Image for NATION: Not easy being Green ...

*Pic: Tony Abbott, then PM, samples an onion (seriously ...).

First published July 3

“It’s not that easy being green ...” sings Kermit, the sage of Sesame Street, a truth NSW Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon helps her party revisit in a wild week of backstabbing, slagging, poodle-poking and character assassination as our federal MPs let it all hang out in the bare-knuckle, free for all stoush that is our nation’s endless quest for effective, decorous and representative political leadership.

“When it comes to political white-anting, Lee is the Greens’ version of Tony Abbott,” says Bob Brown. Ouch.

In January, he bagged Rhiannon’s moves to challenge the party’s direction under Richard Di Natale’s leadership.

Rhiannon wants her mob to follow Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and stress its left-wing policies on economic redistribution.  She leads a debate between her “Eastern Bloc” on the party’s left and the more conservative environmentalists or “Tree Tories” who currently suck up to an anti-greenie government.

It’s a tough gig. Pilloried by MSM for her socialist parents, profiled by ASIO as a subversive revolutionary and attacked as a Leninist-Stalinist by News Corp’s Gerard Henderson - who also falsely accused her of being a communist, Rhiannon was asked by Bob Brown to quit the senate last July - just a month after being elected.

In response, the senator accuses her former leader of resenting that NSW preselected candidates are not his preferred nominees. Yet, in an open season of sniping and undermining, she is accused of betrayal. Brown says the rules provide for her to be expelled from the Greens’ Party Room and even to lose her party membership.

A case is building against her. Last week, all nine of her federal colleagues accused Rhiannon of undermining them over school funding negotiations after she distributed a leaflet in Sydney’s inner west against the deal.

The NSW Greens see Gonski 2:0 as a con. It’s neither needs-based nor sector blind. In fact, it guarantees 80 % of federal funds to the wealthy, private system. It has been imposed without state or public school consultation.

... they do make her a top scapegoat ...

Rhiannon says the pamphlet is a local initiative. She has done nothing wrong. Her protests will, doubtless, come to little but they do make her a top scapegoat. Many teachers will see NSW as the only Greens to get it right.

Beneath all the fuss and alongside the left and right divisions, a grassroots party controlled by members struggles against the power imposed by few at the top in what John Passant calls a battle for the soul of The Greens.

An ugly public brawl ensues. Bugger consensus politics. Di Natale generously tells the Left Renewal faction their anti-capitalist rhetoric is ridiculous and that they should join another party. Critics accuse Di Natale of shaping The Greens into a potential coalition partner for the Liberals; point to his record of support for Coalition legislation.

Rhiannon is disappointed in Richard’s leadership, she tells Barrie Cassidy, on ABC Insiders, Sunday. Rather than explore the issue, Cassidy is keen to seek more details of the conflict but, like Kermit, the senator is philosophical.

“Sometimes democracy is messy”, says Rhiannon. She wins this week’s Golden Litotes for understatement of the week. Her thought is echoed and debased by Tony Abbott who proposes streamlining democracy to fix Senate obstructionism and resolve deadlock through a joint sitting of both houses to pass deadlocked bills.

Australia “increasingly resembles Italy”, facing chronic changes of PM and an inability to get things done, the MP whose career in and out of The Lodge is a byword for instability and policy paralysis Abbott explained straight-faced to a South Australian Young Liberals Federal Convention in Adelaide in February. 

Or the UK. The young Libs may have lost a little sparkle as results filtered in at their UK Election champagne breakfast 9 June. Thank God guest speaker, nuclear lobbyist Haydon Manning was on hand to liven things up. 

... leaders who fearlessly shirtfront the onion ...

Manning is all too happy to help. Our nation’s politics is vastly enriched by an ever-growing army of lobbyists, think-tankers, bold ideas-men and women and former leaders who fearlessly shirtfront the onion of democracy. 

The Centre for Independent Studies, for example, helped inspire Tony Abbott to cut the last two years of Gonski - for public schools, while continuing to fund the private system, a favouring of privilege continued in Gonski 2.0. Research Fellow Simon Cowan, one of its policy wonks, whipped up a nifty monograph on nuclear subs, too.

Then there’s “green lawfare”. An IPA and mining industry campaign against environmental groups raged under Abbott. It continues under Turnbull. What constitutes an “environmental organisation” will be redefined to strip such groups of their charitable status and is an “attack on Australian democracy”, warn legal experts.

The IPA would like to see environmental groups denied all government funding, a position they articulated in 2011. Their services to tidying up democracy, Abbott-style include selling the federal government the idea of imposing restrictions on advocacy, such as gag clauses and threats to curtail groups’ advocacy activities.

Emily Howie, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre warns:

“A thriving democracy needs an informed public debate with a range of voices. However, governments are making it clear to charities that work with families and communities doing it tough, that if they speak out about government policy, their ongoing funding will be put in jeopardy.”

