After a pause for the Jakarta bombing and the 11 September anniversary, the real election campaign started yesterday. And its first major event was the Greens national campaign launch in Melbourne.

Most stereotypes have an element of truth to them. The one that portrays the Greens as unrealistic fruit-loops certainly has some evidence to support it. But the one that says they are a humorless and mean-spirited lot just doesn’t gel at all.

The Greens who assembled at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre yesterday were, despite the shadow of international terrorism, a happy, optimistic and enthusiastic crowd. Their diversity was striking, ranging from the spiky-haired and pony-tailed thru to men in suits and women in their Sunday best. There were jokes, there was music, and there was a sense that maybe history at last was running in their favor.

In addition to Bob Brown, the party’s leading candidates were all presented; some of them made speeches, but they stayed on-message and none of them outstayed their welcome. Many Greens could be heard congratulating one another, with obvious surprise, on just how smoothly it all ran. This is a party that is still half-ashamed of looking professional.

But a certain amount of professionalism is not a bad thing. The last three years have been a successful time for the Greens, and success does tend to domesticate people. Taken in moderation, the effect of salaries, cars and nice offices is to smooth out some of the rough edges of fanaticism.

For those keen to find them, some of the rough edges are still there. The promotional video played to the sounds of “Children of the Revolution”, and the crowd broke into applause when it showed footage of asylum seekers breaking out of Woomera detention centre. But for the most part, the policies on show were well within the Australian mainstream.

Bob Brown’s delivery started out a little flat – the campaign already seems to be taking its toll on his voice. But he warmed to his subject, and was clearly buoyed up by the crowd’s enthusiasm. He is a showman first of all, but even so there was no doubting the emotion in his voice when talked about the wonder of the Tasmanian forests.

Even more impressive to this observer was seeing a political leader actually encouraging the other parties to adopt his policies. It gives a clue to why Brown’s appeal (and to some extent Mark Latham’s) transcends ideology: voters are hungry for genuineness from their leaders. As the old saying goes, the secret to life is sincerity: if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Apart from Brown, the crowd favorite was Andrew Wilkie. He addressed himself to security issues, and didn’t mince words when it came to terrorism: John Howard “is part of the problem, not part of the solution.” This is a message that Latham desperately needs to get across, but which he cannot risk saying himself. No such reluctance, though, from the Greens.

Wilkie said that his own polling in Bennelong showed his support running at 20%, which in a three-cornered contest would put him, as he said, within striking distance of the short man. No-one really thinks he will win, but the combined threat from him and from Labor might well be enough to unsettle the Howard camp.

As for the rest, the Greens are aiming for a million votes nationwide (about 8.5%). Brown is saying maybe three or four new senators, and “long odds, but shortening” on new Reps seats like Melbourne and Sydney. For Labor, that presents some danger but mostly opportunity.

A more powerful presence on the left helps Latham to play the centrist role for which he is suited, as he has already shown last week with his attack on ACOSS. As long as the Green vote comes back to him in preferences (and most of it will, regardless of how it’s directed – Brown admitted as much yesterday), he can afford to wish Brown and his team all the best.