Australian Democrat Senators Andrew Bartlett, Andrew Murray, Natasha Stott Despoja and Lyn Allison in 2008
Australian Democrat Senators Andrew Bartlett, Andrew Murray, Natasha Stott Despoja and Lyn Allison in 2008

The Greens were, as recently as last election, regularly getting the media deathwatch. Someone would tap their forehead and ask when they, like the Democrats, were going to dissolve, exit history and return their votes to Labor, the rightful owners.

They’re not saying that anymore! No, with the Greens national vote now stabilised at around 10% — up from an 8% dip caused, in part, by a brutal News Corp war against them, and down from close to 12% as left-Labor voters protested against the Rudd government’s return to offshoring asylum seekers — they’re saying something else: that the Greens are stagnating and have nowhere to go. This has to be taken as a mark of success, if only to retain one’s sanity.

With the party recording a respectable 9.83%, a 1.3% swing to them — a 15% improvement in their vote, in other words — the questions and recriminations are starting in earnest. The party’s performance is being compared unfavourably to leader Richard Di Natale’s assertion that they were aiming for 20% — a charge that conveniently ignores the fact that Di Natale was talking about a multi-election cycle, not this election.

[Rundle: on the road with Di Natale — and why I will vote for the Greens]

They are suffering from bad luck — not getting a clear victory in Batman (and a likely, though not certain, eventual loss in that seat) — which would have given a talking point and bragging rights. And they are getting hit with Greens Derangement Syndrome from the media — the paradoxical effect whereby the party is judged more harshly for standard operational politics, while being accused of  — gasp — having an ethical/political discourse.

However, the question is being reasonably asked: did the Greens make a series of errors, now or before the election, which deprived them of a higher vote? Could they have moved their Senate vote — stuck at 8.8% — a little more? Could they have raised their numbers to an overall 12% or 13% if they had pursued different strategies? My answer to that would be “probably not”, but the wider prospects of the Greens are worth considering in a way that ties strategy and purpose together.

Despite the simplistic media narrative — that the Greens have gone from being a bunch of feral crusties and Newtown Communists led by Bob Brown in a borrowed suit to being a sort of ground force meme led by deal-maker Richard Di Natale — the party has not substantially changed its approach for a decade. It presents itself as a party insistent on the idea that the planet is in imminent crisis, and that that has immediate policy consequences, such as the fast shutting-down of all coal mines and other fossil fuel facilities in Australia — with compensation for workers and shareholders, but without such dislocations being sufficient reason to slow down the process.

But it is also the party with a full suite of policies, ready to govern or be part of the process of governing from day one. That creates a paradox that all transformative parties must face. Do you insist on your cause as primary and eschew day-to-day government, or try to combine the two? If the cause is sufficiently pressing, you avoid the latter.

The African National Congress, before the end of apartheid, did not have an arts policy or a position on the siting of the new Pretoria airport. Its position on everything was “end apartheid”. The Greens, part of a movement that insists — correctly — that a planetary crisis is imminent and urgent, could take the position that they should just strive for election, to insist upon that and treat everything from tax regimes to same-sex marriage as a fatal distraction. In the early days, the party had more than a flavour of that.

For a time, it managed to combine both, due principally to the fact that its leader, Bob Brown, maintained both tendencies within himself and found a way to do politics in both ways without looking contradictory. It was at this time that the Democrats — a mixed party of left and centre-right — finally crumbled. As the Greens displaced them, they also gained a final crossover of a whole slice of inner-urban voters, heirs of the Whitlam tradition, long attached to the Labor left.

This has been the Greens’ making, and also a challenge. By 2016, many of these voters are now the children of the ’70s/’80s generation of activists and green-leftists. They are, as I may have mentioned once or twice, members of the culture-knowledge-policy (CKP) class of producers, and their class being is quite distinct from classical working class or middle class formations.

[Rundle: who’s afraid of the latte-sippers?]

Increasingly they have been attracted to a party standing up for radical liberal values, on asylum seekers and same-sex marriage, but also to a party that offers “smart” system-based solutions to current problems: the introduction of a vast increase in renewable energy led by state-market-academic partnerships, retiring fossil fuels, creating new industries and decentering the grid-centred idea of power, for example.

Some, perhaps many, of these voters would see this as the best way to tackle the climate crisis. They might well be neutral, or even a little distanced from, kayaking protesters trying to stop ships going in and out of Newcastle harbour. They’re not anti-protest, but how they would feel about a senator like the great Norm Sanders of yore (a Democrat) — who played cat-and-mouse with felony arrest on dozens of in-your-face protests throughout his tenure as a federal MP — remains to be seen.

The development as a full political party, participation in federal and state governments, has cemented the Greens as a party representative of their class — indicated by the narrowed range of rise and fall in their vote. One can see it geographically in the booth wins in a seat like Batman, where they dominate below Bell Street, Preston, and lose to Labor above it. But with the retirement of Brown and Christine Milne as leaders and senators, the two sides of Green politics are now no longer embodied in a single person. The party must find ways to do so, not as an image thing, but as a matter of real politics.

