Let's take a closer look at the Greens

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Let's take a closer look at the Greens

Just change the word Australia for the word Canada. Different country, same shit.

Society will never, ever, adequately address global warming, unless we first address the obscene wealth gap between the rich and the poor.

Over the course of nearly 40 years, the Greens have been transformed from a tiny environmentalist organisation into a sizeable and serious party perceived to be to the left of the ALP. This article will look at the origins of the Greens and the class basis of their politics; examine the demographics of their voters and membership, and comment on their organisational and political dimensions before looking at their current political trajectory.

The ideological origins of the Greens

Green politics is somewhat amorphous. Many Greens claim to stand for a “new way of doing politics” that transcends the old left-right divide; a politics that rejects traditional notions of social progress, which are defined by technological advance and greater material abundance. Yet Green thought contains competing and contradictory social theories, all of which are, on one level, fairly conventional. Green politics merges the backward-looking romantic, the scientist, and the progressive liberal. It is a populist politics which has found organisational unity through an orientation to parliament and a rejection of class struggle.

In Australia, the practice of wilderness preservation, and the theoretical endeavour of environmentalists to establish a body of thought justifying this practice, was central to the early development of Green politics.2 Many environmental activists were originally moved by the emotional and aesthetic impact of the “natural world”; determined to save it from human interference. Bob Brown, current leader of the Greens and formerly co-director of the United Tasmania Group, found in the wilderness nothing short of revelation: “I have come closest to finding myself and knowing the universe and accepting God – by which I mean accepting all that I don’t know.” 3 However, the fact of ecological crisis and the growing scientific recognition of human-induced environmental problems gave conservationism a new dimension and meaning. 

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which documented the pervasive contamination of pesticides throughout the food chain, had a global impact on the way environmentalists began to think about human impact on the environment. With the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report in 1972 – which argued that the ecological limits to economic growth were being reached – the basis of modern Green ideology was systematically developed.4 The alleged threat to humanity posed by overpopulation, resource depletion and pollution brought the entire project of industrial development into question in the minds of many activists.

The result was the development of an ecocentric philosophy that was, initially, central to Green politics. An unstable amalgam of the romantic (which celebrates diversity, emotion, and the encounter) and the scientific (which claims universality, law, and rationality), ecocentrism is “a picture of reality…in which there are no…absolute dividing lines between the living and the nonliving, the animate and the inanimate, or the human and the nonhuman.”5 Ecocentrists are more likely to see themselves as “neither left, nor right but forward” in an ideological sense. But ecocentrism clearly has a right-wing trajectory. It is a challenge to humanism; a rejection of the idea that human need should be placed above all other considerations. Most adherents generally stress the need for humanity to achieve some sort of oneness with nature – often rejecting technological progress as a hindrance to this.6

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The 1972 campaign against hydroelectric development in Tasmania’s southwest spawned one of the world’s first “green” parties, the United Tasmania Group (UTG). Their manifesto, New Ethic, was one of the first attempts in the world to articulate ecocentric political philosophy. Short, vague and abstract, New Ethic rejected the idea that humans have any inherent right to exploit natural resources. It sought a new way of life where humanity and nature are united to create aesthetic harmony, where human existence preserves the form and beauty of the natural world and prevents the collapse of life support systems.7

The stronger influence of ecocentrism in the origins of the UTG/Greens is slightly removed from their western European counterpart, the German Greens. The German party had a large base of activists more firmly rooted in the New Left and who were veterans of social struggles, particularly the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s. In fact, the founding conference of Die Grünen in 1980 saw around 1,000 hard-right ecocentrists walk out in opposition to the new party taking up policies related to wealth redistribution and anti-militarism. This philosophical divergence between the Australian and the European sections of the Greens resulted in the Europeans having a more clearly socially progressive orientation from the outset.8

The UTG/Greens, however, never had a purely ecological orientation. New Ethic, for example, also had social grievances – although its vision is politically ambiguous, with the romantic and the progressive competing for line space. New Ethic yearns for a free and democratic science and laments the alienating experience of working life. At the same time, it holds apprehension toward the potential emergence of a “tyranny of rationality, at the expense of values” – which seems a clear swipe at the increasing domination of technology in human affairs.

Even once formally established, the Greens did not have a clear-cut or unified politics. The ambiguities and conflicts in their ideological outlook reflected their social composition and organisational makeup. By the end of the 1980s Greens groups had formed across the country. There was a complex of competing political tendencies – from communists on the left to eco-reactionaries on the right – both within and between geographic regions (see below). These different sections did not sit together in harmony. Bob Brown’s The Greens, written in the mid 1990s, clearly illustrates the tensions. It is a significant work as it was penned not long after the formation of the Greens as a national confederation. 

The Australian Greens loosely united state and territory sections, which had differing evolutions, both organisationally and politically. Without being an official manifesto, Brown’s book aims to draw together everything that the Greens stand for – a tough ask given the diversity of opinion that existed at this point. There is no call to return to the wilderness, but the politics of anti-consumption dominates the book: “The Greens reject the dominant ethic in developed countries today: an ethic of getting what is good for us, now.”9 A strain of backward-looking romanticism and a populist nationalism clearly shines through.10 Brown’s critique of Australian politics also contains a clearly progressive edge, with denunciations of the ALP for what he alleges is their failure to hold onto a vision of a socialist society where bosses don’t exploit workers. This was a clear call to the left; an appeal to the ALP true believers whose faith had been shattered by Hawke and Keating. The appeal would pay dividends in the years ahead. 

