A change in the order of things?

The Left, the Greens and the crisis

Five years on from the collapse of Lehman Brothers, global capitalism remains mired in its deepest crisis since the Great Depression. This has produced not just economic breakdown but also a crisis of politics, with governments destabilised in their attempts to force austerity onto their citizens. Yet for the Left, which expected to benefit from capitalist crisis, the situation is less than rosy. Apart from the rise of Syriza in Greece, the revival of organised Left politics beyond social democracy has lagged behind the scale of the problems at the top of society. In Australia, so far spared the full brunt of the economic meltdown, developments have been even more confusing. In particular, the last three years have seen the ascension and unravelling of the Centre-Left Gillard Labor government, a minority administration in alliance with the Greens and three independents.

Despite the Greens achieving the height of their political influence, with unprecedented input into national policy, as Overland went to press, opinion polls were suggesting they would suffer a significant drop in votes at this year’s federal election. This comes after a decade in which the party confounded critics by repeatedly increasing its support across national and local elections.

The rise of the Greens represented a historic realignment of the Left of Australian politics, a development I explored at length in Overland 199 in 2010. It was a reconfiguration that, at its peak, saw the party grow to 10 000 members, win 1.6 million Senate votes, gain ten federal MPs and make an impact well beyond such numbers. By relating to issues and movements that detached voters from the ALP – opposition to corporate globalisation and the War on Terror; support for refugee rights and serious climate action – the Greens disrupted labourism’s century-long grip on the Australian Left.

This allowed the Greens to enter into a formal alliance with Gillard, fuelling hopes that the government could deliver a ‘new paradigm’ of progressive governance. Whatever the Gillard administration’s policy achievements – and it’s hard to make the case that Gillard’s was a government much outside the neoliberal consensus of the past three decades – the inter-party alliance was a political disaster. The Greens’ forward march has been halted and now reversed. Apart from the NSW state election in 2011, every election the Greens have contested since 2010 resulted in a fall in their primary vote, a trend reflected in federal polling over the past twelve months.

I would argue, somewhat controversially, that the Greens’ failure was not primarily one of principles, policy, communication skills or the personality of their leader, even though such factors undoubtedly played a role. Instead, the central problem was the party’s conscious strategic shift from standing outside a publicly reviled political class, one that they claimed to want to replace, to becoming responsible participants in the political establishment and, as a result, getting caught in its crisis.

While the Greens’ record in the last three years makes for a less cheering story than the one I told in 2010, it also illuminates the key political contradictions of our time. I write this as a former Greens activist and continuing Greens voter, and as someone who believes that the Greens remain a key force shaping the fortunes of the wider Left. Building a better politics therefore requires not a denunciation but an honest appraisal of the party and its context, its strengths and its limitations.


What kind of party exactly?

One of the reasons many on the Left find the Greens confusing is because the party doesn’t fit smoothly into traditional political definitions. Some presume that the Greens is a kind of protest or social movement party, that its role is simply to represent protest activity in the electoral sphere, or that it has a purely negative reaction to the political system, disrupting the normal functioning of politics. On the other hand, a common radical critique of the Greens – sometimes stated within the party – holds that the party has betrayed its extra-parliamentary origins. But while there have been strands of the party and its state-based antecedents that have espoused a social-movement perspective, the party has, from the inception of the United Tasmania Group in 1972, always prioritised positive intervention in parliamentary politics.

Another approach is to define the Greens as giving voice to the interests of a well-defined class or social group. Some have argued that the party represents a ‘post-materialist’ constituency that, because of its affluence, has replaced material or economic concerns with issues of identity, personal self-expression, culture and existential problems like the state of the environment.

Studies of Greens voters have consistently pointed to socioeconomic differences between them and ALP voters. In their sympathetic 2008 study for the Australian Journal of Political Science, Damien Cahill and Stephen Brown summarised the evidence:

Greens voters fit much of the stereotype deployed by their political opponents – tertiary educated and middle-class progressives who favour wealth redistribution and welfare, and who are motivated, at least in part, by issues such as quality of life, refugees and the war in Iraq.

However, the rise in votes in the later 2000s seems to have narrowed this gap between Greens and Labor supporters. Nick Fredman’s recent analysis of the 2007 Australian Election Study found that while Greens voters were more likely than Labor voters to be business owners (20 per cent to 13 per cent), they were only slightly less likely to be workers (77 per cent to 82 per cent). Again, while they were less likely to be union members (26 per cent) than ALP voters (33 per cent), their union membership was still well ahead of Coalition voters (18 per cent). Greens voters are more concentrated among certain white-collar and public-service jobs – especially teaching – but the line between them and a substantial section of Labor’s base is very blurry indeed, thus illustrating how politics is never an uncomplicated expression of underlying class structures.

