The Greens, the crisis and the Left

And as in private life one differentiates between what a man thinks and says of himself and what he really is and does, so in historical struggles one must distinguish still more the phrases and fancies of parties from their real organism and their real interests, their conception of themselves from their reality.

Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Despite repeated predictions of their decline, the Australian Greens have strengthened their grip as the third force in politics. They are currently running at 10–12 per cent in national polls and have a membership of almost 9000, with around 150 local groups and branches. On 20 March this year the Tasmanian Greens won a record 21 per cent of the vote in the state election, creating the possibility of entering government for the first time. In a prolonged period of organisational decline for the ALP, the Greens have been the main electoral beneficiary of discontent with Labor and have outflanked every other significant left-wing organisation (save the unions) to play a dominant role in Left politics.

It is one thing to describe this reality, another to explain it without falling into simplistic slogans that muddy analysis of the party’s successes as well as its strengths and weaknesses.

Any investigation of the Greens must begin with the broader crisis in social democratic politics in rich industrial countries over the last three decades, a crisis that first emerged when social democratic and Labor-style parties joined the right-wing offensive against the gains of the movements of the 1960s and 70s. This was part of the drive to restore profitability in the face of the economic downturn that followed the postwar boom, a ‘golden era’ in which governments had delivered rising living standards and significant social reforms.

The crisis of social democracy should be understood in the context of a wider crisis of the Left, driven, to some extent, by the collapse of Stalinism and the spread of the market throughout Eastern Europe, a symbolic defeat for reformist notions of social transformation through state intervention. One particular aspect is that large-scale governmental reforms are today limited by economic constraints, dramatically undercutting social democracy’s historic promise to deliver progressive change within the bounds of capitalism. As a result, political differences between social democrats and their conservative opponents have narrowed, and social democratic organisations have suffered an erosion of their support bases, with a significant loss of membership, activists and ‘rusted-on’ voters.

In his 2008 book The Death of Social Democracy, Ashley Lavelle argued that the success of reformist governments is invariably based on strong economic conditions that make possible the simultaneous satisfaction of the desires of working-class constituents for reforms and the accumulation needs of businesses. While Lavelle correctly identifies this overarching trend, mass reformist organisations have also, on occasion, arisen in such circumstances in reaction to the failure of mainstream social democracy. Whether or not these formations declare themselves social democratic, they nonetheless attract supporters of the old parties, often by promulgating policies such parties have abandoned. The Greens are the most significant Australian example of this phenomenon.

Tasmanian origins

The Australian Greens emerged from the Tasmanian conservation movement, particularly the failed struggle to prevent the damming of Lake Pedder in 1972 and the successful campaign to stop the Franklin Dam. But Tasmanian Green politics was shaped by a very particular set of circumstances that explain its successes and idiosyncrasies.

State politics in Tasmania in the early 1970s was dominated by the ALP, which had reached consensus with the Liberals around hydro-industrial development – an early foretaste of the political convergence of the neoliberal era. The Pedder campaign, led by middle-class conservationists like Bob Brown, was opposed by local unions and left-wing Labor activists because it was seen as destructive of jobs. That opposition alienated environmentalists from traditional Left and working-class politics, an alienation that carried into the Franklin campaign. There was also a geographic peculiarity to the state’s green issues, in that they focused on wilderness rather than urban developments.

The specific electoral logic of Tasmania was also important to the Greens’ early development, since proportional representation in the state’s lower house was conducive to small parties. The Pedder activists’ defeat was quickly followed by near victory for their United Tasmania Group in the 1972 election.

It is worth comparing the Tasmanian context to that in which, say, the NSW Builders Labourers Federation launched its green bans. The BLF mobilised industrial militancy in a common cause with middle-class environmentalists and consciously infused environmental struggles with a profoundly social logic. As BLF leader Jack Mundey later wrote, ‘What would we have said to the next generation? That we destroyed Sydney in the name of full employment? No, we wanted to construct buildings that were socially useful.’

In contrast, Tasmania’s environmentalists built an explicitly cross-class pressure group and electoral machine, with a skilled activist core ringed by a much wider layer of passive support. This model bore fruit in the Franklin Dam struggle of 1979–83, where a serious split inside the Tasmanian business class intersected with a campaign that worked overtime to portray itself as respectable. The non-violent direct action tactics of the blockaders may have inspired radicals, but in reality the protest was carefully managed to provide a steady stream of arrests for the media while doing little to actually disrupt work. The Franklin campaign remained almost completely isolated from unions, even on the mainland, and sourced a large part of its funding and support from corporate donors and conservative voters. Brown himself conceded that victory would depend more on a federal election than the efforts of the movement – and, indeed, it was intervention by the Hawke government that finally resolved the dispute.