Many Greens claim their outlook is “forward” rather than left or right. But the party’s ideological development was necessarily influenced by broader debates in society. In Europe, the Greens very much needed to adhere to “old politics”, where “left” and “right” are still labels of significance because they reflect an orientation to real social forces. Most Green parties are seen as part of the left, and their success has been gained on the basis of putting forward progressive social policy. Where the Greens have stuck to ecology (for example in Britain), they have struggled to relate to any significant social layer.11 Like any political party under capitalism, the Australian Greens were likewise to be pulled one way or the other by the struggle between labour and capital. 

The Greens’ rise as a political force, then, is tied not just to the ecological crisis. Two further crises in the world system – the economic (the end of the long-boom) and the political (the crisis of the New Left and the decline of social democracy) were prerequisites for the Greens’ success as an organisation and saw a much more traditional political outlook come to dominate the organisation.

The events of 1956 in Hungary and then 1968 in Czechoslovakia fatally undermined illusions in Russia among a section of the left intelligentsia, workers and students in the West. Stalinist parties faced a crisis of legitimacy which proved an ideological crisis for the left more generally. The far left failed to adhere to any sense of logic when it came to characterising the nature of Stalinist Russia. The insistence – though often piled under a mountain of caveats – that the Soviet Union had something to do with socialism fatally undermined the case for Marxism and pushed people away from revolutionary politics. Part of the result was the emergence of the New Left, which identified hierarchy and authoritarianism as key faults of the “old left”. 

But these political groupings faced their own crises as the revolutionary wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s ebbed. The New Left moved toward political pluralism and identity politics as the movement fragmented; they retreated from the idea that the industrial working class was the principal agent of revolutionary change. There was no insurmountable theoretical leap from here to that of the romantic celebration of diversity for diversity’s sake and rejection of industrial society. While most did not take the latter step, the road for organisational union was paved. These political developments were ultimately felt in the Greens.12 This is particularly evident in their claims to organisational structures that are decentralised, grassroots, and focused on the local. It is also evident in the significant influence of individualism and lifestyle politics in the organisation, and in the greater influence of progressive liberal ideas on their politics in post-United Tasmania Group formations.

The decline of social democracy was of more organisational than ideological significance. As capitalism moved from the long post-war boom into a new period of recurrent economic crises in the mid-1970s, social democratic parties the world over began shifting to the right. In Australia, the decisive moment was the ALP embracing economic rationalism under Hawke and Keating. The experience of Labor governments in the 1980s and early 1990s was union busting, privatisation, deregulation, championing the market and heaping praise on ultra-wealthy parasites such as Alan Bond. Global market forces, previously mitigated to at least some degree, were progressively unleashed on the population. No sphere of existence was untouched, no decision made without reference to some economic authority. 

The result was a greater sense of loss of control, greater unease, uncertainty, displacement; all exacerbated by levels of unemployment unseen in generations. Increasingly, the distinction between Liberal and Labor was blurred. Policies converged. When New Ethic was penned, the ALP was in its triumphant Whitlam era of reform. By the time the Greens had united into a national organisation, the decline was marked, and the economic situation completely transformed. Bob Brown saw the crisis as potentially so devastating for Labor that he drew an analogy between the growing green political movements at the end of the twentieth century with the rise of social democracy in the nineteenth century:

[T]he vacuum in the politics of social justice and equal opportunity was always likely to draw a new entity into the political arena, one that would replace a Labor Party that had lost its aspirations, just as, a century earlier, a young and vigorous Labor Party had replaced a weaker party of reform. The global socio-ecological crisis meant that this new party was Green. In this situation, the Greens have arisen like spontaneous combustion from the rotting haystack of an overblown consumerist society.13

Geographical particularities

The foregoing ideological sketch needs geographical qualifications.14 The Tasmanian Greens were the first to develop and remain the most conservative section of the party. However, it was in NSW where the first “Green Party” was formally registered in 1984. Its genesis was not in the wilds of the Blue Mountains, but in the inner west of Sydney. Social questions to do with urban development and democracy were much more central than simply ideas of wilderness preservation. Originating as a reading group within the Labor Party in Leichhardt, the Sydney Greens were founded partly as a response to the perceived decline of socialist influence in the party, and specifically because a number of members of the Labor left were expelled for supporting independent candidates (including Trotskyist Nick Origlass) in the 1984 municipal elections. From the very beginning it was a project of the left, with well-known figures such as Hall Greenland involved in the group’s establishment.

The following years also saw the formation (and disbanding) of the New Left Party (1987-1991), which provided a bridge for a number of ex-Communist Party members and other fellow travellers to move into the Green groups. According to Sydney Greens founding member Tony Harris, by the end of 1989 “about 13 regional or state-based [Green] parties had been registered – mainly in New South Wales and Western Australia.” Castroites15 were heavily involved in building the NSW groups from around 1989 and controlled several of the locals until a proscription clause forced them out of the organisation in 1991. Although the groups also attracted more right-wing conservationist types, the left-wing influence in NSW was viewed with some suspicion by the Tasmanian and Queensland sections. The NSW Greens was a somewhat stalled project in its early years, however, and did not completely coalesce out of the local groups until the early 1990s. It was not a functioning branch until the mid-1990s. 

South Australia – which along with Queensland and Tasmania are the more right-wing sections of the party – was smaller from the beginning, much more focused on the environment, and fractured into two parties before the late 1990s. A similar story is that of the Queensland Greens, which formed as a Brisbane group in 1985 before collapsing and then re-establishing in 1989-1991. The Victorian section of the party was formed in 1992 in response to the formation of the Australian Greens. Again, it was not a functioning outfit until at least the mid-1990s. Politically the Victorians sit (along with the ACT Greens) somewhere in the middle, and have been known to arbitrarily split their votes between the right and the left on conference floor.

