Corbynism arrives in Australia

Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, the standard bearer for a more radical politics in the Australian Greens, has found herself compared to Jeremy Corbyn but the impact of Corbyn may be more significant on the Australian Labor Party.

By Hall Greenland in Australia.


The whole world may, or may not, be watching Jeremy Corbyn and British Labour’s resurgence, but the Greens and Labor in Australia certainly are. This is true also of journalists and commentators here who judge almost every move in these left-of-centre parties by reference to Jeremy Corbyn.

Under the impact of evolving social, economic and environmental crises, it was already differentiation time within the Green and Labor parties down under – as elsewhere in the word. The advent of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders has quickened the differentiation and re-orientation. The division in these social-democratic parties quintessentially boils down to the historic choice of Corbyn or Blair.

The Australian Greens are now pre-occupied by the choice, particularly in the Greens in New South Wales, the largest state branch of the Australian Greens.

The Greens federal parliamentary leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, has staked his future on a more centrist, pragmatic course for the Greens. Just as the left and Green wings of social democracy around the world were shuffling to the left, Di Natale has announced a determined move in the opposite direction.

This misreading of the times provoked simmering opposition among members in New South Wales (Australia’s largest state). In January it broke out into the open when the Young Greens in NSW launched their own tendency or faction called Left Renewal.

Explicitly anti-capitalist and socialist, they harked back to the founders of the Greens in Australia. In 1985 the original party manifesto described the party founders as ‘environmental and resident activists. Nuclear disarmers. Dissidents from the Labor party who have witnessed betrayals by both wings of that party. Feminists. Anarchists. Those inspired by the German Greens. Socialists of various kinds.’

Left Renewal’s reception by the leadership of Australian Greens was predictably hostile. They were repudiated and told to leave. It is an invitation they have declined.

The open opposition to the federal leadership’s line has now spread to the mainstream of the Greens NSW and its standard bearer is the state’s Greens senator, Lee Rhiannon.

Rhiannon did not seek the role. However in June the federal parliamentary leadership tried to strike a deal with the conservative federal government on schools funding. The Greens are in a position to cut a deal because they have enough votes in the Senate to give the government a majority which it lacks in its own right.

Trouble was the deal would have further entrenched the favourable bias in government funding to non-government schools. The deal was firmly opposed by the powerful teachers unions (they have 90 per cent membership among state school teachers), by teachers in the Greens NSW and by many local Greens groups.

These groups campaigned hard against any deal and Senator Rhiannon indicated her support for them. Elected members bodies in NSW also urged her to continue to oppose the schools funding deal. For choosing to side with members – and a powerful Greens constituency – rather than her colleagues, Rhiannon was threatened with expulsion from the federal party room. She was ‘blamed’ for the failure to seal the deal. There seems little doubt that party’s federal apparatus (Di Natale has a staff of 24!) actively briefed against Rhiannon in the media.

The threats and leaks to the media had the predictable consequence of rallying the NSW membership around the senator who was soon being compared to Jeremy Corbyn. When she appeared at party or student gatherings, supporters would break into chants of ‘O, Lee Rhiannon’, in conscious imitation of the now famous Corbyn chant.

Rhiannon, long a champion of a member-driven party and extra-parliamentarism, has been the most radical Greens MP in Australia for some time. She can count reformed political donation laws among her achievements. She is a strong public supporter of the Palestinians and cemented her reputation among the young by leading the successful campaign against steep increases in university fees in 2014. She has now started to speak of capitalism and democratising the economy.

The wave of support for Rhiannon has forced the party leadership to drop the threat of expulsion. However, their determination to get rid of her persists. Later this year there will be a party ballot for the Greens’ NSW senate ticket for the next elections and the leadership will attempt to remove Rhiannon then. Expectations are they will swing behind a soft-left ‘unity’ candidate as the right does not have the numbers to beat Rhiannon in a straight-out contest.

The Greens’ problems are further complicated by the definite shift to the left by the leadership of the Labor party. Without in any way disavowing their past active embrace of neoliberalism – Labor governments in Australia provided the inspiration and model for Blair and co. – this leadership has now adopted what is being dubbed by commentators and headline writers as Corbynism-lite.

Labor’s federal leader Bill Shorten has suddenly discovered growing inequalities in income and wealth and is promising to tighten the tax loopholes used by the rich and corporations. In the same vein, he has committed the party to significant increases in education and health funding. Labor is also talking of new public enterprises in the field of renewable power and a royal commission into the practices of the big banks.

This show of uncharacteristic if mild Laborism has firmed the party’s lead in the polls. It is having resonance because the long boom in Australia is now faltering. Real wages surged in the 20 years till 2015 by an average of 67 per cent, but have now started to go backwards. Weakened unions also mean that labour’s share of GDP is now at least 10 percentage points below what it was in the 1970s.

Labor’s move to the left might bolster that party’s electoral stocks but it has the opposite effect on the Greens. The Greens rose as an electoral force on the back of support from former Labor supporters disillusioned by their party’s move to the right on economic, ecological and moral issues. Labor has by no means fully reformed – it still takes a hard right-wing line against refugees and remains pro-coal – but its milksop reformism may now be enough to win the next election and keep the Greens from further eating into their support.

How long Labor – who will predictably disappoint in government – can stave off the challenge from the Greens in the future will depend on who triumphs within that party. It appears certain that a move to the right will not serve the Greens – or workers or citizens or the planet – well.

Hall Greenland was among the founders of the Greens in Australia in the mid-1980s. He is currently co-convenor of the Greens Political Education Trust of the Greens NSW. He blogs at Watermelon Papers.

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