The Australian Greens: from activism to Australia’s third party


Australia has long had a near duopoly in political parties operating in the federal sphere. In part echoing Duverger’s law, in part structured by the collection of conservative parties under two distinct but related banners. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal-National Party coalition for 65 years after the Second World War enjoyed oscillating control of the Australian House of Representatives. While other parties have at various stages held seats in the Senate, most notably the Australian Democrats for 30 years (1977-2007), it was not until the 2010 federal election that a crack appeared in duopoly’s control. After 20 years of a continuous presence in the Senate, the Australian Greens, successfully elected Adam Bandt, member for Melbourne, in the lower house.

greens_jacksonThe Australian Greens itself was founded by a diverse range of people from across Australia. The party itself did not grow from one meeting or one person, but as a network of like-minded people active in community and environmental campaigns in different localities.

From the outset, the diversity was represented in strong local and regional characteristics amongst the constituent parts of the party, with plenty of strong characters involved. Some of these individuals would be known to most readers of national newspapers: Jo Vallentine, Bob Brown and Christine Milne, being three such campaigners-turned-MPs.

But for all our knowledge of these MPs, of their sometimes high-profile campaigns and escapades, and of their issues, little is known about the people who built the party, who populate its local branches, and who do the bulk of the political campaign work at election times. While we know a fair bit about the major parties — at least partly from the constant stream of tell-all books from ex-MPs and activists — we know comparatively little about the internal workings of the Greens.

What we do know about the Greens is largely confined to what the party tells us about itself. Such as, what Bob Brown puts in his anecdotal recollections, and a very small number of part historical – part theological thoughts on the party’s basis for existence. When I began writing my book, this is what I set out to discover.

From the outset it is clear that the diversity within the party is a representation of the members themselves: this much should not surprise us if we think of most political parties modelled on a mass-party structure. The Australian Green’s membership, sitting above 14,000 in 2015, has seen plenty of comings and goings since its formative days, and the membership itself has shifted focus and interest since then.

As we might half expect from a party long thought to embody Inglehart’s post-material thesis, the members are very well educated, if a little older (at an average of 54) than might be expected from looking at those who vote for the party. And the membership is evenly divided between men and women, in contrast to the view of most large parties being the domain of ambitious men.

The obvious interests of members stand out: Climate change is overwhelmingly seen as a critical cause for action, with forests and land clearing closely behind. Interestingly, health and education also figure prominently among members as a key priority for the party for action, perhaps echoing its beginnings as always more than just an environmental party. Indeed, it is this understanding that social justice is just as important as the environment that comes across strongly from the membership.

When we dig deeper, we also find that both party members and activists have a healthy disdain for leadership figures, although the role of Bob Brown as something of a unifying figure still looms large. That caution towards leaders goes back to the party’s roots, with a desire for flat structures and distributed power still evident in party structure. At the same time, a shift towards streamlining processes, delivering clear political messages, and organising effective electoral campaigns points towards the increasing professionalization of the party.

And it is in that professionalization that the key to changes in the Australian Greens are found. As the party has grown, matured, and accepted positions in government, it has also rid itself of the image of the ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ or having fanciful policies. Able to make deals with the government of the day to secure legislation, and at the state level, take up Ministerial roles, the party is steadily positioning itself as a natural coalition partner.

Will that future coalition partner be the ALP?  That still remains an open question.

Stewart Jackson is author of The Australian Greens: from activism to Australia’s third party, published by MUP.