Fredman’s analysis concluded that the Greens are best understood as a variant of Labor–style social democracy. As evidence, he pointed out that Greens leaders and members hold views on market globalisation and the War on Terror akin to the Left nationalism that was characteristic of the ALP Left before the neoliberal era. Similarly, Greens voters tend to have opinions on issues like union rights, big-business power, social inequality and the environment that are close to those of Labor voters but that diverge sharply from the beliefs of conservative voters.

But to call the Greens ‘social democratic’ ignores key differences between them and parties that, in Ian Birchall’s sharp definition, have ‘a programmatic commitment to some form of socialism and some link (organisational, traditional or ideological) with the working class, but whose practice is predominantly parliamentary and reformist’. The overlapping ideologies and social bases of the Greens and the ALP mask important differences in political institutions and strategic orientations. By looking at these tensions historically, it is possible to understand not only why they exist, but also why the Greens are so politically central to the Left, despite not fitting neatly within conventional working-class institutional markers.


The rise of the Greens in context

The rise of the Greens is, then, better understood as a symptom of the breakdown of Australia’s longstanding two-party political arrangement. In addition, the party has played an active role in this process of destabilisation. The unravelling of Australian labourism has created space for the Greens to provide a political focus to the Left of the ALP, as well as permitting a specifically green politics to fill that gap (as opposed to some other kind of Left politics).

Labourism is the key institutional arrangement upon which Australian politics has pivoted since the early twentieth century. Never a direct expression of working-class interests, the ALP has always represented the intervention of the trade union bureaucracy into politics. Australia’s unions have historically been deeply conservative, committing themselves, from soon after Federation, to support for industrial arbitration, economic protectionism and White Australia. Conservatism was the flip-side of high levels of institutional power and incorporation into the state through both arbitration and Labor politics.

The ALP’s embrace of economic rationalism in the 1980s had profound effects on this settlement. The Accord between Labor and the unions delivered real wage cuts and broke industrial militancy through a largely consensual process. Labor not only attacked its traditional supporters’ livelihoods, it undermined the structural basis of labourism itself, a process that intensified with labour market deregulation in the 1990s. Whereas union density only once fell below 40 per cent between 1914 and 1990, it had declined to 18 per cent by 2012.

Alongside this decline there has been a collapse of ALP membership and branch organisation, the rise of a narrow professional political class at the top the party, a hollowing out of the social basis of the factions and an erosion of the party’s stable primary vote. The ALP’s crises of ‘ideology’, ‘narrative’ and ‘belief’ stem from these fundamental structural weaknesses.

Because neoliberalism has redistributed wealth upwards, increased inequality and undermined welfare other forms of collective social provision, and because the major parties have become so closely aligned in programmatic terms, the entire political establishment has entered into a prolonged crisis of authority.

By the late 1990s, resistance to the neoliberal consensus had begun to emerge, with the S11 anti-capitalist protests in Melbourne in 2000, the rise of a refugee rights movement in response to John Howard’s appalling policies, and the staging of protests against the war in Afghanistan. The Greens’ breakthrough came with the election of a second senator in 2001, this time in NSW, on a national vote of 5 per cent that crucially included a substantial chunk of formerly ‘rusted-on’ ALP voters. In the midst of the biggest protests in Australian history, the Greens’ clear opposition to the invasion of Iraq – alongside Labor’s vacillations – propelled them to more than 7 per cent of the vote in 2004.

The Greens provided a national political focus for the issues tearing at Labor’s Left flank. Sometimes this was by direct participation in activism. I recall visiting then-senator Kerry Nettle’s office at the height of the Iraq War protests and seeing her photocopier running hot, printing reams of leaflets for the campaign. Despite the Greens’ strong connections to environmental campaigning, and the importance of environmental issues for the party’s ethos and cohesion, its success came from targeting a variety of non-ecological issues where Labor was electorally vulnerable. It would, therefore, be a mistake to see the Greens as passively ‘filling a vacuum’ or succeeding because the time had come for environmentalism.

This history accounts for the ‘social democratic’ colouration of the party (and, by extension, its voters) which was necessary for the Greens to win a section of Labor’s base. Indeed, there is evidence that the party’s support base has become more pro-ALP with time: while Greens voters preferenced Labor over Liberal at a rate of 67 per cent in 1996, in 2004 that rate reached 80 per cent, a level at which it has stayed ever since.

