Rhiannon’s reputation targeted

Leaks, anonymous backgrounding and frankly Cold War tropes were mobilised in an attempt to discredit the Greens senator from NSW…

Cooperation in early years

FROM THE OPENING pages of the prologue to Inside the Greens Paddy Manning makes a feature of the differences between Bob Brown and Lee Rhiannon. However, there is a lack of balance in how Rhiannon is presented.

There is a failure to analyse why Rhiannon came to be caricatured by a handful of Greens and sections of the media as “a team wrecker” (1), “hardline”, “a fucking communist” (2), “the Tony Abbott of the Greens” (3) and a lot more.

Initially, the Brown-Rhiannon relationship was cooperative. As the attacks on Rhiannon from internal party sources mounted, she stated she could feel her reputation being damaged and she felt bullied. How to respond to the attacks was an enduring dilemma for Rhiannon. She was aware that unity was critical to the future of the Greens. Also as Bob Brown was such a powerful figure she felt she risked more reputational damage if she was publicly critical of his views. Rhiannon only spoke up publicly when Brown called for her to resign from the Senate and misrepresented her political work on the ABC 7.30 report in June 2016 (4). 

These days Bob Brown dates his criticisms of the Greens NSW from when the Australian Greens were formed in the early 1990s. However, there is much evidence to show that Brown and the Greens NSW worked together constructively through the 1990s and beyond. Brown supported the work of the Greens NSW. His photo was regularly featured on election materials and the state party enthusiastically included Brown’s policy priority – a call to stop logging native forests as one of its campaign demands. 

On the night of the 1999 NSW state election, Brown joined Rhiannon and other Greens members at the state election tally room to hear the results. Brown’s enthusiasm for the election of Rhiannon as the latest Greens MP appeared to be sincere. Following the election they did a media conference together. 

A collaborative relationship was developing. Rhiannon already knew Brown’s chief of staff, Ben Oquist, well. They were in the same Greens local group and Rhiannon had been Oquist’s booth roster coordinator when he ran for the seat of Wentworth in the 1993 federal election. Oquist stored some of his papers in Rhiannon’s parliamentary office and would often work from there when he and Brown visited Sydney.

It should be noted that in 2000 a speech setting out strident criticisms of Rhiannon was delivered by Labor’s Ian Macdonald in the NSW Upper House (5). At this time there were two Greens MPs in the NSW Upper House – Ian Cohen and Lee Rhiannon. Macdonald, who served time in gaol on corruption charges, spoke in the last slot on the last day of the parliamentary sitting year. The timing was significant as it meant that this dishonest attack could not be immediately answered in parliament. Macdonald referred to Rhiannon as “a clapped out Stalinist” intent on chucking out the “dedicated environmentalists” in order to take over the Greens. He made the slanderous allegation that “Rhiannon wants to deny the rank-and-file greenies—the ones who stand in front of bulldozers and protest in the forests—a say in who their candidates will be”. It was widely suspected that Macdonald had been briefed by a member of the Greens.

While the speech gained some mainstream media coverage, this dishonest narrative misrepresenting Rhiannon as an extremist working to take over the Greens by getting rid of the environmentalists, within the Greens, fell dormant for many years. The same theme was later promoted by supporters of Brown and others who opposed Rhiannon and Greens on the left of the party.

“For me you are special”

In the early 2000s, Rhiannon and other Greens NSW members worked with Brown and his team on different projects. In 2001 the Greens NSW raised more than $30,000 at a dinner in Sydney for Brown’s reelection campaign. All proceeds went to the Tasmanian Greens. This clearly made it harder for the Greens NSW to fund raise for the Greens NSW Senate campaign to elect Kerry Nettle, but collectively a decision had been made it was essential to get Brown re-elected. 

The warmth of the relationship with Rhiannon was expressed in a card from Brown replying to Rhiannon’s 2004 Christmas card. He wrote: “For me you are special – and personally, and often with Ben, a source of great goodwill and good advice. I hope sometime I am as a good a sounding board for you in all of this as you are for me.” (6)

In 2005 Brown was the guest speaker at the Greens 20/10 event, initiated by Rhiannon and organised by the Greens NSW to celebrate 20 years since the federal registration of the Greens and ten years since the election of the Greens NSW first MP, Ian Cohen. During this time, Brown also joined Greens NSW members for many election campaign events.