The Greens (WA) are considered the other left-leaning section of the organisation. Formed in 1990, their origins lie in the merging of a number of other groups: the Green Party (formed in 1987 and based around Fremantle, this group contained environmentalists and peace activists); Green Development (conservationists); Jo Vallentine Peace Group (which had itself come out of the Nuclear Disarmament Party); and the Alternative Coalition (members and ex-members of the New Left Party, the Communist Party of Australia and the Moscow-line Socialist Party as well as a few Castroites and others). The strongest influences on the newly formed Greens (WA) were the Alternative Coalition and the Vallentine group. Like the Tasmanians, they enjoyed relative electoral success in the 1990s (see appendix), having a number of MPs elected to both the state and federal upper houses.

The Australian Greens formed as a national confederation of the state parties in 1992. They were a party in name only. The only two sections which had life in them at that point were the Tasmanians and the Western Australians. Initially it was only Tasmania, Queensland and NSW in the confederation, with other sections joining in the following years. Western Australia did not join until 2003. The national organisation’s small size, the perception that it was simply a single-issue party and the co-option of many activists into bureaucratic roles as the ALP took environmental politics mainstream, meant that the Greens were unable to make a significant electoral breakthrough at the national level throughout the 1990s.

Today the Tasmanians, despite being only the third-biggest section in terms of membership, remain the politically dominant section of the party. The parliamentary orientation of the organisation as a whole means that the experience and staffing of the Tasmanians leaves them better placed to control the direction of policy and have a firm hand on the national office. 

Middle-class basis of the Greens’ politics

It will be noted below that a significant layer of Greens voters are tertiary-educated white-collar workers. This notwithstanding, Green politics has a middle-class ideological basis.

The middle class is particularly fragmented as it has several distinct relationships to the means of production. As such it is more accurate to talk of the middle classes: sections of the state bureaucracy, lawyers, doctors, middle/high-grade professionals, professors and senior academic staff, middle managers and small business owners. The middle classes shade into both the capitalist class at one end and the working class at the other. In the middle classes “the interests of the two [other] classes are simultaneously mutually blunted.” The middle classes therefore imagine themselves “elevated above class antagonism generally.”16

Because they don’t enjoy a class unity, the social position and lifestyle of the middle classes appears not to be determined by the outcome of social struggle. The greater levels of autonomy in their work, the intellectual nature of their labour (lawyers and university staff), their contradictory position of owner/worker (small business owners) or their often ambiguous relationship to the means of production within the capitalist economy (white-collar professionals and middle management) are factors that lean towards an outlook which views reward as a result of individual talent or plain hard work. In the view of the middle classes, the working class is a lower class because it lacks ability or drive, while the ruling class exists only by fortune of birth or unbridled lust for power and wealth. The middle classes view themselves as a higher class because they believe they have achieved through merit what others obtain via cunning, crude exertion of power or luck. 

At a base level, the class struggle is an economic struggle. The working class has power because of its role in social production. The ruling class has power because of its control of industry. As a result of their lack of cohesion, their ambiguous relationship to the productive apparatus of society or their exclusion from key centres of industry, the middle classes have little economic leverage. They view themselves as somewhat above the struggle, but can be politically impacted by it more than other classes. The middle classes are far more able to assert themselves through political institutions. Their lack of social power means that it is primarily through the state that they can flex their muscles (in this sense they really are above the other classes).

The middle classes see themselves as more fit to rule because they are more educated, more determined to succeed. They are the class of experts. But because of their social position – squeezed and buffeted between the dominant classes – they are more open to idealist political ideas than are class-conscious workers or capitalists. Many have the luxury of abstention from struggle and retreat into lifestyle issues, but they also have the nous and the resources to vie for political office. To the extent that their influence is not felt in the political institutions of the moment, they want democratic reform; but where education has failed to lift the masses out of their primitive aspirations, then the spectre of dictatorship raises its ugly head. Clive Hamilton, noted middle-class intellectual and unsuccessful Greens candidate for the federal seat of Higgins, has openly broached the possibility of suspending democratic processes. For Hamilton, “the people remain part of the problem rather than the solution.”17

Greens politics clearly fits with this picture. They rail against the destruction of the world, but their solutions are based on enlightened individualism. They reject the idea of class struggle, which they counterpose to being concerned for the whole planet.18 For all the competing strains of thought, and the fact that there are a number of socialists and ex-communists in the organisation, the two fundamental features of capitalist society – class domination and the accumulation of capital – are nowhere seriously criticised. In fact, for the dominant founding current within the Greens, capitalism is not the problem:

[T]he threats to our planet do not…come simply from the particular dynamic of the capitalist system… Instead, these threats to the planet are the logical outcome of a worldview.19

For the Greens, the transformation of society requires both a “greening” of education with the aim of decreasing society’s materialistic outlook, and legislation to reduce human interference in the “natural world”. The Greens found the secret to alienation, social decay and environmental destruction – it lay not (according to them) in the reality of capitalist exploitation and accumulation, but in mistaken ideas: demands for more material comfort will ultimately be self-defeating because their realisation undermines the basis for future human society. 

The Greens’ solution therefore is not to end the system of class oppression, but to do away with materialist demands and to change our values. This was the starting point for those who founded Green politics in Australia. The contradictions in the organisation’s political outlook and between the different sections of the party have, however, played out in different ways over time. The unifying elements – rejection of class struggle and, in their later years, a more overt orientation to parliament – have given the Greens cohesion enough to create a fairly stable organisation, which has enjoyed electoral success. Today it is much rarer to find comments denouncing society’s general greed. Rather, there is a populist emphasis on “the people”; progressive liberalism dominates.

The rise of the Greens 

The federal election of November 2001 saw the Greens make a significant breakthrough, with their vote doubling to 5 per cent nationally.20 It was not environmental issues which saw them rise to prominence. By March of that year, concern for the environment amongst the broader population had fallen to its lowest level in almost ten years.21 Despite this, the Greens were polling 5.5 per cent five months out from the election. 

