Why we support Lee Rhiannon

Lee Rhiannon addressing a Tamil rights rally in 2012.

Greens NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon is again the target of a very public attack — and it’s not being led by Murdoch but by the Greens federal parliamentary caucus. Former Greens leader Bob Brown has repeated his demand she step down.

Attacking Rhiannon for sticking to principles has become a past time for the right-wing of the Greens.

The ferocity of the current attack is striking, particularly as it seems to stem from Rhiannon’s support for the party’s original position on Gonski funding for schools.

On June 24, it was revealed that a letter of complaint against Rhiannon — signed by all federal Greens MPs — had been sent to the Greens’ National Council.  The council has the power to stand her down from the party room.

It alleged Rhiannon had sabotaged the Greens’ ability to amend the government’s education funding bill (“Gonski 2.0”), citing her authorisation of a leaflet being distributed by its Port Jackson branch.

The leaflet stated the Greens did not support the government’s bill which would strip $846 million from public schools over 2018-2019. It also said it supported the original Gonski proposition, which called for a bigger increase in funding for public schools.

The federal Greens MPs allege the timing of the flyer’s distribution was tantamount to a breach of “faith of the party and party room”.

Rhiannon rejected this saying on June 27 that she was “proud” that the Greens had voted against the final education funding bill. She said that “public schools would have been better off under the existing Commonwealth-state agreements than they will be under the Turnbull package.”

She also defended her actions saying she had been faithful to Greens policy and processes “at all times”. “My work did not impact on the Greens negotiations with the government”, she said adding, “It was the Turnbull government’s decision to do a deal with the crossbench Senators that killed off negotiations with the Greens. I had no role in that.”

The context of this latest extraordinary attack on Rhiannon is the difference in approach among the Greens’ parliamentary leadership to the Coalition government, and in particular to its education funding bill.

On May 3 in response to the Coalition’s pledge to provide close to $20 billion to education over the next decade, Greens education spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young rushed to declare the Greens were “hopeful” the model would give schools long-term certainty.

A day or so later, Hanson-Young’s enthusiasm had waned as she declared the Greens would have to “scrutinise the detail” of the funding model.

Later on, the Greens put up several amendments— some of which were included into the final package which went through the Senate on June 23 and supported by 10 conservative cross benchers. Labor opposed the bill, citing the Australian Education Union (AEU) research which showed up the Coalition’s ruse.

“Public schools lose out”, Rhiannon declared adding that she was proud to stand with the AEU which called out the Turnbull package as prioritising private over public schools.

“Much of the commentary written about the school funding bill is inaccurate,” Rhiannon said. “The new funding regime is neither sector blind or needs based.”

Party sources said that Rhiannon had consulted the NSW MP responsible for education, the education working group and the federal parliamentary liaison committee before taking the position against the fraudulent Gonski 2.0. She had also been contacted by many local groups and teachers urging her to block any Gonski 2.0 deal.

So why is Rhiannon’s integrity repeatedly being called into question? Why is she under such sustained attack from her own colleagues?

From the outside, the attack on Rhiannon can only be understood as part of a long-running campaign by centrist and pragmatic sections of the party to intimidate and beat back the left-wing of the Greens. This is part of Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s push to give the party a more “responsible” image. He wants the Greens to be seen as a possible coalition partner of the Liberals and so has supported the Turnbull government on a number of occasions.

Rhiannon has long been the focus of Brown’s ire: he has publicly demanded she step down many times. This is despite her being democratically pre-selected in 2014 to run for the Senate position by the NSW party. Now, a section of the Greens seem to be preparing the ground to try and thwart her chances of being pre-selected for another Senate term.

The Socialist Alliance, and the movements in which we work, have been inspired by the huge groundswell generated by UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s election campaign and since then by his call for people to remain active and committed to principled, practical anti-austerity politics. What that showed was that many people —  especially younger people — are repelled by the sort of opportunist and unprincipled politics being pushed within the Greens by Di Natale and his supporters.

We support Lee Rhiannon for standing up for her principled and progressive politics. The sustained attacks on her will backfire on the Australian Greens, which face a choice of going the road of the Democrats, or not.