The future of the Greens
Government or activism?
Adam Bandt at his election-night party, 7 September 2013. © Paul Jeffers / Fairfax
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They began gathering in the early evening at the People’s Market in West Melbourne on 7 September. The occasion was the Greens’ election-night party for the federal seat of Melbourne. By 7 pm, the temporary hawker-style market in a covered lot – at once achingly hip and unpretentiously welcoming – was bouncing to a DJ’s mix of mild hip-hop and rainforest-gloopy world music. The partygoers came from all corners of the electorate and beyond. Hipster students – Ned Kelly beards for the guys, floral-print dresses for the girls – mingled with ’80s post-punks whose short black hair was now stranded with grey, plus tired maths teachers who’d put on the good jumper and old hippies trailing rainbow colours, talking to Somalis. Around the edges, coming in a little later, maybe a little sheepishly, was a mix of leather jackets and tracksuit tops: unmistakably Labor renegades. The national press were there, seated in a faux Polynesian hut, tapping away in their suits at laptops, like representatives of a tribe from a distant island. They believed, to a man and woman, that they were there to document the noble failure and concession speech of Adam Bandt, the man who had taken Labor’s premium and previously very safe seat for a cheeky one-term tenure.
The press weren’t the only pessimists there that night. The Greens’ chances had sunk three weeks earlier, when the Liberals confirmed that they would be directing preferences elsewhere. “The early numbers aren’t looking too good for us,” I was told by Bandt’s bearish senior adviser, Damien Lawson, in front of the Polynesian press embassy. “Looks like we’re at 36 [per cent of the primary vote].” Later, when the actual figure of 42% came through, I wondered if the remark had been a misdirection, to lower press expectations.
By 8 pm, it was clear that something extraordinary was happening. Around a quarter to nine, with the TV networks calling Melbourne for the Greens, Adam Bandt stood on a table amid empanadas and steaming bok choy to speak. Flyweight, bespectacled, with a $9 haircut, Bandt looked the least Green person there, more like an old Labor man who had stepped out of a black-and-white newsreel. He paid tribute to the volunteers, the teachers’ union, public housing tenants, and the local African-Australian community he’d stood up for and who’d stood up for him. He paid tribute to people who “don’t want to see election campaigns that are a race to the bottom, but instead want to see us reaching for the stars”. “The Greens will keep alive the light on the hill,” he said, taking the torch for progressives. The Greens raged on till dawn. Then they woke to find that their national primary vote had fallen by a quarter, from 11.8% to 8.7%. The better the party, it seemed, the bigger the hangover.
In the following weeks, recriminations would fly around the higher reaches of a party that now – with nine senators and an MP in federal parliament, a past partnership in the Tasmanian government and a current one in the ACT – has a significant permanent apparatus, an interior. At its height, the internal conflict was open: in Parliament House, the South Australian senator Sarah Hanson-Young walked past a group of journalists and remarked that the Greens were “marching to a slow death” under Christine Milne as leader. Within weeks, half a dozen of Milne’s staff departed, including her chief of staff, Ben Oquist, whom she’d inherited from the previous leader, Bob Brown. The tensions climaxed with a mooted leadership challenge by – or on behalf of – Adam Bandt, with Hanson-Young eager to take over the role of deputy leader. That never came to fruition, but the debate continued, not least because the results had been so variable across the different states. In Victoria and New South Wales, the swing against the Greens was held to around two percentage points. In Queensland, they lost nearly half of their 2010 vote, in no small part because the Clive Palmersaurus had gobbled up the “anti-politics” vote that often falls to them. In Tasmania, where the Greens were still part of the state government, the vote dropped from 16% in 2010 to just 8.3%.
Whatever alarm bells were ringing in Greens circles, they were drowned out by the mainstream media, which largely saw the result as the beginning of the end for the party. The Greens had begun a “giddy rush to irrelevancy”, said a happy Piers Akerman, typifying much of the Murdoch commentariat. For them, the Greens had long been a nuisance, a sort of Australian Democrats redux, that had thrown a simple two-party narrative into chaos. Central to this asinine analogy – the Democrats were a stop-gap phenomenon, with as many factions as there were senators – has been the much-spruiked notion of a split within the party: between a “deep green” (environmentalist) faction based in Tasmania, headed by Bob Brown, and a “watermelon” (green outside, red inside) faction in NSW, headed by Lee Rhiannon, a one-time member of the Soviet-aligned Socialist Party of Australia. According to this account, the “watermelons” have no real interest in environmental crises or preserving wilderness and are simply using green politics to advance a revolutionary socialist agenda.
