Not watermelons, John, social democrats


Today Greens leader Bob Brown addressed the National Press Club in Canberra. If the media report his statements responsibly, this appearance should go someway to redressing widespread misunderstanding of the Greens’ political agenda.

In the first two weeks of the election campaign we have already seen attacks on the Greens from across the political spectrum. The major parties seem to be spending more time attacking ‘greens under the beds’ than one other. Both John Howard and Peter Costello have referred to the Greens’ ‘kooky policies’ and suggested that voters should worry that the Greens are ‘more’ than an environmental party. John Anderson said the Greens are like ‘watermelons’ “ green and environment-focused on the outside, but Communist on the inside. Senator Andrew Bartlett has criticised the Greens for voting too often with Labor in the Senate. Labor is not quite sure what to say publicly, partly because they will rely on Green preferences in the lower house, and partly because the Greens are now promoting issues that were previously Labor policy.

The Greens are under attack because the established parties are worried about losing votes and seats. This harkens back to the major parties’ fear of One Nation before that party imploded. Parties like the Greens and One Nation challenge established power bases and both present a radical challenge to Australian political institutions. Both minor parties have resonated with a section of the electorate that believes its concerns are no longer addressed by the major parties.

But the similarities end there. The Greens have a different constituency from One Nation, a different party organisation based on participation, and a different policy platform (based on four pillars – economic justice and social equality, grassroots democracy, peace and non-violence, and ecological sustainability).

The Greens are now Australia’s strongest, smaller party; they will probably gain 8 “ 10 per cent of the primary vote in the federal election, and strengthen their Senate representation. It’s about time we tried to find out who they really are and what they stand for.

The Greens believe in consensus decisionmaking. If they do gain the balance of power in the Senate, this will be something that the major parties will need to grapple with. In the states where Greens have held the balance of power before – Western Australia and Tasmania – parliamentarians I interviewed complained that Labor state governments rarely consulted with them or briefed them on legislation, thus the relationship became primarily adversarial. To build more constructive dialogue, Australian political parties would need to learn from continental European democracies, where coalition governments are the norm.

Green policies are actively shaped by the party’s membership. They prioritise a democratic party organisation based on local decisionmaking structures, consensus decisionmaking, and an active membership. The Democrats also believe in an active membership but have not organised theirs around local branches that can deliberate on policy matters. Instead, their membership can participate in postal referendums on policy decisions. The major parties’ approach to its membership remains coloured by controversies surrounding branch stacking and preselection, as the cases of Peter Garrett and Malcolm Turnbull illustrate. The Greens also consult meaningfully with non-government organisations and community experts.

As a result of all this, the Greens’ strengthening policy positions now differentiate the party from the major parties. In today’s Press Club address, Bob Brown said ‘call me a social democrat’. He emphasised the Greens’ policy commitment to the public provision of goods and services – public funding of schools and universities, public health (including dismantling of support for private health insurance), indigenous health services, publicly funded dental services, job creation, the rail system, trade, and Telstra.

In today’s speech, Brown repeatedly contrasted his commitment to public provision with the stance of the Labor party on these issues. He also emphasised that it’s the Greens who vote to support these services in parliament, while the major parties keep voting together to dismantle them. Of course, he also addressed environmental issues (forests, global warming, renewable energy, and rivers) and social equality (gay marriage, reconciliation, youth, and arts and cultural funding). But it will be his arguments about public provision of goods and services that pose the biggest challenge to Labor, and which are likely to be important in setting new political agendas in Australia.

The Greens are far from perfect. They are often accused of being uncompromising, ideological and impractical. Single member electorates and the financial power of the major party incumbents means they won’t become a government-forming party any time soon. But they are different, and they are vocal. This now appeals to a substantive minority of Australian voters.

Dr Ariadne Vromen is a lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. she has been doing in-depth research on the Australian Greens, with Nick Turnbull, for the last year. This research is funded by the School of Economics and Political Science at the University of Sydney.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.