Their rise reflected a general dissatisfaction within society – for most people, there was little difference between the ALP and the Liberals. Both embraced corporate globalisation, offered only neoliberal counter-reforms, and claimed political impotence in the face of market forces. On the right, this discontent was expressed in the rise of the One Nation party, which exploded onto the political scene from 1996. Taking advantage of swathes of disaffected middle-class voters as well as a section of unorganised and mainly rural working-class voters, the party was virulently racist, and stridently anti-immigration. The Greens became the other expression of discontent, positioning themselves to the left of the ALP, campaigning strongly on social issues and against the mantra of the market. 

The Greens’ immigration policy had begun to shift to the left partly as a result of the Victorian state section becoming more engaged at a national level from the mid-1990s.22 But they were also under pressure from the anti-racist campaign against One Nation. The contradiction between the ecocentric and the progressive liberal wings in Greens politics was, in this climate, forcefully exposed. Brown had argued in 1996 that stopping human population growth would be the precondition of everything the Greens wanted to achieve. With One Nation in practical agreement (with regard to immigration), the Greens shifted their position from calling for cuts in immigration to focusing on infrastructure and settlement planning.23

The anti-corporate radicalisation in the following years had a further impact on the party. In 1996 Bob Brown’s Tasmanian Greens had propped up a pro-business Liberal minority government. Four years later, Brown and several other Green MPs joined the “Green Bloc” at the S11 anti-corporate protest against the World Economic Forum at Melbourne’s Crown Casino. Thousands of young people were getting involved in politics; a new mood of anti-capitalism was taking hold. The demonstration was a political turning point, with tens of thousands of protesters managing to successfully blockade the event. A new left was being born and the Greens were attempting to relate to it. Where the establishment and the mainstream parties denounced the protesters, the Greens praised them.

If the general backdrop to the rise of the Greens was the policy convergence of the major parties, bipartisanship in refugee-bashing posed their similarities in a stark new light. In August 2001, the Howard Liberal government sent SAS forces onto a Norwegian container ship – the MV Tampa – which had rescued over 400 asylum seekers just outside Australian waters. The ship was prohibited from docking at Australian ports to prevent the people on board seeking asylum. The ALP fell over itself to pledge support for the government’s “tough stance”. The terrorist attacks in the US in September and the invasion of Afghanistan in October only added petrol to the flames of racism being stoked by the major parties. Refugees plus terrorism made border protection the decisive issue of the November election.24

Christopher Rootes argued that at this time the Greens were “the only clear and unambiguous opponents of government policy on both asylum seekers and the military action in Afghanistan.”25 The Greens were certainly the best of the parliamentary parties. When it came to refugees, Brown accused both Liberals and Labor of hypocrisy in their embrace of globalisation while being unwilling to accept a share of global humanitarian problems. He declared that they had locked themselves into a political basement devoid of dignity and human kindness. Both Labor and the Liberals, which have their philosophical basis in the enlightenment-humanist tradition, were trumped on humanitarianism by the so-called single-issue environmentalist organisation. However, the Greens were not unambiguously pro-refugee. Brown’s public concerns were often as much about Australia’s standing internationally as they were for human rights: 

Every hour this crisis goes on Australia’s reputation sinks further. Our tourism industry, our marketing potential, our economy go with it… [the PM] should have phoned the NZ Prime Minster Helen Clark at the start… she would have taken the asylum seekers ashore.26

Just one month before the September 11 attacks Brown argued that part of the problem with Howard’s approach to asylum seekers was that border patrols by the Australia Navy reduced its capacity to be used for other purposes.27This was telling of the party’s left nationalism; the Greens were not anti-imperialist. Unlike some on the left, however, the party did not roll over in the face of the “you are either with us or with the terrorists” threats of the ruling class. Brown opposed troop deployment, arguing that the money would be better spent on education and health. But he argued on the basis that Australia’s troop deployment was simply a “strategic mistake”: troops should have been fighting under the auspices of the UN rather than the US. The Greens were critical of different aspects of the conflict, without being against the conflict on principle. Nevertheless, they were the only political organisation of any influence that seemed to be taking a significant stand. Labor, who appeared poised several months earlier to win the election, followed the government’s political lead. Their opportunism exposed, they bled votes to the Liberals on the right and to the Greens and Democrats on their left.28

The contradictions in the Greens’ anti-war position could be seen as the US was invading Iraq less than two years later. On the one hand, Brown’s outspoken opposition to the war helped galvanise public opposition. At the same time, however, he supported Australian imperialism in the Solomon Islands, saying that the federal government’s intervention was to be welcomed, and should have happened earlier.29

These inconsistencies were not an obstacle to growth. Indeed, they were shared by most of the anti-war movement. After the success of 2001, the Greens were building a profile as a serious organisation to the left of the ALP. The party played a role in consolidating anti-war/pro-refugee sentiment and legitimising the growing protest movements. As an organisation they were being transformed by an influx of members who had social, rather than primarily environmental concerns. At the 2002 Victorian state elections, their field of inner Melbourne candidates contained not one from a predominantly environmental background.30 Their vote surged by a factor of around 2.5 in both the Council and the Assembly.31 By 2004, Brown was declaring to the National Press Club that the Greens were social democrats. Former ALP power broker Graham Richardson complained that Brown’s problem was that he talked too much about refugees and war, rather than the environment. But it was no problem at the ballot box. The federal election of that year saw the Greens’ vote increase almost 50 per cent. 

Industrial relations was the election issue in 2007, but the environment returned as a key concern. By this time, however, opinion polls showed that around 40 per cent of voters thought the ALP best able to handle environmental policies, and around one-quarter thought the same of the Liberals.32 Where the Greens had gained the humanist vote in 2001, the environmental vote now seemed to be slipping to Labor. Yet the Greens still secured over 1 million votes in the Senate – a proportional increase of nearly 17 per cent.

