Get over it Bob, the debate on the Greens’ future is happening

February 4, 2017

So the Greens’ electoral support has stalled at about 10% and the leadership of Richard di Natale is being questioned. This “dire” situation, according to Bob Brown and others, is the result of the “wrecking” presence in the Greens’ ranks of leftish Senator Lee Rhiannon and the founding of Left Renewal by radical Young Greens in NSW.

But as a January 27 Fairfax Media report makes clear, the stalling long pre-dated the formation of Left Renewal.

As for Rhiannon’s contribution, it is drawing a very long bow. Can Brown seriously attribute, for instance, the halving of the Greens vote in Tasmania to a senator whose name would be unknown to most voters on the Apple Isle?

A perusal of how Green parties are faring globally would reveal how typical the Australian situation is.

For example, in Germany, the birthplace and inspiration for Green parties around the world, the party is tracking at 10–12% in opinion polls. The Social Democrats are at 21–23% and the Left Party at 8–10%. On those figures the German Greens will not even be a minor partner in the next German government.

In fact, anyone harbouring illusions that a de-radicalised — or de-Rhiannonised — Greens will form a government any time soon and change the world via parliament need look no further than Germany. In the 1990s the German party rid itself of its radical or “fundi” wing and positioned itself as a “responsible” party of government.

Certainly the German Greens have been in governing coalitions since then. However, their record in government has certainly not burnished their reforming credentials — invariably the senior partners in those coalitions, the Social Democrats, have called the shots and the Greens have tamely acquiesced — or worse.

Not that the German Greens have not had an impact on that country, but it has been by their campaigning outside parliament. Arguably, by their insistence that the environment is the key issue in modern politics, the German Greens have made that country more environmentally aware than any other on the planet.

The party arose out of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s and Germany’s decision to renounce nuclear power has as much to do with the Greens’ campaigning as any other factor. Likewise, Germany’s admirable record on renewable power is something for which the Greens can take considerable credit.

Similarly, the greatest victories for the Greens movement in Australia have been achieved outside parliament. Saving the Franklin, the Bentley blockade which stopped fracking on the north coast of NSW and the successful campaign against deregulating university fees are outstanding examples of this. (In the latter case, incidentally, Rhiannon played a central role.)

People in NSW have long been aware of the value of action outside of parliamentary processes thanks to the “green bans” of Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation that preserved so much of heritage Sydney in the 1970s.

Acknowledging the effectiveness of public campaigning outside parliament by the Greens is not an argument for giving up on parliament. In fact, the presence and standing of Greens MPs, and the resources of their offices, can be very useful for community campaigners.

But the stasis in voter support naturally prompts discussion in the Greens about our future. Not surprisingly, the popularity of self-declared socialists like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn in the US and Britain strikes Rhiannon and others as a possible model for Australia.

Admittedly, Sanders and Corbyn were well-known rebels in what are the major centre-left parties in their respective countries and not Greens politicians. Sadly, there is no remotely similar figure in the Australian Labor Party, so the expectation that the Greens might be the beneficiary of a similar radical surge here is not illogical.

The recent dip in Greens NSW membership cited by the Fairfax report ignores the fact that nonetheless membership has increased by 40% over the past four years and that a major component of that increase are Young Greens. NSW is still the largest state in terms of membership in the Australian Greens.

Most of the party membership probably does not identify as either Red Greens or Brown Greens, but they do value the party’s healthy grassroots democracy and cooperative, consensus culture.

In my experience that means most Greens members are not supportive of calls by “party elders” for this or that MP, who have after all been elected by the rank-and-file, to step down. Nor, in my experience, are they receptive to attempts to close down genuine attempts to update and clarify the party’s mission — even if it involves discussing the ‘c’ word — capitalism — and thereby horrifying Bob Brown.

[Hall Greenland was convenor of the Greens NSW from 2013 to 2016 and was among the founders of the Greens in Australia. Reprinted from his blog with permission.]

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