MUNGO MacCALLUM. The Greens remain political amateurs.

Lee Rhiannon is undoubtedly the disrupter, but in a sense the public fracturing of the Greens is largely the fault of her leader, Richard di Natale.  

He was the one who decided that it was time to move forward from the original concept of a group of protest and lobbying for the environment, and make it into a real political party, one that could compete on every level with its mainstream competitors.

The idea was both ambitious and admirable, but it has had unhappy, if entirely foreseeable, consequences: a real party inevitably develops real factions. And here they are, damaging the furniture and frightening the horses.

Somewhat belatedly, di Natale and his colleagues are preparing to manage them, but it will be a difficult task. The Greens emerge more or less spontaneously from the primeval ooze, fully formed as political activists but, initially, with no clear modus operandi. Having few parliamentary representatives they gloried in the fact that they were a mass movement, responsive only to the membership – if it could be defined.

In the beginning, they formed autonomous state bodies: when a serious federal leader in Bob Brown appeared, he attempted to merge them into a national organization, but it never really worked and the hardliners in New South Wales in particular insisted on their independence. Now di Natale is seeking to complete the process, which is where we are now.

The Labor Party is upfront about its factions: there is the right and there is the left, with those who do not play the game left to languish as the unaligned. The Liberals are more defensive: some, notably Malcolm Turnbull, deny that factions even exist, while his supporter, Christopher Pyne, openly celebrates them. When the Libs raise the subject, they invariably mention the broad church, and euphemistically describe the divisions as conservatives and moderates rather than right and left.

On this basis, the Greens should be called left and lefter, but they are more graphically known as the greens and the reds. The Greens are the descendants of Brown and his successor Christine Mills, the Tasmanian tree huggers: they are progressive, certainly, but are first and foremost environmentalists. The Reds demand wider and more radical social change.

Many of them are refugees from the previous communist parties and their sympathisers – Maoists, Trotskyists, Stalinists and other fringe dwellers. Some have mellowed, but a number – including Rhiannon – still see their real purpose is to smash capitalism. They reject di Natale’s ideas of compromise and negotiation.

Thus the bandaid of excluding Rhiannon from party discussions on contentious issues (and aren’t they all, for the Greens?) is probably unworkable and possibly breaches the Greens’ constitution, if any one can find it. An open split is a distinct possibility, and while that may not destroy the Greens entirely, it will certainly not encourage those hovering to support them and give them the extra votes they desperately need.

The optimistic view is that the Greens are going through political growing pains; after all Labor survived three major splits, and the conservatives have many times reframed their brand to accommodate the needs of the times. But they are the professionals; the Greens, for all their gains, remain enthusiastic amateurs, which is why Simon Birmingham gave up on them over the Gonski haggling.

The Greens may pose as political gentlemen and ladies, but putting them back into the ring with the serious players will take more than healing the current split.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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