The Greens – a comment


I applaud Rod Cameron’s analysis of the Federal election, especially his comments about the Greens and the ill-considered duchessing they received from Mark Latham. (see New Matilda article here)

Indeed, the Greens merit more such attention because, notwithstanding their failure to make ground in the election, they will be a bur in the saddles of the major parties for a while yet. As to where they actually come from does not seem to have been the subject of extensive study. A cautious guess is that, apart from the founders – comprising a core of long term environmentalists, young people embracing a cause, together with a mix of academics, professional people and others – the broader membership and support base would include those who are disenchanted with the traditional parties, refugees from the Labor left, a lot of young people and many more affluent voters, including the so called doctors’ wives.

It was in the early/mid seventies that the Greens took their first tentative steps towards establishing a political party and, even then, there were Wilderness Society members and others who were uncomfortable with the idea. Those people accepted that the parliamentary route, especially in a balance of power situation, could well provide opportunities for winning policy concessions in the environmental area.

Even so, the more nervous among them were concerned that the movement would lose its freshness, its spontaneity, its broad-based apolitical lobbying potency. They argued that to create a political party out of the Green movement would involve the Greens in preference deals, in trade-offs, in all the grubby stuff that they purported to abhor and in a lot of glib and mostly uninformed posturing on all sorts of non-green issues. Indeed, that initial nervousness by a few supporters would seem to have been borne out to the extent that a consequence of the Greens having become a political party is that their navigators always seem to be in uncertain water – between the reef of specialised environmental advocacy and the rock of trying to be all things to as many voters as possible.

Moreover, now that they have progressively embraced issues beyond the original reason for their existence, the Greens have the dilemma of not only seeking to be all things to all people but not having the resources to give substance to the wider canvas on which they seek to paint. Their broadening would seem to have flowed from a range of factors including a concern to avoid the stigma of being a single issue party, to win votes from those who are dissatisfied with the major parties and to embrace areas they clearly regard as natural and allied constituencies – welfare, Indigenous Australia, the United Nations, foreign aid and others.

The Greens would also have us believe that their party is a grass roots democratic movement par excellence, in which policy is assumed to be very much ‘bottom up’. That may once have been the case but observation over some years suggests that Dr Bob Brown – co-founder, leader and principal spokesperson – plays a central role in policy development, supported by senior aides and key party functionaries. This is inevitable because the Greens are a movement as much as they are a party and Brown’s presence and the movement’s credibility are indivisible.

As a movement, they are critically dependent on voluntary labour which means that resources are spread so thinly that Brown himself is often required to make policy and develop tactics on the run, especially in areas beyond the central themes of the movement. This is especially so in relation to areas like foreign and economic policy in which his glib clichés betray his ignorance of the substance. One suspects that the Greens’ organisation, while immensely important as a cheer-leading chorus, is increasingly of only marginal relevance in terms of policy development. Indeed, a trend within the Greens seems to have been one of increasing emphasis on the leadership. This compels a top-down – rather than bottom-up – policy development process and, as a consequence, either increasing policy inflexibility or ill-considered policy because of having to wing it more often than they would prefer and more often than is prudent.

An example of this latter conundrum is making public assertions which, upon closer examination, are transparently unsustainable or silly. For example, in their earlier years of parliamentary representation, the Greens would often assert that reduced activity in some areas – forestry, mining etc. – could be readily accommodated by increased tourism. It is true that tourism is, and will remain, immensely important to Australia’s development prospects but it is not some eternal panacea. It will be important but as part of a broader economic mix that involves a wide range of activities. Besides, tourism can be a fickle business. The tourist is spending a discretionary dollar and when times are bad the discretionary dollar is the first one not to be spent. At such times food, mortgages, clothes, education and other such primary costs loom much larger than recreational travel. In such difficult times, people stay home and paint the dunny, dig the garden and perhaps take a day trip or two. So, to canvass tourism as a substitute for every kind of activity that is considered offensive on environmental grounds may be convenient but it is also simplistic and intellectually dishonest.

Moreover, we have now had some three decades to observe the evolution of the Greens in Australia – from protest movement to political party – and, looking beyond Bob Brown’s piety, it is apparent that his movement-cum-party is not greatly different from those in the major parties whom he so persistently criticises. The Greens too must share some blame for the blossoming of spin. They also embellish their arguments, select the most telling statistics, play the man, exaggerate, minimise, manipulate, massage, dodge, weave and do all the other things done by all contemporary political parties. And they do all that for the same reasons that the major parties do it – for political gain, ultimately for votes. Politics can be a tough and grubby business in which there is minimal space for innocence, whether it be innate or feigned.

For all that however the Greens have become an important feature of Australia’s political landscape, especially in the Senate but also through representation in state parliaments where, from time to time, they have held the balance of power. They can also be relevant on the streets – and to a very potent extent – when they choose that as their stage. They may, to many, be very irritating but the leadership is politically shrewd, persistent and tactically astute. Importantly too, the media’s love affair with Bob Brown is surely the longest in the history of Australian politics. The traditional parties have been slow to get their measure because they are part politicians, part pop-group, part environmental messiahs, intelligent and appeal to people who were once seen as almost eternal captives of the traditional parties – professional people, the affluent young, public servants, managers, nurses, teachers, and others. Indeed, the doctors in Lane Cove and teachers in East Brighton have no qualms about voting Green because they are entirely comfortable with the message they get, whether they comprehend it fully or not. Besides, the asylum seekers and timber workers are probably unlikely to be living in Lane Cove or East Brighton! Like all minor parties everywhere, the Australian Greens can wallow in the comfort of all care and no responsibility.

The Greens were not seen as a problem by the traditional parties when they were minor irritants on the margins but they have becoming increasingly less marginal as time has passed. It remains to be seen whether their weak performance in the 2004 election was a graze or a lethal wound. Bob Brown and his colleagues are at a crossroads. To move too far back to their roots would see them as little more than an institutionalised mass protest movement while to move too far towards becoming a traditional party, probably of the centre-left variety, would see them as a flimsy, vacuous squatter in the middle of the road, waiting to be run over by the major parties. The Democrats under another name. They might even replace the Democrats – or subsume them – but that, too, would be a passport to extinction. Whatever their ultimate fate, the Greens will continue for a while yet to wield influence in the Australian political process. That influence will be exercised in two principal areas – by Green representatives in parliaments around the country, especially where they hold the balance of power, and by grass roots Green protest activity on the streets. Indeed, protest activity is not only used by the Greens as a cheap way of seeking to influence public opinion. The streets and the wild protest sites are where the Green movement was born and where Greens still like to go – to make a point they consider important and perhaps, too, to renew their ethic. Whatever that ethic now is.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.