Inconvenient truths (or what ‘Inside the Greens’ got wrong – and right)

Explosive revelations and painstaking historical research are mixed with a one-sided view of the tensions within the party …

While there are serious flaws (or one big Flaw) in Inside the Greens (1)– we’ll get to them in a minute – the author Paddy Manning is too good a journalist to suppress vital information. Some of it is explosive. For instance, during the recent conflicts between the Greens NSW on one side and Bob Brown, Christine Milne and their party room allies on the other, some in the latter camp pushed for the expulsion of the Greens NSW (2). 

That was not the only example of such blow-up-the-ship thinking. According to Manning’s sources, in the wake of David Shoebridge’s stunning victory in the member’s ballot for top position on the NSW election ticket, Bob Brown met with the Greens NSW MPs from the right-wing of the party and pledged to support them if they split the Greens in NSW (3). This pact was sealed with a weird Masonic-like handclasp that was captured in a photo that Manning has seen. 

So rabid were these forces that, on top of the chaos in the Victorian Greens, they drove an exasperated Richard Di Natale, the Australian Greens parliamentary leader, to the brink of resignation (4).

These events form the climax of the historical narrative which constitutes the major part of Inside the Greens. If Manning indicates no sympathy for these political cleansing manoeuvres, he is not expressly critical of them either. With three of those four plotting NSW MPs either defeated at the polls or resigning from the Greens, a certain calm now reigns in the party. However, it is highly likely that the animosity towards the Greens NSW has only been parked in its cage for the time being.   

The danger in this is obvious. The Australian Greens has always been a collaboration of diverse political forces, all of whom realise the central issue of our time is the protection of our endangered living environment. Internal intolerance will not bode well for the even wider collaboration that is required to resolve the ecological crisis we face. 

The Greens NSW has brought real benefits to this collaboration: an insistence on grassroots democracy, a critical analysis of capitalism and a more relevant, activist, diverse left-wing politics. The discussion of the Gonski 2.0 crisis on this site demonstrates this in spades. Sadly, it also reveals that it was these benefits that the more conservative elements in the Australian Greens had in their sights during the Gonski 2.0 crisis of June-July 2017. 

In an early chapter of Inside the Greens, the description issued by the Sydney Greens in 1984 of the people who came together to form the first Greens party is quoted:

“The Greens in Sydney come from many backgrounds. Environmental and resident activists. Nuclear disarmers. Dissidents from the Labor party who have witnessed betrayals by both wings of that party. Feminists. Anarchists. Those inspired by the German Greens. Socialists of various kinds (5).”

Paddy Manning then comments: ‘It was as good a summary of the origins of the party as has ever been written.’ We might have added – ‘until this book’, because Inside the Greens certainly fleshes out this description and significantly modifies it.

Inside the Greens argues very strongly that the major roots of the Australian Greens lie in the earlier iterations of a ‘third party’ in Australian politics, namely the Australia Party 1966-75, the United Tasmanian Group (1972-1990) and the Australian Democrats (1977-?). 

The argument that they are the main progenitors of the Australian Greens gets strong support from the fact that Bob Brown and other Tasmanians emerged from this milieu. As Inside the Greens reminds us, Bob Brown’s preference in 1990-91 was for a merger of his Tasmanian independents with the Australian Democrats to form the Green Democrats. A coup inside the Democrats scuppered this prospect and Brown returned to the project of collaborating in the formation of the Australian Greens (6). 

These earlier ‘third’ parties were of course middle-class based and appealed to the small ‘l’ liberal voters of the Liberal Party. This connection to earlier ‘third party’ traditions helps explain the preference pussyfooting with the Liberals and other conservatives that Greens in eastern states – other than NSW – have indulged in, notoriously the deal with Clive Palmer in 2013 and talks with the Liberals in Victoria in 2016.  

In contrast, the Greens in their NSW version were explicitly positioned to the left of Labor (7). They had a more favourable view of unions despite the clashes with forestry workers in the CFMEU and were based on what Guy Rundle has labelled ‘the knowledge class’, tertiary educated workers who had previously formed part of Whitlam’s grand Labor coalition (8). 

The earlier ‘third’ parties were also determinedly parliamentarist outfits that eschewed civil disobedience and direct action. This was not true of the Greens who were proud of their connections to the Green Bans, the 1970s campaign against freeways, the original forest blockade at Terania Creek in NSW in 1979, the women’s anti-nuclear pickets at Pine Gap in 1983 and the campaign on the Franklin in the early 1980s. 

