3888Re: Proof of the pudding
- Dec 26, 2003The Australian
The Greens machine
By Jamie Walker
December 27, 2003
Michael Field vividly remembers the day he was out and about, on the
hustings somewhere, when Bob Brown's election jingle crackled across
the car radio: "Go, go the Greens for government."
Eleven years on, the former Tasmanian Labor premier can still belt
out his private response. "Go to buggery," he chortles.
There's no shortage of people in Australian politics who would like
to tell Brown and his party to do precisely that. Don't hold your
breath, though. Field wouldn't - couldn't - during the three fraught
years he spent governing in accord with the Australian Greens. His
counterparts today are equally wary of their growing strength.
The Greens doubled their vote at the last federal election in 2001,
albeit off a low base. Since then, their national membership has
doubled as well. Seventeen of them have been elected to various
parliaments. Federally, there are Brown and Kerry Nettle in the
Senate, and the breakthrough figure of Michael Organ in the House of
Representatives. Greens also sit in the legislatures of Tasmania,
Western Australia, NSW and the ACT; Melbourne's Yarra City Council
has a Greens mayor.
Further gains are likely in the Senate at next year's federal
election, almost certainly at the expense of the deeply troubled
But as the long, languid days of summer count down to campaign
season, acute questions will be asked of the Greens and the still
unknown quantity of their national leadership.
As The Australian revealed this week, Brown's mettle is being tested
by the internecine warfare that has broken out in Queensland,
throwing the division into chaos on the brink of a state election
that will be seen as a signpost to the Greens' federal prospects.
Whatever their veracity, the accusations of lead Senate candidate
Drew Hutton making cosy preference deals with Labor will reinforce
longstanding concerns about the Greens being a front for
unacknowledged political interests.
Much will depend on whether John Howard pulls the trigger for a
double-dissolution election, boosting the Greens' still strong
chances of lifting their numbers in the Senate to five or above. This
would deliver them the added resources of recognised party status and
confirm they had supplanted the Democrats as the third force in
Field can only shake his head at the prospect. His searing experience
in minority government in Tasmania from 1989 to 1992 makes him deeply
suspicious of Brown, the Greens and their collective modus operandi.
The episode is worth revisiting because it offers the only worthwhile
guide as to how the Australian Greens exercise political power.
Back then, the Liberals had 17 seats to Labor's 13 in Tasmania's 35-
place House of Assembly. The Greens, with five MPs, agreed to support
Field in an accord, giving them a say in executive decision-making
but without the red leather accoutrements of cabinet posts.
To this day, neither side can agree why it all fell apart. Brown
still trumpets the achievements of what he calls "the most brilliant
period of government since World War II". The Greens, he says,
established their economic credentials by supporting a succession of
tough Labor budgets while securing a doubling of the southwest
Tasmanian World Heritage wilderness.
Freedom of information legislation was introduced and a plan to close
state schools shelved in the face of trenchant Greens-led opposition.
Says Brown: "Our process then, as it is now, was to say to both Labor
and Liberal, you bring up your programs, we'll produce ours, and then
Negotiate? With the Greens? Field says that's not how he remembers
the accord working. "It was like playing poker against somebody who
would never put his cards on the table," Field says of his dealings
with Brown. The crunch came when Labor abandoned an agreed limit to
the woodchipping of native forests and introduced resource security
legislation beneficial to leading logging companies. Field says it
was a question of priorities: in the teeth of the worst recession
since the Great Depression, people and jobs had to come first.
In the event, Labor walked away from the accord and was trounced at
the 1992 election. The Greens might have talked about going for
government, but they settled for supporting the new Liberal
administration, albeit without a written accord. Field is scathing,
even now, of the Greens' conduct. "We would be left carrying the
responsibility and they would just feel free to attack us whenever
they liked," he says. "You couldn't argue back, not publicly, because
that would have destablised the government. From my point of view, it
Brown says he wouldn't change a thing. If anyone was at fault it was
Labor; it broke the accord and paid the price at the polls. Brown is
smiling in his thin-lipped way, just as Field does when he talks
about what he wanted to say to the Greens all those years ago. "Don't
they just hate it!" Brown exclaims, slapping a thigh for
effect. "Don't they just hate having to work with us."
Brown would hate this. Truly, deeply loathe it. But there are some in
Australian politics who equate his Greens with Pauline Hanson's One
Nation, a party they regard as their antithesis in almost every way
Greg Barns, the former Liberal ministerial adviser who went on to
head the Australian Republican Movement and was later controversially
disendorsed as a Liberal candidate over his criticism of the
Government's hardline policy on asylum-seekers (shades of Hanson
circa 1996), says the Greens and One Nation stand for similar things,
though they practise their politics very differently.
Both, he says, are anti-globalisation and broadly anti big end of
town. Each seeks to attract the protest vote, the Greens principally
from disillusioned Labor and Democrats supporters on the Left, One
Nation from disgruntled traditionalists on the Right, among them blue-
collar ALP supporters. Barns argues that the Greens have been allowed
to skate through with relatively little scrutiny of where they've
come from and where they're going.
"They are a party that has been able to get by with putting very
little meat on the bones," he says. Perhaps; compared with the
blowtorch the media has applied to One Nation at times, the Greens do
appear to have had a much easier time of it.
Brown's canny leadership has clearly been a factor in this. As Barns
points out, he is far more of a political insider than Hanson was.
Brown probably wouldn't appreciate that, either. He says the
fundamental error made by the commentariat is to measure the Greens
against the yardstick of conventional political values.
"We are a national alternative to the economic fundamentalism of the
big parties," he says. "And there is a mistake at the outset by many
observers who say, 'Well, the Greens are in some way or another there
to tackle the big parties.' We are not. We are there to replace
It's easy to forget when you hear Brown talking like this - and note
his emphasis on the word "economic", but more of that later - how far
he and the party have come. The Greens as a national entity came into
being only in 1992, though the seed had been planted 20 years earlier
in the unsuccessful effort to halt the flooding of Tasmania's Lake
Pedder. This led to the formation of the United Tasmania Group,
reputedly the world's first declared green party. The No.2 candidate
on its 1975 Senate ticket just happened to be one R.J. Brown. He
received 112 votes.
By 1983, Labor was in power in Canberra and the Greens were in
business, courtesy of the landmark campaign to save the Franklin
wilderness. The environment had become one of the hottest political
issues going; after the economy, it was among voters' principal
concerns. Greens preferences were credited with saving the Hawke
Labor government in 1990.
Hutton recalls that the organisational structure at that time was an
absolute mess, which is saying something given his present travails.
In the absence of a national umbrella, 20 groups ran candidates under
a Greens banner at the 1990 general election - "a communal household
here, some group over there". They were behaving more like a herd of
cats than a political party.
Actually, the hue of green varied quite markedly across the country,
with important and lasting consequences. It went beyond the standard
contrast between light and dark green, between moderate and
fundamentalist elements in the environment movement, and still does.
In NSW they were more like class warriors, the early influence of
Trotskyites and the Socialist Workers Party so pervasive in the key
inner Sydney branches that it forced rule changes to preclude Greens
from holding membership of another party.
The West Australian branch, for its part, grew directly out of the
Nuclear Disarmament Party, another halfway house for the fringe Left,
and became the most electorally successful of them all, boasting in
the early 1990s two senators in Dee Margetts and Christabel
Chamarette. Brown himself didn't enter the Senate until 1996.
Hutton and many of his contemporaries in Queensland were radicalised
in the 1970s and '80s as much by the heavy hand Joh Bjelke-Petersen
applied to civil liberties as his chainsaw approach to resource
development. Then, of course, there are the Tasmanians.
The battle to save the southwestern wilderness and against the Wesley
Vale pulp wood mill forged a teak-tough leadership in Brown and
figures such as Christine Milne, who is tipped to join him in the
Senate next year. "There is a sense in which the Greens are an army,
many of whose members have - quite literally - put their bodies on
the line, and it is expected that their generals will have earned
their stripes at the level of grass-roots activism," observed
novelist Amanda Lohrey, writing glowingly of the Greens for Quarterly
Essay last year. "They are only their foot soldiers writ large."