That is especially so, since the new strategy — again, correct in my view — has been to be willing to make individual legislative deals with the Coalition, where a clear, net progressive gain can be got, without any seriously regressive downside. Once again, the Greens can’t win in the mainstream media on this. When Christine Milne tried a strategy of substantial oppositionality, the Greens were labelled as stonewallers; once they tried a negotiated approach, they were accused of selling out. When they stand on principle, they’re accused of being adolescent; when they do an arrangement such as the pensions deal, which substantially increased the flow of state money to low-income pensioners overall but included a cut in some part-payment pensions, they are assailed as rightists.

That knot draws tighter the more it’s pulled on. The more willing and adept you become at the politics of government, the more your credentials as a party of existential challenge — as a party that says we cannot go on this way — can be put in the shade. That’s especially so if such credentials really do lapse — as your voting base in the cities become more prosperous and system-integrated, rather hoping that the system itself can deal with planetary crises, and definitely more interested in the impact of your tax and financial policies on their life-paths.

That has to be addressed first and foremost, simply because if it isn’t, there’s no point having a Greens party. There’s no point securing same-sex marriage if its beneficiaries will celebrate their 50th anniversaries on a fire-ravaged, climate-war-scarred hellhole. Furthermore, without attention to such a core concern, votes from non-CKP sections, particularly youth, will start to atrophy.

In parallel to that, the Greens have to play a second double game, which is to both look forward to the possibility of a vote breakout, while at the same time consolidating a party and a movement that can withstand long periods in which its vote does not move. If my argument about a CKP class base is correct — and it’s a hypothesis offered for testing, not an absolute assertion — then certain things are likely:

  • The overall Green vote has a ceiling, and about 80-90% of its vote is based in that class, and in the areas where they are concentrated;
  • The CKP hypothesis covers the wider professions in terms of the content of their work. A human rights lawyer is obviously more likely to vote Green than a tax lawyer; but even an intellectual property lawyer might be more liable to do so. The rising Greens vote in seats like Higgins is, in part, composed of defections of social and moral liberal voters (the so-called “doctors’ wives”) but also of professionals whose lives are bound up in systems and wholistic thinking, interpretive knowledge and the like;
  • Where there is a focus of such CKP groups, the vote will spread out into adjacent non-CKP groups. This would explain the pattern of a rising Greens vote in regional towns, because they increasingly become medical hubs, university and research towns and the like;
  • Where Greens manage to get elected to representative roles in CKP hubs, the Greens vote can expand to all social classes. Thus, Adam Bandt has cemented himself as the member for Melbourne by being a good local member, as well as a Greens standard-bearer;
  • By contrast, where there is no CKP hub, the prospects of building a winning majority are slim indeed — no matter how effective the member. One might call this the “Buckingham Paradox”, after Jeremy Buckingham, the NSW Greens MLC in New England. Few people are more liked in New England than Jeremy — farmers, shop owners, locals of all types praise him to the skies — and they respect his fight for the region, and even his leadership role. They’d give him a kidney — and then come out of hospital and vote for his National Party opponent, even if it were a roadkill wallaby; and
  • That expanded hypothesis suggests that the Greens’ task may be a very slow drilling-through of very hard, sustainably produced timber for some time to come. Indeed, their fortunes may go in reverse. It was right and proper for the Greens to support the end of ticket-voting Senate casino, but the emergence of new forces such as NXT and One Nation means that competition for the sixth slot in half-Senate elections may be very tough indeed. The party has, as any party does, sustained its members on the prospect of greater success. Will it be able to keep them energised as it becomes clear that that success may be denied them for quite a while? That would demand a different discourse — one not of being blessed by history, but of being the party of resistant principle, pushing the whole spectrum in a progressive direction, but also speaking truth to power. Since power in our era relies on a vast falsehood — that we can go on as we are and not create disaster — that role is simply one of stating some very simple and basic things.

Yet at the same time, the prospect of a breakout has to be kept firmly in public view. Even class-based parties have a universal message — and eventually that universal message becomes taken up by a mass. UK Labour in 1945, Labor in 1972, Syriza in 2014, and there are countless other examples. Political parties have to be willing to be lucky. Crisis, and an inability by Labor to handle it within the contradictory terms of its own mission, is one. The rise of a centrist party like NXT is another. If such a party and the Greens could take 30-40% of the vote in a seat between them, then many seats come into play, and the two-party duopoly and lock-out is broken.

But given that the party has little control on what external circumstances occur, there is a need for what it can do, while it waits for such things to happen. The obvious suggestion would be that an organic party of class has to become a hegemonic party of class in the areas — spatial and cultural — it wants to control. That means taking on strategies of an extra-parliamentary party, as well as one focused on the House.

Specifically, that would mean developing the social and political outreach dimension of the party to a greater degree: running branded “politics in the pub”, etc, meeting series, having senators do “pop-up” surgeries within their states to deal with voter issues, publishing an annual Greens Essays volume in the manner of the old Labor Essays series, convening a movement-wide social forum, so that the now disparate parts of the Green/environmental/ecological movement can dialogue, and many others, and having one or two senators risk legal sanctions to revive a more activist and contestational dimension. And above all, dig in. While the planet gets hotter, nevertheless, fortunes may cool.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey