Roots of Bob Brown’s hostility to the Greens NSW

An aspect of Greens history unexamined in Inside the Greens is why Bob Brown went public with his hostility to the Greens NSW…

PADDY MANNING JUSTLY pays a glowing tribute to Bob Brown, who worked extremely hard over decades helping to build the profile, reputation and vote of the Greens. He was, however, also a very significant figure in internal party tensions.

Inside the Greens largely repeats the false narrative from the right wing of the party about the Greens NSW: that the party is extreme left; isn’t really concerned about the environment, preferring to focus on economic justice issues; is uncooperative and doesn’t care about the Australian Greens; and underperforms in elections. It is presented mostly in an uncritical way with comments from leading opponents in the party and with Greens NSW figures given very limited opportunity to respond. 

Photograph of Bob Brown

When Bob Brown was in discussions to form an Australian Greens in the late 1980s he did not have control of the party name “The Greens”, which had been registered by Greens in NSW. There can be little doubt that was annoying for Bob Brown and he blames the Greens in NSW for the slow formation of the Greens nationally (1). It is a false construct. In 1992 only three state Green parties were sufficiently strong and willing, to enable the formation of the Australian Greens as a confederation of Greens parties. These were the parties in NSW, Queensland and Tasmania.

Many on the left of the party believe there are two main reasons why Bob Brown and some of his close supporters attacked the Greens NSW and neither reason is edifying.

The first serious tension was over a national constitution to enable formation of the Australian Greens. 

Brown never really accepted the compromises put forward by the Greens NSW that were agreed to in relation to the conscience vote and limiting federal control over state branches. As the decades unfolded, Brown never stopped making efforts to centralise power or assets to the national, party room and leader levels of the party. His proposals regularly put to National Conference and Council meetings were consistently opposed by the Greens NSW and sometimes other state parties. 

Bob Brown initiated or strongly supported proposals that: centralised party assets to the national level of the party rather than the state or local group levels; would lock local groups and state parties into preference positions that would more likely lead to open tickets rather than preferencing Labor ahead of the Coalition (2); gave the party room the power to make its own rules instead of the party determining the rules as it did for other arms at the national level of the party; created a Leader position to be elected by only a tiny party room of four, and without defining the powers of the leader; and established a leader’s fund that would allow the parliamentary leader to solely determine how substantial amounts of party money would be spent. 

Brown also inappropriately used communication channels to the membership to try and influence decisions on contentious internal party issues including preselections.

It is surprising that Inside the Greens does not present a balanced view about these aspects of the Greens history. Brown’s record is not always consistent with the Greens principle of grassroots democracy and the book rarely mentions Brown’s mistakes and shortcomings.

It is not surprising Brown held those views. He was an MP for nine years before the Tasmanian Greens was formed. Tasmanian Greens members until recently did not have the right to vote in preselections. Prior to that a small group of senior Greens members made the decision on who their candidates would be in state and federal elections. His time in the United Tasmania Group, the Tasmanian Green Independents and Tasmanian Greens, in firstly the state and then federal parliaments, was characterised by a top-down approach to party structure and preselections. Brown was a charismatic leader, and invariably party decisions were in accord with his views, and as an MP from Tasmania he was free to vote in parliament however he wanted. 

The second great area of tension was Brown’s unhappiness arising from the fact that the Greens NSW membership did not always preselect his preferred candidate. Brown was regularly interfering in NSW upper house preselections beginning with the Senate preselection for the 1996 election when he endorsed a subsequently unsuccessful preselection candidate. He would regularly anoint his preferred candidate and in later years publicly denigrate a candidate he opposed – Lee Rhiannon (3).

Brown’s big disappointments in NSW preselection outcomes started when John Kaye defeated Brown’s long-term Chief of Staff, Ben Oquist, for the lead Senate position in NSW for the 2004 election, and in 2007 when Rhiannon and Kaye comfortably won the top two spots on the NSW Legislative Council ticket with Oquist third on the ticket. Brown was furious about the results. 

While there had been tensions around structure and power for more than a decade, this was largely kept within the party. After those NSW preselection results the public attacks by Brown and some of his factional supporters on the Greens NSW and Rhiannon became increasingly frequent and abusive.