Some would say, though, that the Greens themselves are the foot
soldiers of the Left. Earlier this year, NSW Premier Bob Carr
complained many Greens were unreconstructed Trots, closet members of
the SWP. The whole Labor Party knew this, Carr said, and voters
Discussion about the ideological orientation of the Greens tends to
revolve around the watermelon thesis that what's green on the outside
is actually red beneath. Does it matter in this day and age? Well,
yes, especially if the Greens are trying to pull the shade cloth over
Certainly, stories abound of Greens branches being stacked with
refugees from Labor's fraying fringes and what's left of the old
socialist collective. Echoing Carr, ALP operatives will regale you
with accounts of how some former communist or ex-SWP type or former
card-carrying member of ratbags united was seen outside a polling
station handing out how-to-vote cards for the Greens.
The NSW division, far and away the Greens' biggest in terms of
membership, and still the most radical, does retain some bad old
habits. Its constitution dictates that MPs must do in parliament as
the state council dictates, eerily reminiscent of the ALP's "grey
men" era. Other reminders linger. Lee Rhiannon, the high-profile
state Legislative Council member, is a proud daughter of the Left and
of Communist Party of Australia parents who carries her arrest during
an anti-apartheid demonstration as a badge of honour. Jack Mundey,
the former Builders Labourers Federation boss and "green bans"
opponent of heritage demolition, former member of the old CPA and the
former New Left party, joined the Greens last March, professing they
fit "perfectly with my philosophical beliefs".
But, really. The Greens have repeatedly displayed a bloody-minded
tendency to think for themselves. Newcomers often struggle to cope
with the free-wheeling party structure, which can be akin to
wrestling with an octopus, given that everything from national policy-
making to vote preference agreements has to be ticked off by local
Witness the experience of Peter Pyke in Queensland, the former state
Labor MP who joined the party nine months ago and was fast-tracked to
become campaign director for the forthcoming state and local
government elections -- until, that is, he fell out with Hutton. Pyke
says Hutton is too close to the ALP and too anxious to realise his
long-cherished ambition to sit in parliament. Hutton, for his part,
lists among other criticisms of Pyke his alleged failing to
understand the green mind-set. Greens don't like to be organised,
The battle for the heart and soul of the Australian Greens is over.
It was fought and won in the early '90s at the height of the SWP's
serious and determined bid to take over the party. Having failed, the
avowedly Leninist SWP faded away and few in the Greens would lament
that. The trade-off for the rule change banning dual party membership
was to allow the NSW division its lone hand to whip MPs into line.
Brown shrugs this off. If that was the price of getting NSW on board,
then so be it. In August 1992, the Australian Greens was launched at
a press conference in North Sydney. As Lohrey noted, not one TV news
crew turned up.
So here we are, sitting in Brown's gloomy office in Parliament House,
looking to what he insists is a bright future. Leaving aside events
in Queensland, the year hasn't ended as well as he would have hoped.
The Greens' vote, according to Newspoll, has slipped to 5 per cent,
down three percentage points from the October high.
Other published opinion polls show a similar dip. Brown and Nettle's
juvenile antics during the joint sitting of parliament addressed by
US President George W. Bush appear to have been coolly received by
the electorate. Senior adviser Ben Oquist insists, though, that the
polls reflect no more than the bounce Labor received from the
leadership change to Mark Latham. You'd hardly think that was a
Still, you can bet the Democrats would give just about anything for
the Greens' numbers. They're on a dismal 1 per cent in Newspoll and
seem an awful long way from climbing back under Andrew Bartlett's
leadership. For them, the election will come down to a head-to-head
tussle with the Greens for the final Senate spot in most states. The
smart money is on Howard calling a regulation half-Senate poll in the
second half of next year, partly because he doesn't want to give the
minority parties - read the Greens - the boon of a double
dissolution, which halves the vote required for a Senate quota.
