Understanding the Greens

As state-based Greens organisations began coalescing into a nationally federated party in the 1990s, Tasmanian Greens leader Bob Brown, with philosopher Peter Singer, penned The Greens, a party manifesto in which they confidently predicted:

“[T]he vacuum in the politics of social justice and equal opportunity was always likely to draw a new entity into the political arena, one that would replace a Labor Party that had lost its aspirations, just as, a century earlier, a young and vigorous Labor Party had replaced a weaker party of reform. The global socio-ecological crisis meant that this new party was Green. In this situation, the Greens have arisen like spontaneous combustion.”

In the early- to mid-2000s the party jagged left. Its breakout years came in the context of the S11 anti-capitalist moment in 2000, the 2001 Tampa election (in which the Greens had its first big federal result), the early refugee campaign (2001-04) and the Iraq war mobilisations in 2002-03. Kerry Nettle, then federal senator from NSW, addressing a 2002 Marxism conference in Melbourne, said:

“Our MPs are community activists first ... and you can really see the value of that compared to those who come in with a professional sense, a legal sense or from the medical profession … [W]e are not a party who makes deals, who is interested in the lowest common denominator or playing power games.”

Thousands of people looking for a left alternative to the ALP signed membership cards, and the Greens vote surged in subsequent state and federal elections. The party cultivated the appearance of a radical alternative party. In this period, its trajectory was an open question.

Yet there were dynamics at work pushing the Greens to the right.

Socialism Sydney

During the 2003 NSW state election, ABC journalist John Stewart spent a day on the hustings with the Port Jackson Greens. Party candidate Jamie Parker polled 29 percent in the Labor seat. “Behind the protests”, wrote Stewart, “lies a new professionalised Green organisation … In the future, principles will be tested by the new professionalised Greens as their desire to win increases with their more affluent and better organised membership”.

The Australian Greens Coordinating Group (AGCG) was established in the same year. According to Stewart Jackson, who was the Greens national convener 2003-05, the body “broadened the powers of the party office bearers and established that an interim governing body may exist … The AGCG slowly entrenched itself as a key decision making group within the party”.

The following year came a “strategic forward planning process”. The party was growing rapidly – membership increased from around 2,000 in 2000 to more than 8,500 in 2005. There obviously was a democratic need to formalise what had been fairly informal processes and tighten loose structures in order to deal adequately with the influx of members and the increasing number of elected representatives. Any serious organisation facing the stresses associated with rapid growth and electoral success would have needed to do the same.

Yet in doing so the party was shifting not simply to be more professional, but to be less democratic. “Each new layer of administration and personnel … slowly moved the power, influence and decision making away from the state and local branches”, wrote Jackson in a 2011 analysis of the party. “With the election of five senators in the 2007 federal election came federal parliamentary party status and a separate leader’s office and staff. Policy making now began to be concentrated within parliamentary staff.”

Brown, who had secured a federal Senate seat in 1996, used his considerable profile and influence to strong-arm the left of the party, interfering in state branches to discipline socialists who didn’t believe that radicalism was to be used only in a pragmatic and sparing fashion. By and large he got his way – if not on all specific issues and outcomes, then undoubtedly with his broader political agenda. Respectability and professionalism, with progressive values, became the order of the day as party candidates were chosen not on their activist credentials, but their professional backgrounds in law, health, small business and, occasionally, law enforcement. This proved electorally fruitful.

Year after year, the influence of the branches was undermined and the hand of the parliamentarians was strengthened by their numerical growth. With growth came more interaction with and integration into the limiting and de-radicalising structures of the parliamentary system. Pragmatism increasingly took hold, enabled also by the decline of the campaigns – against corporate greed, against war and for refugee rights – that had been associated with the party and propelled its growth. As the street demos became smaller, as the far left entered a period of disintegration and the unions retreated completely behind the ALP’s electoral campaigns, the transformation of the Greens accelerated.

The Greens had by the late 2000s built a membership base among older, affluent white collar and middle class liberals. They were politically left of centre – in fact, more left leaning on average than ALP voters. But a more “mainstream” demographic is difficult to imagine. The party’s vote, by contrast, was disproportionately concentrated among people in their 20s and 30s.

Sections of the party were now looking further afield than disaffected ALP voters, several thousand of whom had joined the party and hundreds of thousands of whom had transferred their vote as Labor continued its shift to the right. Greens strategists argued that there were also rich pickings in some Liberal Party strongholds – socially progressive “wet liberals” who identified with the values of Malcolm Fraser and Malcolm Turnbull, the free markets and free love types who back gays and refugees but love their investment portfolios equally.