Bob Brown soon came to represent the real opposition to the Tasmanian Liberal government, and the next six years saw an inexorable rise in the Green vote. Matters came to a head with the struggle over the Wesley Vale pulp mill (led by a young Christine Milne) and the election of the five ‘Green Independents’ in 1989. While Brown and his compatriots clearly understood their parliamentary task as encompassing more than purely environmental issues, the general retreat of the Left throughout the 1980s meant that the Greens, despite a holistic conception of ecological politics, lacked a systematic social critique (even a social democratic one) that could tie its disparate initiatives together.

The problem became more obvious when the Greens agreed to support a minority ALP government in 1989 in exchange for a series of environmental reforms. As a budget crisis engulfed the government, the Greens, despite massive public sector cutbacks, backed the ALP – only holding the line on school closures and woodchipping. Speaking in late 2008, Milne summed up the party’s approach at the time: ‘The majority Liberal government of Robin Gray had driven the state into a parlous economic situation and the Labor-Green Accord had to turn it around. It was a difficult period of protests and unrest as the public service was slashed and public spending was cut. The Greens never wavered from the task. Nor did we do so with the Rundle government when again we had to rectify the reckless spending of the Groom majority Liberal Government.’

Yet, except for downward blips after these difficult accords, the Greens in Tasmania have been a uniquely successful electoral formation, taking 18 and 16 per cent of the vote at the two state elections before this year’s record result. This achievement helps explain why the least populous state dominates national Greens politics. But the specific circumstances of the Tasmanian Greens’ development also explain why their success was not replicated elsewhere until after 1999.

Uniting the fragments

Unlike Tasmania, the emergence of serious Greens parties in WA, NSW and Queensland rested much more on a convergence of sections of the radical Left with environmentalists. The elision of these fragments with the growth of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1980s was followed by a general rise in the electoral significance of environmental politics. Labor’s 1990 federal election victory was, after all, predicated on parties and candidates identified as being ‘green’ directing preferences to the ALP.

In 1992, a national Greens party was formed, though a certain tension remained because of the disparate origins of the state branches. They were, however, united by a tacit acceptance of the primacy of ecological politics and a commitment to electoral politics as the only realistic vehicle for progressive aspirations.

The Greens inherited from the peace movement, a specific rejection of class-based ideas favouring arguments akin to EP Thompson’s influential Cold War thesis on ‘exterminism’. Following Thompson, in 2004 leading Queensland Greens Drew Hutton and Libby Connors argued that both nuclear weapons and environmental destruction transcend class struggle because they take on their own logic independent of capitalism and because their consequences are so universal that every human has a stake in preventing catastrophe. Hutton and Connors saw the Greens as an outgrowth of the new social movements, arguing that these movements have overcome ‘the mistakes of the Left’ by focusing on practical tasks rather than ideological sectarianism and by avoiding direct conflict with the state; they see choices between ecological imperatives and redistributive justice as involving pragmatic trade-offs.

In their 1996 book The Greens, the most complete statement of Australian Greens ideology to date, Bob Brown and Peter Singer develop a compelling description of ecological and social crisis. These crises are caused, they argue, by a flawed value system – so, for example, out-of-control consumption and waste needs to be tackled by a new ‘Green ethics’. Despite radical language that attacks many aspects of neoliberalism, Brown and Singer make no recourse to systemic structural analysis. Even the greed of the rich is painted as individually irrational and shaped largely by incorrect ideas.

The conceptual absence of class or social contestation beyond descriptions of injustice and irrationality results in a curious silence about issues of power. Because Brown and Singer see Green ethics as universally applicable, they implicitly expect that the state will implement the radical reforms they propose. The corruption of past radicals in the ALP is portrayed as a matter of individuals being bought off, professionalised and shielded from accountability and not as a result of the inherently conservatising nature of engagement with the capitalist state and parliamentary system.

The 1990s were difficult years for the Greens outside Tasmania (and, to some degree, WA). The tide of progressive politics had receded; electoral successes were often limited. The 1993 federal election, polarised over the New Right policies of John Hewson, saw a big drop in minor party votes. The Queensland party, one of the strongest state branches, experienced a stagnation in support after effectively delivering a National-Liberal state government through preference decisions in 1996. It was a move justified by leader Drew Hutton as electoral power-broking in exchange for policy outcomes, in an era where major party convergence made either side equally open to such offers.

