Jeremy Buckingham Jenny Leong
Greens MPs Jenny Leong and Jeremy Buckingham (Images: AAP/Dean Lewins)

When New South Wales Greens MP Jenny Leong, under the protective veil of parliamentary privilege, accused her colleague Jeremy Buckingham of committing “an act of sexual violence” against former staffer Ella Buckland, she unloaded a bombshell that continues to send shockwaves through the party.

Despite being denounced by senior Greens figures including federal leader Richard Di Natale, and being formally asked by the party not to re-contest his upper house seat at next March’s state election, Buckingham has dug his heels in. He has blamed a factionally-driven “smear campaign” for undermining his position.

A small but loyal band of MPs have jumped to Buckingham’s defence. Following Leong’s speech in November, fellow upper house MPs Cate Faehrmann and Justin Field argued it amounted to an “orchestrated political hit”. Tamara Smith, who initially tweeted her support for Leong, later reportedly called the allegations “claptrap” in correspondence with Buckingham, and admitted to condemning him out of compulsion to support women in the party room.

After the party voted this past weekend to request Buckingham’s removal from the election, Faehrmann claimed the NSW Greens had been “infiltrated by far-left forces”. Faehrmann and Field have both threatened to quit the party in response to the weekend’s decision to purge Buckingham.

Watermelons and tree tories

The assertions about shadowy left-wing forces have laid bare the fault lines that have long existed in the Greens, and are the result of a series of complicated, long-rumbling disputes over the party’s soul. While the Greens, unlike Labor, do not have a formalised factional system, there is something of a historical divide between the left wing and the even-more-left wing of the party. 

University of Sydney academic Stewart Jackson (who has written about the party’s history and been involved as a campaigner, organiser and National Convenor) terms this divide as one between “eco-socialists who attack capitalism and neoliberalism, and green capitalists”.

In NSW, where the state party maintains considerable autonomy, the socialist left has historically been dominant. Former senator Lee Rhiannon and current NSW MP David Shoebridge best represent this factional grouping, often derided by their opponents as the “Eastern Bloc”, or “Watermelons” (since beneath their green skins, they’re a communist red).

More recently, however, the NSW party has seen an influx of MPs from the “right”, like Buckingham, Faehrmann and Field, who along with Di Natale reflect the “tree tory” faction who place environmental protection as a paramount concern, divorced from a broader critique of capitalism.

The divide between the left and the right has reached many flashpoints over the last few years. When Lee Rhiannon announced her opposition to the government’s Gonski 2.0 reforms before the party room had an opportunity to consider them, this led to a rift between Di Natale and the NSW party, culminating in Rhiannon losing a preselection battle to Mehreen Faruqi.

At a state level, both Buckingham and Faehrmann have tussled with a party bureaucracy still largely controlled by the watermelons. When Faehrmann moved form Victoria to contest the upper house seat vacated by Faruqi, she had to win a court battle against her own party, after the NSW Greens sought to block her on an administrative technicality. 

In May, the watermelon Shoebridge beat tree tory Buckingham in a bitter preselection fight to claim top spot on the party’s upper house ticket for the 2019 election. 

Where do Buckland’s allegations fit?

Buckland made her complaint as these tensions between the party’s left and right simmered in the background. Still, while Buckingham has been quick to lay blame at the feet of his political enemies on the left, actual evidence of a factional stitch-up looks increasingly threadbare.

Buckland has repeatedly maintained that she has no factional involvement, or ulterior motive behind raising the allegations. Jenny Leong has long remained factionally non-aligned, although last year, got in a heated stoush with the watermelon David Shoebridge. Mehreen Faruqi, who was also among the first to condemn Buckingham in November unseated Lee Rhiannon in a preselection battle last year.

The results of the decision by the party’s state delegate council over the weekend also further challenge Buckingham’s argument. Although an initial no-confidence motion failed, a watered-down motion, calling on the MP to remove himself from the ticket passed, indicating there is broad support for his resignation. Faehrmann has challenged the validity of the vote, and called for a recount.

Buckingham and his supporters have also pointed the finger at Left Renewal, a widely mocked far-left splinter group that emerged last year vowing to smash capitalism and the illegitimacy of the state. In a letter to members this week, Faehrmann and Field circulated a letter condemning the “entryist revolutionary socialist” organisation, and calling for its members to be expelled.

But Leong, Faruqi, Rhiannon and Shoebridge aren’t involved with Left Renewal, and Greens insiders say its composition, membership and power within the NSW party is currently unclear.

For Stewart Jackson, the spectre of a left-wing plot is an attempt to shift attention away from the serious allegations made against Buckingham. Amid all the factional mudslinging, Buckland’s story has been forgotten.

“When he talks about being attacked factionally, he’s also smearing Ella Buckland,” Jackson told Crikey.

Still, regardless of who is responsible for the campaign against Buckingham, the NSW Greens will face next year’s election deeply damaged and divided. 

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

Note: an earlier version of this piece stated Tamara Smith “backtracked” from her support for Jenny Leong. Smith in fact “stands by [her] support for the joint statement of Mehreen Faruqi and Jenny Leong”.

Peter Fray

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