Speaking to many of the major players in the party, one senses that the demise of the Greens is far from imminent and that the primacy of the red–green split is nonsense. But that does not mean that the Greens are not at a fork in the mountain path. Formed nationally in the 1990s after two decades of grassroots activism, the Australian Greens now exist in a world where they can expect to be partners in government, and thus need a full suite of policies, and one where a looming biosphere emergency calls for an activist party to lead from the front. Can they do both? And what can they do to arrest the slide in their support, and move to the next level?
Ten weeks after the election, the Greens gathered for their national conference at a couple of fairly down-at-heel venues in suburban Brisbane to tackle those questions. Some preliminary analysis of the election results had confirmed what many had suspected – that a good portion of votes had shifted back to the ALP because people wanted to express their solidarity with Labor in the face of Tony Abbott. That was the theme of the conference’s “open day” discussion, designed to draw in new members. “I’m wondering if you can tell us why our vote fell so much?” came the first question from the floor. “Fear,” Milne replied. “Fear of an Abbott government drove people back to Labor.”
Milne added that the Greens had become too exclusively parliamentary in recent years and needed to return to their activist roots. “We need to be the best grassroots party we can be. We do what we do because it’s right, not because of focus groups.”
But the “shift back” in votes is hardly the whole story, for that would assume that wavering voters don’t realise that a Green vote can come back to Labor through the preferences system. Milne is forthright about the costs of power. “You earn political capital in opposition and you spend it in power,” she told the gathering, though it seemed less than fully satisfied with the answer.
She won’t be drawn on it, but sources say that Milne was always less keen than Bob Brown on the 2010 formal agreement between the Greens and the ALP. The deal, part of Labor’s successful attempt to secure a parliamentary majority in the hung federal parliament, was immortalised in a hilarious “sitcom marriage” photo of Julia Gillard and Brown signing on the dotted line as happy Greens and Labor relatives looked on. By her own account, Milne moved to shut down the Greens’ default support of the Gillard government as soon as she took the leadership in April 2012, partly as a way to differentiate herself from Brown, and the Greens from Labor, as the 2013 election neared. However, to the interested public, the move had no clear meaning, since the Greens had already stayed with Labor through the war in Afghanistan, the refusal to advance same-sex marriage, the backflip on gambling reform and the reintroduction of a punitive asylum-seeker policy. Also, you’d be pressed to find a senator who would declare the agreement a failure. Even Lee Rhiannon, supposed to be the most oppositional among them, gives qualified endorsement: “Most Greens want to be in government if we can get there, but it has to be taken on a case-by-case basis.”
Yet disquiet remains among Green strategists about the agreement to support the Gillard government, and about the decisions made by the party room of senators and Bandt over the past three years. Some disparage the “shift back” explanation for the drop in votes. “The voters who ‘shift back’ know what they’re doing,” says one. “They’re old Labor voters, willing to vote Green, but they only 95% trust us. They believe that in the end we could do a deal with the Liberals, so they leave nothing to chance.” By this account, the Greens were punished for an attempt to negotiate a way through the asylum-seeker impasse, at a time when Tony Abbott was blocking every “solution” proposed by Labor, when what Greens voters wanted was a firm statement of principle on the human rights of refugees. “That was Sarah Hanson-Young going behind Christine’s back, with Ben [Oquist]’s support,” another source close to the leadership confirms. “They wanted to approach the Libs as well. It was all knocked on the head by Christine.”
But if the federal agreement provokes criticism, the performance of the state Greens in Tasmania provokes anger – even before the Labor–Greens coalition was spectacularly sundered by Premier Lara Giddings in mid January. In 2010, the Greens had won five seats in the proportionally elected 25-seat parliament. After a lot of grandstanding from the major parties about “never doing deals”, the Greens entered into government with Labor. The Greens leader, Nick McKim, and his deputy, Cassy O’Connor, took up ministerial positions. But, as Rhiannon notes, in this instance, “We only got balance of power when Labor was at the end of their cycle in government, so the question becomes: how do you get your agenda through, in a troubled government?” The then premier, David Bartlett, insisted that the Greens could choose their ministers but not which ministries they got, which left them lumbered with the fraught portfolios of prisons and schools. “There have been regrettable decisions made that Greens ministers have been tied into,” says Hall Greenland, the NSW Greens convenor and one of the few Greens willing to go on the record with criticisms. “It highlights the problems of going into coalition governments. And only in the most extraordinary circumstances should you join ministries.” Anonymously, others describe the Tasmania scenario as a “disaster”.
