Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon has hit back at Labor MP Michael Danby’s rehashing of allegations surrounding her communist past as she prepares to deliver her maiden speech to parliament this afternoon.

In a statement issued to Crikey, Rhiannon harangues Danby, a prominent supporter of Israel, over a speech he delivered in the House of Representatives on Monday night calling for Rhiannon to formally reject the Soviet regime of Josef Stalin in her inaugural address to the Senate.

On Monday night Danby ratcheted up his previous comparison of Rhiannon to “Elena Ceausescu”:

“…my challenge to Senator Rhiannon as she makes her first speech is this: tell us clearly and honestly about your political past. Tell us clearly that you have repudiated communism, not just as a tactical convenience but as a matter of conviction. Tell us that you regret the harm caused by your years of advocacy and activism for the Soviet regime.”

But the equally feisty Rhiannon was having none of it. While finalising the speech this morning, she told Crikey:

“It seems that for Mr Danby nothing is sacred, even the tradition of allowing a politician to deliver their inaugural speech without comment or interference from others. The speech will not only look to the past, but more importantly to the future.”

Thirty-five years ago Rhiannon was active in the Socialist Party of Australia, an offshoot of the Communist Party of Australia. She was later NSW secretary of the Union of Australian Women, which Danby says was “controlled by the SPA after the 1971 split”.

Rhiannon’s parents, Bill and Freda Brown, were leading lights in the CPA and as a consequence she had an ASIO file while still in primary school. But Danby says the NSW firebrand self-identified as a Stalinist until well into her 30s.

Pre-empting the howls of hypocrisy over the equally-radical past of some Labor MPs, Danby claims Rhiannon’s socialism differs from that of former Trots-turned Labor figures like Michael Costa because of her apparently doctrinaire adherence to Moscow’s official line.

“It’s true that many people who grew up in the Vietnam War era were radicalised as students and joined Maoist, Trotskyist or anarchist student groups,” Danby admitted in the speech.

“But most of them rapidly grew out this youthful phase and became moderate social democrats – some, such as Christopher Pearson, who supported the Khmer Rouge in his youth, have even become conservatives!”

The Labor Unity stalwart then rounded on Rhiannon to officially denounce her demons in Hansard:

“She says she is no longer a communist, and I accept that. But she has not said that communism is and always was a false and pernicious doctrine which has caused the deaths of tens of millions of people, and is still causing oppression and misery in China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba.”

“Specifically, I would like to know what Senator Rhiannon now thinks about certain events of the 1970s and ‘80s which took place while she was an enthusiastic supporter of the Soviet Union. What does she now think of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan? What does she now think of the suppression of Solidarity and the imposition of martial law in Poland? What does she now think of the Berlin Wall, and the shooting of people trying to escape across it to freedom? What does she now think of the persecution of Andrei Sakharov and other Soviet dissidents? What does she now think of the anti-Semitism of the Brezhnev regime?”

One issue that continues to get bandied about is whether or not Rhiannon ever supported the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which occurred when she was 17. The allegation has been rejected by Rhiannon, who wasn’t active in party politics until a few years later.

The background to the tension stems from a war over edits to Rhiannon’s Wikipedia page with user ‘Intelligent Mr Toad’ duelling with NSW Greens staffer Chris Maltby over the relevance of past deeds. An extended intro trawling over the Moscow link was repeatedly expunged by Maltby and independent mediators. In parliament, Danby called for a end to Wiki hostilities on his terms:

“Tell Mr Maltby and his friends to stop trying to prevent the text I read out appearing at Wikipedia. If you do these things, I will be the first to accept and welcome your clear and unambiguous statements. If not, the Australian people will judge you accordingly.”

Maltby, en route from Sydney to Canberra to hear Rhiannon’s speech slammed his nemesis, calling him “unbalanced and crazy” and adding that “he seems to have an unhealthy attitude to the editing of the page.”

Danby, a leading light in the Bill Shorten and Stephen Conroy-controlled half of the divided Victorian Labor Right, has previously used his personal website to draw comparisons between Rhiannon and Elena Ceausescu, the wife of murderous Romanian dictator Nicolai Ceausescu.

In response, Greens leader Bob Brown rounded on Danby, calling the juxtaposition “appalling”.

Danby, a former editor of Australia­Israel review, has been brawling with the NSW Greens ever since Marrickville Council’s decision to boycott Israel over its approach to Palestine. Earlier this month he went for coffee at the Israeli chocolate shop Max Brenner to support the owner who had been the subject of recent protests over Israel’s treatment of Palestine. But Danby has admitted he will continue to receive the Greens preferences that keep him Canberra because the broader party doesn’t back Rhiannon’s stance.

Danby has also had to beat off his share of internal ALP enemies ever since losing a grassroots preselection vote against committed NUW-aligned Tim Pallas in 1998. The party’s central panel came to the rescue to install him on the green leather.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey