What does the change in leadership of the Australian Greens mean for Left politics? At one level, it would be easy to write off the shift as largely irrelevant, proof that there is an essential continuity in the party’s drift into the mainstream. Given Christine Milne’s apparent track record as a tough negotiator but more politically orthodox than Bob Brown, it seems like it’s full steam ahead towards the Greens being just a slightly greener-tinged and more progressive version of the ALP.
This would represent a betrayal of the hopes invested in the Greens as a Left alternative, one that had been willing to take a stand against Labor’s capitulation over asylum seekers, the War on Terror and neoliberalism, and which had captured a chunk of the ALP’s traditional base as a result.
Alternatively, one could look at headlines like that in today’s AFR (‘Greens to veer Left under Milne’), note recent party-room frustrations that Brown had steered the Greens too close to a disastrous ALP government, recognise that Adam Bandt – on the party’s Left and closely aligned with the union movement – is now deputy leader, and think that the party will now shift Left with the new balance of forces in operation in the party room.
Both these narratives contain elements of truth, yet both fail to capture either the depth of contradictions faced by the Greens or the political opportunities that something as apparently distant as a Canberra leadership transition can present for building an independent Left. This is because the Greens have been (and remain) a contradictory formation, rising to unprecedented success in an unusual political period.
Starting with an essay in Overland 199, I’ve argued that the Greens’ success rested in part on a split in the base of social democracy because of Labor’s long-run move to the Right and abandonment of its traditional supporters. Labor was particularly vulnerable because of the decline of the trade unions, a process caused by the union bureaucracy’s willing imposition of the burden of economic restructuring on its members. The kinds of class ties the ALP relied on were damaged, undercutting ‘rusted-on’ support.
But the Greens’ rise was also made possible by the party’s ability to provide a national political focus to issues raised by a series of important social movements in the first half of the 2000s, including protests against corporate globalisation, the refugee rights movement and the anti-war movement. While these social movements were relatively weak and transient when compared with the cycle of resistance of the 1960s and 1970s, they nevertheless posited an alternative to the deadening political consensus of the major parties. This was the tentative beginning of a new Left after the defeats of the 1980s and 90s, and the Greens played both a positive role in providing an explicitly political shape to the social resistance but also – once they became increasingly electorally successful – a negative role in demobilising protest in favour of the logic of parliament. So both Milne and Bandt were at the centre of the carbon price package, which has for the most part locked in their party’s existing support but potentially cut them off from disaffected ALP voters with its explicitly neoliberal overtones.
In that sense the party has become much more part of a political class in crisis, rather than being able to present itself as a force opposed to it. Brown, with his maverick persona and ability to play the old-fashioned social democratic card when Labor sold out, could often bridge such gaps. He could be both insider and outsider in a way that Milne will have trouble articulating.
Brown’s authority inside the party – while never absolute – did make it possible for him to pull even the party’s Left towards a strategy of seeking the electoral mainstream. In this he was helped by the decline of social movement activity after 2007 and the continuing fragmentation of Labor’s vote in the 2010 election. It meant, for example, that disquiet about his closeness to Gillard and worries about the single-minded focus on a carbon price rarely saw the light outside inner-party circles. But his supporters’ use of the media to run their factional war with the NSW party’s Left also caused uneasiness and hardening of positions.
Despite moves towards ‘professionalisation’ and mass media campaigning, the party still has a sizeable activist core that in some parts of the country has significant social roots. Many members continue to participate in community-based campaigns, there is a layer of low-level union organisers in its ranks, and the Greens remain connected to all manner of activist projects (however limited these may be right now).
Thus, the mainstreaming of the Greens in recent years is not yet a completed process, and the party remains in a better position to relate to any revival of social resistance than the ALP could. The departure of Brown also means that even if Milne wants to (and that is not yet clear), she will find it harder to hold back internal dissent, and instead have to manage greater instability. Milne is also seen as more of team player, compared with Brown’s tendency to provocative and authoritarian internal behaviour.
The real problem the Greens pose in building a new Left is that their electoralism pulls them into replicating the problems of an exhausted political class rather than building the new politics many of their supporters hope for. You can see this already in Milne’s empty appeals to the bush and ‘progressive’ business. But if the level of social resistance rises, perhaps in response to worsening austerity, the Greens are likely to continue to relate to such activity as well as try to keep it close to official channels. Bandt’s links could serve as a conduit for disgruntled union officials frustrated by Labor’s crisis, for example.
Nevertheless, the new fluidity following Friday’s events means that the radical Left is going to find dealing with Greens politics in debates on the ground a continuing and inevitable aspect of building something better. That’s much trickier than either leaving it for the Greens to be that alternative or writing them off as a spent force.
Cross-posted at Left Flank.