When the Greens flirted with Gonski 2.0 (and the Coalition)

The Greens’ worst crisis was self-inflicted – by the party room. The ultimate success (and rescue) by Greens NSW deserved a fuller treatment…

INSIDE THE GREENS’ handling of the school funding saga that resulted in the expulsion of Rhiannon from the party room and her quick reinstatement is an inadequate exploration of the issues that kept this story in the media for weeks. This is surprising as it was obvious that there was more to this dispute than differences over education policy and parliamentary tactics. 

In June and July 2017, there were often daily reports in the major media outlets about this internal Greens conflict. It quickly became apparent this was a factional power play against the left of the party. With a Senate preselection looming, a handful of federal and NSW Greens saw there was an opportunity to use the media to damage Rhiannon’s reputation and attempt to force the Greens NSW into adopting an orthodox hierarchical structure that would create a lack of accountability for Greens NSW MPs similar to that afforded to other federal party room members.

It was the most ruthless factional dispute in the history of the Greens that surely deserved more considered coverage in a major book covering the history and inner workings of the party. The schools funding incident revealed the tension between those who want MPs to be the primary decision-makers within the Greens and those who want to continue to empower members in decision-making. 

Up until this incident the Greens federal party room had had a reputation for rarely leaking. Obviously there were differences on some issues but a high degree of discipline meant Greens MPs rarely fought out disputes through the media. Overnight this changed dramatically. Anonymous sources in the offices of Greens MPs hostile to the Greens NSW and Rhiannon were backgrounding the media, sometimes on a daily basis. The attacks on Rhiannon went far beyond her approach to schools funding. 

The other factor that should have alerted Paddy Manning to the factional nature of the matter was that federal MPs linked resolution of the dispute to its demand that the Greens NSW change its constitution. While the proponents of this change dressed this up as the need to address “a structural issue” (1) what they were after was a constitutional change that would open the door to Greens NSW MPs defying party policy and decisions. They wanted NSW MPs to vote in parliament in accord with party room decisions that were contrary to party policy. This step towards a conscience vote for NSW MPs had been a long-term, undemocratic demand of senior Greens figures – Bob Brown, Christine Milne, and their backers from the party room. Greens MPs in all states apart from NSW are granted a conscience vote in parliament on all matters.

While the requirement that Greens NSW elected representatives must vote according to party policy had annoyed Brown since it was agreed to in 1992, it is important to note the organisational structure laid down when the Australian Greens was formed has delivered more than 25 years of largely cooperative relationships and enabled the Greens to consolidate its place in Australian political history as the most successful small party the country has seen. The move to have the Greens NSW change its structure was an attempt to jettison this style of work. 

Paddy Manning is correct when he writes that the Greens education spokesperson, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, “confronted Rhiannon” (2) in the party room about leaflets on schools funding that the Greens NSW Senator had authorised. These particular leaflets promoted the Greens education policy that supports the full, original Gonski education funding levels. Producing the leaflets was the decision of local Greens groups. This material was localised to inform constituents how much money local public schools would lose under Turnbull’s new schools funding regime, the so-called Gonski 2.0. Rhiannon’s office printed the leaflets and helped collate some of the research. 

While Inside the Greens provides some details about how the schools funding issue played out for the Greens, it fails to include critical facts that demonstrate how Rhiannon’s actions were misrepresented. In response to Rhiannon’s role in the production of the local group leaflets, Manning writes: “Consequences there were: on the Friday the nine other Greens in the party room signed a letter to the national council, drafted up by Richard Di Natale’s chief of staff Cate Faehrmann, complaining about the leaflet and Rhiannon’s failure to tell Hanson-Young or any other federal colleagues about it while negotiations with the government were underway.” (3) What Manning is describing is that without convening a party room meeting the leader’s office decided to mobilise a complaint against Rhiannon.

What concerned many Greens members was that inevitable media coverage about the Greens possibly doing a deal to support the Coalition’s fundamentally flawed legislation had alienated a significant section of Greens voters and potential voters.

The party room meeting where Hanson-Young took offence against Rhiannon was on Wednesday 21 June or Thursday 22 June. The letter was drafted after that meeting, on that day or the next, and by Saturday the story was in the Sydney Morning Herald (4). 

