The rise and rise of the Greens


"Rats are loathsome beasts", Paul Syvret of the Murdoch-owned Brisbane tabloid, the Courier Mail, remarked in his October 6 column. "Throughout millennia they have carried disease, pestilence, despoiled foodstuffs and caused untold misery."

Syvret was off to an impressive start for a story on rats and preventable diseases. But his target was Queensland MP for Indooroopilly, Ronan Lee, who had just announced his defection from the ALP to the Greens.

Lee, vented Syvret, is "a Labor rat of the highest order".

This over-the-top reaction to the growing electoral weight of the Greens is an indication of the unease among a section of the political establishment.

As most already know, the Australian Greens are on the rise. Recent electoral results indicate the party is beginning to pose a threat to the two major parties, and this is becoming a concern to the powerful interests that back the two-party system.

New high

The 2007 federal elections resulted in five Green senators taking office — a record for the party. Nationally, the Greens vote increased from 7.2% in the 2004 elections to 7.8% in 2007. While this was the Greens' highest ever vote, and South Australia elected its first ever Greens senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, it fell short of the party's expectations.

In the lower house seats of Melbourne and Sydney, the Greens received more than 20% of the votes. In Melbourne, the Greens (with 22.8%) pushed the Coalition candidate back to third place after preferences.

The vote in Tasmania for Greens senator and party leader Bob Brown also reached a new high. Brown was first elected to the federal Senate in 1996 with 8.7% of the statewide vote.

In 2007, he received 18.1%.

But it has been in the 12 months since the 2007 federal election that the Greens have achieved their best electoral results.

In the April Northern Territory council elections the Greens won three councillors — defying a tradition of conservative voting patterns. The growth in support for the NT Greens was cemented in the Territory elections in August, in which the party received 15.9% overall.

Greens' candidate Emma Young received 23.6% of first preference votes in the seat of Nightcliff in metropolitan Darwin.

The strong results have continued elsewhere. Candidate Lynton Vonow polled a South Australian record of 21.3% in the September bi-election for the Adelaide Hills seat of Mayo (where the ALP did not stand).

The results of the NSW council elections in September were further proof that substantial electoral support for the Greens is no longer confined to the inner-city metropolitan areas of Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong. Seventy-six Greens councillors won office statewide, up from 58 councilors in 2004.

The geographic spread of the Greens' support across NSW is notable. Greens councillors now sit in regional centres such as Armidale, Yass, Wagga Wagga and Coffs Harbour. In Sydney's North Shore (a Liberal party heartland) Greens were elected to North Sydney, Hornsby and Lane Cove councils.

Jan Barham, the Greens mayor for Byron Bay, was returned to office with a bigger vote, while Jamie Parker, a Green, was elected mayor of Leichhardt. The Greens out-polled Labor in Leichhardt by 46% to 25% and in Marrickville by 40% to 29%.

The Leichhardt result, in particular, is a worry for the NSW ALP state government as the state seat that covers the Leichhardt council area only needs a 3.75% swing to unseat NSW education minister Verity Firth.

The NSW Labor government's recent about-face on its unpopular development plan for the historic Callan Park site in Rozelle is an attempt to stave off such a defeat at the 2011 state election.


The ACT elections in October stand out as the best result for the Greens yet. The party won an unprecedented four seats in the ACT parliament. Labor won seven seats, while the Liberal party secured the remaining six seats. This level of support, which gave the Greens the balance of power in the ACT Legislative Assembly, surprised many.

After nearly two weeks of negotiations, the ACT Greens announced they would support a Labor minority government in return for a number of environmental and social policy commitments, along with some reforms to Legislative Assembly procedures.

Importantly, the ACT Greens refused a ministerial position. (Both Labor and the Liberals dangled cabinet positions in return for the Greens' support in forming government.)

The Greens' decision to reject a ministerial position means they are not compelled to take political responsibility for the Labor government's policies, and can build on their reputation as the real opposition.

The ACT Greens' decision to back the ALP, rather than the Liberals, also demonstrates they have learned from their disastrous support for a minority Liberal ACT government in 1995.

It also conforms to the wishes of the big majority of Greens voters. Just under 80% of Greens' voters directed their preferences to the ALP ahead of the Coalition in last year's federal election.

Without exception, the stronger electoral results for the Greens recently reflect growing public disillusion with the unashamed pro-business, pro-privatisation and anti-environmental record of various ALP state and territory governments.

But the origins of the Greens' electoral rise goes back to the Howard years when the Greens took a principled stand against bipartisan support for the inhumane detention of refugees, the bogus "war on terror" and attacks on civil liberties and welfare rights. The Greens' strong showing at the polls is a result of these stands.

Furthermore, the Greens have an unsullied reputation as a pro-environment party at a time when public support for real action to avert the threat of climate change has never been higher.

Political choices

Given this, it is hard to see the political logic in Brown's advice to the ACT Greens to take the cabinet position offered by the ACT ALP. The November 1 Canberra Times reported Brown argued for the party to "take ministries in order to share government through the cockpit of cabinet".

Brown is wrong to advocate that the ACT Greens compromise the very strength — political independence from an increasingly neoliberal ALP — that has allowed them to win a record number of seats, and the political support from disgruntled ALP and, in some cases, Liberal supporters. As any pilot will tell you, it's a bad idea to jump into a cockpit if you can't trust your co-pilot.

As this difference in strategy reveals, the Greens' electoral successes are bound to open up a series of new challenges for the party.

The Greens today receive the lions' share of the "protest vote" against the major parties. They are also the electoral beneficiaries of the increasing disillusion in neoliberalism and the two capitalist parties that have consistently and ruthlessly carried out neoliberal polices in government.

But should the Greens just focus on winning seats in parliament, and even cabinet positions, in the hope that the principles they founded their party on — ecological sustainability, social and economic justice, peace and nonviolence and grassroots democracy — can be achieved this way?

Or does a real advance for the Australian Greens rest on the party combining its electoral work with a strategy of social mobilisation — organising the mass dissent that exists against the neoliberal agenda of the major parties?

The Greens may not have the same political weight as Labor does in the unions, but isn't this a struggle the Greens will have to wage if they are to really break with politics as usual?

Certainly, the greater the Greens' electoral weight, the greater the pressure from the political establishment and its big business backers not to rock the boat.

An October 22 editorial in the Canberra Times is an example of this pressure. "An unwillingness by the Greens to behave or act as the major parties do, whatever their ideological aversion to such conduct, will inevitably result in their legitimacy and aspirations being blunted", it warned.

But it is precisely because the Greens have a reputation of not acting "as the major parties do" that their political influence is on the rise.

One need look no further than the demise of the Australian Democrats to see that the path of political compromise with the major capitalist parties is a path to political oblivion.