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28 November 2017
By Matt Hrkac

Lee Rhiannon's downfall sets the Greens on a centrist trajectory

Back in June of this year, I remarked that if the Federal Greens Party Room expelled NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon from sitting in the Federal Greens party room, that it would spell the end of radical grassroots leftist politics within the Greens. That did not eventuate, but it wound culminate in a preselection contest between Rhiannon and soft-left contender (who was backed by the centrists and other careerists within the party) NSW MLC Mehreen Faruqi. Make no mistake, despite Faruqi's own political brand, and the fact that a number of her supporters talk her up as being "just as left-wing" as Rhiannon, it does spell the end of the Greens being the radical political party it was founded as, as the party as a whole chases the middle ground in the name of being respectable and electable.

Though difference in ideology no doubt had some influence in the preselection result: the biggest factor was undoubtedly differences in style and presentation. While Lee Rhiannon is an old school activist, rooted in the ideals that change is best achieved through the creation of social movements, as well as in socialism and almost unrelenting criticism of capitalism and neoliberalism and the need to change the system; Faruqi's style is more focused on pragmatism and achieving incremental change that doesn't upset the apple cart (read: the Murdoch press and the conservative forces it supports) to a great extent. The defeat of Rhiannon by such a large margin will be felt most heaviest by the Greens in NSW, but it will also be felt across the country, and the message is clear: be respectable and do deals even if it means sacrificing principles, and especially don't attract negative media attention, or get out of the party.

There's been no doubt that the party was already heading down the trajectory of respectability and achieving a peaceful coexistence with the status quo rather than advocating for radical change, but the Federal leadership of Richard Di Natale has all but amplified this process in all divisions of the Greens; and while the leadership of Christine Milne allowed both radical and pragmatic elements within the Greens to exist together without any major public spillage; the leadership of Richard Di Natale has all but emboldened the more opportunistic elements of the party to rally against the radical elements, who have been under increasing attack in the last year by the former elements at the rank-and-file level that has seen increased media coverage as a result, in order to weed such people out of the party.

It wasn't only the difference in styles and presentation that saw Rhiannon's downfall, it was also a difference as to how decision making within the Greens should be conducted. Opponents to Rhiannon favour a more top down approach with decisions being made by elected MPs as opposed to the membership, whereas supporters of Rhiannon were staunch in their insistence that it's the collective of rank and file members that should make decisions and direct (bind) their elected MPs to advocate accordingly in the legislatures. It may be true that Faruqi in principle supports the same collective grassroots decision making process as Rhiannon does, however it can't be argued that she would be as firm as Rhiannon is when it comes to grassroots direct democracy, and thus may be all the more willing to go with the wishes of the party room over the desires of the membership. Why else would advocates within the Greens for a more top down approach to decision making rally in behind her?

Opponents of Rhiannon argue that having her as lead Senate candidates makes the Greens NSW unelectable, and they point to numerous states having two Greens Senators while they only have one Senator in NSW. This is despite the fact that the Greens NSW were one of the first states to elect a Greens Senator, in 2001, nearly a decade before the Victorian Greens managed to get its first Senator elected. They also point to Victoria's success in electing lower house MPs into single member electorates - despite the fact that the NSW Greens elected three Greens MPs, and one in a rural area, at their last state election, outnumbering lower house Greens MPs elected in Victoria.

The arguments, also often made by Rhiannon's opponents, that "they'd vote Greens if Lee Rhiannon wasn't on the ticket" is also a blatant furphy. At the 2010 Federal Election, the NSW Greens nearly won a Senate quota in their own right with Rhiannon as their lead candidate. In 2013, a candidate belonging to the more centrist tendency within the NSW Greens led the ticket, and failed to get elected after a 3% swing against the Greens (that was under the national average for that election, mind you). In 2016, Rhiannon was once again the NSW Greens lead candidate, and achieved a result that barely saw the Greens vote move, consistent with the Greens result across the rest of the country in that election.

Regardless of Faruqi's own personal politics, after seeing what happens to people who dare rebel and speak up and challenge the status quo, and given the types of people who were backing her for preselection, she will be under pressure to toe the more centrist line of the party room in parliament. She will be unable to advocate significant change from the status quo or upset the apple cart too much, or else she will come under the same vicious attacks from the party establishment that Rhiannon had to endure.

The Greens being a party of the 'moderate centre', of being respectable, is a strategy that has failed. While the far right continues to grow and gain traction in Australia (with some electoral success) and around the world despite their deliberately obtuse antics, why is it now incumbent of Left-wing parties to move to centre or else be deemed unelectable? We don't need more centrist parties masquerading as progressive parties; we need progressive parties who are principled and are willing to challenge the status quo and challenge the neoliberal dogma and ultimately, challenge the far right.

The only winners from the dumping of Rhiannon is the Murdoch press and the conservative, reactionary elements that support it, who somehow managed to convince scores of Greens members not only in NSW, but across the country, that Rhiannon is unelectable due to her leftist politics and that to be electable, they as a party need to chase the middle ground, abandon its roots in social movements and focus on parliamentary representation (this is despite the relative success of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and Bernie Sanders in the US running on principled, left wing and/or socialist platforms). The Greens need to stand defiant and remain a principled left wing party, and not buckle under the pressure of a Murdoch press that all out wants to destroy the Greens; and definitely not buckle under pressure from conservative political forces to do deals that only achieve marginal improvements, that serve nothing more than to legitimise 'ethical neoliberalism'.

With the dumping of Rhiannon, the Murdoch press has taken a large step closer towards its goal of eradicating the Greens as a viable political force, much like it did with the Democrats more than a decade prior after it was suckered into doing a deal with the conservatives to pass the GST. The only loser from the dumping of Rhiannon, is indeed, the Greens; who are, in their current trajectory, walking down the same path that the Democrats went down.

About the author:

Matt Hrkac is a writer and activist based in Geelong who regularly contributes to Green Left Weekly. He has particular interests in politics, elections and the trade union movement and has had extensive involvement in a number of local campaigns. He is a former member of the Greens.

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