At that party room meeting, Rhiannon had explained she saw no need to inform her colleagues about the leaflets as their content was consistent with Greens policies, and if anything the leaflet would have strengthened the Greens hand in negotiations. Her office was constantly producing leaflets on issues to assist the campaigning activities of members and supporters. She had never been queried about such leaflets before. However, as Hanson-Young was so upset, Rhiannon apologised for any upset caused. Rhiannon also acknowledges that with hindsight it would have been better to let Hanson-Young know about the leaflet as there were varying attitudes to the schools funding bill among Greens MPs. 

The leaflets initially were the basis of the party’s room complaint against Rhiannon. This material was depicted by the leader’s office and Hanson-Young, an as an act of disloyalty, that effectively sabotaged negotiations with the Turnbull government over the schools funding bill. The facts show this was not the case. Many of the demands that the Greens had put forward to the government were granted. However, the deeply unfair funding formula remained in the government bill. This meant Commonwealth government funds were split with 80 per cent going to private schools and 20 per cent to public schools. This inequity was one of the main reasons that the party room eventually decided to oppose the legislation. 

Manning also provides details of a joint meeting of party room members with members of the National Council earlier that week at which a Greens NSW National Council delegate stated that Rhiannon would vote against the government’s bill in accordance with policy and members’ wishes (5). Concerns about the schools funding bill had already been expressed by Rhiannon in party room meetings.

Rhiannon’s intention to vote against a bill that disadvantaged public schools became another point of contention in that party room meeting on June 21 or 22. Hanson-Young and Di Natale asserted that this was another example of Rhiannon undermining the negotiations with the Turnbull government on the Bill. The Greens NSW and Rhiannon’s view was that the party room support for the Bill would require party room agreement to any negotiated deal and no such sign-off was given by the party room. Rhiannon doubted there was solid bloc of votes as other Greens MPs had concerns about assisting the Turnbull government to make cuts to public education.

Rhiannon was still a full member of the party room when Faehrmann drafted the letter of complaint that all other federal Greens MPs were asked to sign. Rhiannon was never informed about the letter by the leader’s office. She was alerted to it by a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald who rang seeking her response. This meant that the MPs who signed the letter did so without hearing Rhiannon’s explanation of events. This abuse of process came to mark the handling of this saga by both Di Natale’s office and some of the Greens MPs. The decision to write the letter was not a party room decision. 

A number of people who have media experience commented that the letter to the National Council was handled in a way that would ensure it would quickly end up in the media. 

Normally with sensitive material the Australian Greens follow strict protocols. The usual practice is that only the Australian Greens office bearers are emailed the relevant information and then National Council members are informed verbally. In this case the letter was emailed by Richard Di Natale’s chief of staff Cate Faehrmann to about 40 Greens members that included National Councillors and office bearers. Once that had occurred it was effectively impossible to determine who was the person that forwarded the letter to the SMH and backgrounded them about what had happened.

At neither a scheduled meeting of the National Council on the Saturday or at any subsequent meetings did the National Council agree to take any action against Rhiannon as requested by the party room. Manning states that the National Council “refused to endorse the letter, batting it straight back to the party room” (6). 

Once the legislation was passed by the Senate with cross-bench support and the Greens had voted against it, there was an expectation that everyone would move on. However, a special party room meeting was called. Some National Council members were surprised that Di Natale was still complaining about Rhiannon’s alleged misbehaviour, and that the party room continued to pursue the complaint that they had lodged.

Every day from Saturday 24 June when the leaked letter first appeared in the media to the special party room meeting scheduled for Wednesday 28 June in Melbourne there was a barrage of media stories. The intensity of the backgrounding by anonymous “senior Greens” (7) and comments by Bob Brown (8) were clear alerts that this escalating crisis was manufactured and that it was taking the Greens into unchartered territory.

One anonymous source stated, “This is unprecedented. Lee has breached the faith of the party and the party room.” (9) Another: “A senior Greens source described the intervention as ‘seismic’ and said it could make the NSW hardliner’s position in Parliament untenable.” (10)

The problem that the leader’s office soon had to deal with was that the National Council did not back any of the party room’s demands for action against Rhiannon.

