In defence of party democracy
Wouldn’t it then be simpler, for the government to dissolve the people and elect another? – Bertolt Brecht, 'The Solution'
On Saturday 11 June, after ballots had closed at midnight, Linda Gale was declared elected the Convenor of the Victorian Greens.
She received 493 votes, her opponents 413, and that perennial contender, ‘seek further candidate,’ just 9. That’s a turnout of 915 members; pretty good for the Victorian Greens, especially for a by-election to fill a casual vacancy. Voting for the Convenor is one of the rights and responsibilities of membership, and all members received a ballot.
Unlike her opponents, supported by party members campaigning through Twitter and Facebook, Linda – as she always does – played it straight and let her nomination statement speak for itself. The members chose experience, competence and calm over youth and unpredictability. Anyone reading both nomination statements would understand why Linda won, and why the two choices on offer were starkly different.
Those differences were not about the candidates’ views on sex and gender, but about who was best placed to guide a fractured governing body as the party transitions to a new structure and Constitution by 31 December. The Convenor position has nothing to do with policy setting; that process is led by a Policy Committee, and the Convenor has one vote at State Council like any other State Councillor. Linda has shown time and time again that she can be gracious in defeat when her policy positions do not prevail, because her loyalty to the party and the higher cause of holding together a unified movement is unwavering. It’s one of the reasons she commands so much respect, and won the support of a majority of members who voted in the election.
But this is The Greens in 2022, and the party has already shown that its rules are subject to appeal in the court of social media.
When some party officials issued a highly tendentious and false statement about me on 6 April just an hour before the governing body was due to meet to discuss the matter, it threw out the party’s rules governing conduct. Worse, it concluded by stating that “the Victorian Greens are taking the open letter addressed to us very seriously.” That open letter, the lightning rod for a social media pile-on after I refused to apologise for comments I had made in a private conversation about the risks of affirmation-only approaches to gender medical care, put the party on the front page of The Age. To the extent that its authors set out to slander an elected representative, it was obviously successful. But it only became legitimate when party officials, leant on heavily by Senator Janet Rice, declared that the party “was taking the open letter seriously,” even though no party body had yet considered it.
Put another way, the members who waged a PR campaign against their own party, demanding that the party’s own rules and processes be ignored in favour of swift condemnation of one of its elected representatives, were rewarded. Some will argue that this was a political imperative. Others, my biased self included, will argue that our Federal MPs were confusing Twitter with the real world again, and that due process is important no matter how urgent a confected crisis might appear. But what is beyond dispute is that the party’s response to the campaign against me subverted the governing body of the party and our party’s rules.
Is it any surprise, then, that the same members who saw how successful their social media-led PR campaign against the party was in March and April, felt emboldened to do exactly the same when a candidate they do not like won a ballot of all members?
The tactics chosen by Linda’s detractors were straight out of the Trump playbook: to claim that the election was illegitimate and then let a social media pile-on ratchet up the pressure. There were no concerns about the validity of the election raised before the result was declared, but such facts count for little when the pressure is on.
Democratic organisations only work if the outcomes of ballots are accepted. If they are not accepted, the entire legitimacy of the organisation is cast in doubt. In a democratic party, when a dirty bomb like this is thrown, one would expect those with clout to play a moderating and reassuring role. To hose down such spectacular displays of ill-discipline. To reassure party members that, despite claims to the contrary, we provide a safe space for all members and have the strongest trans and gender diverse policies of any party and that these policies are obviously not at risk. To reaffirm that the election was legitimate, that claims that the party’s processes are rigged are recklessly false, and that the way to resolve disputes is within the party, not on social media. To acknowledge that we are dealing with profoundly deeply felt opinions and that we all need to respect one another and chill out for a moment.
Linda did her part, rearticulating the party’s trans and gender diverse policies and her commitment to inclusivity, anti-discrimination and genuine social justice. But none of our senior elected representatives used their immense authority to do the same. On the contrary; they doubled down. Far from reassuring members that they are not “unsafe”, Senator Janet Rice once again sided with the aggressors.
That’s how we reached a crisis point on Tuesday night, with Janet, formerly a champion for consensus decision making and democratic participation, but surely now the foremost threat to party democracy and the rights of members, declaring that a democratic ballot of members of the party she represents must be ignored. That the position of the Convenor elected just three days earlier was “untenable.” That trans and gender diverse members should feel unsafe. That a paper co-written by Linda three years ago, in response to a State Council proposal that effectively tried to ban speech on sex and gender within the party, “questioned [trans and gender diverse people’s] right to exist.” This may be language that some activists wanted to hear, but it was slanderous nevertheless, and inflammatory in the extreme.
Does anyone seriously suggest that The Greens is not the most obviously and obsequiously LGBTIQ-friendly party in the country?
Backing in their party room colleague, eight other Greens Federal MPs showed their support for Janet’s words online. Some Greens candidates for the Victorian State Election did the same – a high stakes move in a State election year given Linda’s term expires on 31 December. A Queensland Greens State MP rattled off a ridiculous list of demands of the Victorian branch of the Greens. Having declared open season on Linda, Janet gave permission to every other elected representative, candidate and aggrieved member with a Twitter account to do their worst.
To hell with the members who voted for Linda for Convenor; the same members who preselected, campaigned for and elected those MPs to their positions of extraordinary privilege. To hell with the reputation of a tireless socialist activist with decades of selfless campaigning, organising and movement-building under her belt. To hell with those tedious party rules and members’ rights. There’s a witch to burn!
And so this crisis is not about the choices between two candidates for Convenor, their respective views on sex and gender, and whether those views pose a threat to members’ safety. If that were ever the case, the matter would have been addressed before the election. This crisis – and it is a crisis – is about a higher principle: whether we are a party governed by its members and the rules and decisions those members make, or whether membership is now irrelevant in the age of social media.
Until Janet dialled the crisis up to 11 on Tuesday night, a politically neat negotiated outcome may have been possible – I don’t know. But Janet is now holding her own party to ransom, in an act of anti-democratic posturing so brazen it would make Adem Somyurek blush.
The first duty of the Convenor of the Victorian Greens is to uphold the rules of the party, which enshrine the rights and responsibilities of members. To acquiesce to Janet’s demands may give Twitter what it wants for 48 hours, until the next confected crisis and the next witch hunt, but it would set the most terrifying precedent in my 20 years as a member: a democratic vote of all members being overturned on the say-so of a Federal MP. Such a precedent will mean that members will never bother to practise politics within the party’s structures again; they’ll just take every grievance to Twitter. No party can survive such recklessness.
What we are witnessing is a party painfully going through the process of deciding whether it is a democratic political party at all.