Behind the rush to a national green party

April 24, 1991

comment by Steve Painter

After years of hesitating over the need for a green party in Australia, parliamentarians associated with the secretive Melbourne Group now seem bent on declaring a party within a few weeks. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that this rush, in some cases bypassing years of patient work by local groups and individuals, is motivated largely by short-term electoral considerations. Two of the more pressing are:

  • The impending collapse of the Labor Party federal and state governments, together with the federal government's recent commitment to "resource security" legislation. These factors make it all but impossible for peak environmental organisations to support Labor again without risking irreversible damage to their credibility.

  • In the 1990 federal election campaign and since, the emergence of forces actually presenting a green electoral alternative. The most notable of these were the Australian Democrats, standing largely on ground vacated by the discredited Labor left and resembling the parliamentarist Realo wing of the German Greens; and the Green Alliance, standing farther to the left and growing out of a grassroots, democratic movement initially based in NSW.

Among those who place electoral politics uppermost, there are grounds to believe that, unless a green party is formed soon, the Democrats will be unchallengeable in their claim to be the parliamentarist green alternative. Meanwhile, the Green Alliance will have staked strong claims to the left green ground.

Even now, it seems would-be Australian Realos are having difficulty dealing with the Democrats. In his April 6 call for a green party at the Ecopolitics conference in Sydney, Brown held out the rather puzzling offer of unity with the Democrats at a later stage.

If the Democrats are, or might be transformed into, an adequate vehicle for green politics, why not get on with the job and join the Democrats straightaway, as Helen Caldicott did? Why go through the clumsy and time-wasting process of first forming a new party and then joining the Democrats?

Conflicting individual ambitions might provide a partial explanation, and opposition to the emergence of a viable left green alternative might fill in more of the picture, says Lisa Macdonald of the Western Suburbs Greens.

In his April 6 speech, Brown pointed out that the question of forming a green party had been a public issue as early as the 1985 Getting Together conference in Sydney, "where the general consensus was it was too early to form a national green party".

In his recent call for the formation of a party, Brown spoke in generalities that were as true in 1985 as they are today. What really has changed?

According to Lisa Macdonald, "Whatever it might be, something has finally spurred Brown and Vallentine into action after years of Brown insisting that he could be more effective as an independent, and of question of the need for a party along with the associated questions of accountability and grassroots democracy."

Even today, the Denison Greens and the Greens WA, the groups with which Brown and Vallentine are associated, are not large organisations and often find it difficult to raise a quorum for membership meetings outside election periods.

Macdonald thinks a clue to the concerns of the May 18 conveners is "the draft structure document's exclusion of members of other parties from the proposed green party.

"This would lock out members of the Democrats, the ALP, the Democratic Socialist Party and all other parties, regardless of their commitment to green politics", she says.

"In the cases of the Democrats and the DSP, this commitment is considerable, both on paper and in practice, though from different perspectives. In the case of the ALP, many members support green organisations and green electoral campaigns out of disgust with the failings of their own party.

"Of even greater concern than the attempt to arbitrarily lock out members of other parties is the attempt to impose a patently top-down process on the green movement. A party declared by a hand-picked gathering organised by a self-appointed elite is unlikely to win the united support of the green movement.

"In their proposed structure document they claim to support authoritative decision-making powers for grassroots organisations, direct democracy, and minimal concentration of power. The way the May meeting has been stitched together seems to contradict every one of these principles."

Macdonald adds that the timing for a national party is wrong. "The long delay in forming a green party in Australia has placed this matter on the agenda at a rather unfortunate time, when mass political activity is at a low ebb.

"This makes it unlikely that large numbers of people would join and actively work for the party, and that would leave it susceptible to the sort of parliamentarist degeneration that struck down the West German Greens at the last elections.

"Green activists have already evolved a suitable vehicle for electoral politics in the form of the Green Alliance. Why won't Brown and Vallentine participate in this democratic vehicle along with many other green activists? Their views would get a fair hearing.

"It is far more likely that a successful green party will emerge from a movement such as the Green Alliance than from elite groups playing the same old games as the politicians of the traditional parliamentary parties."

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