These examples highlight that for a period there was respect and cooperation between these different sections of the party. 

Why Brown started the attacks 

The relationship changed when Bob Brown supporters found there was an advantage for them to use Cold War smear tactics on left-wing members of the Greens, such as Rhiannon. There is no convincing evidence that Rhiannon or others associated with the left of the party had gone against Greens policies or processes to advance an agenda that damaged the party. 

A decade or so on from the breakdown in the Brown-Rhiannon relationship there is considerable evidence, largely from Brown’s own actions and comments, that his criticism of Rhiannon and the Greens NSW was for political and personal reasons.

The political reasons are a desire to reverse the Greens NSW opposition to Brown’s proposals to centralise power and/or assets to the national, party room and leader levels of the party (7).

The personal reasons for Brown are that he saw Rhiannon and former Greens MP, John Kaye, as blocks on his ambitions for his former staffer and close friend, Ben Oquist. 

By the second half of the 2000s, Rhiannon was well aware that Brown was strongly backing Oquist to become a Greens NSW state MP as a stepping stone to becoming a Senator and perhaps in time leader of the Australian Greens when Brown retired. The Saturday Paper from February 2017 reported that “Oquist eventually abandoned attempts to enter parliament after being repeatedly blocked by the hard left in NSW” (8). This is not true. Oquist ran for the top spot in five Greens NSW preselection ballots. He was defeated because he did not attract a sufficient number of votes from the whole NSW membership.

When Rhiannon decided to run for preselection for a second term in the NSW parliament and later for the Senate preselection in NSW she rang Brown in each instance to let him know of her decision. On both occasions, Brown and Oquist flew to Sydney to meet with Rhiannon to try and convince her not to run. At the 2006 meeting where they discussed the preselection for the 2007 NSW state election, Rhiannon attended on her own. She found the meeting very unpleasant and she ended up in tears. 

In the meeting leading into the preselection for the 2010 federal election, Rhiannon was accompanied by a staffer. Brown was emphatic that Rhiannon should retire. His main reason was Rhiannon’s age. She was 57 at the time – seven years younger than Senator Brown. The next day Rhiannon publicly announced her plans to seek preselection in the ballot to determine the Greens NSW Senate ticket. At the same time media outlets were backgrounded with the false information that Rhiannon planned to run against Brown as party leader. Rhiannon emphatically denied this claim. Many saw this allegation as an attempt to turn the membership, who were about to vote in the preselection ballot, against Rhiannon. 

This ludicrous claim resurfaced during and after the federal election campaign. When Marcus Priest wrote about the issue in the Australian Financial Review in October 2010 Rhiannon rang him to explain she had no leadership ambitions. He said he would continue to report on this because Greens in Canberra were telling him that was what Rhiannon planned to do.

This full-page article by Priest showed what Rhiannon was up against (9). Priest wrote: “Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim has let it be known that he would resign if Rhiannon were ever to become leader of the party.” McKim denied this and wrote a letter stating that to the AFR. When Rhiannon spoke to McKim at the 2010 National Conference held in Launceston he said that when his media person rang Priest, Priest said it was “Bob’s office” that told him McKim said this.

Many media outlets carried the false leadership story. Rhiannon, realising she could not stop these reports, figured the best she could do would be to continue to work hard promoting the Greens platform and to continue working with Brown and other Greens leaders in a constructive way.

Best ever Greens vote criticised

The Greens achieved its best ever vote in the 2010 federal election. While the Greens NSW polled over 10 per cent this was the lowest Greens state vote. Using this result, Brown for the first time launched a public attack on another section of the party, the Greens NSW, but Inside the Greens does not explore Brown’s motivations. There is in fact a positive story about the Greens NSW to come out of the 2010 election. The Greens NSW won a Senate seat and increased their vote by 2.26 per cent despite receiving only incidental benefit from the $1.6 million donation from Graeme Wood to the Australian Greens that was used to pay for television advertisements in other states. The Greens NSW achieved their win through effective on-the-ground campaigning.

