Last month, The Greens’ leader Richard Di Natale sparked internal strife with his “captain’s pick” decision to take away the Tertiary, Technical and Further education portfolios from the more left-wing NSW Senator, Lee Rhiannon.
There have been danger signs about Di Natale since his takeover of the leadership four months ago, such as his deal with Abbott in June to cut $2.5 billion from pensions, and his insistence upon his election on working “across party lines to get things done”.
Many activists in the party see the snub of Rhiannon as the latest move to undermine the party’s Left in the NSW branch.
The left in NSW has been less willing to deal with the Liberals, and much more enthusiastic about the role of social movements, than most other sections of the party. Lee Rhiannon has been involved with demonstrations against university deregulation, the gutting of TAFE, and a myriad of other issues.
Di Natale made the decision unilaterally, without the expected proper consultation either with the full party room or the Greens’ National Council. And it was made on the first day of Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership, raising suspicions the timing was intentionally chosen to avoid headlines.
He also took the LGBTI portfolio from Senator Janet Rice. Both portfolios, tied to two high-profile campaigns, the fight against fee deregulation and for same-sex marriage, have been given to South Australian Senator Robert Simms.
An early statement from the NSW Young Greens expressed widespread anger in that section of the party, saying “By making this call, the Australian Greens have created a devastating blow to the activists, students, staff and union members who have been fighting fee deregulation, and for free education for many years.”
As well as the demotion of Rhiannon, Senator Nick McKim—who oversaw the closure of schools in Tasmania when he was a Minister in a coalition government with Labor—has been handed the Schools portfolio, as well as small business and attorney general. He used his first media release to praise small business: “The Greens will present an alternative vision for the economy that looks to the innovators, small businesses and entrepreneurs to generate sustainable wealth and prosperity in the 21st Century.”
Di Natale sees the future for The Greens in exclusively parliamentary terms—using their numbers in parliament to do deals with the major parties in an effort to extract concessions.
But it has been The Greens’ willingness to reject such right-wing politics as usual and stand up on issues like war and refugees that has seen them gain prominence as a left alternative to Labor’s aping of the Liberals.
Di Natale’s politics-as-usual will lead The Greens to the right, limiting their horizons to what is acceptable to the major parties.
The experience of The Greens during their alliance with the Gillard Labor government was a case in point—rather than standing as an alternative to the major parties The Greens were drawn into defending the government and accepting Labor’s useless and unpopular carbon tax.
There is evidence of significant disquiet in The Greens. Behind the scenes, the NSW party is threatening to withhold $100,000 in funds for the federal election campaign if Rhiannon is not reinstated in the Higher Education portfolio. The move will be debated at the next NSW state delegates’ Council.
After a meeting of the party’s National Council discussed the decision, Di Natale offered to split the portfolio to give Rhiannon responsibility for TAFE alone—an offer she declined.
The strategy of the Left inside the party has been to fight the issues out behind closed doors in national decision making forums, and present a unified party to the public. The right has not shown the same consideration, with some using the Murdoch press to anonymously attack the Left in the past.
There is much at stake for The Greens in this. Will The Greens go the way of the Australian Democrats? Or will they seek to be a left alternative to Labor, and win away those disillusioned working class Labor supporters with nowhere to go?
Will The Greens focus on doing whatever it takes to get elected, compromising themselves and undermining the grassroots activism that created the party in the first place? Or will they use their positions in parliament to build the social movements and strikes that we need—and that hold the genuine possibility of transforming politics?
By Amy Thomas