Shock loss for Lee Rhiannon: Does the left have a future in the NSW Greens?

Lee Rhiannon’s loss in the NSW Greens pre-selection is a major defeat for the left of the party.

Many of her supporters thought that Rhiannon’s decades of work, and being the sitting Senator, would be enough for her to win.

Rhiannon, herself, never thought she would win the pre-selection, but she was right to stand to defend activism, party democracy, and take the fight to the right of the party that so badly wanted her out.

Despite conducting a relatively organised left campaign, Rhiannon was defeated by Mehreen Faruqi, 1301 votes to 843 after preferences.

The vicious attacks on Lee Rhiannon by the NSW right and the federal party leadership, so publicly displayed on the Four Corners program, obviously had a real impact.

Rhiannon’s defeat raises serious questions about the future of left in The Greens. Some members are already considering resigning.

There is an urgent need to understand just how far the party has been pulled to the right if the left is not going to be completely routed.

The divisions between left and right will be posed even more sharply in the upcoming pre-selection battle between David Shoebridge and Jeremy Buckingham early next year. Many are committed to keep fighting the pre-selection battles; but fighting for what?

Lee Rhiannon’s pre-selection campaign was a step forward, dealing explicitly with the attacks from the right.

It began with a promising public meeting to discuss “Protest, Parliament and the future of The Greens”, in which Rhiannon pointedly raised the dangers of parliamentary politics and becoming a party that only mobilised members for elections.

But this was not developed into a full blown political argument in the pre-selection campaign.

Reference to her exclusion from the party room and the fight with the right were avoided in her official campaign statement and only rarely touched on subsequently.

The campaign did make a greater effort to talk about the importance of struggle outside parliament, and the need for MPs to build those struggles.

But not enough was done to argue amongst the membership about why this was a decisive question in the pre-selection.

Faruqi was pitched as a candidate who was acceptable to the right. Her material said she aimed at “uniting the party” and making sure The Greens “stop being so focused on ourselves”. This was code for arguing to ditch Lee Rhiannon and embrace Richard Di Natale’s brand of electoral politics.

There was a resonance for this amongst Greens members who wish the internal fighting would just disappear. But the right are not about to just vanish.

Di Natale’s vision

After The Greens won Northcote in Victoria in November, Di Natale outlined the usual tired plan for The Greens to gain parliamentary influence and hold the “balance of power” by winning seats, one by one, over the next 25 years.

This approach is also behind his efforts to cut parliamentary deals with Turnbull—like the negotiations over Gonski 2.0. Under Di Natale, The Greens are well on the way to dumping any commitment to activist politics and becoming another version of the Democrats.

In the aftermath of Rhiannon’s defeat, leading NSW Greens member Hall Greenland observed that social change will require, “not more MPs, but mass extra-parliamentary movements”. Lee Rhiannon and her supporters understood this, he says.

If that is the case, the fight to pre-select David Shoebridge has to become a fight to transform the party. The left will need to be organised and much more explicit about what is at stake politically.

If the left loses, it will be a decisive defeat. All the MPs in NSW associated with the left of the party will be gone.

There needs to be an open campaign in the party to challenge Richard Di Natale’s approach. The left must fight for a party that builds social movements, and that orients consistently to working class people.

The left of the party still has strong support amongst party activists and control of the State Delegates Council (SDC), the highest decision making body of the party in NSW.

But it is the worst complacency to think that the SDC can save the left. The right in NSW has built an apparatus based on NSW MPs’ offices and the support of the party’s federal Senators. SDC resolutions won’t alter who has real control of the party.

David Shoebridge’s pre-selection will be a last chance to organise those in The Greens who want to build an anti-capitalist party that can, in Hall Greenland’s words, challenge, “the social inequality that stunts human possibilities and democratic life.”

If the left loses that fight, it will have to face up to the need to build another party that is up to the task.

By Ian Rintoul

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