Meanwhile, the Greens WA saw their vote gradually diminish over the decade. Nascent state parties in Victoria and SA were built more on the basis of the national brand than pre-existing grassroots organisation. In NSW, the coming together of metropolitan and regional groupings in response to the national fusion provided some better coordination of campaigning efforts across the state and, despite low votes federally, the Greens were able to win state upper house seats in 1995 and 1999.

Resurgence – the new party of the Left?

If the Greens failed to make a breakthrough on a national scale in the 1990s, their vote rose rapidly in the context of a resurgence of anti-systemic critiques and struggles that emerged at the turn of the century (see table below).

Seeds of the new activism lay in the campaign against uranium mining at Jabiluka, which brought together issues of Aboriginal rights, the environment and corporate power. But it was the November 1999 protests against the WTO in Seattle that brought the world’s attention to a dynamic, explicitly anti-corporate Global Justice Movement. In Australia this had its defining moment in the S11 blockade of Crown Casino, which included a large ‘Green Bloc’ and which saw Bob Brown reinspire demonstrators after picket lines were breached by violent police attacks. Many interpreted the Greens WA breakthrough in the 2001 state election as another sign of the growing anti-corporate mood.

Yet it was Brown’s support for the Tampa refugees and opposition to all-out war in Afghanistan that really cohered the new constituency. As Labor elder Graham Richardson put it, ‘The more educated part of Labor’s base just couldn’t cop Beazley (or indeed Crean) going along with putting refugees behind barbed wire. Men, women and children were to be incarcerated all over the Pacific and yet another fragmentation of Labor’s base occurred. Whatever lefties remaining in the ALP jumped ship and headed for the Greens, whose stance on the issue was unequivocal.’

In one sense, this convergence between Liberal and Labor mirrored that which made Brown’s Tasmanian success possible. But it also represented a qualitative break with the past, because of the radically different context. Environmental issues were no longer the key driver of an expanding Greens support base, and the new constituency was now much more clearly a defection from the ALP’s base rather than a more diffuse polity alienated from both major parties. Neither did Greens growth represent simply a retreat into a more limited protest vote, as had often been the case in the 1980s and 90s. The rise of the Greens as the most successful national electoral formation clearly to the left of Labor spoke to the reconfiguration of possibilities on the Australian Left after a long period of retreat. As Robert Manne, never a sympathiser, recognised in 2001: ‘The 2001 election seems likely also to reshape the politics of the Left. In an increasingly right-wing political culture, Bob Brown’s Greens may now replace the Democrats as the focal point for environmental, humanitarian and anti-economic rationalist dissent.’

The process continued during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, where a vacillating ALP created a deep crisis of representation for the anti-war majority. Once again, the Greens were identified as consistent in their opposition to war, and Senator Kerry Nettle’s Sydney office was a key organising centre for the mass protests that filled the city’s streets. In late 2002 the ALP suffered a shock defeat to a Greens candidate in the Cunningham by-election in NSW. The Greens NSW even campaigned against the war, ostensibly a federal issue, during the 2003 state election – and more than doubled their vote.

The Greens benefited from the electoral shift to the Left by capitalising on their long-term commitment to broadly progressive politics and their reputation as campaigners on a series of issues that exposed Labor’s failure to represent large sections of its base. The party didn’t, however, merely profit from the movement activity: it also led broad opposition to war and racism, and by so doing re-legitimised mass participation in politics.

The period of resurgence saw party membership rise by a factor of five, from just over 1500 in the months before Seattle to over 7500 in mid-2004. The subsequent five years, however, saw a marked slowing of growth, with membership below 9000 in July 2009.

The contradictions of success – base and activists diverging?

Despite this rapid growth in votes and members, it is common to hear leading Greens describing the party as ‘neither Left nor Right’ or suggesting that it should strategically preference the conservatives. Whatever the propaganda value of such statements, they are contradicted by a recent analysis of the party’s voter base.

