Tensions are rising in the NSW Greens, with many eager to point fingers over the party’s disappointing result in the federal election and tensions over replacing recently deceased state MP John Kaye and maintaining his legacy.
The Greens increased their primary vote in the lower house, but there was a swing against the party in the Senate and they lost at least one senator, Robert Simms from South Australia. Much of the blame has gone to the New South Wales branch, where the primary vote was less than 9%, it failed to gain key seats such as Grayndler and Sydney, and hopes for a second Greens senator were dashed.
Over the past few months there have been resignations and court cases involving members of the party’s state executive, as well as a bitter preselection battle for the New South Wales upper house seat held by John Kaye, who died from cancer in May.
On Friday’s 7.30, former Greens leader Bob Brown unleashed on the NSW branch. He told 7.30 that New South Wales had been “a long term disappointment to me”, citing the NSW branch’s reluctance to unify as part of the national Greens party in the ’90s. Tensions between the NSW branch and the rest of the party intensified last year, as Crikey reported, over federal resources offered to NSW for the election, and after Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon lost the education portfolio.
In the interview, Brown called for “renewal” in the party, specifically for NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon to go and make way for fresh blood, but NSW Greens co-convener Hall Greenland told Crikey that Brown and NSW Greens have always had different views about the importance of grassroots democracy.
“Unfortunately the difference persists. For more than a decade Bob has been interfering in Greens preselections in New South Wales. He has never got over the fact that the Greens NSW members did not agree with his view and preselected Lee Rhiannon and John Kaye for the Upper House instead of his preferred candidate,” he said. “It’s time Bob acknowledged and accepted that no part of the Australian Greens has a more democratic constitution than the Greens NSW. The members preselected our Senator Lee Rhiannon and their decision needs to be respected.”
Greens state MP Mehreen Faruqi echoes Greenland’s statement in an opinion piece in Guardian Australia this week, stating Rhiannon was democratically elected and no one inside or outside of the Greens had the authority to tell her to resign.
The current focus for tension in the Greens in New South Wales is the bitter battle for Kaye’s seat, where there are 14 preselection candidates. Brown has raised concern that seven or eight of the candidates, aligned with the so-called “eastern bloc” of Rhiannon and Kaye, would be working to build their preferences together to topple other candidates, specifically to take on NSW MLC Jeremy Buckingham’s preferred candidate, anti-CSG campaigner Justin Field. Brown said on 7.30:
“That’s not what voters want to see. And that’s not serving the thousands of members of the Greens in New South Wales properly. We don’t want factionalism. We want the best candidates to get up. There are good candidates there. But if you’re trying to shepherd votes to a particular candidate, it means that candidate’s not necessarily the one that the voters would pick.”
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 labeled 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.”
The favoured candidate of the Kaye camp is believed to be James Ryan. Kaye’s widow, Lynne Joslyn, also intervened in the preselection battle this week, telling Fairfax that before he died, Kaye was concerned that Field would be chosen to take his place, and that Field would betray his legacy.
Nick Casmirri, a former active member of the Greens until 2013, and who is a personal friend of Field’s, says that Field doesn’t align with the ideological purity that Kaye represented to the New South Wales Greens, but that he is still closer to the left of the Greens than other NSW Greens MPs and some in the federal party.
Casmirri says the current fight is a result of a power vacuum left by Kaye. Kaye had been a highly effective organisational politician, with broad policy knowledge that allowed him to dominate debates.
“John was across everything that was happening in the NSW Greens. It’s hard to imagine the party organisation without him. Lee Rhiannon might be the public face of the ‘left’ in the Greens, but it was John who pulled most of the strings behind the scenes, to an extent where even many of John’s close allies didn’t realise just how much influence he was wielding.”
For example, Casmirri says during the 2010 campaign, Kaye personally drafted suggested responses for lower house Greens candidates to give in response to questions.
“I was quite surprised a state MP with a heavy workload would get involved in such a minor detail of the federal election campaign, but I came to see it was common for John to get involved in such details of the party’s operations.”
Part of the preselection animosity towards Field stems from when Field used to work for Kaye, and Field would often challenge Kaye over policy. Joslyn told Fairfax that Kaye had been concerned that Field didn’t share his views on “collective action, working in solidarity with the party or social justice”.
In part, the preselection needs to go the way of Kaye’s allies, otherwise in the NSW party room it would be split 4-4 between the left of the party and the — as Casmirri calls it — “more pragmatic” side. Voting opened on July 18 and will close on August 12.
Greenland told Crikey that he believed the tensions in the party would settle down once the preselection battle was over.
Brown and Rhiannon were both approached for comment for this article. Brown was unavailable, but a spokesperson told Crikey that he stood by his earlier comments.