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:
Looks like Cate Faehrmann and Justin Field are planning to lead a split of the Greens. (Excerpts from a longer email) pic.twitter.com/cmcHc1TIDW
— Ben Raue (@benraue) December 12, 2018
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.