Examining data from the Australian Election Study for the 2004 and 2007 federal elections, Macquarie University lecturer Ben Spies-Butcher found that Greens voters tend to be younger, better educated and more likely to be of no religion than other voters. There is some evidence they are more likely to be professionals and female; that, once education is controlled for, they are less likely to be of a higher income bracket. Greens voters’ political attitudes are on average the most Left of any party and they are most likely to identify as left-of-centre. In 2004, 61.2 per cent identified as left-of-centre as opposed to only 8.8 per cent as right-of-centre (for the ALP the figures were 45.6 and 14.1). Similarly, voters of all parties identified the Greens as the furthest Left of the main political parties.

A large majority of Greens votes in 2004 came from those who had voted ALP in 2001 – though in the 2007 ‘WorkChoices election’ the Greens effectively lost some net votes back to the ALP. In both elections, only a much smaller proportion were past Coalition voters. ‘Labor-Greens swingers’ also have similarly Left attitudes on social and political questions as those of current Greens voters. While the difference is small, they are more Left on ‘economic’ questions like workplace rights and privatisation. Interestingly, ALP voters who identify as potential Greens voters are likely to describe themselves as ‘strong’ ALP identifiers. Spies-Butcher believes there is a large pool – perhaps as large as the existing Greens vote – of left-leaning ALP voters open to voting Greens but who are yet to be won over.

If the Greens’ electoral success reflects the desire of a left-wing constituency to find a home outside the ALP, University of Sydney researcher Stewart Jackson’s recent survey of some 400 party activists indicates a changing profile, more in keeping with an organisation shifting from movement politics to a parliament-centric orientation.1 Jackson defined a series of attitudinal differences between members who joined during various periods of the party’s development. On party organisation, for instance, he found that members who joined after 2000 were more likely than those who had joined in 1983–2000 to approve of endorsing formal ‘leaders’, more likely to support members holding office bearer positions for over three consecutive years, and more likely to see the Greens as a political party rather than a social movement.

There was a similar difference between the two cohorts when they were asked about political positioning. The vast majority of Greens activists saw themselves as left-of-centre but where 33 per cent of the earlier cohort identified with the far Left only 20 per cent of the later cohort did so. Similarly, only 9 per cent of the earlier cohort considered themselves centre to Right compared to 14 per cent of the later group. In terms of the party’s future, the earlier cohort was slightly more in favour of moving the party to the Left (22 versus 19 per cent), while the later cohort had a much higher proportion disagreeing with this sentiment (52 versus 37 per cent).

Across all the activists surveyed there was only minor enthusiasm for the Greens playing a similar role to that once occupied by the Democrats (20 per cent versus 55 per cent opposed). Some 80 per cent thought the party should be trying to get more votes from the ALP (6 per cent against), but then 72 per cent thought the same in relation to the Liberals (11 per cent against). And despite the Greens breaking some of the ALP’s voter base, there is little enthusiasm for unions having more influence in the party (13 per cent agreeing and 65 per cent against).

Conclusions and predictions

The rise of the Greens has, then, encompassed two key phases, both occurring during a protracted crisis of social democracy. The initial phase, originating and strongest in Tasmania, involved the development of a successful electoral arm of environmental activism in a context marked by major party convergence and alienation from working-class struggles. Outside Tasmania, Greens formations were able to draw in sections of the Left to the project, but there were many false starts and reverses in a period of progressive retreat. Influenced by a post-class, ‘beyond Left and Right’ analysis, the Greens’ lack of a systemic critique strengthened an ideology centred on values and ethics rather than interests and conflicts, with a class-blind universalist colouring.

After 1999, the party grew rapidly in size and votes, spurred by new movements against corporate globalisation, racism and war. It played a key role in providing a left-wing political focus and organisational form outside the ALP, as is confirmed by the make-up of Greens voters, who are generally similar to left-wing ALP voters. The voter data also suggests that potential Greens voters are likely to be more economically left wing (and class oriented) in their views than existing Greens voters.

In contrast, in this second phase, there has been a conservative shift in the character of party members, with newer members seeing more electorally oriented, mainstream politics as the party’s focus. In general, party members don’t want to see the party move leftwards; they have little interest in the trade unions.

Despite being a party of the Left and directly benefiting from a split in Labor’s base, the Greens are clearly not a new social democratic party. That is not to say there are not self-identified social democrats in the party, but the party as a whole has no systematic organisational links with, ideological adherence to, or strategic orientation to the working class or trade unions. Efforts to build a union support base have largely been pragmatic and couched in terms of social justice rather than a strategic orientation to class.2

The party’s past focus on being a voice of social movements in parliament seems to be weakening as new layers of members are drawn to building on its electoral successes. This is not merely a question of the dilution of some imagined more-radical activist base. Rather, it is connected to two interrelated phenomena. First, the decline in social movement struggles since their peak in 2003 has seen a relative slowing of the growth of Greens votes and membership, though the movement against WorkChoices, in which the Greens played a small but significant role as a Left pole, proved a partial exception.

