Greens NSW – majoritarian preselections and walking away

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I received an email yesterday from Justin Field, a Greens members of the NSW upper house, effectively laying out a threat that himself and his colleague Cate Faehrmann would quit the party unless the party met two of its demands:

Specifically they are asking that the party agree to a complete recount of the votes for the last preselection in the case that Jeremy Buckingham is removed from the ticket for the upcoming state election, and also that the organisations Left Renewal and Solidarity are added to the proscribed organisations list, effectively prohibiting members of those organisations from also being members of the Greens NSW.

The latter point is a callback to an early fight in the history of the Greens NSW, when members of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), now Socialist Alliance, were thrown out of the Greens in 1991.

The former point is an attempt to relitigate the results of this year’s state preselection, which saw the left of the party take the first two spots on the ticket for the upper house, pushing Faehrmann and Field’s allies Jeremy Buckingham and Dawn Walker into third and fourth places respectively. At the time the expectation was that neither of these seats were winnable, although Buckingham had been narrowly elected in 2011 from the third spot on the ticket, so I think expectations of his defeat were exaggerated.

In this post I will run through what could happen if the party were to split, and a quick explanation of how the party’s preselection rules have played into this conflict.

The party’s preselection process is meant to be proportional. The first spot on the ticket is elected as a single-member preferential ballot. Then a second count is conducted to choose two candidates (with a quota of 1/3 + 1) using proportional representation. One of these two would have already been chosen for the first spot, so the other person gets second. Then further rounds of counting are conducted with a lower quota, so an extra person is chosen each time.

In a factionally-divided contest, which is what the Greens NSW had earlier this year, you would expect such an outcome to give the more popular faction the first and third positions, and the other faction second and fourth. And this is indeed what happened. The left’s David Shoebridge and Abigail Boyd won the first and third positions, with Buckingham and Walker coming second and fourth.

But the party’s affirmative action policy then kicked into gear, pushing Boyd ahead of Buckingham. This in effect turns what should be a proportional system into a majoritarian system. Boyd largely won on the back of Shoebridge’s preferences. Likewise if Buckingham had come out on top his preferences would have favoured Walker, and the right would have won both of the winnable spots.

A better-designed system could have allowed for affirmative action while protecting the proportional nature of the count, but that’s not how the party’s rules work.

I’m not going to dive into the factional fight in the party, or the allegations against Jeremy Buckingham, except to say that a voting system which produces a ‘winner take all’ result in a preselection is not a recipe for factional stability or peace.

So this is why a recount of the preselection votes could seriously change things. In a race where Jeremy Buckingham was not running, most of his votes would have flowed to Dawn Walker, and she would have come second. Unlike Buckingham, she wouldn’t have been demoted into third because of affirmative action. So any recount of the ballots would likely see the right of the party regain the second spot on the ballot and see Abigail Boyd demoted to the difficult third spot.

I can’t see the party going along with these two demands. For a start, the party isn’t really capable of acting that quickly, even if it wanted to. So I think this statement is preparing the ground for these two MLCs to quit the party.

Faehrmann and Field are both long-term MLCs, next up for election in 2023. If they leave, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Buckingham and Walker to follow, with Buckingham and/or Walker possibly running an independent ticket for the upper house at March’s state election.

To run an independent group for the Legislative Council with a box above the line, you need 15 candidates, each of which needs 25 nominators – so that’s 375 total. But you would not have any kind of party name above the line in that case. It’s far too late to register a new party under NSW electoral law.

I don’t see Buckingham being particularly successful if he were to run, but it could cause serious damage to the party’s campaign. If these four were to all leave the party, only David Shoebridge would remain as an MP in the upper house. While I don’t think any of these MPs have a particularly high profile as an individual, having four sitting MPs leaving and loudly criticising the party in an election campaign will likely hurt.

I also expect that some of the party’s members would follow if these four were to leave. A majority of the party’s active members would stick around, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of candidates were to drop out and others cease to help the party. I’m already aware of one candidate who says he will not run if Buckingham is not on the ticket.

It would be particularly hard for the party in the marginal seats of Ballina and Lismore. The right of the party is stronger in the party’s north coast heartland, so it could hurt supporter activity and make it harder to hold on to Ballina and gain Lismore.