Only three of the Democrats' seven serving senators would need to
contest such an election, meaning the party would survive the wipeout
the polls suggest. The one certainty is that few if any of the four
Senate independents who delivered the Government its pre-Christmas
win on higher education reform will be back. All of them, including
the irascible Brian Harradine, 69 in a fortnight, are nearing the end
of their terms and must face the voters whether it's a double-D poll
or not. With the possible exception of Harradine, who, typically, is
giving nothing away about his expected retirement, they will struggle
to be re-elected.
Brown says the Greens have a realistic chance of emerging with five
to seven seats - and more if things fall their way during the
campaign. Neither he nor Nettle are out at a half-Senate election and
would be near-certainties to be returned in a double dissolution.
The Greens are highly confident of getting Milne up in Tasmania and
of unseating the Democrats' Brian Greig in Western Australia.
Privately, senior Democrats concede that Greig, the stop-gap leader
between Natasha Stott Despoja and Bartlett, is in trouble. After
Tasmania and WA, the most promising states for the Greens are NSW and
Victoria. Hutton still needs his preselection to be ratified by the
State Council but, notwithstanding this week's damaging publicity, he
will confront the Democrats' John Cherry at the election, one of
their better performers.
South Australia, the Democrats' traditional heartland, remains a tall
order. But keep an eye on the ACT, despite the higher quota of votes
required to elect a senator from the commonwealth territories. Greens
Legislative Assembly member Kerrie Tucker has a strong local profile
and is thought to be a serious prospect to move up to the big house
on the hill. The numbers are already being crunched. Her election, at
the expense of a Liberal senator, would change the balance of power
in the Senate. Remember, if it's a half-Senate poll, the existing
Senate stays on until 2005, except for senators from the ACT and
Northern Territory, who take their seats immediately. Assuming the
Government were returned, it would need the four independents plus
one to get key legislation such as the Medicare reform bill past the
combined opposition of Labor and the minority parties.
Acutely aware of the opportunity glimmering before him, Brown agrees
the Greens' organisation needs to become more professional, more
nationally focused. "We have to keep up with the growth and that
means a greater emphasis on national administration," he says.
Membership has blossomed since the last general election, up from
about 2728 to 6366 for 2002-03, according to leaked party records
published on the website Crikey.com.au. In 2001, the Greens fielded
candidates in every lower house seat in the country and attracted
more than 500,000 primary votes, just on 5 per cent of the total
cast. This was twice what was achieved at the 1998 general election.
Yet let's not get too carried away; it was still nowhere near enough
to deliver a House of Representatives seat.
The truth is the Greens will be lucky - very lucky, indeed - to hold
Wollongong-based Cunningham, let alone replicate the feat Michael
Organ achieved in snatching the seat from Labor. The gift
circumstances of the 2002 by-election - the sitting ALP member taking
his super and running, an outbreak of factional brawling and the
Liberals' declining to field a candidate, just to rub it all in - are
unlikely to be repeated.
Lohrey claims that Green preferences affected the outcome of no fewer
than 19 federal seats in 2001, 16 of them Labor. In fact, analysis of
the last federal election vote by the Federal Parliamentary Library
found that neither Greens nor Democrats preferences changed the
outcome in a single seat in which they were formally directed. Labor
got 72 per cent to 76 per cent of Greens preferences regardless of
whether the party tried to channel them. The importance of the Greens
vote is not what Brown and Co try to do with the flow-on of the
primary vote but the size of it in the first instance.
And make no mistake, it will be crucial to Labor come polling day.
The Weekend Australian understands that both Liberal and ALP internal
polling is showing that Greens preferences could push Latham's Labor
across the line. The conservation movement is buzzing with talk of a
handshake deal already being done on preferences, with Labor getting
the Greens in return for concessions on greenhouse emissions and old
growth forest protection. No wonder Brown is smiling.
Increasingly, Green apparatchiks are talking the talk of their Labor
and Coalition counterparts. Oquist says it's high time the Greens
sorted out who they really are, and that means badging themselves as
a Senate party. It means winning seats, not congratulating themselves
on running close or for giving the other side a scare.