The second is the ideological confusion at the heart of the Greens project: specifically, the rejection of class as a central organising feature of society and the appeal to universal values, which avoids a serious assessment of how to deal with the concentration of economic and political power in society. It is important to understand that such ideas are not always an impediment to taking the Left forward, especially when they are tied to principled positions on questions that draw sharp lines on the political landscape, as with refugees and war. Nevertheless, in the absence of a resurgence of movement activity and a lack of ideological clarification, tendencies that favour parliamentarism and a more conservative orientation are likely to predominate. The complex realities of this process are best seen in recent developments in relation to the twin crises of the economy and climate. On both issues, the lack of a clear critique of neoliberalism (let alone capitalism) on anything more than a superficial, ethical basis has led to the incorporation of significant pro-market ideology in the Greens’ approach.

The Greens have struggled to respond to the global financial crisis and Rudd’s stimulus, in part because of contradictory economic policies that mix neoclassical assumptions with more progressive positions. The party’s senators have accepted fragments of populism (mild attacks on executive salaries) and the ‘greening up’ of stimulus measures, and have even tailed Coalition attacks on government deficits. It remains to be seen how the party will respond to struggles that break out over the economic effects of the crisis.

On climate, the problems have been less immediately obvious but now threaten to produce deeper disorientation. While there is growing internal dissent, the Greens accept in-principle support for emissions trading as a key driver of the transition to a low-carbon economy. Nevertheless, pressure from the small but significant climate action movement has led the party to break with Rudd’s CPRS and somewhat sharpen its critique of cap-and-trade mechanisms. But the general positioning of the party as being (critically) aligned within the Kyoto Process has run aground after the disaster of Copenhagen. With the international agenda in disarray, the Greens have been left without a clear direction on the issue that has been at the centre of their strategy for years and which provided much of the basis for the party’s hopes of entering into the mainstream.

Pressures to break through electorally have also resulted in attempts to move the party to the political centre. Unsurprisingly, this trend has been most evident in Tasmania, where the party is closest to mainstream success and where the Left has been least influential. In March the party ran on a softened platform, foreshadowed policy concessions in exchange for any post-election power-sharing deals, and refused to express preference between Labor and Liberal as potential partners in government. The Tasmanian experience of accords with the major parties suggests these developments will drive a further sharpening of the contradictions in the Greens project, and growing tensions between the party and the wider Left.

For the Left outside the Greens, the space remains limited, simply because without a resurgence in mass struggle, politics has a tendency of being refracted through existing institutions. Nevertheless, the inability of these institutions to provide more than temporary solutions to the ecological and economic crises (or even the appearance of them) means that schisms are likely to emerge. But the dominance of the Greens means that they cannot simply be bypassed on the Left when breaks occur. The internal discussions in the Greens are also likely to be both a partial reflection of debates in wider society and, in turn, to impact on developments inside social movements and the working class.

To understand the role of the Greens, one must consider how the party has both inspired and frustrated the Left in the last decade. But it is also important to understand what its disappearance or rapid shift to the Right would mean in today’s circumstances. For all their weaknesses, the Greens have served as a generalised political focus on the Left. In the absence of a serious, more radical alternative, that remains preferable than either a return to the major parties or a fragmentation of progressive aspirations among many smaller formations or individuals. Nevertheless, it is also true that simply waiting for something external to push the Greens to the Left gives too much ground to the conservative limitations of the Greens project.

The question must surely be how the Left can ensure that the best of the Greens experience become part of a new Australian Left, one that rests not on a rejection or denial of past radical traditions but their transcendence with a politics relevant for today.

1 See especially: Stewart Jackson, ‘From Social Movement to Electoral Professional Party?’, paper presented at Australian Political Studies Association Annual Conference, Sydney, 27–30 September 2009.

2 This is not to minimise the significant efforts of Greens politicians and activists to engage with the union movement. For example, the relationship between the Greens NSW and the Teachers’ Federation, the Fire Brigade Employees Union’s backing of the Greens candidate for Melbourne in 2007 and the efforts of WA Senator Rachel Siewert during the campaign to end WorkChoices.

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

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