Prior to the 2010 election there were five federal senators, 23 state representatives and over 100 local Greens councillors. The party has established itself as a potential threat to sitting Labor members in a number of inner-city electorates.33 At the same time, Greens preferences have helped secure Labor victories in a number of seats. In fact, at the 2007 federal election there were nine seats in which Labor finished second on the first preference vote yet subsequently won on preferences. They would not have gained a majority of seats on “first past the post” rules.34 In May 2009 the Greens won the previously safe (state) Labor seat of Fremantle in a by-election with 44 per cent of the primary vote. Throughout 2010, the Greens have been polling in double figures federally. Their vote increased again in both the Tasmanian and South Australian state elections (see appendix). 

Class position of Greens voters

[T]he categories to which Greens voters belong include higher than average incomes, higher than average educational attainment and higher than average public sector employment. Although Greens voters are concentrated in the inner city, there are regional pockets of Greens voters, especially in coastal areas of New South Wales… [They are] tertiary educated and middle-class progressives who favour wealth redistribution and welfare… They are neither part of the business elite, nor are they mostly drawn from the working class or migrant groups. 

– Damien Cahill and Stephen Brown35

The Greens’ vote to a significant extent reflects the class basis of Greens politics, with a core section of support coming from amongst the middle classes. As far back as 1986, Hay and Haward noted that: “the green vote flourishes in areas where both blue collar workers and the very affluent are comparatively under-represented.”36 This seems to have changed little over the course of 20 years. As the Greens made their electoral breakthrough in 2001 Bob Brown asserted that small business owners were the key to their success.37 In the 2002 Victorian state election massive swings toward the Greens occurred at the expense of both Labor and the Liberals.38 In the 2007 federal election around half of their senate vote came from people with incomes above $70,000, which is similar to the Liberal Party and compares with less than a third for Labor.39 White-collar professionals disproportionately voted Greens. Interestingly, non-English speaking background white-collar workers were more likely to vote Greens than almost any other section of the population.40

Two caveats are in order, however, to the homogenous picture of the Greens as “middle-class progressives”. The first relates to the progressive nature of Greens voters. As noted above, the Greens shifted to the left both in policy terms and in their public posturing from 1998. In so doing they captured a greater number of progressive votes. Indicative of this is the flow of preferences from the Greens over time. From 1996 to 2004, their preference flow to the ALP as opposed to the Coalition increased from 67 per cent to 81 per cent, before dropping slightly under 80 per cent in 2007.41

However, reflecting both the ideological contradictions of their politics and the social composition of their vote, the Greens also have a significant conservative element that should not be ignored. Judging by preference flows in 2007, at least a fifth of Greens voters clearly leaned to the right. The party polled better than average in upper middle-class Liberal seats such as Higgins, Kooyong, Curtin and Wentworth. They did not campaign on a left-wing basis in these areas. An opinion poll in June 2010 showed a preference drift toward the Coalition, with around 68 per cent of preferences going to Labor.42 Further, around one-third of Greens opposed the initial version of the government’s Resource Super Profits Tax and supported the reintroduction of the so-called Pacific Solution for refugees. Only 49 per cent of Greens voters at that time believed the Greens have the best asylum seeker policy.

In Tasmania, the Greens have been traditionally more conservative, more successful and more integrated into the parliamentary system than their mainland counterparts. They have tended to capture a vote that is more right-wing. An EMRS poll in the Launceston Examiner in early 2010 showed that over half of Greens voters favoured a minority Liberal government compared with 43 per cent who favoured a minority Labor government. There is nothing remotely progressive about that. 

The second caveat is that the Greens have a substantial working-class vote. There is a significant correlation between a high Greens vote and areas with a greater concentration of service industries such as arts, education, media and IT.43 Employees in these industries all generally require bachelor degrees, but most – teachers being a case in point – are workers. In places like the public service there are a series of “grades” of employment seniority, each higher level bestowing greater autonomy, responsibility and control. In such circumstances, it is impossible to clearly demarcate (except at the margins) working class from middle class. 

Two rough proxies for class however are income and union membership. A quarter to a third of Greens voters belong to a union.44 While many of the middle classes are union members – particularly in the public service – union members are obviously more likely to be from the working class. Income is probably the best proxy. Those earning under $50,000 are unlikely to be middle class. One-quarter to one-third of Greens voters come from income brackets below $50,000. This is consistent with the finding that one-third self-identify as working class (compared with around half of ALP voters). The Greens’ lowest vote comes from blue-collar workers – in particular non-English speaking background migrants.45 While self-identification does not determine a person’s class position, the disparity between Greens and Labor on this front is significant. It suggests that class-conscious workers are less important for the Greens than for Labor.

Greens voters are, on average, younger than voters for other parties46 and are less wedded to the Greens as an organisation. For example, in the 2004 federal election the Greens retained only 65 per cent of those who had voted for them in 2001. This compared with an average of 82 per cent for the major parties. With the most important election issues being seen as health, taxes and education, 22 per cent of Greens voters moved back to Labor and 10 per cent to the Coalition. It was the collapse of the Democrats and an infusion of new young voters which pushed the Greens’ vote to new highs.47 In the 2007 federal election, industrial relations dominated as an issue. The ACTU called for a Labor vote in the House of Representatives. Despite the Greens having a policy much more favourable to blue-collar workers than that put forward by Labor, the Greens’ vote looks to have been significantly lower among blue-collar workers compared with the case in 2004.48 Later polling showed that 74 per cent of Greens’ voters were “very firm” or “pretty firm” in their intention to vote for the Greens at the 2010 election, compared with 87 per cent for each of the major parties.49

In summary, we can broadly say of the Greens’ vote that: 

It is younger; it is more solidly middle class but has a significant working-class component; class-conscious workers are still comparatively more important as voters for Labor than for the Greens; it is more progressive on social questions but has a significant right-wing element; and it is less wedded to voting Greens than Liberal and Labor voters are for their respective parties. So on one hand, the Greens are beneficiaries of the ALP’s shift to the right. They pick up disaffected left-leaning voters in increasing numbers. On the other, even though many, but by no means all, sit to the left of Labor on social questions, the Greens’ middle-class basis means they are a party liable to being squeezed by the parties of capital and the union bureaucracy. Their bleed to the right and to the ALP when so-called “bread and butter” issues are of importance is telling of the nature of a section of their supporter base.

