Future of the Greens

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.

Bandt’s acceptance speech:

vicgreens on livestream.com. Broadcast Live Free

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?

Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  1. Rjurik,
    On the other thread, you wrote:
    ‘I’d have to question the verity of your last point Jeff. As many here have discussed re the Greens, I’m not sure at all that the immediate future of progressive politics will be outside the parliamentary sphere. As my recent post suggests, I think that the success of the Greens is likely to funnel a great deal of left energy into their organisation. This is true precisely because there is so little activity outside. If there was to be a rise of some social movements, then things might be different. In their absence, people will look for the thing that is most obviously “happening.”’

    I’m not sure I agree. Like, I think the election of the Greens is important, if only because (as I argued on Drum) it will open up more space for political discussion.
    But will people rush to join the Greens? I dunno. To be honest, I’m not actually sure what joining them would entail for most people. Lots of folks will vote for the Greens, sure. But is there an active branch structure? What do ordinary Green members do in between elections?

  2. Yes, well it seems that the Greens don’t have much of a structure in which members can involve themselves. This seems to me to be true both at branch, state and national levels. For example, it’s unclear to me how they’re deciding who to ‘negotiate with’ – Gillard or Abbott. Does this mean that it’s a decision made solely by their elected representatives, i.e., MPs and senators? How do members take part in this decision? Of course, it’s a legitimate strategy to join the Greens in the hope of developing its activist base and democratic functioning, though I’m not sure it would be a particularly effective one.

    In any case, I suspect there will be a groundswell, in Victoria at least, with the State Election coming up in November. The momentum gained in the Federal Election will likely to continue. In the absence of any significant campaigns, I can see people being excited about the “Green-slide” as Bob Brown described it. In other words, the “immediate future” of progressive politics seems to be coloured Green.

  3. Some interesting observations in this post. The major political parties, and the interests they seek to represent, are confronted with a real challenge right now. It’s called democracy. The Australian electorate have demonstrated a disenchantment with the majors by voting left of centre. This is one of the most significant outcomes of the election. The Greens have increased their primary vote by 50% since 2007 as people have deserted the dominant parties in favour of a Green agenda.

    Mr Rabbit has been very swift in making the point that 500,000 more people voted for the Coalition than voted for Labour. What he doesn’t say is that premise underpinning his statement suggests a preference for a proportional representation voting system. One vote, one value. If we did have that system (which I favour) the Greens would hold 17 seats in the House of Reps and neither of the majors would hold a majority that could enable them to form government in their own right.(If I’m wrong on this, someone please correct me.)

    But that little oversight doesn’t bother Mr Rabbit,whose rhetoric throughout the campaign has been characterised by a Machiavellian use of language. Actually, he’s just lied a lot. On the national debt and refugees, for example. Now here he goes again claiming legitimacy on the basis of numbers that mean nothing.

    Rabbit should be worried. There is no doubt Labour is a foul ship. The results in Queensland and NSW demonstrate that voters are done with them. But if they are so bad then why didn’t Rabbit win in a landslide? Because voters didn’t buy his um-ah message. Instead, they voted informally or shifted to the Left, either in protest or straight out abandonment.

    Consider for a moment the agenda of the Labour Right as they sort through their risk management plan (Bill Shorten as leader!!??). One thing is sure, they will side with the interests of the resources sector while paying lip service to suggestions of parliamentary reform. Whatever it takes. Be certain, however, that they will not change and neither will the Rabbit camp. In fact, the interests of both these seemingly divergent groups are actually closely aligned. And that is why there will be a backlash against the Greens and, more broadly, the Left.

    If Gillard takes government, Rabbit will adopt a destabilisation strategy by linking the Greens to Labour. He will blame the Greens for robbing the Australian people of a change of government. He’s already talking about a Labour-Green alliance. The resources sector, could come back into play over the mining and carbon taxes. Purses could be reopened. Rabbit will be using such scenarios as evidence of the destabilsation a minority Labour government could bring.

    The challenge for the broad Left is to rally behind the Greens and assert the rights of Australians to have a political system which truly represents their best interests. This will require a breaking of the stranglehold of the majors. Trouble is, that will result in reactionary factions in both parties joining forces with multinational capital and worse to destroy the green shoots of change.

    I’m just sayin’.

  4. ‘If Gillard takes government, Rabbit will adopt a destabilisation strategy by linking the Greens to Labour. He will blame the Greens for robbing the Australian people of a change of government. He’s already talking about a Labour-Green alliance. The resources sector, could come back into play over the mining and carbon taxes. Purses could be reopened. Rabbit will be using such scenarios as evidence of the destabilsation a minority Labour government could bring.’

