Into the mainstream: the Australian Greens 

2 May 2019
Ben Hillier

This is part of Red Flag's guide to Australia’s four major political parties – Labor, Liberal, National and Greens – and One Nation. In this article, Red Flag editor Ben Hillier analyses the Greens.


In the early years, the Greens were one of the most politically contradictory organisations around. While the Labor and Liberal parties’ original goals were clear – respectively get representatives of the labour movement into parliament and keep representatives of the labour movement out of parliament – the Greens encompassed the whole spectrum from right to left.

On one hand, there were the Tasmanian Greens, originally called the United Tasmania Group, whose origins lay in the 1972 campaign against hydroelectric development in the state’s south-west. The organisation’s manifesto, “New Ethic”, was one of the first attempts in the world to articulate an ecocentric political philosophy transcending the traditional left-right divide. The program in certain respects was a reactionary document, although it did lay out broad principles of ecology, participatory democracy and peace.

On the other hand, the first “Green Party” in Australia was formally registered in 1984 in the inner west of Sydney and was primarily a project of the left. “The Greens in Sydney come from many backgrounds”, its first policy document noted. “Environmental and resident activists. Nuclear disarmers. Dissidents from the Labor Party who have witnessed betrayals by both wings of that party. Feminists. Anarchists ... Socialists of various kinds.” Originating as a reading group within the ALP in Leichhardt, the Sydney Greens was founded partly as a response to the perceived decline of socialist influence in the ALP. Its draft election platform, “More good oil”, was predominantly concerned with social and economic questions.

Within and between green groups built around the country, an array of outlooks was represented, from lifestyle anarchists and anti-humanist environmentalists on the right to communists on the left. But as state-based Greens organisations coalesced into a nationally federated party in the 1990s, the political currents were winnowed (the far left and far right leaving or being forced out) as a more conventional liberal parliamentarist organisation took form. Tasmanian Greens leader Bob Brown, with philosopher Peter Singer, penned “The Greens”, a party manifesto in which they predicted the end of the ALP and the dawn of a new Greens era as the world left behind the materialism of the past and embraced a “neither left nor right but forward” political future.

In the early 2000s, however, the party jagged to relate to new political developments with a fairly standard left colouring: the S11 anti-capitalist moment in 2000, the 2001 Tampa election and early refugee rights campaign, and the mobilisations against the Iraq war in 2002-03. “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”, Kerry Nettle, newly elected federal senator from NSW, told a 2002 Marxism conference in Melbourne. “We 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 – a protest against Labor’s drift to the right. In this period, the Greens’ trajectory was an open question and its composition mixed. This was reflected in the approach of the far left to the party, with the two largest socialist groups at the time, the Democratic Socialist Party and the International Socialist Organisation, initially proposing to preference only “pro-working class” Greens candidates above the ALP in elections.

Yet there were forces pushing the Greens to the right. 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-held seat. “Behind the protests”, Stewart wrote, “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”.

Respectability and professionalism, with progressive values, became the order of the day as party candidates were chosen not on their activist credentials, as Nettle had insisted, but on their professional backgrounds in law, health, small business and, occasionally, law enforcement. “The Green party – the leadership – is the parliamentary caucus now”, Lisa Macdonald, a leading member of the Socialist Alliance, noted in 2003. “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 ... and most branches still do not produce a local newsletter or stay in regular contact with their members except by email.”

The moderating forces had the upper hand against the activists. The campaigns – against corporate greed, against war and for refugee rights – that had been associated with the party and propelled its growth were short lived. As the street demonstrations became smaller and fewer, as the far left entered a period of disintegration and as the unions retreated behind the ALP’s electoral campaigns, the Greens’ bureaucratisation accelerated. “Each new layer of administration and personnel ... slowly moved the power, influence and decision making away from the state and local branches”, Stewart Jackson, a former Greens national convener, wrote 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.”

The influence of the branches was gradually 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. While the Liberal Party is the party of business and Labor is the party of the trade union leadership, the Greens by the late 2000s had built a membership base among affluent white collar liberals, entrenching itself as the party of the socially progressive middle classes. Jackson’s research showed that almost one-third of the organisation’s activists held masters or doctoral degrees – 10 times the average for the population. Another study by academic Ariadne Vromen found that the membership was 60 percent professionals and overwhelmingly middle aged.

The social composition of any organisation affects its functioning. The prejudices, aspirations and social outlook of the members will be reflected in its practice, in the way it positions itself relative to other forces and in its principles and policies. For larger organisations, this is more the case than with smaller groups held together by the conviction of ideas. After early gains at the expense of the ALP, which continued its shift to the right, sections of the party were now looking further afield. Greens strategists argued that there were rich pickings in some Liberal Party strongholds – socially progressive “wet liberals” who supported gays and refugees but who held significant investment portfolios as well.