Organisational dimensions, political pragmatism

Today the Greens have around 9,000 members and 150 branches/groupings nationally. Their membership surged at the same time as their vote, tripling over four years. This period also saw the entry of significant numbers of former ALP members, which helped to consolidate the party’s shift to the left.


Greens Party national membership





























Figures provided by Stewart Jackson, Department of Government and International Relations, University of Sydney. *Estimate.


Greens members seem to be drawn far more from the middle class than Greens voters. Nearly 60 per cent are professionals and 30 to 40 per cent have Masters or Doctoral degrees.50 Over the five years to 2008, the average age of party members looks to have increased,51 suggesting that they have not attracted a new layer of young people to the organisation in that time. The middle-class outlook and composition of the membership has significant ramifications for their organisational practice. 

The Greens make much of their decentralised and grassroots organisational structures. It is here that the influence of the New Left is most evident. For some, these structural arrangements represent a challenge to traditional politics, an alternative to the main parties.52 This is an apolitical assessment. It has similar content to the longstanding criticism of the Labor Party that situates the party’s problems in its factionalism, or its allegedly hierarchical structures. The fundamental problem with Labor, however, is not the existence of the factions, but the fact that there is no faction or grouping prepared to seriously stand up to the party’s drift to the right. That is a political, rather than a structural problem. As a general rule for political parties, organisational form is subordinate to political content because there are no structural barriers to opportunism, careerism, unprincipled conduct and so on. This can be seen with regard to the Greens on two fronts.

Firstly, decentralised decision making is an organisational principle in the party. It is arguable that this is simply a cover for avoiding a principled political argument that would have any practical significance. Evidence for this is the response that greeted the Tasmanian section of the party after it pleaded with the Liberals to form a coalition government in 2010. The Liberals are the party of union busting, refugee bashing and genocide promotion. Not one of the other state/territory sections of the Greens came out to oppose the Tasmanian Greens. There is certainly a case for criticising the federated nature of the party for allowing the Tasmanians to get away with such opportunism. (Much better to have a degree of centralism that would, in theory, allow the numerically dominant NSW and Victorian sections to block these sorts of deals with the right).53 Ultimately, however, the organisational structure of the party cannot be invoked to defend the silence of the rest of its sections. That silence reflects a political problem in the left of the party. More broadly it is a problem illustrated by the frequent issuing of split tickets at election time. In most cases, the Greens do not argue with their supporters about how they should direct preferences. The organisation seems perfectly comfortable with people giving preference to the Liberals over Labor. Leading Greens justify this with reference to voters “thinking for themselves”. But this will not do. It is an abrogation of political responsibility. 

The consensus decision-making model of the party is also seen as a radical challenge to conventional politics, one which puts a brake on authoritarianism and meeting-stacking practices. But when held to as a point of principle – when it is entrenched in the constitution of a party, as it is with the Greens – it can be a thoroughly anti-democratic and authoritarian device. One example of this was the NSW Greens’ decision not to endorse an anti-war protest against the projected visit of US President Barack Obama in March 2010. While it was reported that a majority of delegates at their state conference supported endorsing the protest, two local groups threatened to block consensus. As a result the party did not endorse the demonstration. Democracy was thrown out to appease a right-wing minority. An organisation with a policy of immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, and which has over 50 branches, clubs and groups across NSW ended up not endorsing a rally against the leader of US imperialism. A highly “authoritarian” party might have barred members from attending. The Greens didn’t need to. Endorsement or not, there was no serious fight against the decision. That again is a political problem.

To armchair leftists these might seem trivial gripes. But they indicate something important about the nature of the organisation: the Greens are not an activist party. Some individual members are activists and most members have attended protest rallies.54 But with the exception of some of their leading members, the majority are in attendance to bear moral witness as individuals rather than to build the campaigns or build political organisation.55 Fifteen years ago Brown identified what he considered the terminal decline of the ALP. Today, Labor’s membership base has been decimated; the party inspires pretty much no one at all. But the ALP undoubtedly still has more activists than the Greens. There are two areas where the Greens’ lack of activists is most apparent: the campuses and in the union movement.

While the Greens vote is disproportionately high among young people, there is a huge disparity between the level of passive support they receive on election day and the number of activists they have at universities. In fact the party is hardly active in this sphere at all, which is particularly telling given their voter base is strongest among the tertiary-educated. There may be a stall in orientation week here or there, an occasional special meeting in various places, an office bearer or two in some student unions, but they do not have an activist base. Nor have they attempted in any serious way to build one. Without exaggeration, Socialist Alternative – which has a membership not 5 per cent of the Greens’ – outnumber Greens activists by at least 4 to 1 on campuses around the country. Indicative of their parliamentary orientation, the Queensland Young Greens advertised organiser positions in early 2010. These organisers were not going to build a club to fight against the NT intervention, to fight for equal rights for gay and lesbian couples, to organise solidarity with Palestine, or to challenge the domination of Labor bureaucrats in the student unions. The party simply wanted volunteers to help out in the lead-up to the election, which at the time had not been called.