Bob Brown stepped in stating that action against Rhiannon “would be unprecedented but warranted”. His attacks generated more media coverage on Sunday 25 June and Monday 26 June. The former Greens leader spelt out the actions that could be taken against Rhiannon as “censured or kicked out of the party” (11). It is not actually possible for the party room to expel a member from the Greens, but accuracy was lost sight of as senior Greens worked to build up a case to justify their move against Rhiannon.

Those who were backgrounding media outlets engaged in some obvious lies about Rhiannon. She was described as “obstructionist for refusing to deal with the Coalition on any policies on ideological grounds” (12). While Rhiannon is very critical of the Coalition, as a parliamentarian Rhiannon worked in a principled way to deliver the best outcome for the majority of people and the environment in her negotiations over legislation covered by her portfolios. Occasionally this meant working with the Coalition. Rhiannon has been widely complimented for steering the Senate voting reform legislation through the parliament even when Labor reversed their previous support for the reform. Rhiannon successfully worked closely with the Coalition government to achieve this. She also collaborated with the Coalition on legislation to end the testing of cosmetics on animals.

The criticisms fed to the media were colourful and odious but inaccurate. Brown accused Rhiannon of “perfidious behaviour” (13) and stated that she was “a specialist in party room rancour” (14). Brown also repeated his criticism that “when it comes to white-anting, Lee is the Greens version of Tony Abbott” (15).

On the eve of the special Wednesday party room, the anonymous sources were at it again leaking to the media. This time accusing Rhiannon of being a serial offender with a number of media outlets reporting that action had to be taken against the NSW Senator as she had already been censured twice (16). These allegations of two previous censures were untrue.  

One censure was supposedly over Rhiannon’s response when Di Natale unfairly stripped her of the higher education portfolio and the other was over her alleged role with the Left Renewal group. Rhiannon denied these allegations and there were no minutes to prove the censures had ever occurred. In the case of Left Renewal, Rhiannon had explained she was not associated with the group, however a few senior Greens continued to misrepresent Rhiannon’s position. 

Because of the intensity of media speculation and backgrounding about what would happen at the special Melbourne party room meeting Rhiannon requested that two support people, Greens NSW MPs David Shoebridge and Jenny Leong, accompany her to that meeting. This request was refused by Di Natale. One of Rhiannon’s staff did accompany her to Melbourne. 

The five-hour party room meeting on Wednesday 28 June, while delivering two resolutions failed to actually achieve the censure or expulsion from the party Brown and co were calling for. One resolution called for a change to the rules so Greens NSW MPs could not be bound by the state party to vote in parliament (in accordance with policy) against a party room position. This would open the door to NSW MPs voting against party policy if that was the position of party room. The other resolution suspended Rhiannon from party room discussions and decisions on contentious issues when the Greens were in a balance of power situation. 

At the start of this meeting Rhiannon had requested that conflict resolution procedures set out in the Australian Greens constitution be followed (17). This was not agreed to. That decision was extraordinary and undemocratic as it defied a set rule. There is a strong culture within the Greens that every effort should be made to work out disputes and complaints collaboratively before a matter is escalated to seek punitive action. 

As soon as the Melbourne party room meeting concluded, around 7 pm, the National Council convened to consider the resolutions just passed. To the probable shock of Di Natale and Faehrmann, the national body, with delegates from all states and territories, including two party room representatives, failed to provide the endorsement that the leader and so many in the party room thought would be forthcoming. This was a  setback for the federal MPs and Bob Brown. It was one thing to not have the support of the Greens NSW but now they found they could not depend on the National Council. Criticism of the party room’s actions was also mounting among members and supporters.

Some vented their frustration with the lack of action against Rhiannon. Brown tweeted “Leenient” and Paul Sheridan, the partner of Faehrmann told the Australian that the party room meeting had made “no mistake” (18) in their actions against Rhiannon and the Greens NSW.

In morning media interviews, less than 24 hours after the special party room meeting, Richard Di Natale was softening his language. He described the party room decision on Rhiannon as: “It’s not a penalty and it’s not an expulsion” (19).

Within the week, the leader’s office according to the Australian Financial Review, were “scrambling to come up with a face-saving compromise” (20). A few days later the party room agreed that Rhiannon could return to the party room and an exclusive Balance of Power Subcommittee was set up to consider specific legislation without MPs who had been instructed how to vote or who intended to exercise a conscience vote. This plan was never backed by National Council. It was regarded as a non-solution and was most likely unconstitutional. It was a media tactic so Di Natale and the other MPs could make out they had dealt with the situation they had created. 