These heterogeneous origins have left their mark on the Greens today and the real value of Inside the Greens is that it lays bare the historical roots of the tensions and disputes within the party.  

Nevertheless, when Inside the Greens gets down to the history of the Australian Greens after its formation, it is very much the Bob Brown/Christine Milne version. On the one side are the Tasmanians led by Bob Brown and Christine Milne, to whom the Greens owe their existence, successes and future prospects. On the other (dark) side, there is the Greens in New South Wales, whose emblematic figure is Lee Rhiannon, whose presence and activities have perpetually blighted the efforts of the Apple Island knights. Take just four key incidents which illustrate the pattern.

  • The 2002 Brown proposal to offer the Howard government a deal of support for the privatisation of Telstra in exchange for saving the Tasmanian forests
    Inside the Greens privileges Bob Brown’s account of this episode. Brown begins by saying that he wasn’t that serious about the idea. Then characterises the party’s rejection of the idea as another example of the Greens NSW vendetta against him. Then concludes by musing that he was probably right, all the while characterising himself as the humble democrat (9). The questions of how principled seeking such a swap would have been, and whether the Howard government would have agreed to and honored such a deal, are not broached. 
  • The 2014 debate over how far the Greens should go in blocking the first Abbott budget.
    This budget – contrary to election promises – slashed spending on health, education, renewables, the ABC, SBS, CSIRO and Aboriginal language and cultural programs. 
    The Inside the Greens account of the Greens NSW bold campaign to challenge this budget is replete with errors and omissions. And once again Bob Brown is allowed the final say, echoing Manning’s mistakes and criticising the Greens NSW for having the temerity to try to influence federal policy (10).
  • The 2013-14 (failed) attempt led by Christine Milne to restructure the party from a confederation to a centralised national outfit.
    The substance of the case against this – principally prosecuted by the Greens NSW – doesn’t get a single line and Milne is allowed to claim victory (11) despite the outcome.
  • The dispute over a projected Greens party room deal to support the Turnbull government’s Gonski 2.0 plan. 
    In this case Inside the Greens does admit that Lee Rhiannon and members of the Greens NSW were right to oppose the deal, given the funding favoritism going to private and non-secular schools under the Gonski 2.0 legislation. However, the possibility that NSW and its senator were right because of their attachment to policy and their insistence that senators adhere to it, goes unexplored. These traits, after all, are part of the case of obstructionism that the Tasmanians and their allies bring against the Greens NSW. Moreover, even Manning’s favourable admission is followed in the next paragraph by quotes from the baseless and vicious attacks on Rhiannon and the Greens NSW by Brown, Milne and others on the 7.30 Report and Four Corners. The Greens from NSW are offered no reply beyond this sentence: ‘Lee Rhiannon, David Shoebridge and Hall Greenland spoke in her defence’ (12). Never mind what they said.

The central thesis of Inside the Greens is too simple, too black and white, too Manichean. For some time Inside the Greens will be the standard reference on the Greens for journalists, scholars and even some members and supporters. Rank-and-file Greens in particular deserve a fuller, more balanced account of the evolution of the Greens because – hopefully – they will decide the future course for the Greens in Australia.  

Greens NSW members march on May Day 2016

An historic collaboration

It is possible to acknowledge the valuable contribution that Bob Brown and Christine Milne have made to the Greens, to the environment and to Australian public life without adopting a hagiographical or reverential attitude. It must be equally possible to acknowledge the essential contributions of the Greens NSW and their MPs.  Too often Inside the Greens falls short of these reasonable expectations.

The favouring of the good Tasmanians leads inevitably to demonising those who oppose or criticise some of their plans. The Other in this book is of course the Greens NSW.

This bias runs through Inside the Greens even if there are occasional lapses. This starts with its account of the formation of the Australian Greens. On one side, are the reasonable initiators and builders, and on the other, the generally obstructionist pains in the arse – the Tasmanian Greens and Greens NSW respectively. Except it wasn’t quite like this. 

The fact that the talks, the formation and the launch for the Australian Greens took place in Sydney should have alerted Manning to the fact that NSW was playing a central role. The Greens in this state held the electoral registration for the party name Greens which it shared widely with the idea of building up a federated party with local roots. By 1991 the Greens in NSW had already succeeded in electing two actual Greens – to Newcastle and Marrickville Councils. Moreover, the lower house election results for various NSW Greens candidates in the 1990 federal elections were if anything better than the Tasmanians. The first electoral successes on the mainland were to be in WA and NSW (13). 

