Lee Rhiannon, Gonski 2.0 and the battle for the soul of the Greens

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Senator Lee Rhiannon (image via @leerhiannon).

John Passant analyses the recent turmoil and deep divisions afflicting the Australia Greens and their significance for Australia.

THE "Gonski 2.0" Australian Education Amendment Bill has exposed deep divisions in the Greens

While the leadership under Senator Richard Di Natale was negotiating a deal with the Turnbull Government, New South Wales Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon opposed the "reforms" even with any negotiated changes.

As prominent activist Hall Greenland has said on Facebook (quoted here with permission) Rhiannon did this after she: 

‘ ... consulted with the State MP responsible for education, the education working group and the Federal Parliamentary liaison committee – all representative bodies of the NSW members ...’  

She also talked to the Australian Education Union and others. 

Rhiannon was following the NSW Greens' education policy in opposing Gonski 2.0. NSW Greens MP and education spokesperson, Tamara Smith – not a "leftie" by any stretch of the imagination – also opposes Gonski 2.0.

PM Malcolm Turnbull and Education Minister Simon Birmingham stopped negotiating with the Greens. They found an even more compliant set of "negotiators". They did a deal with other crossbenchers to get an amended Gonski 2.0 through the Senate. The crossbenchers, rather than the Greens, are claiming "credit" for making Gonski 2.0 "even better"

The reaction by the Greens right and their left wing cover was a declaration of war. All the other nine Greens Federal Parliamentarians signed a letter of complaint about Rhiannon to the National Committee. This might be a prelude to her censure, her exclusion from the party room, or even expulsion from the Party.

Rhiannon replied in a media statement on 25 June:

'I am proud the Greens Party Room decided to vote against the Turnbull government's school funding legislation. It's clear that public schools would have been better off under the existing commonwealth-state agreements than they will be under the Turnbull package. At all times my actions on education have been faithful to Greens policy and process.'

As Rhiannon noted:

‘The new funding regime is neither sector blind or needs based.’


There has been open warfare between the right and left in the Greens in NSW for some time. Early in June, four Greens State parliamentarians from the right wing of the party, including Tamara Smith, decided to boycott the Parliamentary liaison committee (PLC), a democratic body that could technically bind NSW politicians on issues on which the party room cannot reach consensus. After calling the democratic body a "politburo", the four then backed down from the boycott threat after their complaints about the PLC being unconstitutional were rejected at a State and national level.

This a battle for the soul of the Greens. Is it to be a democratic grassroots party or one driven from the top down? Is it to move left or stay firmly on course in its gallop to the right, mistakenly called the centre? Could this move against Rhiannon spark a Corbyn moment?

It is pretty clear what answers the Federal leadership and politicians have to the first two questions.

Bob Brown is the former leader and one of the founders of the Greens in Australia. His activist and political actions helped kickstart a global Greens movement. His standing among Greens and many in the public is very high. 

In late July last year, he called on Rhiannon to quit the Senate, less than a month after the 2 July Federal Election, where Rhiannon won re-election as a Greens Senator. Brown was no doubt echoing the views of the current Greens leadership. He has now endorsed the complaint against Rhiannon, saying it could lead to her expulsion. So, it is pretty clear what view establishment Greens have of this leftwing "rabble" in NSW and elsewhere. They are trying to purge the left.

In January this year, Brown called Rhiannon a wrecker — comparing her to Tony Abbott. She could prove to be Jeremy Corbyn rather than Tony Abbott. This could save the Greens, or destroy them.

Rhiannon has no chance of rising to the leadership of her party like Corbyn did in the UK. The Greens' "democratic" leadership election system, which excludes the membership, would never deliver that result. The current political trajectory of the Greens, could, without a Corbyn turn, destroy them in the long term.   

Rhiannon could leave the Greens and set up, echoing the language of Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist group. In doing that, she would attract many of the younger, enthusiastic and activist Greens members and young people (and perhaps old socialists) who are not members of the party. Certainly, the experience of Sanders in the U.S. and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK suggests that basic social democratic ideas can appeal to a wide audience and reinvigorate dying parties.

Young people are not benefitting from 30 years of neoliberalism and many are angry and disillusioned. Corbyn and Sanders are dispelling disillusionment by giving focus to that anger.

These left-right battles are common in most green parties across the globe, with some splitting, some remaining politically irrelevant in part due to the infighting and some joining or supporting austerity governments. "Realos" versus "fundis", green greens versus red greens, watermelons versus neoliberals on bikes, eastern bloc versus tree Tories … the wording changes but the differences are the same and they are stark.

The fight has not been one-sided. In NSW, a left renewal faction formed, arguing for an end to capitalism. 

On a more socially democratic note, Rhiannon told Fairfax media in January this year:

'The Greens are at a crossroads, with Labor appearing to move left on some issues and minor parties also pulling our votes away. We need to be able to inspire people and demonstrate that the Greens can challenge ruling elites, and end the obscene and growing inequality both at home and abroad. The Bernie Sanders experience in the U.S. shows that people with radical and anti-establishment policies can win mass support. How the Greens inspire people to join with us and vote for us is our challenge in 2017.'

The lessons from the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party he leads in the UK – with its leftwing manifesto and the loss of majority it delivered to the Tories in the recent UK early election – only reinforces that view. I would suggest it multiplies the urgency to do something here in Australia.  

If Rhiannon had not thought, before the other nine of her colleagues signed a letter of complaint against her, of setting up a social democratic or socialist group outside the Greens, then that letter, coupled with Jeremy Corbyn’s rise and mass appeal, should at least prompt a more serious consideration of that option.

Of course, Corbyn and Sanders operated within their parties. Sanders lost out to the ultimate party insider and Corbyn only became Labour leader because the membership and supporters elect the leader. The situation is different here in Australia. Like Labor, the Greens are not able to be reformed in a social democratic direction.

The four basic principles of the Greens are ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice and peace and non-violence. To keep them alive and to make them a possible reality, it seems to me the best option would be for Rhiannon to leave the Greens and set up a left-wing social democratic party. It is part of what is missing in Australian politics at the moment.

The electorate is well to the left of politicians on most economic and social issues other than refugees. Over a quarter of young people have not enrolled to vote. A clear socialist push by someone as well-known as Rhiannon offers an opportunity to attract the so far disenfranchised – many of them young people and former members of the ALP and the Greens – to such a new party.

The key question would be the new organisation’s relationship to the working class, including, like Labor, the trade union bureaucracy and, unlike Labor, rank and file unionists. The ALP, as "their" party, will appeal to the trade union leadership. A new democratic socialist organisation may well appeal to many rank and file unionists.

Of course, Rhiannon will make her own judgements about these factors if she and others even turn their minds to a new party.

The time has come for an Australian Jeremy Corbyn to rise from the ashes of austerity and neoliberalism and the dying major parties. They would give voice to the many who want a fairer, more democratic society that addresses the existential threat that is climate change.

Seize the day, Senator Rhiannon. 

John Passant is considering running for the Senate in the ACT in 2019 as an independent socialist. 

Read more by John Passant on his website En Passant or follow him on Twitter @JohnPassantSigned copies of John Passant’s first book of poetry, Songs for the Band Unformed (Ginninderra Press 2016) are available for purchase from the IA store HERE.

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