Additionally, some voters swing between Labor and the Greens. The Greens vote rose only slightly in 2007, in the context of the hopes invested in the Kevin07 campaign. Then, when Labor’s problems surfaced again in 2010, the Greens were able to take electoral advantage of the situation.

Thus the structural decline of traditional labourism, combined with minimal trade union resistance to neoliberalism, explains why the Greens – and not a more class-oriented party like Germany’s Die Linke or Greece’s Syriza – ended up encapsulating a left-wing split in Labor’s base. By recognising both the significance and contradictions of this dynamic, one can grasp how the party has driven (and disappointed) hopes of Left politics beyond Labor.


Changing the system or being changed by it?

The party has cohered support in part by presenting itself as having grassroots, decentralised, democratic structures and processes. In practice, however, the party’s growing influence has created pressure for more centralist, top-down structures. I recall Senator Scott Ludlam once telling a Greens conference that the MPs were figuring out how to deal with power relations in parliament. But even before Greens MPs were elected, the party’s focus on achieving social change through parliament had profound effects on how the party organised itself. Anyone seeking social change by engaging with the reality of politics – a reality that is always concentrated on the state – immediately finds themself dealing with a whole series of powerful organisational and legal structures that then come to shape their practices.

Australian federalism drove localism and decentralisation among the activists setting up Greens parties, which still explains some of the political differences between them. The Tasmanian and Queensland parties were always more clearly electoral projects with an environmental agenda, and thus more centralised and hierarchical internal structures developed (in Tasmania, for example, preselections are decided by a committee and not put to the members for a vote). Conversely, as Narelle Miragliotta pointed out in a 2010 paper for the Australian Political Studies Association conference, the NSW and WA parties emerged from left-wing activism and the peace movement, leading them to emphasise democratic processes and decentralised power. Yet despite these differences, the disparate state parties were able to form a unified party. In a recent Party Politics article, Miragliotta notes that, in 1983, a seemingly innocuous change to electoral rules requiring parties to register nationally ‘provided the disciplining force that helped to unite state and local green parties formerly hostile to a national structure’.

The importance of presenting a united national face through the media and in parliament has led to growing acceptance among activists that the party needs an identified parliamentary leader. While activists think the leader and other MPs should be accountable to the party’s policies, recent studies, such as Stewart Jackson’s 2012 article in the Australian Journal of Political Science, show that recently recruited members are less interested in politicians being under direct control of the party’s grassroots membership than earlier generations of Greens activists were.

There have been direct moves to further centralise and professionalise the party at a national level. I have, on more than one occasion, seen Bob Brown berate state party delegates for blocking attempts to shift resources to the national office, arguing that policy-development, strategy and communications should be placed more firmly in the hands of MPs and their staffers so as to strengthen the party’s activities in Canberra. This also happened over specific issues. In one especially bitter debate in 2009, education spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young explicitly argued for the Greens to water down their policy limiting public funding of private schools so that she could be ‘inside the tent’ in what would become the Gonski reforms.

Since 2010, the biggest change has been the rapid expansion of the federal parliamentary staff, which is now larger than the staff of the state and federal party organisations combined. As the focus has shifted to Canberra, tensions have emerged between the MPs and the wider party. The practical and political weight of the parliamentary faction has seen it increasingly use media and other public channels to try to discipline, in particular, the Left-leaning NSW party, something that came to a head over the NSW Greens’ support for the pro-Palestinian boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. The NSW party retreated after a bitter public debate, but the result was greater internal polarisation regarding MPs’ role in the party.


The Greens in government

But it is the entry into a formal alliance with the Labor government that has most powerfully shaped the Greens’ trajectory. At the time, the alliance must have seemed like a solution to problems the party had been experiencing for some years. Kevin Rudd’s revival of Labor’s fortunes had squeezed the party’s support base, and the new prime minister mainly cold-shouldered the minor party. Greens strategists watched, frustrated, as Rudd maintained political dominance through the global financial crisis, while the party’s own polling barely seemed to budge.

In late 2009, this impasse was dramatically broken. The US and China wrecked the Copenhagen climate talks, leaving Rudd, with his rhetoric about the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’, looking like a shag on a rock. From there events moved quickly: the Liberals overthrew their pro-emissions-trading leader Malcolm Turnbull and, under Tony Abbott, voted against Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). After a difficult internal debate, the Greens decided to oppose the CPRS from the Left, quite reasonably arguing that it was so weak and pro-polluter that it would be worse than doing nothing. Rudd’s leadership entered a death spiral. He was convinced by Gillard and Swan to postpone emissions trading as the policy was politically unviable, a decision that led to a sharp drop in Labor’s polling. His attempts to regain momentum on hospital reform and a mining super-profits tax were hampered by campaigns against him outside and inside the ALP. The Greens’ polling edged upwards with each Rudd setback.