Where they have working-class members, the Greens have not attempted to organise them in any systematic way. Despite having several thousand trade unionists as members, the party is almost invisible as an organisation in the workers’ movement. Their industrial relations policy is to the left of the ALP, but they have not built rank and file groups in unions to challenge Labor’s industrial agenda, or to challenge Labor-aligned union leaderships. They had a serious opportunity to break into the workers’ movement in 2002 when the secretary of the Victorian division of the Electrical Trades Union – one of the more militant blue collar unions – joined the party after resigning from the ALP. But they made nothing of it. 

It is significant (although unsurprising given the dominant ideological outlook within the party) that they have made few inroads here. Despite middle-class progressives being commonly seen as the holders of the left-wing mantle in society, blue-collar workers have historically been the most open to left-wing ideas and the most willing to fight for them. They remain the most industrially militant of all workers. The potential social power of miners, wharfies, manufacturing and construction workers etc. is greater than any other section of the population. When they move into struggle, they pull others behind them. Their continuing (although admittedly weak) identification with the ALP means that the Greens could be pushed aside in any future radicalisation – particularly one which involved a left break from the ALP.

The Greens received almost four and a half million dollars in federal election funding in 200756 and several million more at a state level in the last round of elections. Their ability to muster thousands at election time (an estimated 8,000 were involved in the NSW state election of 2003)57 shows that they can mobilise people when they want to. For an organisation of their size, and with these resources, the claim – in their Charter – that they “seek to encourage and facilitate grassroots movements” is severely undermined by their lack of organisational presence in the few campaigns that do exist.

The radicalism of the party is, in fact, overstated. The Greens’ appearance as a left party has as much to do with Labor’s shift to the right over several decades as their own move to the left more recently. The Greens are far less radical than the European left parties. They are to the right of Labor under Whitlam (a right-faction heavy who attempted to crush the Labor left in Victoria). The Greens, as Narelle Miragliotta pointed out a number of years ago, “are astute political operators who use radicalism in a highly pragmatic way.”58 They were never an anti-capitalist outfit; they are not anti-imperialist; and notwithstanding their position on refugees, Bob Brown continues to call for a reduction in migration. Though big business has been incredibly hostile toward them in the past,59 they are a pro-business party. Even on climate change, which the Greens have declared to be the single most important issue of the 2010 election, they have hardly been radical. They support market-based solutions, and have oriented to the business community, noting the billions of dollars in investments that would be forthcoming if a “robust” emissions trading scheme were to be introduced. Brown himself touts the party’s pro-business credentials. Referring to their role in propping up the minority Labor government in Tasmania (1989-1992), he told the Australian Financial Review in 2004 that: “there were savage budget cuts. We had Greens’ supporters protesting outside our offices. We went to some very angry public meetings, but we Greens held the line.”60

Political transformation and trajectory

History moves because of protesters. The future is not safe and the political process would fail without them. In protest is the hope of earth – Bob Brown.61

[Those] who deny not merely the class struggle but even the existence of classes, only prove that, despite all their blood-curdling yelps and the humanitarian airs they give themselves, they regard the social conditions under which the bourgeoisie rules as the final product, the [highest point] of history, and that they are only the servitors of the bourgeoisie – Karl Marx.62

Over almost 40 years, the Greens have been transformed in a number of ways. While they still adhere in word to principles that could be considered ecocentric, it is not clear at all whether they are still philosophically motivated by them. The Greens are far more likely to frame environmental concerns within dominant human-centred narratives. So the health of Australia’s water resources is important because it underpins agriculture, industry and community; the integrity of ecosystems must be maintained because human society depends on them; Labor’s climate change policies are not simply ineffective, they are economically irresponsible

In the last decade, they positioned themselves more clearly to the left, impacted by the anti-corporate and anti-war movements. They grew through the entry of ex-ALP social democrats and a layer of socially conscious younger people. The Greens had focused far more on an anti-consumption politics in the mid-1990s. Going into the 2007 federal election, Bob Brown outlined the very traditional left-wing policies of the Greens:

Where Rudd and Howard back $10 billion in tax cuts for the rich, the Greens would increase the aged pension by $60 a fortnight. Where Rudd and Howard spend public money on wealthy private schools, the Greens would invest money in schools that need it most. Where Rudd and Howard would build more roads, the Greens would make public transport better and cheaper. Where Rudd and Howard will expand uranium mining, the Greens back clean, renewable energy. Where Rudd and Howard support the $3billion a year private health insurance rebate, the Greens would invest that money in public hospitals.63

The Greens were caught in an internal ideological tussle between their ecological and their social-democratic wings throughout their growth and transformation. But neither of these wings seriously repudiated orienting to parliament. Over time, they have become more incorporated into the running of the system. The Greens voted to elect a Liberal Chief Minister in the ACT in 1995; in Tasmania they supported a Labor minority government in 1989-1992 and a Liberal minority government in 1996-98; in the ACT they have supported the Labor government from 2008; and again in Tasmania they are now part of a Labor coalition government. The party still contains ideological divisions, but the key division today is that between those who advocate total subservience to the ruling class and those who want a more campaigning oppositional party. The latter are either an insignificant minority or appear generally unwilling to fight for their ideas.

The Greens’ populist politics, middle-class composition, lack of ministerial positions and lack of an activist base has meant that the leadership of the party can jag left and flank right more readily than the ALP or the Liberals. With the consolidation of power in the hands of the parliamentary leadership and their staffers and advisors, this seems even more the case today. In the Howard years they moved to the left. In the period since the election of the Rudd Labor government, the Greens have not changed their policies in any significant way. However, they have positionedthemselves as moderates more like the Australian Democrats: a safe pair of hands with the balance of power. They are a party that the establishment can rely on. 

