The Self-Delusion at the Heart of the NSW Greens

Recently Bob Brown gave an interview in which he called for ‘renewal’ in the NSW Greens. In that interview he stated that, inter alia, the Greens were being “held back by the old guard”, that the Greens voters “deserved better” and that Lee Rhiannon should stand down. He indicated that voters had told him that they would have voted differently; implicitly because of Lee Rhiannon and her, alleged, hard left views.

Was Bob Brown right to do this? No. Did it serve any useful purpose? Probably not and may even have been counter-productive in terms of his stated aims. Was the way in which he went about promoting his views the correct way? Absolutely not. Is there any evidence for his views. We have no idea. A vox pop of a a few voters in the street proves nothing, given that the people complaining were self-selected. But is he wrong? Again we don’t know. Because no one has done any research to ask the necessary questions.

The one thing we can be clear about is that, wrongheaded though it may have been, especially as an ex-leader who should have known better, Bob has an absolute right to express his point of view in whatever forum he may choose, about the Greens NSW or any other issue.

To read the reaction from members of the Greens NSW one would have thought, however, that Bob had murdered new born babies on the steps of the Vatican or called for Rhiannon to be taken out, shot and then hung, drawn and quartered. In other words the visceral reaction was out of all proportion to the original offence. Not only that many of the comments were so wrongheaded, so extreme and in many cases so completely inaccurate that one may well ask, why?

The reason, seems clear. When you set yourself up as better than anyone else, then your reaction to criticism tends to be fierce. You view it as sacrilegious, a bit like the reaction in some parts of Islam to the Charlie Hebdo material. You have breached the Ten Commandments. In effect, you have become delusional about your own virtues and you see and react in that same spirit.

It’s worth looking at some of the comments and the delusions on which they are based to understand

  1. Brown was interfering in the Greens NSW. No he wasn’t. He was stating a point of view, a critique. In exactly the same way as anyone else in Australia is free to do. It might carry more weight because of his position as ex-leader and his profile in society, but that’s all it was. He has no formal role in Australian Greens and certainly not in the NSW Greens. He was perfectly entitled to say what he said.

Extraordinary interference in our NSW party affairs! A Most unwelcome attack on our democratically chosen senator who was just confirmed at the ballot box. Whatever difficulties the NSW party may have to deal with at this time are a matter for us to sort out – and we always get there together. Bob has form in his outspoken aversion to our way of doing things, our inclusion of members with a political (as opposed to activist) background, our decentralised power structure, our insistence on consensus-before-decision organisational culture. Stand up GNSW to this vitriolic and inflammatory interloper trying to weigh in in the middle of our pre-selection process!”

  1. Brown shouldn’t be allowed to speak out publicly on the Greens NSW because he is not a member.

Since when was it necessary to be a part of an organisation in order to have a view about it? An extraordinary number of members made the comment that Bob Brown should “butt out” or words to that effect. On that basis should we accept the views of the Israelis, or Russians, or Chinese that we shouldn’t criticise their human rights records? Or reject the UN criticism of Australia’s record on refugees? In a supposedly democratic society anyone has the right to speak out, be they member, non-member ex-leader. Whether it is wise or productive to do so is another matter.

  1. If you criticise the party (publicly or privately) you are disloyal.

On the contrary criticism is the very basis of change and renewal; if everyone simply accepts the status quo then there will never be any change. And the Greens are simply an institution or body set up for a specific purpose, like a nation state or a church. There is no fundamental reason to be loyal to it. You may be loyal to your colleagues, comrades or to the principles of the organisation. But the organisation itself is simply a vehicle, a means to an end and has no intrinsic basis for loyalty. To say otherwise you fall into the same mistake as nationalists “My country, wrong or right”. And we know where that leads.

  1. The party is “grass roots”

This is the delusion at the heart of the Greens problem with criticism and which leads to the “shoot the messenger culture”. It’s based on the premise that because the Greens are “grass roots” they are fundamentally democratic, therefore all decisions and ways of operating are fundamentally democratic. So all criticisms are an attack on democracy itself and on the members. It’s the holier than thou principal.

The point about this oft repeated statement is that (a) it is, arguably, not true (b) the structure of Greens NSW is very ordinary and very little different from a thousand other organisations that do not claim to be grass roots (c) the implication is that in being “grass roots’ all decisions are fundamentally democratic and therefore in criticising those decisions you are criticising the members and volunteers (see 6, below).

The fact that there are local groups that are autonomous (no difference thousands of other organisations), and that those groups send delegates to an SDC that make binding decisions that are (mainly) consensus-based is nothing very special. Many organisations operate similarly. But that doesn’t make it grass-roots, per se. In fact I’d argue that the Greens NSW is an oligarchy controlled by a couple of hundred people. If you want “grass roots” look to Lock the Gate, to Black Lives Matter. 350 is probably far more grass roots than the Greens NSW. The civil rights movement, the Vietnam Moratorium and the anti-apartheid movement were grass roots. There is nothing especially wrong with the way the Greens NSW operates but if people think that somehow it is different to most other organisations they are deluding themselves.