Inescapably, like it or not, the Greens in NSW were a key partner in the formation of the Australian Greens, not a recalcitrant foreign body as they are presented in the Brown view of things that Inside the Greens tends to reproduce. When, for instance, Brown repeats his claim that ‘the old guard’ of the Greens NSW derailed the attempt to form a national greens party at the Getting Together conference in 1986, Manning lets it stand uncorrected – despite it being absolutely groundless and despite Manning’s inability to find any evidence to support it or Bob Brown to supply any (14).

The Australian Greens may have been a potentially troubled partnership from the beginning but the troubles remained latent for a decade and a half. At crucial junctures everyone worked together. Everyone agreed, for instance, that the 2001 election when Bob Brown was up for election was a watershed moment. The Greens NSW organised a fundraiser in Sydney for Brown that raised $30,000 for his re-election bid. When Bob Brown confronted President Bush in 2003, Kerry Nettle, the Greens senator from NSW, was right beside him. 

Australian Green Party senators Bob Brown (L) and Kerry Nettle are warned by an official as they interrupt a speech to Australia’s Parliament by U.S. President George W. Bush in Canberra, October 23, 2003. Bush was forced to pause several times during his speech as the two politicians spoke out against his remarks. REUTERS

At the end of the first decade of this century that internal accord broke down and leaks, backgrounding and public attacks on the Greens NSW (and Lee Rhiannon, in particular) multiplied and increased in recklessness. Why this has happened is a question that Inside the Greens evades but which is taken up on this website.

And present dilemmas

While the bulk of the book is a history of the Greens, the final 90 pages are a survey of the party’s policy dilemmas on the big questions of climate change, the economy, military alliances and democracy. The discussion is very much weighted towards the party’s Canberra establishment. Manning does broach some significant issues and does pepper his surveys with a few radical voices – he gives Jonathon Sri, the Green on Brisbane Council, two pages for his libertarian socialist views. Likewise Tim Hollo and his ideas on the commons and ecological democracy get a guernsey. But Manning’s centrist instincts keep creeping in – especially when he presents the views of David Shoebridge whose policy ideas are the closest to the ecological social democracy of Sanders, Corbyn and Ocasio-Cortez as you are likely to get in the Greens (15).  

None of this is meant to deter a reading of Inside the Greens. In addition to the excellent early chapters, Manning is too conscientious an historian not to equip critical readers with some of the facts that run against his own predilections. There is a lot of work and research in this book that should not go unread.

What is particularly enjoyable is his revelation about Gough Whitlam.  When the great man died, Hall Greenland wrote a piece for Crikey about how the Greens were among the inheritors of his legacy – who else was campaigning for the restoration of free tertiary education and the defence of the single parents pension, both major Whitlam-era reforms that later Labor had reversed or undermined. Inside the Greens records the apoplexy that this provoked among Labor leaders but isn’t aware that Christine Milne also vented.  

So it was a pleasant surprise to read the revelation from Christabel Chamarette, the Greens senator from Western Australia in the 1990s, that Whitlam used to phone her with suggestions of questions she could pursue to embarrass Labor ministers. When he came to Canberra he lunched with her too. Gough may not have had one foot in the Greens but he did dip his toe.

In what follows on this site we aim to correct the record on some key events that Inside the Greens gets wrong.

. . .

  1. Paddy Manning, Inside the Greens, Black Inc., Melbourne 2019
  2. See page 378
  3. Page 373
  4. Pages 378-379
  5. Pages 57-58
  6. See pages 106-107
  7. Pages page 57
  8. Page 108. The call to form the Australian Greens in 1991 noted: ‘The last decade has seen the ALP largely abandon its tradition of progressive politics, leaving a power vacuum which has yet to be filled … the opportunity [exists] for a new broad-based green/progressive political organisation.’
  9. Pages 209-210
  10. Pages 320-321
  11. Pages 211-214, 316 and 323. Manning is not shy in indicating his support for the Brown-Milne vision of the party becoming a centralised, professional national party rather than the ‘disfunctional’ federation.
  12. Page 358. When Inside the Greens details the less than happy atmosphere inside the party [pages 451-2] the public attacks and leaks against the Greens NSW are not mentioned in the list of ‘problems’.
  13. Ian Cohen was elected to the NSW upper house in 1995, Lee Rhiannon in 1999. For the relative 1990 federal election performances, see APH Background Paper of 1990 Federal Elections
  14. Pages 91-4
  15. Page 422. Admittedly there are more neutral mentions of Shoebridge on pages 367 and 400.

. . .