Apart from the threat to free speech, the ban on advocacy adds another dimension; another layer of urgency to the Greens’ current existential struggle to maintain its own traditional social and environmental advocacy.

Greens’ harakiri or ritual disembowelment is just a warm-up act, however, to the hype, the trash-talk and the stare-downs of the World Championship Wrestling theatrics of our federal MPs who eye-gouge, hair pull and scissor-kick viciously in a desperate, no-holds-barred, last-ditch bid to upstage each other. Or worse.

... a self-promoting attention-seeker and professional wrecker ...

Exterminate. Exterminate. Top of the bill is Dalek Abbott, a self-promoting attention-seeker and professional wrecker, programmed to destroy his nemesis Malcolm Turnbull in a fit of pathological hatred and payback.

A one-man opposition party, a self-described “whirling dervisher”, Abbo busts a gut this week to bag his nemesis Malcolm Turnbull, even if he has to destroy the Liberal Party in the process. He pulls out all the stops.

It’s a multi-faceted act. Upstage so far he’s in danger of being electrocuted by the footlights, Abbott promises to build new coal-fired power stations and freeze migration. A true-blue Rinehart Cowboy, he will Make Australia Work again by opening more mines, cutting government spending and scrapping his own renewable energy target. Best of all he dog whistles up our safety. No more known jihadists will run loose in our streets.

Wait. There’s more. Nuclear submarines. Raising the nation’s awareness of relevance deprivation disorder, wacky weirdo Abbott easily wins our public service award. His brave stand-up comic routine, Permission to Lower the Scope is fittingly staged by his loyal supporters at the Centre for Independent Studies, Thursday, in its leak-proof Sydney think tank. Tony goes off like a frog in a sock. The CIS love him. How he adds to the national conversation.

Tony’s all for nuclear submarines, all week, although Defence Minister, Marise Payne is unconvinced. She’s right.  Abbott had ample time to declare himself a fan of floating reactors well before his prime ministership sank before the end of its maiden voyage. He just wants to scuttle Turnbull. Party-pooper Payne fires a salvo across his bows.

“We don’t have a civil nuclear industry, we don’t have the personnel or the experience or infrastructure, we don’t have the training facilities or regulatory systems that you would need to design to operate to construct a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines,” she says.

Apart from that, Tony, you know all this. You made the call. Remember. When you were briefly PM. Ouch again.

... gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks ...

“What we are in fact doing is delivering the plan to acquire the plan that was set out and agreed by Tony Abbott and his team in 2015,” she says. It’s a forlorn appeal to a former PM who put the flip into flip flop commitment, the MP who warned Kerry O’Brien that he often lied – “gospel truth is those carefully prepared scripted remarks”

For Fairfax’s Jason Wilson, who builds a case that Abbott is a loose unit, “This was not only a blunder, but a revelation of the kind of confessional impulse that needs a national stage. After a while, you start to feel like a therapist, sitting in silence while Abbott regales us with his symptoms.”

In fact, as PM, Abbott ignored a sub submission from Australia’s peak defence industry group in May 2015. Australian Industry Group Defence Council chairman Chris Jenkins and Australian chief of French Industry giant Thales, told him to reconsider a nuclear option for replacing the ageing Collins class subs. It remains a great pitch.

No need to worry about having no local nuclear plant. New subs are so efficient they almost never require maintenance. No need to build if you don’t want to. Just lease a few of the bastards off the yanks. Trained crew? These babies practically steer themselves. What could possibly go wrong?

Now, torn by regret, lyrically, ever the tragic ham, Abbott cries. “Not more robustly challenging the nuclear no-go mindset is probably the biggest regret I have from my time as PM.” It’s pure, dramatic, poetry in a performance guaranteed to heighten anyone’s sense of the cruel suffering inflicted on those deprived of relevance.

His biggest regret? Even by Abbott’s yardstick, it’s an utterly incredible claim. But the CIS can’t get enough of him.

A powerful right wing lobby group which styles itself an Australian Libertarian think tank, the CIS is a big wheel in the oxymoron of Australian conservative politics. Tony’s no Tory; more of a radical ratbag with a grab bag of soundbite ideas. Some are socialist. Take state coal power. Yet his attention-seeking is a win-win for both parties.

... notoriously difficult to brief ... 

Like the IPA, which set most of the Abbott government’s agenda, the CIS also keeps its donors’ names secret but it will get great mileage out of publicising the former PM’s nuclear conversion as evidence of its capacity to influence even those of our political class, like Trump, who are notoriously difficult to brief in anything but sketch outlines. 

In return, Abbott is able to strut his stuff, this week, in front of both IPA and CIS, Australia’s most conservative and influential think tanks. The exposure can do his campaign no harm. A successful spill is impossible, he has only a handful of backers, but his regular sniping and undermining helps Turnbull toward the magic 30 dud News Polls.

