining, to reduce air pollution and lots more.

I majored in botany and zoology and my honours thesis was on “The Nature of Sclerophylly - a study of water and nutrient stress in Banksia species”. As far as I am aware, I am the only Greens MP around Australia with an academic background in botany.

You can read about my environmental credentials here, and here are some of the positive letters sent into newspapers in response to attacks during the 2010 Federal election campaign from individuals and community groups I have worked with over the last couple of decades.


Claim 2: I come from a family of Stalinists and I supported the invasion of Czechoslovakia

The use of the “Stalinist” term against myself and my family is insulting. That descriptor not only implies that my parents supported the crimes perpetrated by Stalin but that they were autocratic parents. This is so wide of the mark.

My parents are both dead. They were not Stalinists. Like so many of their generation who joined the Communist Party my Mum and Dad worked hard for a more just and peaceful society.

I did not support the invasion of Czechoslovakia.

I was 17 years old, in my penultimate year at Sydney Girls High, when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. I had already been involved in many actions against the war in Vietnam. Along with a few friends from school, who I went to political rallies with, we joined the protest action against the invasion. My recollection is that we marched up New South Head Road to the Soviet Consulate where there were speakers long into the night. About five years later after I returned from overseas I joined the Socialist Party of Australia.

Personally I did not support the invasion and to conclude that when I was first getting involved in politics as a teenager and in my early twenties I backed oppressive violent actions against people in Czechoslovakia and Poland is ridiculous. 


My upbringing and early political life

I come from a very political family. My grandad, on my mother’s side, was arrested and gaoled in the First World War as he was a conscientious objector. My parents were both in the Communist Party, and my uncles were wharfies and also politically active.

But there was no expectation that I would follow in their footsteps. My parents instilled in me an independence of spirit and outlook – and they emphasised the importance of education to achieve economic independence. I was the first in my family to go to university. My parents wanted to give me opportunities. Career path pressure and expectations were not part of how they raised me.

When I was in primary school my passion, like many young girls, was horses and I wanted to be a vet. My parents found friends and friends of friends who had animals that I could help look after.  I was lucky enough to work at the Royal Easter Show with horses and spend time on farms at Little Hartley, Dubbo and Kangaroo Valley.

Dad was a keen body surfer and he taught mum and me to body surf. These days a woman body surfer is nothing unusual, but in my youth this was not the norm. My Dad also taught me self-defence. When I was young I took these aspects of my upbringing for granted – these days I appreciate them enormously.

While there were no expectations that I follow my parents’ political beliefs it is not surprising that I became interested in politics. From a young age I was surrounded by people who not only talked about what was happening in their community, in Australia and in the world but they also acted on their commitment to bring about change, to make the world a better place for all.

My love of animals and nature fitted in very easily with this world outlook.

The first political action I was involved in was the protest movement against the war in Vietnam. This was in the 1960s and I was still at high school. It was before the massive Vietnam Moratorium movement of the 1970s that gave voice to the majority of Australians who wanted the war to end and Australian troops to be brought home.

In the late 1960s the movement was much smaller and it was a time of great learning for me as I saw a range of tactics used to build mass opposition to the war in Vietnam. Peaceful direct action played a key role and my father and Jack Mundey along with Bruce Steele were arrested together at a protest against Australian conscripts being sent to the war. I understand that this was the first sit down protest held in Australia.

Mum, Dad and I would discuss the tactics of the anti-war movement at great length and at times disagree. The hallmark of our family was talking about what we were doing, thinking and planning. We shared a diversity of views.

These years of family and political life have certainly framed my political work. But it was not a political dogma as some commentators like to make out. I came to appreciate the value of collective participation and of building broad-based campaigns by seeking allies, listening, forming views and developing a range of actions.


Howes, Aarons and Henderson – three peas in a pod

During the 2010 federal election campaign, the monolith approach to my political life was largely perpetrated by Labor Party members Paul Howes and Mark Aarons, and Sydney Institute Director Gerard Henderson. 

This current round of attacks is reminiscent of Cold War political activities. The fact that this dishonest form of political engagement has been resurrected provides an insight into to the motives of those who attack the Greens.

We all have a past.

Paul Howes is effectively running the 21st century version of a red scare campaign against the Greens. If he suggests I am a threat to the Greens, why does that not apply to him and other former leftwing colleagues now active in the Labor Party? Ian Macdonald a former Maoist, Michael Costa and Howes former Trotskyites, and countless others have taken a similar path into the Labor Party.

Howes has limited the details he provides about his time in the 1990s as an active member of both the socialist youth group Resistance and the Democratic Socialist Party. He was part of a protest that occupied the NSW Treasury concerning increased police powers brought in by the Carr government. I remember Howes' strong speeches as a young socialist at protests outside the NSW parliament against the then Labor government. When members of various groups in 1997 set up the Youth Tent Embassy in the Domain for one week Howes to his credit was an active member.

