Ongoing problems within the Greens is a warning to all parties

The events of the past fortnight have rocked the Australian Greens in a way they have not been at any point since their entry into the Australian political scene. The dual episodes of the public debate surrounding Senator Lee Rhiannon’s suspension from the Greens federal Party Room, followed by the shock resignation of now-ex Senator Ludlam for failure to renounce his pre-existing New Zealand citizenship, leave the party in an awkward position. And these events raise serious questions about their internal processes.

As has been pointed out by Narelle Miragliotta in The Conversation, the Greens NSW has the ability to bind its MPs to policy, and indeed would appear to hold this as a normal practice, not allowing a conscience vote on matters. Of course, MPs are still individuals and could vote against party policy, potentially triggering disendorsement, but NSW Greens MPs have generally held to being bound by the party. This is not the case in any of the other state parties, MPs being explicitly being given a conscience vote.

What equally complicates matters, and was clearly enunciated by Parliamentary Leader Richard Di Natale after the announcement of Rhiannon’s suspension from the Party Room, was that one of the key issues in dispute was the operation of the Greens’ consensus decision making process. Di Natale suggested that without consensus on a position, the Party Room could not provide a united front in dealing with the Government’s Gonski 2.0 education package. Oddly, the Greens Party Room is entitled to vote on matters where consensus cannot be reached, and given that all the Green MPs have a conscience vote, this would appear to mean that Rhiannon being bound by policy was irrelevant.

This clearly points to the politics of the situation. Former Parliamentary Bob Brown has a long held disgruntlement with the NSW Greens, recently expressed again in New Matilda, and this was followed by another former Greens Parliamentary Leader, Christine Milne, who also pointed to the NSW branch holding ‘veto power’ over the national organisation. Yet as Miragliotta also noted, there is nothing to stop other members of the Party Room dissenting and voting against the rest of their colleagues – as is their right when exercising their conscience vote. This exposes the furphy of the supposed consensus problem suggested by Di Natale in two ways:

  • any MP can break consensus to vote against their colleagues, and thus the situation of Rhiannon being ‘bound’ is no different to that situation; and
  • the Party Room can vote if it so desires, thus ‘consensus’ is shown to be a decision making tool only – and lack of consensus cannot therefore be itself a reason for these ructions.

Rhiannon herself, in statements to the media, has also revealed her disappointment in the Parliamentary leadership of the party, further demonstrating the divisions within the Party Room. Indeed, it has led to renewed calls for the Parliamentary Leader to be voted on by the membership of the party.

This has always been resisted, particularly by Brown and Milne, on the basis that it might lead to an Australian Democrats style split. But as Miragliotta hints at, should party unity over-ride both internal diversity and democratic processes? This can be widened to asking whether diversity within states (including factions and groupings such as ‘Left Renewal’ in the NSW party that supported anti-capitalist policies) will also be tolerated? Brown indicated that he felt such a faction was a joke, with Di Natale going further suggesting they had no place within the party, which promptly led others to accused him of hypocrisy given the party’s history.

The narrative, therefore, is one of a party that has grown over 30 years from small beginnings to now occupy an important place in Australian politics. The problem of moving away from a defined and relatively small constituency has begun to consume the party, as it seeks to become a viable partner in Government, and the policy agenda it wishes to pursue becomes more closely scrutinised.

All this should be no surprise to any student of political organisations. What has set the Greens apart for much this time has been its fairly steadfast adherence to core principles, and pointed attacks on what it sees as the failings of the major parties and their leaders. Certainly the party has professionalised over the past decade, and is far clearer in understanding the need to run the various parts of the organisation well (although like all parties this doesn’t stop problems from emerging from time to time).

This of course brings us to the case of Scott Ludlam and his New Zealand citizenship. The story that has finally emerged is that of a lawyer looking into whether various MPs had actually renounced their pre-Australian citizenships found that Ludlam had not. He contacted the Clerk of the Senate and the party. This set in motion a week long set of events (including the reinstatement of Rhiannon to the Party Room) culminating in Ludlam’s resignation from parliament. Ludlam believed (erroneously) that his NZ citizenship lapsed when he became an Australian citizen. When nominating as a candidate for the party he almost certainly was asked the question as to whether he was still a New Zealand citizen, and he would have confidently replied that he was not. Which brings us to the question of to what level parties need to perform due diligence on their candidates? As a long series of hiccups among party candidates has shown, getting the details right is important, and now the Greens have had to relearn this lesson. That it was Scott Ludlam, one of their best performers in Parliament, is perhaps a tragedy for the party, but will serve as an object lesson for all parties to do their homework.

And who knows, it might just see a few people go back and think about revising the rather quaint, and rapidly outdating, Section 44 of the Constitution.

Dr Stewart Jackson is a lecturer at The University of Sydney