The party achieved its greatest federal electoral success in 2010, when it won 11.8 percent of the House vote and 13.1 percent of the Senate vote. Bob Brown subsequently negotiated a stability pact with the ALP minority government. For the left that capitulated to the electoralist strategy, seeing progress measured primarily in terms of parliamentary gain, these “successes” proved a poisoned chalice. The Greens’ savvy political machine in practice became more and more like the party it sought to replace.

Greens beyond Brown

At this high water mark, there was still a sense of confidence within the party that it was on the path to replacing the ALP. In the NSW and Queensland elections in 2011 and 2012, Labor governments suffered huge negative swings, their primary vote share dropping below 27 percent – the worst results in a century. Yet far from gaining, the Greens lost ground in both elections.

Bob Brown retired after the Queensland result. The party he left was thoroughly integrated into mainstream political life, notwithstanding the exceptions of left wing Greens who still attempted to provide an alternative to the dominant right. The leadership was taken by Christine Milne. The Australian Financial Review’s Laura Tingle wrote that under Milne, the party was “headed for a harder left future”. But that wasn’t how things transpired. At this point, the Tasmanian branch, from which Milne heralded, was still the dominant section of the party.

The Tasmanian Greens was the first Australian group to develop, was the most conservative section of the federal party and was politically dominant. Its origins lay in the 1972 campaign against hydroelectric development in Tasmania’s south-west, which spawned one of the world’s first “green” parties, the United Tasmania Group. Its manifesto, New Ethic, was one of the first attempts in the world to articulate an ecocentric political philosophy. It was radical, but not at all left wing. In certain respects, New Ethic could be considered an anti-humanist and reactionary document – although a more generous interpretation would label it “politically contradictory”.

While the new leader wasn’t considered as flexible as Brown when it came to inter-party parliamentary dealings, she led one of the more significant rightward shifts. The Greens 2014 national conference endorsed the creation of a 25-person national council. Milne said that the tasks of the new body were to “professionalise how we work and make us much quicker and more effective”. In reality, this was code for centralising power in the national office and in the federal parliamentary group while further limiting the involvement of the local branches.

Milne also oriented to rural landowners, wanting to make inroads into Liberal and National territory and win people to the idea that the Greens was the natural home of farmers. “The Greens and farmers share many values and have much common interest”, she said, launching a “listening tour” of regional Australia. There was some logic to this turn. While only 14 percent of the Australian population live in a rural town or on a farm, 21 percent of Greens members and 26 percent of Greens activists do (and 30 percent of Greens branches are rural).

The farmers, however, had other ideas and loyalties. The electoral calamities continued (with a couple of notable exceptions, such as Scott Ludlam’s April 2014 federal Senate re-run campaign), culminating in the March 2014 Tasmanian state election, in which the party suffered a 7.8 percent negative swing, lost two of five seats and barely avoided losing a third.

A Victorian era

In the wake of the Tasmanian losses, the inner-party balance of power decisively shifted to the Victorian branch. Here there was a contradiction. On one hand, the Victorian branch is to the left of the Tasmanian branch, which clearly is the geographical base of the party’s right wing. On the other hand, the Victorians perfected the professionalisation agenda.

Federally, the party was hammered after signing the stability pact with the ALP. At least partly, its decline was related to losing some of its outsider status. Yet the man who signed the agreement, Victorian MP Adam Bandt, went from strength to strength. Victoria is a curious case. Bandt in 2013 was decisively re-elected in the seat of Melbourne as the rest of the party was hammered. His incumbency helped – between 2010 and 2013 Bandt was able to raise his profile and also seemed to push into the council estates.

In Batman, Wills and Gellibrand, the party similarly increased its vote. In other seats such as Melbourne Ports and the Liberal-held Goldstein and Higgins, it held its ground. The contradiction is that the Greens seemed to suffer nationally for being seen as insiders, but made gains in Victorian heartland areas in spite of it – possibly because of it.

Melbourne, the only lower house seat held by the party, is now solidly Green. It is one of the most affluent electorates in Victoria. More than 40 percent of residents are professionals – double the national average – and a further 14 percent are managers. The proportion of trade workers and labourers is half the national average.

Higgins, where the party has outlaid significant resources and receives one-quarter of the vote, is perhaps the clearest example of the party’s push to become the voice of the respectable well-to-do set of doctors, lawyers, white collar professionals and small business owners. The party won the state seat of Prahran from the Liberals in 2014. Most of the division sits within Higgins.