Many of the attacks were classic McCarthyism. The derogatory terms “Eastern Bloc” and “Stalinist” were regularly used by anonymous Greens sources to describe the NSW left. Brown publicly commented about the “red NSW Greens”. They were cold war tactics in the tradition of Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian newspaper, constructing a false narrative about the Greens NSW and Rhiannon as extremist authoritarian leftists. It was a tactic designed to damage reputations, win preselections and reduce the credibility of the left in the party. It was absurd criticism since the Greens NSW had a very democratic party culture, while Rhiannon had been a Greens member since 1990 and observed party policy and processes in her time in both the NSW parliament and the Senate. 

Members who had not been taken in by the Brown faction narrative about the Greens NSW were shocked by his behaviour and increasingly offensive comments in the mainstream media (4).

The narrative from the right wing of the party that some Greens NSW MPs are not really concerned about the environment is simply a dishonest construct designed to damage reputations. Even a cursory look reveals that their record on a range of environmental campaigns is impressive.

The false charges that the Greens NSW is uncooperative and doesn’t care about the Australian Greens are demonstrably untrue. 

While naturally there were some policy disagreements such as taxing the estates of the very wealthy and drug law reform, in the lead up to every election the Australian Greens adopted a comprehensive set of policies supported and promoted by the Greens NSW.

Over the decades the Greens NSW has given millions of dollars to the Australian Greens, while the contributions of most other states are comparatively tiny. The Greens NSW has also made generous contributions at crucial times to several other state Green parties.

The Greens NSW would usually turn the other cheek when Brown engaged in public vilification of the NSW party and its Senator. The left was aware that members and supporters are turned off by internal party differences being fought out through the media and for a long time remained silent. Since the 2016 federal election when Brown amplified his attacks in the mainstream media some Greens NSW figures have responded. Considering the level of attack, the response has been constrained.  No acknowledgement of this approach is given in Inside the Greens.

In short the Greens NSW, whilst protecting the essential elements of a grassroots democratic party, has bent over backwards to hold the Australian Greens show together in the face of unjustified attacks.

Bob Brown over the last decade has also publicly denigrated the Greens NSW election results (5), even when the party did well. In stark contrast, there seems to be no public criticism from him of other state Green parties when their vote slumped. In 2011 the Greens NSW gained 11.1 per cent of the vote in the state upper house election with three Greens MPs elected. The party also won its first lower house seat. These were major breakthroughs but Brown criticised the party for not getting a stronger vote and picking up more lower house seats.

For the Greens, NSW has some of toughest demographics in the nation (the marriage equality plebiscite illustrated this) (6), although it does have some strong areas in inner city Sydney and the far north coast. Despite the demographics the Greens NSW has far more local government councillors elected than any other state Green party and seven MPs which along with Victoria is more than the other states. NSW has provided five or so election breakthroughs for the Greens, including winning the first local government seats; the first federal lower house seat of Cunningham in the 2002 by-election; and the first single member state seat in a general election when Balmain was won in 2011. 

Many members on the left of the party regard Bob Brown’s attacks on the Greens NSW as flawed and politically motivated. The book fails to properly explore why he engages in such false constructs (7).

Why the focus on the Greens NSW?

Compared with its treatment of the Greens NSW Inside the Greens is minimal in its coverage of significant internal divisions in other state Green parties such as Tasmania and Victoria. It is true that those political party tensions did not receive anything like the level of media coverage that those in NSW attracted. The high degree of public commentary denigrating the Greens NSW by senior figures on the right of the party such as Brown, Milne, Nick McKim and Cate Faehrmann, and the regular anonymous negative media backgrounding campaign concentrated on the Greens NSW and Rhiannon by “senior Greens” sources, generated and fuelled much of that coverage.

If there had not been that disloyalty to the Greens, the level of media coverage about the Greens NSW internal issues would have been significantly less.

. . .

  1. Paddy Manning Inside the Greens p91
  2. Bob Brown calls on Greens to ditch all preference deals
  3. Bob Brown calls on Senator Lee Rhiannon to stand 
  4. See, for instance, now Greens NSW Senator Mehreen Faruqi’s response: I joined the Greens because of Bob Brown but now he has broken my heart
  5. Greens acrimony Bob Brown unloads on Lee Rhiannon and NSW party 
  6. Same-sex marriage results
  7. Inside the Greens P351 and 466 

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