Certainly no one I spoke to believed that the Tasmanian Greens had played their hand well. They took on education just as the state ALP was moving to cut spending and shift resources in tandem with demographic changes, which left a Greens minister to announce school closures for a state in dire need of advancement. The Tasmanian Greens were also criticised for signing up to the Tasmanian Forests Agreement. The treaty – the word is not too strong – is designed to end the long-running “forest wars” but provides for continued logging in some old-growth coupes and a draconian ban on anti-logging protests. The carping is muted – most blame the environmental groups that negotiated the deal for giving too much away – but many think McKim should have repudiated the agreement, not merely because it was a crock but also to remind the public of both the party’s oppositional status and its core mission.
When I met McKim in his Hobart office, just weeks before Giddings cast him out, he seemed anything but harried by the criticism, and was ready to parry every point. “Greens ministries control 40% of the state budget,” he said. “We’ve got adult literacy programs up, saved TasTAFE, turned decline around. We’ve reduced prisoner numbers, and vastly expanded community service.”
A former adman, he was persuaded to run by Bob Brown, who became something of a mentor. McKim has even picked up a few of the former leader’s mannerisms. Brown, when I caught up with him later that day, said that he remained a firm backer of the Greens going into power, wherever feasible. But even he was critical of the Forests Agreement. “Completion of logging in some old growth coupes was acceptable, but not conceding a ban on protests, as the agreement does,” Brown said. A few weeks later, the Tasmanian Greens MP Kim Booth announced his intention to vote against the state government. Giddings drew first, sacking the two Greens ministers and calling an election. It’s not hard to see that as a final tactical defeat.
The Tasmanian example brings to the fore the vexed question of whether to govern or to be activist – to insist on addressing one issue above all, and refuse to propose a program beyond it. Though global warming has shifted the environmental focus, the Green movement was a “total package” from the ’70s, a fusion of leftist and ecological principles. “We were always green,” says Hall Greenland, a leftist activist for decades before joining the Greens. “We’d read Rachel Carson [the author of Silent Spring] and writers like Murray Bookchin [an eco-anarchist] and Bahro [Rudolf Bahro, a green socialist, jailed by the East German government for two years]. We saw the ecological crisis as a product of capitalism.”
Bob Brown agrees. “The Greens party is a party of the Left, unequivocally,” he says. Says another activist: “I always know a given [journalist] knows nothing about the Greens when they say that Sarah Hanson-Young is a protégé of Lee Rhiannon’s, based on the fact that they both cover non-environmental policy areas.”
Whatever the Greens disagree on, the idea that they should be aiming for government is not one of them. Rather, the purported red–green division is as much about the way to get to power as it is about anything more radical. The NSW Greens want to retain the states-based structure, while others argue for a more national approach.
The state structure is a hold-over from the founding years, when Greens groups came from different traditions: socialist groups in Sydney, a wilderness movement in Tasmania and the Nuclear Disarmament Party in WA. State-based organisations were useful for a party that inherited an idea of “consensus decision-making” from the social movements of the ’80s. But now there are ten federal members of parliament, who together with staffers form a party room apparatus of more than 50 people. The state-based arrangement has become an example of what an ’80s postmodern cartoon on many an inner-city fridge called “the tyranny of structurelessness”.
“At conference, the MPs and their staffers sit together as a bloc,” one of the office bearers complains. “Lee Rhiannon’s the only one to sit with her state delegation.” Both sides contend that the party’s most notorious internal stoush – regarding the BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) campaign against Israel, supported by Rhiannon – was a proxy fight about structure. Each blames the other for provoking it. “Cracking down on BDS was a prelude to intervening in the NSW branch,” says one Sydney activist who has now left the party. The term “watermelon” does not begin to capture his deep inner redness; let’s call him the Blood Orange. “It was only after that [that] the Left decided to organise and take the state apparatus.”
