Should the Greens be a party of protest or strive for electoral success?

Illustration by Hugh Brooks

In December 2016, the Greens unexpectedly tumbled into the media spotlight, as reports surfaced that a radical-leftist splinter group, ‘Left Renewal’, had materialised in the party’s New South Wales branch. Billing itself as ‘a socialist tendency comprised of rank-and-file NSW Greens members’, the faction’s manifesto openly calls for the end of capitalism, labeling it a system of ‘perpetual violence’, and that ‘violent apparatuses’ such as the police ‘do not share an interest with the working class’.
Since its inception, the new faction has caused a great deal of internal havoc in the NSW Greens, including but not limited to bringing sourness and sabotage into internal preselections, invoking the ire of old party icon Bob Brown, and assaulting police at one of Sydney’s anti-Australia Day rallies (Left Renewal member Hayden Williams was charged last January). Lee Rhiannon, Greens senator for NSW, has defended the presence of Left Renewal, saying that the faction’s aims were consistent with Greens principles, and presented ‘a legitimate contribution to political debate in the party’. Current Greens leader Richard Di Natale, on the other hand, has suggested that the group ‘find a new political home’ and labeled its position on capitalism a ‘ridiculous notion’.

Apart from the juicy revelation that yes, like the Libs or Labor, the Greens can also suffer the plague of ideological and factional turf-war, this internal saga in many ways signifies a deeper anxiety and confusion over the role and direction of Australia’s third party. While Left Renewal is not typical or representative of the Greens nationally, its presence does challenge Senator Di Natale’s bright proclamation that the Greens are now Australia’s ‘natural home of progressive mainstream voters’. This was the kind of mantra that attracted me to the party in early 2014, months after the election of Tony Abbott, before I left two years later (but that’s another story).

Over the past fifteen years, the Greens have effectively evolved from a single-issue environmental party into an all-encompassing humanitarian leftism, projecting its social-activist platform into issues as diverse as climate change, asylum seekers, LGBT rights, public healthcare, and social housing. In doing so, the party has gone from marginal to mainstream, winning the support of middle-class, inner-city voters who had defected from Labor, as well as the vacuum left behind by the demise of Australian Democrats, the Greens’ left-wing predecessors, whose vote was quietly and naturally absorbed. Due to this, the Greens have achieved considerable electoral victories, currently holding nine seats in the federal Senate, one federal Lower House seat (Adam Bandt in Melbourne), as well as winning 10 percent of the national Lower House vote at the last federal election, representing nearly 1.4 million voters. State lower house seats have also been won in Victoria and New South Wales, with the party currently holding two and three seats respectively in these States’ Parliaments, mostly clustered in inner city Melbourne and Sydney.

While for many years it has looked as if the Greens were an exponentially increasing force, capable of infiltrating territories once safely held by Labor and the Liberals, growth has not been a completely even or successful journey across the board. This was most visible at the last federal election, as the party’s strategy to win lower house seats and return its senators in Victoria and NSW bears out. In Melbourne, the Greens did not pick up any new lower house seats, but did come close in the seat of Batman, where candidate Alex Bhathal achieved a 9.5% swing, narrowly losing by a 1% margin against Labor’s David Feeney, a massive improvement from the 10% margin in 2013. Large swings were also recorded in Wills, Melbourne Ports, and Higgins, with the Greens in some cases jumping ahead of Liberal and Labor candidates to become the second largest party. By contrast, in NSW, attempts to seize the seats of Grayndler and Sydney proved dismal, as the Greens’ candidate for Grayndler, Jim Casey, failed to increase the primary vote above the 22% recorded at the previous election, leaving high-profile Labor MP Anthony Albanese in relative safety. Results were similarly discouraging in the Senate, as Senator Lee Rhiannon took 7.91% of the statewide vote, compared to 10.87% taken by Richard Di Natale in Victoria. So what went wrong?

The answer to NSW failure and Victorian success lies in the differing campaign approaches, candidate selections and policy promotions that were used in Melbourne and Sydney. In Melbourne, the party has promoted itself by taking a moderate and cooperative tone by spruiking the achievements of Melbourne MP Adam Bandt, who participated in a minority government under Julia Gillard from 2010-2013. On his website and in campaign materials, Bandt has prominently emphasised his achievements in passing so-called ‘Denticare’ legislation, which enabled lower and middle-income families to access dental treatment through Medicare. During this time, Bandt also won concessions from the Labor Party which established a climate change committee that later imposed a so-called ‘carbon tax’, which was later repealed by the Abbott government. While these concessions have had varying degrees of success, they do point towards a view of Green politics that seeks social change through compromise and cooperation with the two major parties.

Across the border in NSW, the Greens candidate for Grayndler Jim Casey, a union firefighter, became embroiled in a number of ideological gaffes, saying that he would prefer right-wing Tony Abbott as prime minister instead of Labor’s Bill Shorten, as the former would provoke a more aggressive social justice movement that would include ‘an anti-war movement that was disrupting things in the streets… and a climate change movement that was starting to actually disrupt the production of coal.’ Writing in the Guardian, Casey viewed capitalism as a system that was likely ‘to collapse under its own weight’, insisting that the system is built on the ‘inequality and misery of a vast majority of the working people,’ a dead giveaway for Left Renewal sympathies. The point here is not whether Casey is right or wrong. What is at stake here is the appeal of such sweeping rhetoric to mainstream voters, which largely alienates many moderate-minded people. A while back, I remember talking to a multiple-time Greens candidate at a party fundraiser, who showed a great passion for tackling climate change. “I wouldn’t be in the Greens if I were in NSW,” he said, in reference to the radical elements present in Sydney. Another friend, also a multiple Greens candidate, described ‘Left Renewal’ as “mad.” With such opinions floating within the Greens, one can only wonder how the party’s far-left could possibly appeal to the wider voting populace. Election results speak for themselves.

Which brings us to the future of the Greens today. Should they protest and stick to strict, radical principles, or compromise and go for electoral success? By now, the answer should be blisteringly obvious. While Mr. Casey and his ilk are entitled to their views, one must question how blanket statements on the evils of capitalism and ‘the system’, which call for the tearing down of myriad ‘institutions’, could possibly be desirable to small business owners, pensioners, or tradespeople. Or the people who scan your groceries and absent-mindedly ask how your day has been. Or, for that matter, anybody who falls outside of Sydney’s hard industrial-left. While Left Renewal may call it ‘protest’, I would call it ideological purism, an attempt to give the Australian public a revolution no one even asked for. People open to voting Green are interested in strong public hospitals, a decent tariff for the solar panels on their rooves, and legal same-sex marriage, issues I heard raised when I sat at Sunday market stalls. If Left Renewal wants to pursue any meaningful social change, it should seek the reform of institutions, the law and society, not its destruction. But to give them some credit, the faction actually is succeeding in destroying one institution: the NSW Greens, and by extension, itself.

Jordan Mosley

The author Jordan Mosley

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