The suspension of Senator Lee Rhiannon from the Greens federal party room could be the schism that finally turns voters off Bob Brown’s once great political arm of the Australian environment movement.
The latest act of brinkmanship against the federal parliamentary party is an email sent by Senator Rhiannon to supporters telling them her punishment was “unjustified”.
“I am disappointed that Greens party room members wrote a letter of complaint about me to national council, without informing me, nor providing me with a chance to respond to their criticism,” she wrote last week.
“It was obvious that such a letter attacking me would be leaked to the media and commence a furore that is damaging the Greens. Sadly this is what happened.
“I am disappointed by the suspension and feel that it is unjustified. It is also unclear what it means and how it will operate.”
Senator Rhiannon is characterised as the ‘red under the bed’. She will not dissociate herself from Left Renewal, a New South Wales party faction out to end capitalism and imperialism.
Such is her audacity, folly or courage that she even mentioned the word “socialism” as an objective when interviewed by Barrie Cassidy on the ABC’s Insiders last Sunday.
She took great heart from the socialist policies now rewarded by voters in the United Kingdom under UK Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.
She is on a unity ticket with the Australian Education Union, and, significantly, was cheered by university students in Brisbane this week: “No cuts, no fees, no corporate universities.”
As a political hardliner of Tony Abbott ferocity she did not want the Greens cutting the struggling Turnbull government any slack by voting in the Senate for the Gonski 2.0 version of needs-based funding.
Senator Rhiannon had been prepared to deal with Mr Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull on off-peak issues like pension, debt ceiling and Senate reform. Now she is being accused by her colleagues of undermining Gonski negotiations.
But Greens NSW sources have told The New Daily that the federal party must now back down in the dispute. “They were naive. They were used by government operatives to leverage the Senate crossbenchers to a Gonski deal. Turnbull never wanted to be seen doing any deal with the Greens. Can’t they see that?”
Indeed, any minor party being seen to deal with its political enemy is taking a big risk. Everyone remembers Democrats leader Meg Lees’ famous handshake with the then-hated John Howard to get Mr Howard’s GST through the Senate in 1999.
It effectively destroyed the Democrats’ keep-the-bastards-honest raison d’etre. They were seen to join the bastards. It was ‘the end’ for the Democrats.
Even though Bob Brown has been pleading since 2010 for Senator Rhiannon to resign and move on, she, backed by the NSW Greens branch, are now deadlocked.
The party’s rivals and enemies are having a field day, deriding the Greens under federal leader Richard di Natalie as “neo-liberals on bicycles” and the inner-city “funkeoise”, derived from the materialist put down “bourgeoise”.
The NSW Greens, registered in the 1980s from Sydney resident action and nuclear disarmament activists including the former Bulletin journalist Hall Greenland, has been problematic for the national organisation from the get-go.
Mr Brown was reticent in allying with what he discerned as old class warfare-ist opportunists wanting to hitch a ride with Australia’s growing environmental consciousness.
The Greens vote peaked nationally at 13 per cent in the 2010 federal election, dropping to 8.7 per cent in 2013 and recovering in last year’s double dissolution election to 10.23 per cent in the House of Representatives and 8.65 per cent in the Senate.
The party and its idealistic volunteers built grassroots power in the face of a largely hostile mainstream media.
The Greens’ success over 30 years has been enduring, until now. Ten per cent of the primary vote is substantial but can erode rapidly through this damage.
Senator Rhiannon now faces party preselection for her NSW Senate spot. Rather than weaken her this row appears to have strengthened her power.
Now the Greens must resolve the Rhiannon question raised about its identity.
What does it stand for? Is it a socialist party? Or is its primary purpose to sustain the planet and its biodiversity, including we foolish humans?
Read Senator Lee Rhiannon’s email here:
Quentin Dempster is a Walkley Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster with decades of experience. He is a veteran of the ABC newsroom and has worked with a number of print titles including the Sydney Morning Herald. He was awarded an Order of Australia in 1992 for services to journalism.