A good hard right hook at the Greens

The votes have been counted and so the inquest begins. Almost as soon as the Australian Greens announced their 2016 election review, party lodestar Bob Brown used it as an opportunity to criticise the New South Wales Greens, and in particular Senator Lee Rhiannon, for maintaining an electorally unpalatable approach, prompting a swift rejoinder.

This debate is not new, but it is increasingly critical. As the Greens continue to entrench their position as Australia’s third party, the clarification of their purpose becomes an ever more vital task. Despite commentary on the party seeming to assume that this is a settled matter, the re-emerging tensions over structure and ideology spurred by the electoral result demonstrates this is not the case.

This is what the dispute between Brown and Rhiannon is about: should the party moderate and modernise to be the most effective progressive electoral force, or should it retain the characteristics of an activist party that unites parliamentary action with protest politics on the streets? In other words, what kind of party are the Greens, and what is their ultimate purpose?

This is the clearest indication of the ideological dissonance within the party, but not the only one. Disagreement exists elsewhere in the parliamentary party, though this less frequently breaks into open acrimony. Adam Bandt recently argued in How to Vote Progressive in Australia that the Greens have displaced Labor as Australia’s social democratic party. Tasmanian Senator Nick McKim has praised the Uber/Airbnb effect on the economy for ‘turning a generation of interconnected people into entrepreneurs’. Unconcerned with the significant implications of such practices on labour rights, McKim has welcomed the growth of such ways of business, gleefully suggesting that ‘services such as equipment rental, energy supply, labour hire, money lending and even child care will be next’.

So who are the Greens and what do they believe in? The party’s guiding four pillars give little indication, being broad enough to allow a wide ideological span. But the path of increased influence, most dramatically represented by the minority government deal with Labor in 2010, forces clarification. The more the party faces the practicalities of assessing and shaping legislation, the more it needs to determine on what basis it compromises – and what will never be on the negotiating table.

In seeking to determine the historical trajectory of the Greens, the most common comparison is with the Australian Democrats. But this is an uncomfortable fit. The Democrats were, after all, always a creature of the political establishment. The Greens are not: they emerged state by state from active social movements demonstrating the concerns of the 1980s: the environment; anti-nuclear/uranium mining; international peace. These movements sought to use parliament to further their aims.

Brown represents this trajectory, coming to prominence through the Tasmanian campaign against the Franklin Dam before winning a state seat, and later a position in the Senate. The Greens did not emerge fully-fledged from the political establishment but grew from social movements, and had to fight to win a place within the federal parliamentary sphere. Now they have that place, they are transitioning away from these movement roots and becoming a significant pillar of the political establishment.

The most relevant historical example of the processes currently underway within the Greens is the early Labor Party. The ALP emerged from the labour movement in the late 1890s, and its early history was dominated by two major questions: who controlled the party and why? The experience of parliament, and desire for government, drew many in the parliamentary party in a more conservative direction. Claiming to be responsible for the broader electorate and not the movement that placed them in power, early Labor governments often disappointed the trade unions by reneging on policy decided at the party conferences where the broader movement had a greater say than in meetings of the parliamentary caucus.

This precipitated two major events: the Labor split in 1916, and the socialisation objective of 1921. Frustrated with the conservatism of federal Labor, the unions defied the sitting Prime Minister Billy Hughes when he sought to implement conscription in 1916, successfully campaigning against the measure and expelling Hughes from the party. In so doing, they entrenched union control over Labor and its decision-making, clarifying its direct connection to the broader movement. MPs were not to be given a free hand to decide the party’s direction.

But this left the question of Labor’s purpose unresolved. It was not enough to organise against something; the party had to declare what it was for. This led to the 1921 socialisation objective – a pledge to parliamentary socialism. Though honoured more in the breach than the observance, this motion constructed ideological borders for the party. It was a standard for the party to be judged by, a means to ensure some ideological coherence that defined Labor from the conservative right and radical left. Labor had a guiding purpose – something more than a grab-bag of policies eager to be elected parliamentarians proposed as elections drew nearer.

There are major differences between Labor and the Greens. But the processes of contestation that took place in Labor in its early days are indicative of the tensions within progressive parties that emerge from extra-parliamentary social movements that find their centre of gravity being pulled into the machinations of institutional politics.

Similar tensions exist in the Greens today – though how they will be resolved is unclear. The party has increasingly formalised its models of decision-making, policy creation, and daily operations – with the parliamentary group at the centre of this. In his study of the party, Stewart Jackson describes it as being ‘marked by an increasing centralisation and professionalisation of party and electoral processes’. Greens MPs are increasingly operating in a manner that reflects that of the major parties, and are insistent on shaking off the image of the party as an unreasonable protest group. Such efforts resulted in Victorian Liberal powerbroker Michael Kroger providing one of the great backhanded compliments of 2016 politics: that the Greens and Liberals could deal because the former are ‘not the nutters they used to be’.

Greens members still have a great capacity to contribute to party policymaking. But as the party has grown, the necessity to develop and defend a broad scope of policies has similarly elevated. The demand to respond swiftly to issues as they arise – for instance, with negotiations over legislation – quite naturally leaves a great deal of impetus for practical application of policy with the parliamentary wing. These developments where the parliamentary section appropriates control over the application of policy was part of the process through which Labor’s early MPs alienated themselves from the labour movement.

Up until now the Greens have been able to attract votes by defining themselves against the ‘old parties’. The problem is that as the party self-consciously transitions into a force of potential executive influence, it is increasingly complicit in the processes of formal politics that it has critiqued. The basis upon which it justified its decision to vote with the Coalition over the point at which major corporations declared their profits was a near-perfect mirror of the attacks that Labor has long made of the Greens – that it was important to negotiate, be practical, compromise, and not simply shout from the sidelines.

One fundamental difference between Labor and the Greens concerns the structural connection to social movements. Labor was claimed by the unions in 1916, and this has never been relinquished. The structural potential for the movement to force the parliamentary leadership to adhere to its policies remains – although it has not been utilised often enough to ensure Labor embraces progressive policy. But a counterweight to the machinations of the federal caucus does exist, and has the potential to be used. No such institutional safeguard against a right-wing drift exists in the Greens. The movements that gave it rise have largely receded, and there is no institutional means through which they could exert influence on the party similar to union affiliation.

This is not to suggest that the Greens are being captured by a band of neoliberals, desperate to drag it to the right. But the progressive policies that drew so many to the party were the result of a movement connection that no longer exists, and a capacity to develop policy without the conservatising impact of being a major party. The success of the Greens, and its ambitions for office, demonstrates the potential to drift further to the right, just as similar parties have done elsewhere in the world.

Of course this is not automatic, and history holds no blueprints, just warnings. But the pressures to clarify its purpose will likely grow. They now hold the magic number of senators – nine – that the Coalition will need to legislate its agenda. Under Di Natale’s leadership, the Greens have sent strong messages about their willingness to compromise to get legislation passed. This provides impetus, and opportunity, for the Greens to prove themselves as responsible legislators. The cost could be perceived complicity with an agenda many of its supporters oppose. How it navigates this period, and what agendas it does and does not choose to embrace, and on what basis, will clarify that fundamental question that this inquest cannot: just what are the Greens for?


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Image: Melbourne Streets Avant-garde/Flickr

Liam Byrne

Liam is a researcher in Australian political culture, focusing on the ALP. He blogs at maintainyourrage.com.au

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