When I put that to a former senior staffer, his eyes widen. “That is either genuinely delusional or deliberate disinformation.” Bob Brown is also having none of it: “The BDS policy was rejected twice at the federal level, and they went and applied it anyway.”
The Blood Orange claims that Brown was known at national conferences for deliberate “tantrums” on the issue of national versus state structure. Discussion of the NSW branch drives Brown out of his usual equanimity and into something approaching anger. “The trouble is, a national model has never been put to the membership. If it was, they’d adopt it straight away. It’s always blocked by people who call themselves grassroots.”
The machinations of a number of mid-level committees and non-parliamentary groups in the party drive activists – and ex-activists – to spitting fury. They complain of an overly complex structure that slows down decision-making, and gives power to those with time on their hands.
Brown agrees, noting “the hardest bums win the battle”. In other words, those who can sit out the meeting will get their agenda up in the end. Then, with a twinkle in his eye, he notes, “I always think in politics, you don’t want to be the Mensheviks.” Say what? “Well, you know, they’re all arguing about what to do. Meanwhile, Lenin’s on the train to Russia … The problem is these endless obstructive committees, run by people like Geoff Ash.” Ash is the co-ordinator of the party’s constitutional review committee. He is also Lee Rhiannon’s partner. In response, Ash says that “Bob’s tried to centralise power. We’ve defended grassroots democracy. It’s not an obstacle, it’s the foundation on which the Greens’ success has been built.”
The question will be sorted out this year, with a revision of the party’s national constitution due to be voted on in September. Yet there will be no easy way to read off a result. The Greens contain a spectrum of opinions, and there is no love lost between people who have worked together in fractious circumstances. But there really is no easy way to classify the various splinterings of views within the poles of left or right and red or green. Take Scott Ludlam, the impeccably groomed WA senator. Although his position remains uncertain, pending a High Court decision about the disputed WA Senate vote, he has acquired a global presence as a staunch defender of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and as a relentless critic of the US surveillance web. At the same time he is the most keen to break out of a competition for a fixed vote. He wonders if it is wise to “keep cannibalising Left votes when we could also be aiming for Liberal seats. Curtin [Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s seat in WA] is something we should be aiming at rather than a seat like Fremantle [a Labor stronghold].”
For all the tabloid alarm about the “feral” Greens, and a widespread belief that the biosphere is now in crisis, it may be that there is now too little appetite for civil disobedience in the party. In a recent interview, the Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein argued that groups proposing a “managed” solution to global warming are as much a part of the problem as climate change denialists, since they give the impression that we can deal with the current crisis without a transformation of the structures by which we live. Yet the Greens deserve credit for the way they have created a national political machine. With myriad interlocking bodies, MPs, local councillors and think tanks, the Greens’ apparatus transcends its individual members, something the Australian Democrats never managed to achieve. That said, such a large hinterland has left its members prone to being consumed by internal struggles. Several insiders say that the attempted toppling of Milne in the weeks following the election was instigated not, as reported, by Adam Bandt, but by Ben Oquist, who not only was convinced that Milne did not have the leadership image and skills to rebuild the Greens but also believed that her restructure of staff positions had meant to freeze him out. There was also unrest about the considerable assistance given to Sarah Hanson-Young’s campaign in South Australia – which saw relations between the Greens and independent senator Nick Xenophon collapse over some fast and loose preference dealings – while Ludlam was left to his own devices.
Such intrigue reveals a political outfit a long way from its counter-cultural roots. But it also suggests a likely longevity. To survive, all a party needs is a cause to which it’s worth giving a decade or so of one’s life. Unlike the moribund Democrats, the Greens won’t struggle for meaning. But the question remains whether such a party must also lead a more disruptive politics, one of civil disobedience, if it is to address the heating planet as a genuine crisis. Should there be more of the sort of sound and fury that occurred when then Greens senators Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle interrupted George W Bush’s address to federal parliament in 2003? “Non-violent direct action is at the absolute core of a democracy,” says Brown, who has had more than his share of run-ins with the law. As has Milne. As has Rhiannon, for that matter.
How many of those celebrating at Adam Bandt’s election victory party would be willing to march, to put their bodies on the line, in the name of the biosphere crisis, if someone were to lead them there? Perhaps, amid all the wrangling about constitutional structures, leadership and preselection that are inevitable in a minor party with major ambitions, it is time for a renewed and more visible militancy.