  1. Bob Brown wants a centralised power structure just like the Labor and Liberal Parties have.

Well, it may be that no one has noticed, but the Greens do have a centralised power structure, just like Labor and Liberal. It may be less centralised and less controlled by party factions or power brokers but it still exists. Bodies such as COM, SDC are bodies “at the centre” and they control the party. The fact that those with influence in local groups get to come to SDC and, if they have sufficient profile or influence within the party, get elected to COM etc, does not make them any less a centralised power structure. The Greens like almost all organisations are not fundamentally democratic they are, arguably, like most organisations oligarchic.

  1. Bob has insulted the democratic process which this stage took to pre-select Lee, as well as the hard work of every single staff member….

No he didn’t. He criticised the tendency of people in power to want to stay in party and advocated the need for renewal. You can call him a hypocrite (he stayed in Parliament for around 25 years) but the principle he is advocating is a well established one – that people who stay in power for too long, become arrogant, become insular etc. Power corrupts and, in fact one can see this in Bob himself. The longer he stayed in office the more intolerant of criticism he became. There is no logical link between saying that MPs should consider retirement at a certain point and suggesting that this insults the democratic process. Apart from anything it assumes the process was democratic, ignores the fact that the Greens NSW support this principle (it has term limits) and ignores the fact that Lee, herself, argued for stricter term limits at the time Ian Cohen was up for a second term.

  1. Very disappointing but to me it shows how little someone who was the leader of our party values democracy”

This is known as a non-sequitur. One starts with one statement and then draws a conclusion that does not follow from the original statement. So, for example, you start with the fact that Bob criticises a “democratic” decision of the Greens NSW and the electors of NSW and then draw the conclusion that Bob Brown doesn’t value democracy. But there is no logical relationship between the two statements. Firstly it (a) assumes that the selection of any candidate in any party is democratic and I’d argue that it’s largely oligarchic and (b) it ignores the fact that Green voters can only vote for the candidates presented to them. So criticising this process/outcome cannot in any way be taken as not valuing democracy.

  1. For a start, there isn’t really a “leadership” in NSW Greens in the way many people conceive of it..”

First this begs the question “what is the way many people conceive of leadership”? For example, I see most leadership in exactly the way it occurs in the Greens. Which is informal, unofficial leadership gained through years of accumulated knowledge, service and alliances with others. You may agree or disagree with the way it operates but, as in any organisation, it exists. It’s very existence supplants formal democratic processes. Similarly there are informal power structures that ensure that people who are part of those groups or structures get supported and elected. In Parliament there have always been leaders even if they were not elected. This leads to the the disadvantage that they had responsibilities without enjoying the formal mechanisms of support for those responsibilities and they had power without accountability. However, even in organisations with formal leadership these unofficial structures exist – electing a leader will increase transparency but will not lead to the disappearance of unelected leadership..

  1. Criticising people for the tone or nature of their comments is a mechanism for stifling debate and valid criticism.

No it’s not. There is a big difference between criticising what someone thinks, believes or say and attacking the individual. Almost none of the commentary on Bob Brown’s statement addressed his points (valid or invalid) but simply either attacked him or made tangential critiques (e.g. he doesn’t support democracy, he’s attacking the members). Statements saying “Bob is dead to me” or “Bob can leave his stupid comments in his pocket”. “Early dementia, perhaps..” “absolutely depraved stuff from Bob” are, effectively an attack on Bob, as an individual. Understandable, perhaps, but I’d argue contrary to the spirit of the Greens attempts to promote respectful dialogue. And they add zero to any sensible debate about term limits or renewal or the performance in the last Federal election.

  1. That people are left, right, centrist…(and so presumably not to be trusted)?

This is a standard mechanism for attacking and criticising people without ever having to debate policy or what those people stand for. I constantly hear these terms bandied about but never hear anyone defining them or what they mean. And everyone criticises factional politics (the “eastern bloc”). But what does this mean? Every organisation has groupings and factions. They are often meaningless labels. For example the so-called “left” of the Labor Party in Tasmania was for years (and maybe still is) so conservative the term was laughable. Is the “eastern bloc” any more left than others. Not as far as I can tell. I worked with John Kaye, David Shoebridge and others on the election campaign in 2015. Ditto, I have known Lee Rhiannon for over 25 years. They are no more left than many other people I know who are allegedly right or centrist. They are certainly no more on the left than I am. I don’t necessarily agree with them on everything or on the way they operate but left, right and centre are largely meaningless labels designed to stigmatise those that don’t fit into your clique.

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