It’s all happening for the Greens: a historic victory in the Northcote by-election in the Victorian state parliament. A positive, if not overwhelming, vote in crucial Brisbane seats in the Queensland election (still a record for Greens in the state), seeing the party go toe-to-toe with Labor in South Brisbane and, more of a surprise, the LNP in Maiwar. The party has been able to put the citizenship controversy behind with the swearing in of its new senators. Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, the Greens seem a confident and coherent political alternative.
This is certainly the message that the party leadership is sending. Speaking at the recent national conference, leader Senator Richard di Natale outlined an ambitious plan to capture twenty-five House of Representatives seats over the next twenty-five years, transforming the party into the third-force of Australian politics. Already, with far fewer seats than that, party strategists have been hatching plans to use their strong vote in the inner city to force its way into minority government in Victoria at the next state election.
For Greens moderates, the situation gets even better. In a recent coup for pragmatists, the leading left-wing figure in the NSW party branch, Senator Lee Rhiannon, has been replaced on the top spot of the Greens Senate ticket for the state by the moderate Mehreen Faruqi. Rhiannon has been a thorn in the side of the party leadership (and di Natale in particular) over the course of her senatorial career. While I am not suggesting that they played a direct role in her political demise, they no doubt drew great succour from it.
So, what does it mean? There are two major developments simultaneously underway here. The first is the widespread disenchantment with the major parties, and the splintering of the two-party system. This has been a well-discussed phenomenon. At the recent Queensland election, 31% of voters did not vote for a major party. This largely followed the trends of the previous year’s federal election where 23% of voters did the same. In Queensland, the Greens no doubt took great pleasure stripping votes from Labor, and their effective campaign targeting particularly onerous decisions by that government, such as support for the proposed Adani mine, was clearly built on a progressive basis. More worrying, of course, is One Nation’s consolidation of a slightly higher vote – around 14% (rising to around 20-30% in areas of core support). While One Nation’s consistent ineptitude and propensity to hyperbolic claims is laughable (and their failure to convert votes to seats welcome) the appeal of their deep racism is not. The simple fact is that the same two-party system that has stymied the Greens’ rise in terms of seat numbers has also blocked One Nation from further ascent. It also shows that the major parties losing votes is not the automatic positive that some in the Greens and other smaller parties seem to assume.
In a recent editorial, The Age suggested that Northcote and Queensland were indicative that the Greens were relating to the international anti-establishment mood sweeping the developed world. Recently, di Natale also sought to insinuate the Greens into the growing fervour for revolt, stating that the party had been leading the local incarnation of the global movement against neoliberalism and inequity.
These claims are made on a misestimation on the prevailing political climate in Australia, and the sentiment (unevenly) sweeping across much else of the developed world. In Australia, the sentiment is of cynicism and exasperation, rather than outrage and protest. Seeing as so many of our MPs seem to hold British citizenship, let’s take that comparison as an example. While Australia has clearly seen some outrageous acts that have turned people off the two parties – human rights abuses at Manus, capitulation to social conservatives over marriage equality/’religious freedom’, attacks on unions, etc. – the depth of feeling does not correlate to that in Britain where over a decade of austerity has heightened the intensity of the polarisation, allowing for Brexit on one hand, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn on the other. In Australia, the cynicism forged from decades of discontent with neoliberalism has not reached such crisis levels on a mass scale. While there is clear disillusionment with the major parties, and a consistent dedication by those parties to do things that are disillusioning, Australia remains far from such radical sentiment.
There is also no sign that if Australia were undergoing a polarisation, the Greens would lead the discontent. Despite the claims of some Greens leaders – most notably Adam Bandt – that the party is a social-democratic force, there is a reason why Greens parties in Europe have largely been left behind in the growth of progressive opposition to austerity capitalism. At its core (to simplify grossly), the experience of austerity has been the ravishing of the economic position of the working class, the precariat, and the socially vulnerable. But many of the ‘middle classes’ have also found themselves fighting to keep afloat as economies are restricted, social protections are slashed, and jobs are made increasingly vulnerable and low-paid. This economic experience is strongly racialised and gendered: racial minorities and women are disproportionately affected by this largely one-sided class war.
