Ever since the defeat of John Howard’s Coalition government in November 2007, there has been consistent speculation in the media that the Liberal Party may split. This was at its height when Tony Abbott defeated Malcolm Turnbull in a partyroom ballot in December 2009. And it has re-emerged following the Turnbull government’s narrow election victory last month.
On the first occasion, some commentators surmised that the self-declared Liberal “moderates” or “progressives” could not remain within an Abbott-led party.
More recently, others have theorised that Liberal conservatives will not be able to accept a Turnbull-led government over the next three years. I’m no prophet. However, I have always believed that the Liberal Party will hold together.
The focus on divisions within the Liberals has been accompanied by a lack of attention to what is taking place inside the Greens. Interviewed by ABC 7.30’s Matt Wordsworth on July 29, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon revealed that Bob Brown, the leader of the party at the time, opposed her preselection for the NSW Legislative Council in 2007 and for the Senate in 2010.
In other words, the political antipathy between the Greens’ founder and their most high-profile NSW politician goes back at least a decade. It’s now white hot. In a separate 7.30 interview on the same day, Brown said Rhiannon should step down as a senator and be replaced by another member of the party.
The divisions within the Greens turn partly on performance and partly on ideology. Put simply, the Greens did poorly in the double dissolution in NSW compared with Victoria. Despite the hype that the party could defeat Labor’s Anthony Albanese in Grayndler and Tanya Plibersek in Sydney, Labor comfortably retained both inner-city Sydney seats. In Victoria, on the other hand, Andrew Bandt held Melbourne and the Greens went close in nearby Batman. Labor’s David Feeney held on in Batman due to Liberal Party preferences. Also, the Greens have won two Senate positions in Victoria.
However, NSW’s only Green in the upper house will be Rhiannon. Her result was so poor that she failed to win a quota in her own right, despite the fact quotas are halved in a double dissolution.
Then there is ideology. Brown’s political background is in the Tasmanian environmental movement; Rhiannon’s in the communist movement. Interviewed by Paddy Manning for his article on the Greens in the current issue of The Monthly, Rhiannon said that she objected to the term “Eastern Bloc”, which is used within the Greens to describe her left-wing faction.
The NSW Greens senator told Manning: “I’ve always been open. My parents were in the Communist Party. I was in the old Socialist Party. I’ve always acknowledged that, and I’m very proud of my history. The people who were in the old Communist Party have made a great contribution to this country.” Rhiannon’s account is an understatement.
Rhiannon’s parents, WJ (Bill) Brown and Freda Brown, had a lifelong attachment to Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union. As members of the Communist Party of Australia, they supported Stalin’s forced famines, purges and deportation of nationalities along with the notorious 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact plus the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968).
In 1968, under the leadership of Laurie Aarons, the CPA finally broke with Stalin’s heirs in Moscow. The Browns, however, remained loyal to the Soviet Union. They formed a breakaway party that they called the Socialist Party of Australia.
Lee Brown (as she then was) joined the SPA — Australia’s continuing Stalinist party.
Rhiannon remained in the SPA until the collapse of the communist regimes in eastern Europe — the original Eastern Bloc — following the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. During this period she travelled widely in eastern Europe, including a stint at the Lenin School in Moscow in 1977 where, traditionally, foreign revolutionaries were trained. All this is documented in my Media Watch Dog blog.
Richard Di Natale took over the Greens leadership from Christine Milne in May last year with a promise to increase the party’s primary vote to 20 per cent. Viewed in this light, the Greens’ performance was disappointing — this despite the fact the party gets favoured treatment on the ABC and Fairfax Media. The Greens’ nationwide vote in the Senate was 8.6 per cent, about the same as in 2013.
Indeed The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age built up false hopes when reporting the Greens’ own pollster, Lonergan Research. On June 14, Richard Willingham reported that polling indicated a Greens victory in Batman. On June 26, journalist Tony Wright suggested that the Greens could defeat Coalition minister Kelly O’Dwyer in Higgins. On June 28, journalist Adam Morton theorised that the Greens might defeat Labor’s Michael Danby in Melbourne Ports. It all came to naught. Moreover, O’Dwyer’s total vote was as high as 58 per cent. Despite the failure to win seats in the House of Representatives in addition to Melbourne, the Greens have held all their Senate seats except for a second seat in South Australia. The party went close to losing a second seat in both Tasmania and Western Australia. And it failed to win an additional seat in NSW or Queensland.
The Greens remain popular in inner-city Melbourne and, to a lesser extent, inner-city Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. It has become a party that appeals to well-off, tertiary-educated professionals and their younger but not so well-off equivalents who pay little if any net tax. This is a solid basis for a party that wants to exert influence on the political process but not a base from which to project support into suburban and regional Australia.
The evidence suggests that Bob Brown wants to return the party to its roots in the environment movement.
But Rhiannon remains committed to the extreme-left agenda manifested in her support for a boycott of Israel — the only democracy in the Middle East.
Graduates of the Lenin School are a tough lot. Don’t expect Rhiannon to take Brown’s “go now” advice. The party seems destined to be divided for years to come.