The party achieved its greatest federal electoral gains in 2010, when it won 11.8 percent of the House vote and 13.1 percent in the Senate. But the success proved a poisoned chalice. The Greens’ savvy political machine in practice became more and more like the party it sought to replace.

When Bob Brown retired in 2012, the party he left was integrated into mainstream political life, notwithstanding the dwindling number of left wing Greens who still tried to provide an alternative to the dominant right. The leadership was taken by Christine Milne, like Brown from the more conservative Tasmanian branch. 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.

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 even greater centralisation of power in the national office and in the federal parliamentary group while further limiting the involvement of the local branches. Milne, who led the Tasmanian Greens in a coalition with the Liberal Party in the 1990s, also oriented to rural landowners to make inroads into National Party territory.

“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, 20 percent of Greens members and 25 percent of Greens activists do (and 30 percent of Greens branches are rural). By this time, the Greens were routinely appealing to the economic interests of small business owners, so they might have struck a chord with some small farmers. But Milne’s attempted realignment didn’t go according to plan.

In the 2013 federal election, the Greens paid a heavy price for having signed a “stability pact” to help the increasingly unpopular ALP remain in government in return for a few paltry “concessions”, such as a leaders’ debate commission. The following year in the Tasmanian state election, the party suffered a 7.8 percent negative swing, lost two of its five seats and barely avoided losing a third. In the wake of the result, the inner-party balance of power decisively shifted to the Victorian branch and new leader, Richard Di Natale. Here there was a contradiction. The Victorian branch was to the left of the Tasmanian branch, which had been the geographical base of the party’s right. But the Victorians perfected the professionalisation agenda and were becoming the greatest beneficiaries of the moderation strategy.

In the 2016 federal election, the Victorian share of the vote was, for the first time, higher in both the House and the Senate than in any other state. The five seats with the highest Greens vote in the country were all in Melbourne. The party’s relentless targeting of the gentrifying inner-city areas, where the traditional ALP vote was pushed out as young, affluent professionals moved in, solidified an altogether new voting bloc. The Victorian success in breaking into more traditional affluent suburbs added to the weight of conservatising influences and was decisive for the trajectory of the party.

Equally decisive for the party’s character is its ongoing lack of focus on organised labour. Its failure to break into working class areas is replicated around the country. This isn’t just a question of policy. On paper, many are to the left of Labor – industrial relations policy, for example, is much better. But political loyalties are built up in ways that rarely involve reading policy documents. What matters is whether a party fights (or in the ALP’s case, is seen to have fought historically) for the policies it claims to stand for.

Despite thousands of trade unionists being members, the Greens never fought for leadership in the workers’ movement or even attempted to organise this significant bloc of support. This is important because it goes to the heart of the term “left wing”, which signifies support for workers against bosses, not just progressive social attitudes. This isn’t a moral question, but one related to the nature of social forces under capitalism. Bosses have power because of their control of industry and productive resources. Workers have potential power because they do all the tasks to keep the world functioning – and because they can bring all industry and resources under collective control, to be used for human need. But the middle classes have no unifying economic interests except the complaint of being squeezed. As a social layer, they are naturally disposed toward authoritarianism (of both “left” and right varieties) because, lacking their own collective power, they are reliant on the capitalist state to address their grievances.


The Greens are a socially progressive alternative to the ALP and the Liberals for well-off professionals to whom it can appeal on the basis that they should “care”. But it is not a left alternative to social democracy for the broader working class. Unemployed workers, those losing their homes and those under attack from their bosses will not rally around some slogan urging “compassion”. They will want an alternative prepared to lead a fightback. The party doesn’t have the social layers within its large membership capable of that.

The left with some orientation to the workers’ movement has been pushed out of the organisation. Over the last two years, as the right has continued to roll the left, hundreds of members, reportedly the more activist inclined, have resigned. Tellingly, most of the membership joined during and after the period of significant moderation from 2009. Radicals don’t join this party anymore. And for some years now, the Greens have no longer been beneficiaries of the broader protest vote – the share of their Senate vote has been falling just as micro-party cross bench influence has been rising.

The Greens continue to stake out the electoral ground in affluent middle class areas. Nowhere is this starker than in Victoria, where the party is redirecting resources from the northern suburbs of Melbourne to challenge for seats in wealthy conservative heartlands such as Kooyong and Higgins in the upcoming federal election. These two seats are long shots, but indicative. Were the Greens to win one, it might prove the final nail in the coffin for the party’s left.

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