I think any splinter party wouldn’t have a great deal of success – none of the MPs threatening to leave are particularly high-profile, and only one of them has ever actually won election in their own right, with Walker, Faehrmann and Field succeeding others in the Legislative Council mid-term four times between the three of them. But Faehrmann and Field would still be there in the upper house for the next four years, which would make things a lot tougher for the remainder of the party.

Image: Jeremy Buckingham, David Shoebridge and Cate Faehrmann sing “My Way” by Frank Sinatra at a Greens NSW end-of-year party, December 3 2011.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. If the counting system seems weird (it does to me), the recounting system is a totally unknown different form of weirdness

    Resignations might happen today. Bob Brown rumoured to be making a quick visit today

  2. A cold, fair take on a situation running hot.

    It is worth pointing out that the Greens NSW have never done recounts. When Ben O’Quist didn’t get the top spot more than once, he pulled his name from the ticket. Similarly with Cate Faehrmann. Jeremy Buckingham pulling his name from the ticket wouldn’t cause a recount, unless if the Greens local groups decided they want one. Not a quick process.

    If they had acted on a resignation and recount when the allegations first emerged, it’s more likely that would have been accepted. Cate has a long track record of not planning though, as evident with the court case earlier this year. I expect a similar court case to be filed early next week demanding an injuction on campaigning activities and a recount.

    I personally am sick of the lumps we swallow. Dawn Walker achieved her seat by 7 votes despite serious allegations of misuse of federal campaign data by a since-disgraced volunteer. These shenanigans are only the latest in a long chain of abuse of process of personality-centred politicians.

  3. You’ve got to hand it to the Greens for devising dud electoral systems. According to the NSW preselection rules as set out it seems that if the dominant left faction nominate a man and a woman they will always take both winnable spots against any ticket from the smaller faction headed by a bloke. So the right’s only recourse would be to always head their ticket with a woman. Nothing wrong with that except that means that there is never any possibility of endorsement to a winnable position for men from the right faction which could lead to a further split along gender lines.
    The NSW Greens – the first party to ‘draw and quarter’ themselves in public.
    This would be funny but for the fact these divisions will seriously harm Sue Higginson (who I fully support) in my home town seat of Lismore.

  4. Several other federal and state lower house candidates have signed the letter, and some local councillors including Byron Shire Mayor Simon Richardson, so presumably they’ll be losing a number of candidates if most/everyone who signs the letter takes the next logical step of also leaving.

  5. It does seem like Sue Higginson and the volunteers and staff campaigning in the North Coast will be hit the hardest by this, ironically given that much of the base behind Jeremy, Dawn, Justin and Cate are associated with those local groups.

    I’d be hesitant before assuming that everyone signing the letter would follow them out of the party though. It’s a big step from signing a letter asking for action within the party to actively leaving.

  6. I am not a green supporter my alliance is with the alp … however my preference can go to the greens after. the winner take all system is bad and appears now to be causing a split. The greens will probably hold their metro lower house seats due to demographic changes because the more wealthy in their areas cannot vote liberal and don’t now vote alp but they are not certain of more than 1 upper

  7. In Greens case Reds are not under the bed they are an integral part of bed. At least one leg is red wood. I will look up who first used expression water-Mellon Greens once I have finished this post.
    The members of any political party always think the party is broader than outsiders who think the party is narrow minded extremists.
    One of the weaknesses of this approach is that outsiders in effect keep the party together.
    Media have done a very effective job at driving a wedge into Liberal Party and enlarging split. Green Left Weekly has described the “moderates” in NSW Greens as McCarthyists. A Senate enquire into extremist political groups would reveal the details. What would a Royal Commission reveal?

    In truth most political parties are highly factionalised and central control a consequence.

    If there was one thing in the Greens that I admired it was their decentralised structure but after this a centralised Whitlam style intervention is inevitable. The Greens decentralised structure was the opposite of their policy total centralisation. Fortunately looks like the Moscow faction is being ousted.
    Moscow faction of Greens should join Ashby-Hanson and use their skills to influence the most working class party in Australia. “Totalitarians let us all rejoice for we were young and free”
    Andrew Jackson

  8. Earliest reference I can find to “Watermellon Greens” is Christopher Hornets US book “Politically incorrect guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism” 2005 he was talking about German Greens. Any earlier references.
    Andrew Jackson

  9. Earliest reference I can find to “Watermellon Greens” is Christopher Horner’s US book “Politically incorrect guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism” 2005 he was talking about German Greens. Any earlier references.
    Andrew Jackson

  10. This is, as always fair minded, but it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for the Right losing out in a majoritarian contest after almost their entire Legislative Council delegation was elected in winner take all contests for casual vacancies. Also Abigail Boyd is closer politicly to Jenny Leong and the other MLAs than David. And if the party survives a split it will be that grouping who will emerge as dominant in both the state party room and the organisations apparatus.