Loosen up on political donations

In late 2011, Brown and Oquist again flew to Sydney to meet with Rhiannon. This time the topic was political donations. The message was emphatic that the Greens NSW Democracy4sale campaign was impacting on the federal Greens corporate fundraising activities. The Democracy4sale campaign, initiated by Rhiannon’s office, was becoming well known for successfully exposing dodgy political donation deals. The strong message from Brown to Rhiannon was that she needed to get the Greens NSW to change their policy. Rhiannon attended this meeting with a staffer. 

Rhiannon was shocked. Public support for the Greens campaign to change the political donations laws was building. By 2009, the first electoral funding reforms were achieved when the NSW Labor government legislated for the Greens proposal to ban developer donations. Further law changes followed. Limits on the amount that could be donated to political parties and candidates and bans on donations from the tobacco, gambling and alcohol sectors were achieved. This was a huge win for the democratic process and the Greens.

Rhiannon did not relay the request from Brown and Oquist to the Greens NSW. She left it up to Brown if he wanted to formally raise his proposal. Rhiannon judged that there would be uproar within the Greens if such a change was attempted and this would be destructive to what the party was trying to achieve. This was shown to be the case when Brown’s supporters in NSW pushed to weaken the Greens NSW funding rules so larger donations could be accepted. This move was not supported.

Cold War smears

Coming into the 2010 election and subsequently, the term “eastern bloc” was often used by journalists writing about Rhiannon and those in the Greens associated with a left perspective. Rhiannon found the term with its Cold War flavour deeply insulting. She raised her concerns about the use of this term with some Greens MPs individually and at a federal party room meeting in June 2012. Christine Milne dismissed Rhiannon’s suggestion that some Greens in federal MPs offices were associated with promoting this term to the media.

Over the past nine years, the “eastern bloc” term and other abusive Cold War language became a hallmark of the attacks on Greens associated with a left political approach. In the 2017 Four Corners program on the Greens (10), former leader Christine Milne used the term “central committee” when complaining about Greens NSW processes. Milne knew exactly what she was doing when she used this term, associated with communist parties. It was a typical McCarthyist smear designed to link the Greens NSW with a hardline ruthless approach to politics and people. 

Throughout this period, Rhiannon continued to be positive in her dealings with Brown. When he announced his retirement plans in 2012, Rhiannon was a key organiser of a major Sydney thank you and farewell event. Leichhardt Town Hall was packed for the occasion that included an exhibition of Brown’s extraordinary contribution.

When Christine Milne became Greens parliamentary leader in 2012 she announced that she would undertake more rural work with farming communities on natural resource management, sustainable agriculture and climate action. She also argued that this was a way to boost Greens votes.

A report in the Australian that appeared to draw heavily on backgrounding from Milne’s office stated: “The antipathy between Brown and Rhiannon was well known. Greens sources say Milne has a far better relationship with her NSW colleague.” (11) However, how Milne went about her work and treated Rhiannon revealed this was not the case. 

Senator Milne’s first country tour was in Western NSW. The program was arranged in close collaboration with Greens NSW MP Jeremy Buckingham. Rhiannon heard about the plan from an interview with Milne on the ABC’s Radio National breakfast program with Fran Kelly. The usual practice among the MPs was to let the Greens Senator or MP, in the state you intend to visit, know your plans. 

Rhiannon, the first MP to visit Liverpool Plains to meet farmers about the impact of planned coal mining, could have provided a wealth of contacts for Milne’s visit. The Australian Financial Review had recognised Rhiannon’s work. In March 2012 in a report on resource battles and in particular a blockade by farmers of a BHP Billiton operation on Liverpool Plains stated: “The organisers of the blockade, including farmers Tim Duddy and Fiona Simson forged an unlikely alliance with Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon …” (12).

Blame it on NSW Greens

While Rhiannon eventually was able to join the tour she realised goodwill towards herself and the party in NSW was not forthcoming from Milne. Although there had been a change of Greens leadership the backgrounding to the media and support for Greens NSW MPs hostile to the left of the party gathered strength. Milne opened a Sydney parliamentary office but relations with the state party did not improve. Rhiannon has stated that she believed Milne’s style of leadership contributed to the internal party problems in NSW.