I find it bemusing that my youthful past, of which I am proud, is regularly raised and denigrated but the political history of my critics from the ALP is rarely mentioned.

I have always been open that I was a member of the Socialist Party of Australia. When I returned from a couple of years overseas in the early 1970s the division in the Communist Party of Australia was very deep. Although I was never a member of the CPA these divisions disturbed me. With friends on both sides and family members either expelled or having resigned from the CPA I felt very torn about where I should put my political efforts. A factor that influenced me to go with the SPA was that the CPA leadership had expelled the whole of the Maritime Branch of their party. This was probably the largest and one of the most active branches with over a hundred members. My uncles were members of this branch as were many other family friends.

The 1970s splits in the CPA were a setback for the progressive movement. Serious mistakes were made on all sides. The portrayal set out in Mark Aarons’ book The Family File, that paints the CPA as the force for good and the SPA as the force for bad, distorts the history of this period, and leaves this book as just another Cold War relic.

Mark Aarons, while being open about his political history, has certainly worked hard to reflect his world view. He relies on ASIO files and his own memories to provide selective details of my political activities and those of so many others in his book The Family File.

Last year the National Archives Office sent me my ASIO files – up to 1979. They explained that their policy is to release a person’s file when someone else requests that file. I do not know who requested my file.

My ASIO records run to five volumes and I found it full of mistakes. This is the speech I made in the NSW parliament about the inaccuracies. Probably the biggest howler is the assertion that I studied motor mechanics at UNSW. I didn’t and as far as I know this course has never been offered at this university.

Aarons did not interview me for the chapter of his book that largely covered my work. He selectively recounts events to suit his version of our shared political history.

He dredges up a memory from the early 1970s about a discussion about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia that is flawed. While I can remember him visiting my home I did not “aggressively praise McGahey’s endorsement of Moscow’s invasion of Czechoslovakia”. This was a conversation Aarons had with my boyfriend at the time, who was more interested in riling Aarons than having any serious exchange.

From his personal and political association with my family Aarons is well aware that my parents did not have a simplistic, adulatory approach to the former Soviet Union.

But in his book he gives scant coverage to the stand my father took in 1956 when he was the first CPA member to publicly report on the disclosure in the Soviet Union of Stalin’s crimes. Aarons would be aware that my father was strongly criticised within CPA ranks for this stand.

Aarons notes in his book that my father in 1968 stated that the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia ‘would be wrong’. However, he continued to paint a simplistic picture of this era which always has the Aarons and the CPA holding the right line.

My father subsequently concluded that the uprising in Czechoslavakia was not about national independence but a threat to socialism. For him this meant supporting the invasion. While at the time I thought socialism was being undermined, the military invasion for me was wrong.

In an SBS documentary on my mother, Freda Brown, screened in the 1990s, she dealt with some of these issues.

In the speech I gave at the Celebration of Mum’s Life in 2009 I stated that Freda realised that some colleagues on the left believed that she was dogmatic because she would not publicly criticise the Soviet Union. Later in an SBS documentary about her life my mother talked about the internal problems that she saw in the socialist world, but commented that previously she had not gone public with those criticisms. In the context of the cold war she was unwilling to add her voice to the criticism of the socialist world.

Mum would often joke that she could sit around all day and talk about the problems in the socialist world and the communist movement but that it would take more than a lifetime to go through the problems of capitalism.

Aarons’ states in his letter to the editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, in response to my letter clarifying inaccuracies in his book, “More astonishing is Rhiannon's attempt to deny the facts in the book about the views and activities of her parents, Bill and Freda Brown.”

In my letter to the Herald my only comment about my parents was that they were not Stalinists.

Aarons also argues in his SMH letter “Rhiannon's refusal to condemn the invasion (and the shooting of Polish workers) is recorded in the University of NSW student newspaper Tharunka (1972). Denial will not alter the facts.” This is a distorted version of events from 38 years ago. All I did at the time was not answer questions put to me in the pages of a student newspaper by Aarons brother Brian Aarons. To then assume I supported the actions referred to in his questions is manipulative and dishonest.

Gerard Henderson delves even further back into history for his attack on me. He followed up his Herald article with allegations on his blog that “one or more of the Browns”, which means either myself and/or my parents, supported a series of crimes starting with the 1932-33 Ukraine famine. I was not born when this tragedy occurred and my parents were 11 and 13 years of age.

He goes on to make a series of other baseless allegations. The best that can be said for this article is that his extreme bias is clearly revealed.


These insults from Howes, Aarons and Henderson were timed to coincide with my running for the Senate as a Greens candidate.

I welcome scrutiny of my political work. However, it does need to be asked why these critics fail to examine my political activities in a range of environmental and social justice campaigns and my work as a Greens MP in the NSW Upper House over 11 years.


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