In mid-2010, factional powerbrokers replaced Rudd with Gillard. Any thought that Gillard would save Labor by ‘lurching to the Right’ on asylum seekers, watering down the mining tax and putting emissions trading off to a ‘people’s assembly’ soon evaporated. The moves merely gave legitimacy to Abbott, rescuing him from his own unpopularity. Sensing widespread disgust with both major parties,  Greens leader Bob Brown headed an energetic election campaign that accused Labor and Liberal of ‘a failure of vision’. He was also staunchly critical of the major parties’ dismal approach to climate change: ‘They’re the coal parties. We’re the people party. That’s the difference.’ He mixed this kind of populist dismissal of the old with more than a nod to old-style social democratic policies – not only via the Greens’ work in strengthening the Fair Work Act and stimulus measures but also by promising to push infrastructure like high-speed rail.

Crammed into a bar at Sydney University while the election results rolled in, NSW Greens campaigners felt alternating surges of shock and excitement as the major parties got a drubbing and the Greens came out big winners. The jubilation at Adam Bandt’s victory in Melbourne meant that, when Brown described the result as a ‘new movement’ in Australian politics, Greens could feel at the heart of it.

Yet if the ‘new paradigm’ was founded on rejection of the old parties (including high levels of informal votes, abstention and non-enrolment), it was very soon being shaped by old-style Canberra backroom deals. Bandt was understandably determined to prevent an Abbott government. But Greens negotiators went beyond guaranteeing Labor supply and confidence: they also extracted parliamentary processes more favourable to the party as well as policy commitments on climate change and dental care.

In early 2010, spooked by criticism for voting against the CPRS, then Deputy Leader Christine Milne successfully urged the grassroots climate movement to back the Greens’ call for an interim fixed carbon price. Now ensconced in the multi-party climate change committee, the Greens extracted exactly that from Gillard, as well as a series of commitments around renewable energy and other ‘complementary measures’. They did so just as Labor’s crisis intensified, with the ALP vote in NSW and Queensland slumping to lows not seen since the Depression and federal polling looking little better. With the Right (aided by a worked-up Murdoch press) mobilising unhinged rallies against the ‘carbon tax’, NGOs organised their own campaign to promote the government’s legislation. It was an odd confluence of events, with the NGOs blurring the line between activism and government advertising.

The Greens now took responsibility for selling a climate package only marginally better than the one they’d rejected in 2009, a plan saddled with similarly ineffectual price signals, reliance on dodgy international ‘offsets’, weak targets and a privatised vision of a new economy. Whereas in 2010 Bandt claimed his priority was ‘giving a voice to social movements’ in parliament, the Greens increasingly subordinated the climate movement to their political needs. The effectiveness of this strategy is measurable not only in the limited legislation it produced, but also in the near-complete collapse of climate activism. Bandt’s call to get ‘tens of thousands of people marching down the street’ for a higher carbon price was little more than bluster.

The party also softened criticisms of government policy it opposed. Hanson-Young pressed for providing ‘responsible’ and ‘constructive’ policy solutions to both the government and the opposition, implying that the Greens could be politically centrist honest brokers rather than standing clearly on the Left. Eventually, as the major parties raced to the bottom on asylum seekers, a frustrated Brown admitted, ‘I’ve bitten my tongue for quite a while on this’ – yet still refused to challenge the stability of the government. On economic policy, the Greens went further than their promise to provide supply to Labor: the party helped pass austerity budgets, despite opposing key cuts contained within them. One of their other ‘wins’ – the creation of an office that would cost all the parties’ spending promises – placed them firmly within the paradigm of ‘fiscal responsibility’ so characteristic of neoliberal governance.

This is not to say that the Greens’ record was all negative. MPs valiantly stood their ground against the reintroduction of the Pacific Solution and were scathing of a mining tax that has raised almost no revenue. Yet when one compares the hopes invested in them in 2010 with the outcomes they achieved, the return was meagre indeed. In the 2013 Greens manifesto, Milne summarised the party’s record in noticeably less visionary terms than the party was once known for:

[T]he Greens have provided stability, integrity and a caring, responsible and consistent approach in the public interest. We have worked with all parties to improve and then pass the vast bulk of the legislative agenda as well as several of our own bills. We have been outspoken on issues about which many people care deeply, whilst being cooperative wherever opportunity for agreement and improvement existed.

