In the meeting room of Senator Lee Rhiannon’s office, a few minutes walk from Sydney’s Central Station, a second hand inches its way around a clock face with an insistent tick, tick, tick.
The room is adorned with prints of national parks and past rallies, while a flow-chart decorates another of the walls; boxes and arrows snake upwards to a final rectangle with green text heralding a doomed outcome: “winning a senate seat”.
Just over a week ago, New South Wales state MP Mehreen Faruqi comfortably defeated Rhiannon in a preselection bout to claim the only winnable spot on the Greens’ Senate ticket for the next federal election. After more than 18 years, Rhiannon’s time in parliaments, state and federal, is about to run out.
The result has left Rhiannon’s long-time antagonists ebullient and emboldened critics of the Left Renewal group in NSW, which made waves when it emerged as a quasi-faction at the end of 2016 with a mind to “end capitalism”.
A long-time antagonist of Rhiannon’s, former federal leader Bob Brown, is buoyed by the preselection result.
“It’s a watershed moment for the Greens,” he told Crikey.
Brown suggests members of Left Renewal should now leave the party and run at the next election under their own name instead. He blames Rhiannon’s “divisive” actions for her defeat and says his own dramatic interventions over the last year to denounce her on 7.30 and then Four Corners were “healing”.
One Left Renewal critic in NSW suggests the group has now been “thoroughly rejected”.
“The big turnout and the huge margin is a clear repudiation of factionalism and the attack on the Australian Greens,” they argued. “Members want unity and an outward focus on outcomes, not internal posturing and narrow ideology.”
But in spite of the result, Rhiannon’s backers don’t believe the outcome is necessarily a sign that their side of the party lacks support among the grassroots. To these people, the federal party room — which temporarily barred Rhiannon over her opposition to the government’s Gonski 2.0 legislation — and the interventions of Brown unfairly pushed the contest against Rhiannon.
In a sign of just how heated the issue of alleged intervention has become, Brown was contacted during the preselection campaign by Returning Officers who asked him to delete a tweet linking to a Saturday Paper article that praised the Greens generally but heavily criticised Rhiannon. Brown declined the request. (The NSW Greens have rules banning current and former MPs from publicly commenting on preselection. The ROs received a complaint that Brown’s tweet violated this policy.)
While it’s customary for Greens senators to retire some time out from an election to allow their replacement a spell of incumbency, some of Rhiannon’s supporters are now hoping she’ll stay on and take the fight to Brown, the party room and Richard Di Natale.
Rhiannon says she’s not one to make long-term plans.
“I have no immediate plans to resign,” she said.
When Rhiannon does leave Canberra, she will continue to push her message within the party. In spite of everything, the outgoing Senator remains positive about the Greens and offers praise for Faruqi. Her hope is that the party follows the example set by Corbyn and Sanders.
“I think potentially we’re in an excellent moment,” she reflected. “Around the world the progressive mainstream, if you want to use that term, is tacking to the left and I think we’ve got to ensure that’s what we do.”
By “tack left” Rhiannon means supporting unions, fighting anti-striking and organising laws, and pushing for the re-nationalisation of “key sectors of society”, including the power grid. After years of commie-bashing focused on herself and her family, she doesn’t use the word socialism, though it’s a fairly socialist sounding agenda.
She rejects the idea that the party is split between a harder economic left and an environmental wing.
“The temper of the times is really changing, and changing fast,” Rhiannon said. “The week before parliament I participated in four events on neoliberalism in five days.”
If Rhiannon has any grenades to lob on her way out, the pins remain in place for now.
Asked about leader Richard Di Natale, she said simply: “I support Richard’s leadership”. Does she support him over others in the party for the position or just generally?
“Generally.” Then a short and slightly awkward laugh. That’s all she’ll say for now.
Whether Rhiannon’s defeat is a personal loss or an ideological statement is hard to read. All sides acknowledge she was hampered by a feeling it was time for renewal — left or otherwise — in NSW.
“Faruqi never pandered to [Bob Brown’s] critiques of Rhiannon, instead being a consistent supporter of NSW democratic structure,” Jim Casey, a Rhiannon supporter and former candidate for Grayndler, said.
“It would be a mistake to assume the vote for her represents an endorsement of the line run by Brown.”
For her part, Farqui describes the Greens as “the major left-wing force in Australian politics” and points to her own record as an “activist, unionist and trouble-making parliamentarian”.
While Brown and his supporters in NSW are talking up a sunny future of unity, increased membership, and growing support, the truth is that the internal contradictions that centred on Rhiannon have not disappeared overnight.
Long after she’s gone, disagreements about the party’s economic policies, relationship with unions, and internal structures in particular will persist.