  11. Overseas the “watermelon” expression goes back to at least 1982, see https://spectator.org/45094_man-who-saw-tomorrow/

    I remember it being commonly used in the 1990s in Australia, and I reckon I used it quite a bit myself then, but in that case in reference to DSP (later Socialist Alliance)/Resistance types who were trying to clothe their Marxism in environmental language, rather than Greens.

    John Anderson called the Greens “watermelons” in 2004 https://www.abc.net.au/news/2004-09-07/brown-dismisses-govt-name-calling/2039846

  12. Kevin Bonham,
    Good research.
    Both Howard and Anderson accurately describe some Greens.
    In effect the Greens are a broad church stretching from tree huggers who would not hurt a fly to outright Marxist apparatchiks whose commitment to totalitarian values is total.
    Andrew McIntyre described the Greens as “having an uncontrollable urge to spend, almost everywhere and for everything, a mania for control – through legislation and regulation of both individuals and institutions; a disturbing and unwarranted confidence in central planning and a belief that government knows best; an antagonism to initiatives by the private sector;and at best, a systematic and naive understanding both historical and practical ,of how the world works” McIntyre, Andrew “The Greens: Policies, Reality and Consequences” Connor Court Punblishing 2011 p5
    Andrew Jackson
    apjackson2@bigpond.com

  13. Some other observations here. Buckingham does have a reasonably high profile in some of the regions, particularly where the anti-CSG campaigns were strongest, and the media coverage about his problems hasn’t deeply permeated out into those regions. This doesn’t mean he will be able to win re-election as an independent though. He would have more chance than he would as No. 3 on the Greens ticket, but especially this late in the election cycle that’s a huge task for any candidate, needing to sign up a team of candidates, register and raise funds, and find a sufficiently large team of volunteers around the state to help enough voters find you on the ballot papers.

    It doesn’t seem to me that the recount could ever gain support. It would need the support of what is now being called the ‘soft left’ (ie the people around the MLAs and Senator), and they can’t be expected to support shafting Boyd, who as has been pointed out above is closer to their camp than to Shoebridge, nor could they support placing Walker in a winning position when it seems certain she would subsequently leave the party anyway once re-elected. And I agree the ‘soft left’ will emerge from all this with much greater power and influence. My information is that events over recent months have galvanised the ‘soft left’ as another semi-organised faction in the party, and they are also best placed to have a constructive relationship with the broader party outside NSW.

  14. Is there a disagreement over Buckingham in the NSW Greens? Yes. Will it stop any current Greens member or supporter from voting for any member of the party? Unlikely. We recognise that even those Greens we may disagree with are still far better than any of the alternatives on offer from outside the party.

  15. For context, Jeremy Buckingham and co are to the left of every ALP politician. There is far less policy disagreement than disputes in the major parties, and it’s mostly procedural (and personal.) That makes them hard to describe fairly; calling one side environmentalists implies the other aren’t. “Buckinghamites” and “Rhiannonites” probably works best.

    Otherwise I agree with what Nick C is saying, and the federal Greens seem to be fully on board with the “soft left” way of thinking as a bloc. I think that also describes QLD and WA Greens – very ambitious policies and ground campaigns, but also focusing on consensus building, and not at the expense of (public) party unity and a more friendly attitide to Australian Greens. Personally I think it’s the best way forward.

  16. Photo on p5 of today’s The Australian of Buckinham tearing up his membership of NSW Greens. He intends to stand as an independent. Buckingham states that NSW Green’s Branch “ had abandonned it’s important core values, was dominated by an extreme left faction and was more focussed on bringing down capitalism and divisive identity politics than acting on climate change”
    Maybe rather than running as an independent Buckingham could run as Queensland or Victorian Greens candidate in Federal election.
    Photo is reminiscent of 1960’s style pro communist draft dodgers imitating US Draft dodgers tearing up their Draft Notices. Wonder who taught him this technique. The influence of pro Russian faction still prescent even when departing the party. Don’t forget to take your baseball bat home with you.
    Andrew Jackson
    apjackson2@bigpond.com

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