State Greens member Sam Hibbins received “great support” from Toorak voters, he told Fairfax after the victory. A senior Labor source told the Herald Sun in 2015 that disaffected Liberal voters were moving into the Greens’ camp in the area. “It shows that the Liberal Party’s stranglehold on young high-income earners is loosening but they’re not coming to us, they’re going to the Greens”, he said.

Indicative of the party’s general orientation is its lack of focus on organised labour. Despite having several thousand trade unionists as members, the party is almost invisible as an organisation in the workers’ movement. Its industrial relations policy is to the left of the ALP, but there are no rank and file groups in the unions to challenge Labor’s industrial agenda, or to challenge Labor-aligned union leaderships.

The Victorian Greens had a serious opportunity to break into the workers’ movement in 2002 when the secretary of the Victorian division of the Electrical Trades Union – one of the more militant blue collar unions – joined the party after resigning from the ALP. But the party made nothing of it.

On one hand, the Greens’ inability to gain support in more solidly working class suburbs holds it back. But the party doesn’t see this as a weakness. As gentrification of the inner suburbs has spread further out, Victorian Greens candidates are on the cusp of taking a couple more seats in the House of Representatives on the basis of their consistent soft liberalism. If they are successful, the Victorian era will continue.

NSW exceptionalism?

The Tasmanian Greens was a global trailblazer. However, the first “Green Party” in Australia was formally registered in 1984 in the inner west of Sydney. Originating as a reading group within the Labor Party in Leichhardt, the Sydney Greens was founded partly as a response to the perceived decline of socialist influence in the ALP, and specifically because a number of members of the Labor left were expelled for supporting independent candidates in the 1984 municipal elections. Unlike the Tasmanian group, it was a project of the left from the very beginning.

The following years also brought the formation (and disbanding) of the New Left Party (1987-1991), which provided a bridge for a number of ex-Communist Party members and other fellow travellers to move into the Green groups. Also, Australia’s largest socialist group, the Socialist Workers Party (renamed the Democratic Socialist Party in 1989) was heavily involved in building the NSW groups from around 1989  and controlled several of the locals until a proscription clause forced it out of the organisation in 1991.

Because of its history, policies and the enduring prominence of socialists in its ranks, the New South Wales branch has always been held in higher esteem by the non-Greens left. But it suffers the same problems as other Greens branches. As far back as 2003, Lisa MacDonald, a leading member of the Socialist Alliance, could write:

“Relatively little of the party’s infrastructure is focused on activating their growing membership, except during election campaign periods, nor on directing and integrating their activists into the party’s work.

“According to left Greens activists in various parts of NSW, the overwhelming majority of Greens members are passive, there is no longer any discussion about the need for a Greens newspaper or equivalent organising tools – beyond their quarterly national magazine, which looks and reads like any other party or trade union ‘glossy’ – and most branches still do not produce a local newsletter or stay in regular contact with their members except by email.”

Indeed, for all the talk about the beating heart of the left, the orientation of the NSW Greens has been strikingly similar to that of the party more generally – parliamentarism, professionalism, accommodation etc.

That’s not to say that the NSW branch contains no differences. The fact that Bob Brown and other conservatives in the party for years have wanted Lee Rhiannon and the NSW left crushed is testament to that. But by and large that left has not rocked the federal boat or publicly campaigned against the right. Instead, battles generally have been fought on the most right wing and respectable terrain: constitutionality, process and procedure.

And those on the far left in Sydney have for years remarked about how the left candidates in the elections run campaigns pretty much identical to those of the right, which raises the question: what is the left actually for, if not getting out there, fighting for its ideas and mobilising people against the status quo?

Into the mainstream

A decade and a half of party growth, moderation, bureaucratisation, building a base among the respectable well-to-do and more pragmatic positioning have transformed the Greens into a party of the mainstream. Today, more than 30 percent of Greens voters consider themselves in the dead centre of the ideological spectrum between left and right. Tellingly, almost 50 percent of current members joined during the period of significant moderation between 2009 and 2012.

Stewart Jackson interviewed party activists (“the volunteers who fill the various offices and positions within the party”) to gauge their views on party organisation and structure. He found that when they were “asked specifically about whether they felt the party was a social movement or a political party there was clearly no interest amongst the organisational activists in returning to a movement”. This speaks to the “victories” of moderation: a party more than 10,000 strong that has built up a base of generally passive supporters who desire parliamentary success above all else.

This article draws on previous pieces written by Ben Hillier for Red Flag and Marxist Left Review.