Prior to the 2013 federal election, Rhiannon on a number of occasions requested that Milne work with all Greens MPs in NSW (13), not just the ones who backed the constitutional changes she was attempting to win support for. Throughout her time as leader Milne remained selective about who she would work with in NSW. Rhiannon put to the party room a request that she and Milne meet with all NSW MPs in order to develop positive work relationships and to help end the media anonymous backgrounding. This proposal was not supported. 

At the 2013 election the national Greens Senate vote dropped coming in at 8.65 per cent, a decrease of 4.46 per cent. Despite the Greens vote dropping in all states and territories Milne’s close supporters in NSW were quick to blame Hall Greenland, the Greens candidate for the seat of Grayndler, and Rhiannon for the low Senate vote. Their baseless allegation was that the Grayndler campaign took resources away from Cate Faehrmann’s NSW Senate campaign. This was an attempt to shift the blame for a poor election result onto members associated with the left of the party. A similar tactic would happen again after the 2016 election when Brown blamed the low vote on Rhiannon and called for her to resign.

In NSW the Senate vote in 2013 was 7.79 per cent, a decrease of 2.90 per cent. Neither Rhiannon or any left Greens NSW members publicly criticised the candidate, Cate Faehrmann, a close ally of Brown. This was in sharp contrast to Faehrmann’s action in 2011 when immediately after the NSW state election she wrote an article, published in the SMH, attacking the Greens NSW performance in the election and some of her colleagues. This was despite the fact that the first Green, Jamie Parker, was elected to a single member electorate in a general state election; we had won three upper house seats; and increased the Green vote to over 11 per cent in the Upper House and 10.3 per cent in the Lower House.

Brown echoed Faehrmann’s comments and backed up her criticism of the Greens performance in the seat of Marrickville. While there were lessons to be learnt from the 2011 campaign, Brown and Faehrmann used it as an opportunity to try and discredit the Greens NSW style of politics and individual members. 

In subsequent election campaigns, the Australian Greens has failed to win the many seats that Brown and other senior Greens confidently claimed we would win. Rather than acknowledge the predictions were inflated, blaming the Greens NSW for election results has become the standard response.

Throughout 2013-14 Milne was working hard to win support for far-reaching constitutional changes that would in her words “professionalise” the party. Rhiannon and Greenland were involved in the campaign to protect the grassroots democracy aspects of the Greens organisational structure and to strengthen MP accountability to the members, which meant opposing many of the proposed changes supported by Milne (14). 

When Richard Di Natale became parliamentary leader in 2015 a NSW country tour was an early priority. Rhiannon was not informed about this trip. Faehrmann, now the leader’s chief of staff, arranged the details with Buckingham’s office. In a letter to Di Natale and Faehrmann, Rhiannon welcomed the trip but raised the need to work cooperatively. This was not to be the case. Rhiannon said coming in to the 2016 election and during the campaign she felt increasingly ostracised by the leader’s office.

Open aggression 

The Greens 2016 election results were a setback for the party across the country. Rather than have a sober analysis and collaboratively work out the strengths and weaknesses of the Greens nationwide campaign the knives were out for Rhiannon. In an extraordinary interview (15) on the ABC’s 7.30, Brown not only called on Rhiannon to step down as a Senator for NSW but gave an election analysis where he described the Greens NSW as his “long term disappointment” that was pulling down the Greens performance around the country (16). Brown said the Greens “did very well nationally”. There was no comment from Brown on the result in Queensland and South Australia where the Greens vote was lower than in NSW, or in Brown’s home state of Tasmania where the Senate vote since 2010 had nearly halved and was now a little over 11 per cent. 

The results should not have been a surprise. Experience has shown that when a conservative government is in power many progressive voters go back to Labor in the mistaken belief that giving Labor a number one vote is the only way to get rid of a Liberal-National government. But none of that analysis came into Brown’s post-election narrative. Media and social media gave extensive coverage to Brown’s call for Rhiannon to go. While Rhiannon received strong support from the many communities she had worked with and from Greens members the damage to Rhiannon’s reputation was massive. 

