Saturday evening. 21 August 2010. The function room in the Victoria Hotel is hot. Crammed in are hundreds of people. At the rear, journalists circle around television cameras. They care little for the buzzing green-clad crowd: their focus is elsewhere. They scribble notes, look at the floor. It is artificially bright in this little area: a bubble of luminosity thrown by the TV lights. Greens activists hug each other, chatter animatedly. There are several questions everyone asks: Where did you hand out how-to-vote cards? How will the Greens go? Who will win government? In their hearts, they know that tonight will be a victory for the party.
They are not wrong. Before long, it is announced that Adam Bandt – a friend of mine – has been elected as member for the seat of Melbourne. His first words are ‘Melbourne, together we’ve made history today.’ If his first words are passionate, the rest of his speech is a lesson in composure and diplomacy. The speech is not heavy on content, though he does highlight the Greens progressive policies on refugees, climate change and same-sex marriage. He finishes to a storm of applause.
Three years earlier – in 2007 – I also attended the Greens election night party. That was the night that Kevin Rudd was elected and the Greens event was sparsely attended and low-key. That night, the place to be was Trades Hall, where people were packed in, the beer flowed and the roofs resonated with deafening cheers. Three years later, one can’t help noticing how things have changed. Not only were there greater numbers at the Greens party, but while in 2007 there were scant young people, in 2010 the place is replete with those in their twenties. In 2010, the event has vitality.
Days later Bandt has become a national figure as one of the members of parliament who holds the future of the government in his hands. Whatever occurs, it’s impossible not to reflect on what this means for the Greens.
It might be useful to recall here that the Greens follow in the footsteps of a number of parties internationally who have emerged – and often disintegrated – to the left of the two major parties in their countries. Our close neighbours in New Zealand had the NewLabour Party, founded after a split from the Labour Party in 1989 and which later entered into an alliance with The Greens, The Democratic Party and the Maori Party, Mana Motuhaki. Emerging from this process was a party called The Alliance. At its height, The Alliance polled something like 18 percent of the vote. Scotland saw the development of the Scottish Socialist Party which in 2003 had six elected MPs, though lost them all in 2007. And of course back in the 1980s, there was the case of the first successful Greens Party, the German Greens.
In these cases, a number of similarities emerged:
• The greater success the party had, the more pressure it came under from the right wing. This took all kinds of forms: newspapers and other media, factionalising against them in unions and other institutions, open threats, and so on.
• As this occurred, tensions between the left and right of the parties emerged. Factional struggles evolved which significantly overlapped.
• These left groupings sometimes relied upon significant celebrity leaders (Jim Anderton in NZ, Tommy Sheridan in Scotland). When the interests of these leaders came into contradiction with the interests of the party as a whole, the leaders left, taking their celebrity status and their parliamentary positions.
Such processes are not, of course, inevitable. Whether the Australian Greens will go through anything like them is unclear. The best way to inoculate a political organisation from such pressures is to strengthen the party’s democracy and grassroots involvement. Is this a task that the Greens will be able to undertake?
Other questions also arise. Are we likely to see an influx of the left into the Greens in the wake of this recent success? Will there be an influx of fair-weather friends? Will the electoral support for the Greens continue on to the Victorian state election later this year? Will the Greens be able to turn their electoral support into active party involvement? Will they be able to maintain the course charted when Bandt spoke at the Wheeler Centre recently, which outlines a much clearer idea of his vision?