The Milne interregnum

Senator Milne arrived in the leadership with fine credentials but burdened with a hubristic yearning to revisit an old battle…

WHEN SENATOR CHRISTINE Milne succeeded Bob Brown as the Greens parliamentary leader in 2012 it was not unexpected, she had after all been his close political ally for decades, but she had strong claims on the leadership of her own. On the national scene, she had been the most eloquent and best-informed politician in warning the country about the dangers of climate change. For the mining lobby she must have been public enemy number one. She was also a very early proponent of a Green New Deal as the way to meet the twin challenges of the climate emergency and obscene and growing inequalities.  

But if she was much more than Bob Brown’s offsider, she unfortunately shared his prejudices in regards to the Greens NSW and the party’s structure.

Her claim that after she took over the leadership in 2012 she ‘put a lot of effort into fixing the relationship between the Australian Greens and the Greens NSW’ is one of the more baffling claims in Inside the Greens. In fact, this Tasmanian stirred up friction.

Her campaigning appearances in New South Wales were invariably organised in collaboration with Jeremy Buckingham and Cate Faehrmann – both MPs who were internal opponents of those on the left of the party. Rather than liaise with Lee Rhiannon, as the NSW Greens senator and Milne’s party room colleague, Rhiannon was left to find out about these appearances by other means. This dalliance with oppositional elements in the Greens NSW by the Australian Greens leadership has had a long and continuing history as illustrated elsewhere on this site. 

Inside the Greens’ portrayal of Milne as the champion of members’ rights is equally wrong. In fact, in 2013 and 2014 Senator Milne spearheaded attempts to centralise the party structure. 

And she was none too scrupulous about the means to that end. 

In 2013, for instance, the Labor government floated the idea of providing public administrative funding to political parties. Rhiannon as the party’s Democracy portfolio holder had carriage of the matter and was negotiating with the government for the administration funding to go to state parties with some to the national level. This was consistent with the party’s constitution and a previous decision of the Australian Greens conference. Meanwhile, Milne was secretly negotiating with the Labor government for the funds to be paid entirely to the national level of parties. When the conflicting positions within the Greens were revealed on ABC’s 7.30 Report (1) and in Crikey, courtesy of Labor providing the information, in an extraordinary move Milne persuaded the party room to remove Rhiannon from negotiations and authorise her to handle them herself. 

When the Greens NSW found out about Milne’s manoeuvring, the then convenor of the Greens NSW attempted to contact Senator Milne, but she would not return either his phone calls or emails. (Senator Di Natale later justified this on the grounds that Australian Greens MPs only respond to office-holders in the Australian Greens. The NSW convenor – and recall NSW is easily the biggest of the state parties in terms of membership – had failed to use the proper channels!) 

As it transpired, Tony Abbott withdrew Coalition support for the change and Labor dropped it. 

Undeterred, Senator Milne led a more frontal assault on the confederation structure of the party in 2014. Having succeeded in convincing the national conference in November 2013 to review the way the party was organised, she championed changes that would have made the Australian Greens a unitary and centralised national organisation.  The state branches, for instance, would be required to surrender their electoral registrations (their right to use the Greens label in elections) in favour of a national monopoly over the brand. The Milne project was justified by its supporters on the grounds that it increased the power of ordinary members, which was rather ironic, given that ordinary members in her home state of Tasmania did not even vote in preselection ballots before 2014. And yes, Senator Milne and the party room also wanted to increase their own representation on national bodies.

All of this was déjà vu for older Greens. The division over the type of national party went back to the formation of the Australian Greens in the early 1990s. The Greens in NSW were strong advocates of a confederation model whereas the Tasmanians wanted a more centralised structure. When the Greens WA (Senator Jo Valentine) and the Denison Greens (Bob Brown) circulated their proposals for an Australian Greens in April 1991 they held out two models: confederation (‘without any overriding powers vested in the national organisation except by consent of the autonomous groups’) and federation (‘overriding powers to the national body’) (2). From contemporary sources it is  possible to deduce that the West Australians favoured the first, the Tasmanians the second. The latter, it is clear, have never given up on their druthers.

Senator Milne’s way of proceeding rather made a mockery of her claim to be expanding grassroots democracy. At the April 2014 national council held in Melbourne, a general meeting of Victorian Greens was convened to discuss her mooted changes with Milne and Adam Bandt the speakers from the platform.  An appeal by Lee Rhiannon to be allowed to outline a contrary case from the platform was rebuffed. Undeterred, NSW delegates circulated a four-page critique (3) of the Milne proposals to the attendees and spoke forcefully from the floor. 

Fortunately, this NSW intervention helped spark opposition in the WA and Queensland parties and the Milne plans came to very little. All it amounted to in the end was that a number of national committees were folded into a revamped national council which would meet more frequently. Nevertheless, Inside the Greens allows Milne to proclaim victory in this campaign. 

While most of this is missing from Inside the Greens, its positive treatment of Milne is one of the book’s strong points. The Greens party has been significantly shaped by ‘second-wave feminism’ – just look at its roster of candidates and MPs. From the beginnings, women either predominate or at least play an equal role – and, as Inside the Greens implies, members like Christine Milne and Lee Rhiannon are emblematic of that strong feminist current in the Greens. 

Finally, Inside the Greens reports that Milne’s leadership ended on a sour note with strong criticism of her performance from Bob Brown loyalists such as Ben Oquist – criticism which Bob Brown demurred from distancing himself from. Despite their differences, as the book notes, the only strong public defence at the time against the bad-mouthing of Milne came from – wait for it – Senator Lee Rhiannon. 

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  1. Backbench backlash cans electoral funding plans
  2. ‘Towards the formation of a National Greens Organisation’, April 1991, second draft, circulated by Jo Valentine for the WA Greens and Bob Brown for the Denison Greens. Pages 2-3.
  3. Greens in the 21st Century

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