Dirty laundry on display but the voters haven't noticed


In 1980 one photo crystallised the ugliness of the Labor Party’s factional system: a bruised and swollen mugshot of state MP Peter Baldwin, bashed in a branch-stacking war. Voters recoiled, and a desire to do left politics differently was no small part of the impulse to form the Sydney Greens just a few years later. Fast-forward another 35 years, and the Greens in NSW have just had their own horrified look-in-the-mirror moment.

The infamous picture of Labor MP Peter Baldwin in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital recovering from a bashing., the victim of a vicious branch-stacking war.

The infamous picture of Labor MP Peter Baldwin in Royal Prince Alfred Hospital recovering from a bashing., the victim of a vicious branch-stacking war.Credit:Peter Morris

Last year, when Greens MP Jenny Leong accused her then-colleague Jeremy Buckingham of an “act of sexual violence”, the public got a panoramic view of the poisonous feuding inside the NSW Greens. Factional brawling cannot get much dirtier than allegations of sexual violence and counter-allegations that a sexual violence accusation has been "weaponised".

Buckingham has flatly denied the allegations (which an independent investigation found could not be substantiated), ripped up his membership of the “toxic NSW Greens” and is standing as an independent. His upper house colleagues Cate Faehrmann and Justin Field threatened to split, and only desperate negotiations fronted by Australian Greens leader Richard di Natale and state member for Balmain Jamie Parker pulled them back from the brink. The federal party has appointed a so-called "elder" - former Tasmanian Greens MP Paul O’Halloran – to oversee an independent review and everyone is keeping up appearances this side of a critically tight election in seven days’ time. The party’s campaign launch is on at Redfern’s Carriageworks tomorrow.

The big question is what impact will all the dirty laundry aired in public over the past year have on the election outcome. Public polls show primary support for the Greens is steady at around 10 per cent. The party expects to hold its three lower house seats – Newtown, Balmain and Ballina – and has a chance of taking Lismore, where the Nationals are on the nose and the Greens have a strong local candidate in former Environmental Defenders Office chief Sue Higginson.  Her campaign was launched by Greens cofounder Bob Brown last month in Bangalow to huge buzz.

Internal party research suggests the Greens’ infighting has barely registered: focus groups conducted among likely Greens voters in NSW in February showed there was “almost no knowledge of any internal issues within the Greens among this cohort”. Asked if they had heard anything negative in the party in the past few months, only one participant out of 18 in a Sydney group mentioned allegations of sexual harassment from some MPs “including a Greens MP whom he could not name”. Perhaps the punters aren’t paying attention, or perhaps they just want their policy concerns recognised.

Fed up: Jeremy Buckingham quit the Greens last December.

Fed up: Jeremy Buckingham quit the Greens last December.

Jenny Leong  won the heartland seat of Newtown with the highest Greens’ primary vote in the country, 45 per cent. Handing out flyers at Petersham railway station, Leong says maybe one in 100 voters say they are worried about what’s going on in the Greens, and usually they’re active in the party. “People have said to me more, 'Who is the Labor guy now?' than they have raised [anything] about that.”

Leong faces serious opposition in Labor candidate "Aunty" Norma Ingram, a much-loved Aboriginal elder who grew up in the inner city including on Redfern’s famous "block". Gentrification may continue to play in Leong’s favour, however - at a meet-the-candidates forum in a community space right next to the housing commission towers of Waterloo, Ingram was the only Aboriginal person among the 15 or so local residents who showed up. Leong shone at the meeting, talking overdevelopment of Waterloo, renters rights, and vowing to keep up the pressure on Labor.

Buckingham, meanwhile, is running hard on his environmental platform. A sweary, tattooed stonemason and anti-politician, he says if the Greens’ had any more allegations against him, they would be shouting it from the rooftops. “They’ve got nothing,” he says. “Duck egg. Nil. Zero.” Buckingham says his rivals always thought he would slip up - a tradesman in Parliament - and he was determined not to give them the satisfaction. He unveiled his own credible 15-strong upper house ticket a fortnight ago of which 10 candidates were ex-Greens.

NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong used parliamentary privilege to call on Jeremy Buckingham to resign.

NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong used parliamentary privilege to call on Jeremy Buckingham to resign. Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

But if the external polls and internal research are accurate, the Greens may be on the verge of a historic breakthrough in NSW, comparable with power-sharing arrangements in Tasmania and the ACT.

This would test the party, many of whose more radical members are fundamentally opposed to going into government. No matter what Michael Daley says this side of the election, if Labor falls short of an absolute majority it will have to choose whether to partner with the Greens, who have already ruled out any deal with the Coalition, or the rest of a motley crossbench, comprising independents and Shooters, Farmers and Fishers candidates.

The NSW Greens appear an unreliable partner right now – deeply divided, and deliberately leaderless. Inside the parliamentary party, unofficial leader David Shoebridge is often isolated. In high-pressure negotiations, would party room solidarity hold? It is a testament to the strength of the Greens’ policy platform, and years of hard work by officials and members over decades – certainly not its feuding MPs - that the party is even in the running.

Paddy Manning is a journalist and author of the forthcoming book, Inside the Greens.