Are the Australian Greens living up to participatory democracy aspirations?

Jonathan Sriranganathan is the Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward in Brisbane City Council. Photo: Jonathan Sriranganathan/Facebook

What does it mean for a political party to follow the principle of “grassroots participatory democracy”?

With Labor back in government federally, and the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate, our Greens MPs are periodically going to find themselves in positions where it’s not immediately obvious what approach they should take in parliament.

There will be several policy areas where Labor proposes changes that might represent a marginal or tokenistic improvement upon the status quo, but fall a long way short of what the Greens would ideally like to see happen.

In those situations, existing Greens party policies (which are often quite general in their wording) don’t necessarily provide much strategic guidance on the best approach.

Perhaps one of the most important factors to weigh up is that reforms in a particular area usually won’t get updated or re-examined again for several years. So agreeing to support new legislation now that represents a small step forward can act as a pressure release valve, meaning there won’t be another opportunity for further, more significant improvements for several years.

For example, Labor might introduce a healthcare funding policy change that barely addresses the broader healthcare crisis, but is enough to pacify a few key advocates and stakeholders.

Once it’s voted through the parliament, the government could use that as an excuse to say “Okay, job done, no need for further healthcare funding reform — onto the next issue!” and not make other deeper changes.

Depending on how the reform is explained and understood by the public, a move like that can sap energy away from community activism, closing off potential bigger victories.

Sometimes the right decision for our MPs is to support marginal reforms because they are still going to materially improve people’s lives or environmental outcomes, while creating a foundation for further future positive changes.

But sometimes, the right call for the Greens is to refuse to support tokenistic, cosmetic improvements and instead support the community to build a bigger campaign, applying more pressure to drag Labor back to the negotiating table and secure something better.

It can be a tough choice. It depends on the specific political context at the time, including how much energy and capacity the wider community currently has to keep fighting on an issue.

One of the core features that supposedly differentiates the Greens from the other bigger parties is our commitment to grassroots participatory democracy. Ideally, rather than the MPs just going off and doing whatever the heck they want, thousands of Greens members and supporters should also get a meaningful say on what the party stands for.

We do have reasonably inclusive participatory democratic processes to decide our party’s actual policies. Those processes take months, and sometimes years, working their way through local branches, specialised committees, state and national councils.

But we don’t have similar processes for the more pressing and time-sensitive strategic questions regarding when our MPs should back minor reforms and when they should hold out for something bigger and better.

The big challenge for Greens MPs is that any wider democratic process is tainted by concerns about who has a meaningful chance to participate.

Some internal party decision-making processes can privilege those who have the most time to sit through long branch meetings and workshops, meaning (for example) that the voices of older, retired members might be over-represented compared to younger Greens members with full-time jobs or childcare responsibilities.

Other decision-making processes, such as online votes might be less time-intensive, but don’t facilitate participants to reflect deeply on all the strategic implications.

And should such decisions only be open to Greens members, or to active volunteers and supporters as well?

What should Greens MPs do if the nationwide Greens membership holds different views on the best strategic approach compared to the voters in the MP’s own electorate?

I can see why our representatives might decide they just don’t have time to allow their various constituencies to decide on urgent strategic questions, and that it’s easier to simply make the call themselves.

But right now, I’m feeling a little annoyed and disappointed that our federal Senators and Lower House MPs aren’t using some of their resources to at least try to understand what the rest of us want them to do.

How should the Australians Greens vote on specific proposals put forward by the Labor Party regarding climate action, or education reform, or First Nations sovereignty or housing justice?

I feel like it shouldn’t be too hard for our federal Greens leadership to at least survey Greens members to get a rough read on supporter sentiment.

Ideally, we would have more formal mechanisms whereby such decisions aren’t just being made by Senators behind closed doors, but by the entire Greens membership. MPs could also survey the residents of the electorates they represent to understand how well they’re reflecting the views of all the people who voted them in.

Obviously we place a lot of trust and faith in our elected Greens representatives, but they’re only human, and they’re operating within a framework that’s designed to prioritise big business interests ahead of the long-term public interest. So I don’t think any arguments along the lines of “MPs know best” should be given too much weight.

I know for a fact that as a Greens city councillor, I tend to make better strategic decisions when I’m holding public meetings, seeking feedback online and running surveys and community votes to guide what I’m doing, rather than it just being left up to me and my office staff.

The same is true for Greens representatives at other levels of government.

What does it mean for the Greens to call ourselves a party of “grassroots participatory democracy” if the grassroots of the party isn’t directly included in crucial decisions about how federal Greens politicians vote on the floor of parliament?

Like it or not, democracy is a process that we have to actively engage with on an ongoing basis.

It’s not enough to just vote once every three or four years and cross your fingers that the people who get elected will make the right decisions in spite of constant manipulation and pressure from vested interests.

No-one’s pretending this is easy. But we have to demand pathways for meaningful participation and input.

Otherwise, we risk being co-opted by the mainstream system just like so many other radical political movements before us.

[Jonathan Sriranganathan is the Greens Councillor for the Gabba Ward in Brisbane City Council.]