"You have got to close the deal ... you have got to translate the
vote into seats," says Oquist, who narrowly missed Senate
preselection in NSW. His comments underline the hard, sharp edge the
Greens intend to apply to national politics. It has always been
there - it's just now we're seeing it more nakedly, reflecting their
growing confidence and ambition.
Traditionally, they have polled better in the House of
Representatives than the Senate. This time round, they aim to reverse
that trend. That means a new, more centralised form of campaigning.
New methods, too.
Watch out for Brown this summer. If there's a bushfire burning, he'll
be there, according to Oquist, railing against global warming and
climate change. The Greens are cranking up the old campaign to
protect old-growth forests, an issue Labor clearly thinks has
traction given Latham's decision to accept Brown's invitation to tour
Tasmania's wildnerness region in the New Year.
An official from the NSW division has spent time with US Democratic
Party presidential hopeful Howard Dean's campaign, studying its
groundbreaking use of the internet in fundraising and direct
electioneering. A national campaign co-ordinator is to be employed
and the state divisions are being tapped to provide funds for the
looming Senate campaign. Hutton says Queensland will probably
contribute about $10,000.
By next March, the Greens say they will have in place their various
Senate tickets and key policies finalised by a special national
conference. They say they're determined to avoid past mistakes. At
last March's NSW election they were considered to have a chance of
breaking through in the Labor-held seat of Port Jackson, inner
Sydney, until a storm erupted over their policy to make heroin and
other illicit drugs freely available under medical supervision. The
Liberals announced their preferences would go to Labor ahead of the
Greens, while Premier Carr fanned the flames by declaring his
Government would not be party to "youngsters boiling their brains".
Peruse the Greens' 2001 election manifesto and there are other
examples of loopiness - sex-change operations at the public expense,
regulating the supply of marijuana at "appropriate venues" - though
not as many as their critics would contend. The Greens, no doubt,
will strike a chord with their youngish constituency by calling for
the abolition of university HECS fees, a policy they have costed at
about $1.8 billion a year. According to insiders, Brown will take a
fully funded maternity leave plan to the next election. But will they
really stick with the idea to impose capital gains tax on the sale of
the family home? Or to slug companies "at least 49c in the dollar"
compared with the present 30c? - an impost that would inevitably
undermine "the principle of full employment" they profess to support.
Brown is careful not to pre-empt the Green's cumbersome committee-
based policy-making process, having stumbled last year in the lead-up
to a national council meeting by suggesting that he would consider a
trade-off on the full privatisation of Telstra. For the record, Brown
says he is totally opposed to any such deal with the Government. He
might have supported a debate on its merits back then, but not now.
Hutton, a co-founder of the Australian Greens and one of the most
identifiable figures in the party after Brown, believes the most
important policies are not environmental ones but economic. "What
green politics are all about is changing the nature of human
relationships with the planet and other species on the planet," he
But in the hothouse of federal Parliament House the view can be a
little more telescoped. People are wondering: how will the Greens
operate if they arrive in numbers after the election? Will they work
for outcomes or for scoring political points? Will the "just say no"
approach adopted by Brown and Nettle be sustainable should there be
more to the Greens Senate team than them?
Hutton says the Greens political identity is still a work in progress
in Australia. Greens themselves aren't sure about where they're
heading and that's one of the tensions at the core of green politics
in this country. Brown, though, seems to have no such qualms.
There's no need to be hypothetical when it come to the question of
what they would do with balance of power in the Senate, he says. The
Greens will behave just as they did in Tasmania when in accord with
Field-led Labor in Tasmania. Unlike the Democrats, they won't be
trying to keep the other bastards honest; they won't be for further
income tax cuts, for example, regardless of who proposes them.
Brown says he doesn't want to work the system, he wants a new
order. "The mind-set is still there that the Greens are some sort of
backstop," he explains, his eyes steely. "It is a confused mind-set,
which says that nothing can ever be changed in politics except by two
parties, Labor or Liberal. I'm here to tell you that's not the case
with the Greens. We are outside the circle."
No compromise. No prisoners. That's the Greens way forward. If 2004
is to be their year, it will be a testing one for all concerned.
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