The federal Greens say their decision to suspend NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon from the party room is not actually about Rhiannon and whether she should have campaigned against the Gonski school funding legislation while the party was in negotiations about it. It’s really about ending a power struggle between the NSW and federal branches.

Yesterday evening, the federal Greens (minus Rhiannon) agreed to temporarily exclude Rhiannon from party room discussions and decisions on contentious government legislation, acting Greens whip Nick McKim says. It was a step short of permanent expulsion — one option that was suggested yesterday would have resulted in Rhiannon sitting as an “independent” elected Greens senator. The Greens say the suspension is part of a move for the National Council of the Greens to work with the NSW branch to “end the practice of New South Wales MPs being bound to vote against the decision of the Australian Greens Party Room”. That is to say, the NSW branch can currently decide on a position and bind its members to vote in line with that position, even if it contradicts the position the federal branch of the party wants to take. 

The federal Greens party room effectively votes as a bloc of 10 and operates on consensus, in which the federal party position is the position voted by every elected member. There are some exceptions, however; a member can vote against a policy if it is against his or her conscience. It is understood Rhiannon could have used this clause to vote against the education funding legislation if she had wanted.

The issue, according to the elected members of the Greens federally, is that Rhiannon isn’t invoking the conscience exception and is instead being forced to vote in line with what the NSW branch of the Greens want, even if that goes against what her federal colleagues all decided on.

It has been a long-standing policy conflict between the NSW branch and the federal Greens party room — last causing ructions in 2014 when the Greens were opposed to an increase in the fuel tax and Rhiannon was canvassing the views of NSW Greens members on the policy. But the tipping point was the Gonski 2.0 negotiations.

Rhiannon previously questioned whether it was a “hanging offence” that she authorised leaflets to be distributed at the start of the long negotiation process between the government and the Greens over the schools funding legislation, but leader Richard Di Natale told ABC Radio National this morning that it wasn’t the leaflets but the ongoing policy conflict between the Australian Greens and the NSW branch that sparked the row. 

“What we have is in one state where a senator is bound to a particular position, it makes it impossible for us to have a process that is based on a consensus because they are bringing a fixed position into the party room.”

The issue was that while negotiations were ongoing between Di Natale, Greens education spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young and the government, they were unaware what Rhiannon’s position would be.

Di Natale said suspending Rhiannon wasn’t a penalty, but an attempt to regain consensus in the party room. He said he would like Rhiannon to abstain from voting in the party room on issues on which her NSW branch-bound vote was in conflict with the rest of the party. 

Some NSW branch members have already been vocal in their opposition to the Australian Greens’ actions against Rhiannon, and the NSW co-convenors Debbie Gibson and Tony Hickey said in a statement overnight that the decision was “unconstitutional” and there was no support in the party to change the constitution to prevent binding NSW members to vote in line with the branch.

The NSW state delegates council will meet early next month to formalise a NSW Greens position on the Australian Greens decision.