They have not built a left opposition to the ALP, instead they have attempted to prove themselves reasonable and professional rather than radical and obstructionist. In decades past, it used to be par for the course for even Labor MPs to be kicked out of parliament for denouncing the Liberals. The Greens will have none of that. Notwithstanding the arrest of three Greens councillors during a sit-in protest at the federal parliament in November 2009, the party more generally is being transformed into one that rejects protest politics and sees collaboration with the Liberals as a sign of political maturity, as proof that they are not some ginger group of the ALP. 

In the mid-1990s Bob Brown was at pains to emphasise the grass-roots nature of the Greens:

[W]e can little afford to hire public relations firms to develop our ‘image’ or tell our candidates how to dress, and what suits to wear. National TV campaigns produced by advertising agencies are out, too… What you see is what you get.64

Things have definitively moved on. Victorian Greens campaign manager Szilvia Csanyi has been explicit that the party does want to develop their image: “We’re trying to cut through this old image and false perception of the Greens as tree-hugging radicals – that’s not what the party is about… We want to change that image and be more attractive…”65The Victorian Greens have preselected more lawyers and professionals. They plan on highlighting this in an attempt to win over even more affluent voters. This positioning was evident as far back as 2006, when they were promoting themselves as those with a “firm hand on the shoulder of government,” a party that would put a brake on Labor’s spending.66 By 2009, Greens councillors in the city of Yarra (Melbourne) were voting – with the Liberals and the ALP – for local laws prohibiting public drinking which were used to drive Aboriginal people off the streets in Collingwood.67

Victoria and Tasmania appear to be signs of things to come. In the latter’s state election the Greens positioned themselves as the party that would “deliver the stability that the economy and the business community wants.”68 As a show of faith to the establishment, party leader Nick McKim declared that, were the parliament to be hung, the Greens would take no demands into negotiations to form a government. When the outcome was a hung parliament, McKim rebuked the Liberals for their refusal to negotiate with the Greens. Brown, the party’s federal leader, fully endorsed the Tasmanians’ approach, labelling the Liberals’ intransigence absurd. In the end the Greens formed a coalition government with the Labor Party. That they have taken on cabinet positions is significant. Firstly, because it is the first time the Greens have done so in Australian history. Secondly, they now take responsibility for policy alongside the very people they have ritually labelled as corrupt and dishonest. 

In 1987 Bob Brown announced the irrepressible rise of the green movement: “The ‘them-later’ concern is reaching out to overtake the ‘us-now’ ethic of traditional politics.”69 As noted above, this “new politics” foundation of the Greens would always be pulled one way or the other by established social forces. Today, according to Brown, Tasmania is the face of this new politics.70 There is nothing new about it; it is power-grabbing “us-now” opportunism.

The one thing that has not changed over several decades is the primary goal of the Australian Greens: they want mainstream status. For a period the evolution of the party was uncertain. Now, with the decline of the anti-war movement and with a fairly stable political situation, the opening for them to develop to the left is smaller than at any time in the last decade. But it has also been a conscious choice of both the conservatives in the party and the left, which has refused to fight them in any serious way. Anecdotal reports suggest that, on the mainland, there continues to be a bleed from the left of the ALP to the Greens – particularly since the federal government’s back down on carbon trading and renewed attacks on asylum seekers. Yet the Greens’ increasing electoral success is leading to their integration into the state machine and further co-option into the running of Australian capitalism. In the absence of any social radicalisation which reinvigorates the left of the party, disillusioned ex-Labor members are likely to see history repeat. The Australian Democrats have shown that building a mainstream political organisation on the basis of talking progressive while dealing with the right can blow a middle-class party apart. In fact, the Greens’ own experience in Tasmania propping up minority governments has hurt them in the past, as can be seen in the fall in their vote at subsequent elections (see appendix).


The Greens emerged as a conservationist movement with an ambiguous social vision. While the environment is obviously central to the Greens’ politics, it has been social issues, the crisis of the New Left and the decline of social democracy that have allowed them the space to develop into a third force in Australian politics. They shifted to the left under both the pressure of political events and due to their attracting increasing layers of left-wingers to their ranks. For a period they staked out a position to the left of the ALP. However, their political positions contained contradictions related both to the tension between their ecocentric and progressive wings, and to their middle-class social composition. Their politics took the form of populist left nationalism. 

With the defeat of the conservative Howard government and the decline of campaigns around the war and refugees, the Greens have repositioned themselves as moderates. Their growth into a more professional and respectable outfit has accompanied their electoral success. They have, as the political situation has stabilised, oriented less and less on campaigning, and more and more on adapting to the prevailing climate. The Greens’ orientation to parliament, lack of an activist core, middle-class composition and pro-business outlook mean they do not in any sense represent an alternative to the ALP.



Just some observations about the Green party approach to politics since its inception into Canada including the provinces, etc.Federally we have had a one-person band in Elizabeth May, who previously was connected with right-wing Conservative Brain Mulroney before running as a Green. And if you actually check where May initially ran, it was frequently against the party, that more than any other party, represents working people in Canada. May actually had how many kicks at the can and got nowhere apart from re-electing herself, and finally after how many years, electing a couple of others. And now that the Greens have chosen a new leader, and regardless of the image and problems it creates for the new Green Leader, May has decided to run in the next election. Seriously.

And the BC Greens. Progressive my ass. The BC Greens had a right-wing former Brian Mulroney chief of staff  negotiate an accord or agreement with the BC NDP. And who blocked tenants from getting tenant's relief that the BC NDP wanted to provide. The BC Greens of course.  Yes of course there are some credible Green candidates but it seems unfortunately they have drunk the Green kool-aid, and their power and influence on society connected with a party that has only a couple of legislators, at the most, will be non-existent or quite limited at best. It is just a shame that so many people have been politically conned by the name "Green".