This was a significant backdown by the party room as the suspension of Rhiannon from the party room had now been dropped. Interestingly, the Subcommittee motion from the leader’s office had at last recognised the role of the conscience vote as a potential problem for the Greens desire to present a united parliamentary voice.

More people were starting to understand that there was a major contradiction in the party room’s attack on the workings of the Greens NSW. While Greens NSW MPs were required to vote in accord with party policy, MPs from other states could act in a highly undemocratic way on any piece of legislation by voting as they personally wished, even if they knew it was inconsistent with the position determined by party members at National Conferences. 

The leader’s office, Brown and Milne did not acknowledge that this was one of the reasons they did not win support for their attack on Rhiannon and the Greens NSW. The bias in initially only targeting the rules governing Greens NSW MPs revealed to many that this was a crude factional power play.

The practice of the Greens NSW, set out in the party’s constitution, that binds its MPs to policy and members’ decisions, has been in place for decades and in that time has caused no breakdown in federal party room processes. From time to time in the party room, there are differences among MPs about legislation and parliamentary tactics. It is hard to find examples where differences haven’t been worked through. That’s the job of the party room. The debate over schools funding could have been handled in this way. The differences were eventually resolved as shown by the fact that in the final analysis the whole party room voted together to oppose the schools funding Bill. What was different with the schools funding issue was that a small group of senior Greens regularly briefed the media on internal differences – with a view to changing Greens NSW processes.

The consternation among members and supporters was considerable. To this day the Greens reputation among many public education advocates and union members and officials is diminished. Many asked why the differences were not worked out in the party room as was the usual practice. 

Bruce Knobloch, who was a Greens NSW National Council representative at the time summed up the events: “Unnecessary, Unconstitutional, Unethical, Unwise.”

. . .

  1. SMH 28 June 2017 Adam Gartrell Lee Rhiannon suspended from Greens party room pending reform in NSW
  2. Page 355 “Inside the Greens”
  3. Page 355 “Inside the Greens”
  4. SMH 23 June 2017 ‘She has breached our faith’: Greens tensions boil over in spectacular attack on Lee Rhiannon
  5. Pages 354-355 “Inside the Greens”
  6. Page 355 “Inside the Greens
  7. SMH 23 June 2017 Matthew Knott ‘She has breached our faith’: Greens tensions boil over in spectacular attack on Lee Rhiannon
  8. SMH 26 June 2017 Fergus Hunter and Adam Gartrell “Bob Brown says Lee Rhiannon could be expelled from the Greens after bitter split”. Similar articles appeared in numerous other media outlets.
  9. See footnote 7
  10. See footnote 7
  11. SMH 26 June 2017 Fergus Hunter and Adam Gartrell “Bob Brown says Lee Rhiannon could be expelled from the Greens after bitter split”
  12. The Guardian 25 June 2017 Gabrielle Chan Lee Rhiannon faces possible censure or expulsion from Greens party room
  13. The Conversation 25 June 2017 Michelle Grattan Former leader Bob Brown attacks Greens Senator Rhiannon’s behaviour on schools
  14. The Guardian 26 June 2017 Gabrielle Chan Former leader Bob Brown attacks Greens Senator Rhiannon’s behaviour on schools
  15. The Guardian 26 June 2017 Paul Karp ‘Greens version of Tony Abbott’: Lee Rhiannon fends off Bob Brown attack
  16. SMH 27 June 2017 Adam Gartrell and Fergus Hunter Three strikes and she’s out? Greens risk all-out war over Lee Rhiannon and numerous other media outlets.
  17. See item 31 in “The Charter and Constitution of the Australian Greens”
  18. The Australian 30 June 2017 Rosie Lewis and Primrose Riordan Greens wage war over claims of blackmail
  19. SMH 29 June 2017 Fergus Hunter and Adam Gartrell Richard Di Natale says Lee Rhiannon’s suspension is ‘process’ – not a penalty
  20. Australian Financial Review 7 July 2017 Andrew Tillett “Greens hope to end brawling over NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon suspension”

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