This ‘commitment to stability’ meant the Greens were unable to present themselves as a clear alternative to the crisis-wracked Gillard government. Even when Milne announced that the deal with Gillard was broken, she committed to keeping up the Greens’ side of the bargain. Fear that Rudd would once again lock the Greens out drove them to support Gillard against him. And when Rudd returned, Milne seemed more interested in (implausibly) attacking him as a ‘flip-flopper’ and puppet of the factions than in welcoming the possibility that Abbott could be defeated.



While the Greens’ general ideological stances and policies remain clearly to the Left of the ALP’s, they are politically now in a much more contradictory and difficult position. This may seem puzzling to the party’s supporters, many of whom deserted the ALP because they believed Labor had broken with its traditional ideologies and policies.

But politics cannot be reduced to ideology or a program. Rather, it is where the contradictions of society are most concentrated. To use a Freudian term, politics overdetermines such factors as values, narratives, policies and personalities, factors that are normally used to explain what is happening. If anything demonstrates the primacy of politics, it should be Gillard’s devastating failure to renovate labourism, particularly within relatively good economic circumstances, and then by the dramatic revival of the ALP’s electoral fortunes under a leader (whose ideology and policies are little different to Gillard’s) threatening to dismantle the union control that defines labourism. Rudd has intervened to take advantage of the overarching political conjuncture – of the weakness of the traditional arrangement – to disrupt and reshape it.

Of course, Rudd’s social project is little different to the technocratic managerialism that is the sine qua non of late neoliberalism. While he may arouse hopes that politics can change, Rudd is unlikely to be able to deliver sustained improvements in people’s lives. Even if he manages to win the election against the odds, the project he represents is bound to be highly unstable in the medium term.

Rudd’s anti-politics position also shines a light on the difference between Brown and Milne as political leaders: the former was able to invoke populism when he sensed an opportunity; the latter is much more the consummate political operator. In a 2009 speech, Milne drew on Machiavelli to argue that ‘you shouldn’t underestimate how difficult and dangerous it is to bring about a change in the order of things because the vested interests who require the old order to stay fight like partisans’. Her response: once elected, the Greens must no longer be campaigners but rather must act ‘to change the law to give effect to whatever we want to change it to’.

This model of limiting politics to activity inside the elite has proven inadequate for dealing with the resistance and co-option that a Greens assault on the ‘old order’ was always going to confront. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci also drew on Machiavelli to pose a more expansive understanding of political action:

If one applies one’s will to the creation of a new equilibrium among the forces which really exist and are operative basing oneself on the particular force which one believes to be progressive and strengthening it to help it to victory – he still moves on the terrain of effective reality, but does so in order to dominate and transcend it (or to contribute to this).

The Greens’ achievements up to 2010 were considerable indeed – they built a serious political force to the Left of the ALP, thereby expanding the terrain available to Left politics. The last three years have seen them accept a constrained view of effective reality as existing within Canberra’s power structures, while leaving behind many of the progressive forces that might have helped them win quite different achievements. Their strategy looks discredited, a hangover of the bad political dream of the Gillard years.

But while Rudd’s return interrupts Labor’s agony, it does nothing to solve the social contradictions that created the crisis of politics in the first place. The Greens’ current impasse does not mean that building a popular political project to the Left of the ALP was a mistake – it was, in fact, a major breakthrough. Rather, the problem is that, unless such a project seeks to transcend the crisis of politics, it will be drawn into joining it.

None of this means that the party has passed its use-by date. This was brought home in the reaction to Rudd’s brutal ‘PNG solution’ for asylum seekers, with the party throwing itself into the kind of campaigning it had increasingly abandoned, once again moving to provide a national focus for political opposition to the ALP’s rightward shift, yet this time also on the streets. Nonetheless, the fact that the Greens’ response has been from a considerably weaker position than in 2010 underscores the problems with their decision to enter into a strategic governmental alliance. A disappointing Greens showing in the 2013 election would feed claims that there is a mandate for the major parties’ right-wing trajectory.

For those further to the Left, Rudd’s refugee move should at least clarify the importance of a vote for the Greens ahead of the ALP, thereby staking out a Left that is independent of labourism’s degeneration. But it should also provoke a broader discussion – crucially, one which involves Greens activists and supporters – about what kind of political alternative is needed. Such an alternative should not simply be outside the ALP but also against the decaying political system that has brought us to this point.