    Indeed, the Greens, if they’re to hold themselves together, are going to have to tread a fine line. They do risk becoming associated with the Labour Party, when a more effective strategy should be to maintain their differentiation from the ALP. The Democrats are a signal warning in this respect of the dangers of deals.

    1. Dr_T,
      Thanks for both these references. Your blog post is especially interesting. The more I think on it the more I realise that it is in Abbott’s interest to return to the polls, especially if he can spook the horses with talk of instability, Labour civil wars, patriotism (I’m sure he used that term in his press conference today)and how the Greens robbed a majority popular vote of legitimate government. Voters could well be so sick of the saga that they vote for the fucker to shut him up, put Labour in its place and get on with their lives.

      The implications for the Green vote in such circumstances could be dire, as Labour deserters flock back in an attempt to give the ALP a decisive majority in preference to having Abbott in office. Alternatively, the Green vote could be bolstered if Labour starts to implode in public.

      At last, some interesting politics!

  5. Hmm, have just watched Adam’s Wheeler Centre speech. It’s an analysis that fits totally with the Greens’ post-class, ethics-based approach to politics. No sense of the obstacles that need to be overcome to implement his vision except the idea of voting for a third party. Kinda utopian!

  6. Thanks, Boris.
    More signs of the looming anti-Green campaign in the Oz: Paul Kelly says they have not received enough scrutiny.
    Well, duh. They would have received more scrutiny if, for instance, Bob Brown had been allowed in the leaders’ debate, wouldn’t they!

  7. I’m interested, Tad, in how you think someone in the Greens should pose questions of class. Latham was smashed on the question back when he was leader – partly to do with his policy on private schools. He was attacked for reintroducing “class war” and “devisive” politics, if I recall correctly. I’m not suggesting here that therefore one should avoid class questions. But how would the Greens pose them? Certainly, their industrial relations policy is pretty progressive, no?

  8. Rjurik, the question of class can only be posed within the Greens by considering it directly. The silence on the question is not to do with a lack of understanding of inequality (there’s plenty of that). Rather, what’s missing is the idea of class as a power-relation, and certainly as something involves an inherent conflict. In a sense conflicts are seen by Greens as purely in the sphere of the contest of ideas about how to run society… such as when Adam (in the Wheeler Centre speech) explains neoliberalism more as a bad policy run by bad people than a project to “restore class power” as David Harvey would put it.

    I used to just pose it blatantly, and after initially getting pulled up over it (“be careful… we don’t use old-fashioned language like that”) it was more generally accepted as a valid part of the debate. At least in the NSW Greens, which is a more self-consciously “Left” formation. Around the campaign to stop electricity privatisation, we were able to win the state party to consciously focusing on the working class constituency of the ALP as the target audience, and some good work was done.

    The bigger problem is that while it may be a good debating point, the idea of class has been structured out of Greens philosophy and policy, and so it is difficult to reinsert it without opening wider and wider gaps. Even around Your Rights At Work, which the Greens made serious efforts to relate to, the questions that came up were much more boxed into a democratic rights and social justice frame than a recognition of class struggle (which of course precedes classes).

    I suspect that if significant working class resistance starts to break out to the coming Age of Austerity, there may be more of an opening to pose these issues in a less abstract mode.

    1. Yes – It seems to me that with issues like class – or indeed many similar programmatic questions – that there is no substitute for going through the process of action and experience with people. With an organisation like the Greens, it seems to me that that would be part of the deal joining them: you accept where the organisation is at, and then there’s no substitute for patient, on-the-ground organisational work. No amount of ‘convincing’ or ‘logic’ is going to change things. Part of the problem with the old Trotskyist method, for example, was in believing to much in the power of ideas – simply criticise from the sidelines and eventually the rightness of your position will win out.

  9. Tad (or anyone, really), how does the organisational structure of the Greens work. Is there a national conference and if so does it make policy decisions? What’s the relationship between the organisation and the elected representatives? How do the local branches function? Do they have regular meetings? Can they influence policy?

  10. I think there is a class consciousness in the social justice issues that the Greens campaign on just perhaps its not explictly stated. The Greens stance re: the NTER is one area in which I think there is a little class consciousness within a social justice policy

    there was also another anti-green rant in the Oz recently by Marcia Langton saying that to vote Green is to vote against Aboriginal Rights. She was specifically speaking in regards to the Wild River Legislation but extrapolating from that to the whole country has she tends to do.

