‘The Greens in Sydney come from many backgrounds. Environmental and resident activists. Nuclear disarmers. Dissidents from the Labor Party who have witnessed betrayals by both wings of that party. Feminists. Anarchists. Those inspired by the German Greens. Socialists of various kinds.’ This is how the Sydney Greens described themselves in 1984. Fast track thirty years and we witness the leader of the Australian Greens, Richard Di Natale, explicitly courting the votes of wealthy conservative retirees during the Batman by-election. In just three decades the Greens have undergone a dramatic shift from anarchic activists to Di Natale’s ‘mainstream progressives’ seeking to replace the Democrats. If this transformation is completed, then just like the Democrats, the Greens will collapse into irrelevance.
From the beginning the Greens have had left and right tendencies. The Sydney party was the first to use the name ‘Green’ which was inspired by the Green Ban movement. The communist-controlled Builders Labourers Federation in Sydney had put work bans on developments that would harm the environment, saving Kelly’s Bush, The Rocks and sparing the Botanic Gardens from becoming a car park. They refused to work at Sydney University until courses teaching feminism were allowed, and at Macquarie University until the expulsion of a gay student from a residential college was reversed. This combination of militant working-class struggle with broader environmental and social justice campaigns formed the basis of the NSW Greens, which remains the most left-wing state party.
In Tasmania, the Greens were formed out of the campaigns to save Lake Peder and the Franklin River. The Tasmanian party had a more middle class character, often facing off against unions rather than working with them. The environment came first, and proposals for social justice were progressive but not revolutionary. This evolved into the right-wing group that included Bob Brown, Christine Milne and now Richard Di Natale.
These different founding philosophies have evolved into two broad tendencies within the party, with the right-wing ‘Tree Tories’ becoming increasingly dominant. Sometimes the split is characterised as ‘red’ social justice opposed to ‘green’ environmentalism, but this is a false dichotomy. Both groups are environmentalists. The left of the party sees economic and social justice considerations as intrinsically bound up with sustainability – capitalism has caused climate change and the domination of people by capital mirrors the domination of nature. For the right, the environment is the priority and all other considerations are secondary. The status quo is acceptable so long as there is less coal. Transitions for workers are a minor concern, and racist messaging can be justified for the greater good.
When the Greens campaign on social justice issues, it is increasingly on ‘post-material’ issues. It’s telling that of all the Aboriginal issues to focus on, the federal party chose ‘Change the Date’ rather than police brutality, child removals, or unemployment.
The rightward shift is not universal. In the November 2017 Queensland state election, the Greens campaigned on increasing public holidays, $1 public transport and universal childcare. This left-wing populism paid off with the party winning its first seat and almost ousting deputy premier Jackie Trad in South Brisbane. This contrasts with the Tasmanian election in March this year where the Greens ran on a more conservative platform and lost a seat, the worst result in twenty years.
NSW Greens MP David Shoebridge recently released the Greens Manifesto, a compilation of left-wing policy initiatives and analysis that shows the appeal of radical, anti-establishment politics. In the pre-selection for the 2019 upper house ticket, the party membership in NSW endorsed this left platform, with Shoebridge decisively defeating the right-leaning MP Jeremy Buckingham.
Drawing on the findings of The Scanlon Foundation’s Mapping Social Cohesion 2016 and the Australian National University’s Trends in Australian Political Opinion, Shoebridge points out that since 2007, the percentage of people who believe that government is run for a ‘few big interests’ has increased from 38 per cent to 56 per cent, and the percentage of people who believe that the system of government needs ‘major change’ or ‘should be replaced’ has increased from 34 per cent to 42 per cent.
Despite this, Di Natale has deliberately aligned himself with the establishment. Without membership mandate, he pushed compromise with the Liberal Government on Gonski, and he has said he would like a ministerial role in a Labor-Greens coalition that had been discussed by neither party. Positioning the party as Democrat-style deal-makers with a focus on incremental improvements to the minutiae of bills has required him to float the possibility of preferencing the Liberals.
In the UK, the Green Party offered a principled alternative to a Labour party that embraced moderate politics in the 90s and 2000s. But with Jeremy Corbyn’s surge in popularity, the UK Greens are no longer significantly to the left of Labour, and the larger party is absorbing many activists.
The Australian Labor Party has no figures comparable to Jeremy Corbyn and is considerably more neoliberal. It’s unlikely that we will see a radical left ALP, but even a shift back to the centre left could see ALP policies overlap with a moderate Green party. Voters choosing between two indistinct parties will favour the more prominent and powerful one.
Staying clearly to the left of the ALP is vital.
Richard Di Natale denies that the party has a political problem. He cites misfortune, malicious media, and internal nastiness as the culprits. He blamed leakers for the loss in Batman, and vowed a membership purge. There was no acknowledgment that pitches to conservatives may have sent swing voters to Labor.
Despite refusing to link the political direction of the party to poor results, Di Natale has altered his messaging. Two weeks after the Tasmanian election, his National Press Club address signalled a leftward shift, advocating universal basic income and a people’s bank. After long opposing cannabis legalisation internally, he now publicly supports the idea. But the damage may already be done, and it will be difficult for someone with Di Natale’s conservative instincts to effectively champion leftist policies in the public sphere. Time will tell if the Greens can recapture their radical spirit, or if they will go the way of the Democrats and the dodo.