Brown had a bigger media reach and he was out to maximise the opportunity to not only get rid of Rhiannon but to fashion the Greens NSW into the party he always wanted it to be – one dominated by MPs. Very few would have been aware of Brown’s failure to follow the standard Greens procedure of raising criticisms directly with the person concerned and then within the party before going public. Just a few weeks before the 7.30 interview Brown had been in NSW campaigning with Rhiannon and Greens NSW lower house candidates. He wrote the foreword and helped launch Rhiannon’s 32 page environment election booklet and joined her at a packed out event and local press conferences in Sydney. Brown did not raise any concerns with Rhiannon. 

Four days after the 7.30 report Di Natale effectively continued Brown’s deceptive narrative about the results. He asserted in the Guardian that the Queensland Greens “performed well” compared with Greens NSW when in fact the Greens vote in Queensland was 1.49 per cent lower than the NSW vote. To top it off Di Natale in the article called on “colleagues to stop prosecuting the party’s patchy performance … in public”. He effectively gave more credence to the election narrative being pushed by Brown. Rhiannon wrote to Di Natale asking why his electoral analysis distorted the Greens vote in NSW compared with other states but no response to her query was received.

The formation of Left Renewal by a group of Young Greens in the 2016-17 summer brought another barrage of criticism down on the Greens NSW from Di Natale’s office and Brown. The heavy media coverage of direct commentary from the national Greens leaders as well as the backgrounding to make sure the journalists knew who to portray as the culprits saw the guns of blame for the formation of Left Renewal aimed straight at Rhiannon and Greens NSW MP David Shoebridge. 

Despite clear and emphatic denials from both Rhiannon and Shoebridge that they were not involved in the formation of Left Renewal, were not members and had not participated in any of their events, the allegations persisted. The forces that backed these attacks gave every indication that they thought they had the ultimate proof that Rhiannon after all was a communist and Shoebridge’s political career through association would soon be over.

In February 2017 Brown again issued his call that Rhiannon should resign. The Saturday Paper reported that “Brown believes that  Rhiannon and her supporters are holding back the Greens’ progress in NSW”. Brown was quoted saying, “… post-Lee, NSW is going to be transformed” (17). His claim that Rhiannon single-handedly was responsible for the drop in the Greens vote nationwide was ludicrous but that did not stop the media reporting it or Brown’s supporters perpetuating the myth.

By 2017 Brown’s public attacks on Rhiannon were becoming increasingly strident. He publicly described Rhiannon as the “Tony Abbott of the Greens” (18); suggested she needed to “limpet on the Greens as a means to electoral success” (19); and asserted that she was “white anting” (20) the whole party. Why Brown became so critical of Rhiannon warrants analysis in any assessment of the Greens.

Once Brown had made his call for Rhiannon to immediately resign, his message was regularly repeated in most stories featuring the Greens. So 2017 was looking good for Brown’s forces. The media narrative was on their side and the majority of Greens NSW MPs supported the centralisation ambitions harboured by Di Natale and the two former Greens leaders.

Leakers and reputations damaged

When the Greens schools funding bill crisis came along in May 2017 clearly some senior Greens thought they had Rhiannon in their sights and ultimate victory was close. The mainstream media  hungry for more stories of Greens internal mayhem were ready to write up the backgrounding and the briefs that senior Greens sources were ready to dish up. 

For more on the schools funding saga see section called “When the Greens flirted with Gonski 2”. What is relevant to detail here is the over reach that occurred by those obsessed with erasing Rhiannon from the parliament as well as the Greens. How these events were being reported in the media exposed multiple instances of backgrounding against the Greens NSW and Rhiannon that could be traced to a link with the leader’s office. The letter, complaining about Rhiannon was drafted by Faehrmann and signed by all federal Greens MPs. It was leaked to the Sydney Morning Herald, however it could not be conclusively linked to any source. The letter had been sent to about 40 people making it difficult to identify the leaker. 

Then the forces intent on removing Rhiannon upped the ante with another anonymous statement alleging that the NSW Senator had to be punished this time because she already had been censured twice. In an interview on the ABC breakfast show Fran Kelly informed Di Natale that it was his office that had supplied this background information. While Kelly later withdrew that comment this action was interpreted as a journalist protecting their sources (21). The double censure charge fell over as Di Natale could produce no proof that Rhiannon had ever been censured. 