But, as former national convenor and scholar of the party Stewart Jackson has shown, Greens’ ideology is largely predicated on the idea of post-materiality. This is a brand of politics that emerged from the affluent post-war era, maintained and carried through the neoliberal decades by ‘progressives’ who believed the ‘old’ emphasis on economic differentiation and class struggle was ill-suited to the transformed world (at least the one they lived in). New issues came to dominate the political agenda for the post-materialists, the looming threat of climate-change driven annihilation chief among them.
As I have previously argued, the Greens are split into a variety of outlooks and factions. They have many principled members, they often do good things in parliament, and they have perfectly acceptable policies – and even some positive ones. But the forces that dominate in the party have a worldview fundamentally shaped by this predominantly classless post-material philosophy. They proclaim themselves to be ‘neither left nor right but forward’, too new and original for that old-fashioned, class-based stuff.
The current climate provides a sizeable audience for the Greens on this basis. At the moment, they can promise a great deal as they are only rarely called on to deliver. This is as it should be; they are, after all, a minor party that emerged from a protest movement not that long ago. There are many who will listen to the Greens when they ‘call out’ the conservatives, and even more often Labor, in specific policy areas which reflect discontent. Maltreatment (that is to say, full-on human rights abuses) of refugees, Adani, corruption, etc. Often they are a powerful and legitimate progressive voice. But these are the actions of a protest party, and as they have shown, they are already in the process of transitioning out of this role.
The plan for government, even if at the initial stage in a minority capacity, reflects the ambitions of many in the party to draw it even closer to the mainstream. This strategy, best associated with the leadership of di Natale, is aimed at assimilating the Greens with the expectations of parliamentary culture. The party is travelling on a path broken many times before, as the balance of power within the party moves away from the movement to which it was connected, and away from the membership of the party itself, towards the inner circles of parliamentarians and their staffs.
This is what Lee Rhiannon’s defeat signifies. Rhiannon’s support in NSW congealed around the movement-based models inherited from Greens organising in the 1980s. This model deemed parliamentarians to be delegates of the membership rather than representatives sent to parliament without restriction or control to serve the national interest. Jealously guarded by the more radical section of NSW Greens, this approach has long been regarded as a counterproductive anachronism by those seeking to drag the party into respectability, and to transform it into a more electorally potent force: Brown, di Natale and Faruqi. Rhiannon’s ousting is an unequivocal victory for these moderate professionalisers.
Increasingly, though it is being revealed slowly, the Greens are coming to represent the political establishment they claim to oppose. Adam Bandt recently laid a stinging critique on Labor for its attempted ‘gerrymandering’ of Melbourne electorates in a submission it made to the Australian Electoral Commission for the new redistribution, in which Bandt alleged (correctly) that Labor was advocating a change to its own electoral advantage. The issue with this objection is that the Greens made a similar proposal themselves, to increase their own chances in lower house electorates. This is politics, of course, but it shows that the Greens are trying to hold onto an anti-establishment rhetoric, even while becoming further and further incorporated within that same establishment.
This is a dangerous game for the Greens, they are encouraging scepticism in the very system they are seeking to claim a greater stake in. But it is unsurprising. Post-materiality matched with professionalisation is a recipe for these politics. In the short-term, it is an astute strategy. But it is a strategy that will diminish the capacity of the party to develop and articulate oppositional politics in the far-reaching manner increasingly seen elsewhere in the world. The Greens at twenty-five are what they have long promised to be – a party of progressive reform seeking to enter government. But they have sought to do so by presenting themselves as hostile to the very political game they have been playing. They are at risk from their own success.
It really is all happening for the Greens.