    Whilst there are issues to do with the Wild Rivers Legislation the issues there upon infringing rights are nowhere are not as much as most of the Labour and Coalition policy.

    Also as many Indigenous people have said around the territory lately the Greens are the only party who have been sticking up for their rights.

  11. Jeff, the Australian Greens is actually a fusion of separate state and territory parties in its composition. There are two national councils and one national conference each year. These are delegated and the weighting of numbers favours the smaller state parties (a point of contention from time to time). The state parties still act autonomously most of the time, but technically any national policy overrides any state policy that stands in contradiction. Policies can only be changed at conference. Most national decisions are made by consensus, with (I think) a 2/3 majority if consensus is blocked by any one delegate. I think policy change requires 3/4 support if no consensus.

    Between councils there is a coordinating group that runs the party organisation and a quick decision making group that decides on urgent political questions. The former usually has a member from each state, but that’s not mandated. The latter consists of delegates from each state.

    Each state has different branch or local group structures and processes. NSW maintains the strongest autonomy for local groups, which explains why sometimes national preference deals don’t get 100% implementation there.

    MPs have delegated voting rights also. The federal MPs have taken to sitting as a bloc at national meetings, and have moved for greater involvement and voting rights on party bodies and election committees.

    The MPs are generally expected to follow party policy and decisions, but outside NSW there is also provision for a conscience vote. In reality the MPs have become almost hegemonic in policy and strategy development, in part because they have a large (publicly funded) paid staff at their disposal but in greater part because reformist politics favours this arrangement by default.

    Brown and Milne push the “trustee” model of leadership, which argues that once they are preselected and elected, MPs should be trusted to interpret the party’s needs and wishes in the public sphere. This is somewhat controversial, again especially in NSW where the state party refuses to appoint a “leader” on principle. I saw this trustee approach when NSW challenged the pro-cap & trade stance of the party (which had been publicly adopted by Milne in 2007 without being voted on) in early 2009. Some delegates got up at national council and said their only position on the issue was that they “trusted the senators to do the right thing”. This again reflects the nature of reformist politics, or at least one major strain of it within the Greens.

    Formally, however, there are many ways for members and local groups to influence policy. It was my motion on cap & trade coming through a local group and state council that got to national council. But winning a debate to shift the party to the Left at that level seems close to impossible in the current period. Most efforts of the Left inside the party have been on preventing shifts to the Right, for example over death duties and private school funding in the last year.

    Hope that little precis is helpful.

  12. Scott, I agree class is implicit in Greens policy. But it is implicit in Liberal policy also. The limitation is that class is (at best) seen as a socioeconomic hierarchy rather than a conflictual relationship. Workers are in effect seen as passive players in a system that Greens policy would ameliorate. The Greens sympathise with the downtrodden but balk at taking sides, instead hoping for an ethical solution that gets around class relations.

    Their IR policies are better than Labor’s, however, and another reason why despite the post-class philosophy of the party I have maintained it really is a Left-of-Labor force.

    1. “The Greens sympathise with the downtrodden but balk at taking sides, instead hoping for an ethical solution that gets around class relations.”

      An interesting example of the Greens doing that was in the ACT last year regarding laws about the security industry where they initially opposed it:


      It only just passed a few days ago:


      Still it raised questions about the Greens on IR for me because they had balance of power to pass the legislation.

  13. This morning on the ‘Insiders’ program (ABC1) they were comparing the DLP vote in 1993 (I think it was 1993) and the vote this time round for The Greens, and it was almost identical. I’ve also heard people (liberal voters, but nonetheless, people) talk dismissively about the Greens, saying they’ll experience the same fate as the DLP and simply peter out.

    I think the near future is going to be exceedingly tricky for Bob and his crew (and extremely important) if they’re going to build on what has occurred and create another real option for us in the electorate. I’d like to see something more than them just having a ‘keep the bastards honest’ position. And, I have to say, in general, the positive feelings I had this time last week are draining away.

    I’m going to go to the drum. Scrounge around for titbits of hope.

  14. Hi SJ, I think the comparison on The Insiders may have been to the Democrats not DLP. Much of the reason the Democrats lost the support of voters is that they sold out their own members – think GST – and in latter years self-destructed.

  15. God, how embarrassing. I think you’re right. Must be a sign that anxiety is getting in the road of my thinking powers. And, yes, it’s good of you to point out what brought the Democrats to their knees. Lets hope the Greens can stay somewhat more cohered.

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