Showing off his capacity as a quick nuclear study is a bonus for Abbott. His game plan is to highlight Turnbull’s not so secret plan to convert to nuclear its diesel submarines from French builder DCNS, despite no conversion ever having been done. The hulls are shaped differently. Some experts doubt it can be done.

The first DCNS Shortfin Barracuda submarine is not scheduled until the 2030s. Whilst the late delivery gives plenty of time to work out a solution to the retrofitted nuclear propulsion problem, it also means that the Collins subs will have to remain in service until the 2040s, becoming less safe as they age and requiring expensive refits.

Technical issues alone mean the whole project is a huge blunder, according to Jon Stanford a director of Insight Economics and past head of the Industries Division in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

“If you asked someone to devise a new submarine program with the highest risk factors at every stage, you could not have done a much better job. It will almost certainly end in tears and possibly a catastrophe,” a senior defence official told The Daily Telegraph in September last year.

Yet with a commitment to a drawing - “the development of a detailed design” -  only at this stage, it is not too late to change course and Abbott knows this. He is also counting on causing maximum embarrassment to his PM.

Some unkind souls also interpret Abbott’s nuclear submarine proposal as revenge on Christopher Pyne, who, in a late night session at The Star Casino’s Cherry Bar has confirmed what the conservatives have always believed is Malcolm’s secret plan to turn the Liberal Party to the left. It’s all about legalising same-sex marriage. And more.

... the modern world is a leftist plot against them

Marriage equality has become the proxy for the struggle in the Liberal Party between right and left. It also acts to focus the fear and rage of those Liberals who instinctively retreat from change; those whose lack of adaptive capacity leaves them open to a rampant paranoia that the modern world is a leftist plot against them.

Pyne’s indiscreet comments assuring gay marriage supporters of a victory sooner than later are calculated to offend and enrage those conservatives who remain resolutely opposed to change and suspicious of Turnbull.

It also provides Abbott with a receptive host for his wormholes as he continues his white-anting of Turnbull.

Posing as a conservative, he’s happy to coin a new breed of Liberal to make it clear that he’s making up a deficit in the current government. Not only is he self-sacrificing, he’s duty bound to continue indefinitely.

“I’m in no hurry to leave public life because we need strong Liberal conservative voices now, more than ever.”

For his part, Turnbull makes it clear that he is not going to hang around. Sunday he announces that he will leave parliament should he no longer be PM.

Some claim that Abbott’s strategy has all gone awry because his week of Turnbull-bashing has not led to a conservative uprising. If anything he’s been met with a chorus of put downs from those on the right.

Peter Dutton is wheeled out to claim “the Liberal Party operates at its optimum when we do have a broad church, when we do have people across the spectrum”, and that it was good to have a diversity of views in cabinet because “you have a more rounded discussion” and better decisions as a result.

Better decisions? Turnbull takes to listing his government’s achievements on social media. It’s a thin list which includes the Gonski 2.0 makeover boosted as a new plan for education funding and contentious visa reforms. “Plans for an intervention on gas exports” are counted as achievements. And of course there is that magic faraway tree of action on a second Sydney airport.

Dutton’s defence and Turnbull’s list are as unconvincing their own way as Abbott’s manifesto, a big bucket-list gig routine featuring a good half-dozen bad ideas, or flip-flops and snappy, empty platitudes and hollow slogans.

Other coalition members during the week do their best to bring the rogue to heel. Some point out his contradictions. His advocacy of things he never stood for before. None will succeed. The ultimate test of his case against Turnbull’s ineffectual and indecisive leadership lies in what he can get away with. He’s made it clear this week that he will continue as long as it takes to exact his revenge on the man who deposed him.

Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, tells Abbott he can’t reinvent the past. It’s a futile reproach. As a former follower of BA Santamaria, Wilson points out, Abbott is necessarily committed to living and thinking totally against the grain of the present, and dreaming of an impossible restoration of the past.

*David Tyler (AKA Urban Wronski) was born in England, raised in New Zealand and an Australian resident since 1979. Urban Wronski grew up conflicted about his own national identity and continues to be deeply mistrustful of all nationalism, chauvinism, flags, politicians and everything else which divides and obscures our common humanity. He has always been enchanted by nature and by the extraordinary brilliance of ordinary men and women and the genius, the power and the poetry that is their vernacular. Wronski is now a fulltime freelance writer who lives with his partner and editor Shay and their chooks, near the Grampians in rural Victoria and he counts himself the luckiest man alive. A former teacher of all ages and stages, from Tertiary to Primary, for nearly forty years, he enjoyed contesting the corporatisation of schooling to follow his own natural instinct for undifferentiated affection, approval and compassion for the young.

The Conversation: Note to Liberals: on the leadership front, best to keep calm and carry on