A fair observer could readily see that Greens leaders, past and current, were increasingly using the media to influence party internal affairs. Most media outlets were also keen to run neo-McCarthyist style stories about the Greens NSW, often based on information from “helpful” Greens insiders. 

The media leakers and those willing to make their attacks public then came together on the Four Corners program that went to air in August 2017 (22). This time it was not just Brown who was attacking the Greens NSW and by association Rhiannon. Milne, Nick McKim and Di Natale joined forces with Brown in mounting one of the most extraordinary attacks there has been on a state branch and a sitting MP by senior members of the same political party. This story was covered by many media outlets. The Australian ran the story under the headline “Former Greens leaders call on Lee Rhiannon to retire” (23). While the reputational damage done to Rhiannon was immense what those attacking the Greens NSW did not understand was that the state party as a democratic, grassroots organisation has resilience. No person is indispensable. The crisis was handled and in time reflected poorly on the perpetrators of the attacks.

The Four Corners screening was a few months before voting in the preselection ballot for the Greens NSW Senate ticket was due to commence. The great irony is that Rhiannon had already  decided she would not recontest. She knew she had had a very good run in the parliamentary job at both the state and the federal level. However, with the extraordinary attacks on her and the Greens NSW she felt the need to reassess. The intensity of the criticism from senior Greens on national television was clearly designed to discredit Greens members with a left perspective. Rhiannon recognised that she really had no chance of being elected but decided to stand. Her purpose was to show that no one, including Bob Brown, should dictate to rank and file members who stands in Greens preselection contests.

So much of the media coverage of the internal differences in the Greens was constructed by those who wanted to shape the Greens according to the interests of MPs. Their backgrounding and direct attacks succeeded in damaging the party’s reputation and brought everyone into disrepute.

Rhiannon has frequently acknowledged Brown’s contribution to environmental protection and building a progressive Australia. Unfortunately he was not strong on internal Greens democracy, an essential ingredient for all truly successful progressive parties.

. . .

  1. The Guardian 14 August 2017 Paul Karp ‘Lee Rhiannon is as much Corbyn as I am Santa Claus’: Bob Brown lashes Greens senator
  2. The Monthly February 2012 Sally Neighbour Divided we fall p 26
  3. The Guardian 26 January 2017 Paul Karp ‘Greens version of Tony Abbot’: Lee Rhiannon fends off Bob Brown attack
  4. ABC 730 Bob Brown calls on Senator Lee Rhiannon to stand down 29 July 2016
  5. Ian Macdonald speech in NSW Legislative Council 7 December 2000 Hansard Papers
  6. Card written in December 2005 by Bob Brown to Lee Rhiannon. In Lee Rhiannon’s papers.
  7. Canberra Times 7 May 2011 Chris Johnson Brown bid to bring Greens into line
  8. The Saturday Paper 4 February 2017 Karen Middleton Inside the fight for the Australian Greens
  9. Australian Financial Review 16 October 2010 Marcus Priest “The cat lady (with one rat)”
  10. ABC Four Corners 10 August 2017 Inside the Greens: a party in turmoil
  11. The Australian 16 April 2012 “Milne’s bracing cup of disunity”
  12. The Weekend Australian Financial Review 10 March 2012 “The boom busting up Australia”
  13. Personal correspondence between Lee Rhiannon and Christine Milne 17 January 2013
  14. Leaflet produced by Hall Greenland, Sylvia Hale and Lee Rhiannon. “Greens in the 21st century: grassroots democracy, diversity and participation”
  15. Op cit footnote 4
  16. The Guardian 22 July 2016 Melissa Davey “Behind the ‘successful’ 2016 election: the tension at the heart of the Greens” Behind the ‘successful’ 2016 election: the tension at the heart of the Greens
  17. Op cit footnote 10
  18. Op cit footnote 3
  19. The Monthly August 2017 Paddy Manning “Crashing the party”
  20. Op cit footnote 3
  21.  New Matilda 26 April 2018 Michael Brull Bad blood: Cate Faehrmann and the battle for the NSW Greens, Part 3
  22. Op cit footnote 13 
  23. The Australian 14 August 2017 Simone Fox Koob “Former Greens leaders call on Lee Rhiannon to retire”

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