Two camps in the greens

August 28, 1991

Comment by Pat Brewer

"The last thing the green movement needs is the back-stabbing and party political game you have in the Liberals, Labor and, now, the Democrats", says Bruce Welch, who was the South Sydney Greens candidate for Marrickville in the May 18 New South Wales election.

Welch was commenting on his "disappointment" with the August 17-18 national meeting of people interested in forming a national green party. According to Welch, the majority of those in attendance either "didn't know about or didn't think important" the process by which the meeting had come about.

Sharp criticism of that process and its results was also expressed by Lisa Macdonald. Elected by the Western Suburbs Greens as their representative to the meeting, Macdonald was barred from participating when the meeting voted 21-8 to exclude delegates who were members of other parties. The conveners of the meeting, when issuing invitations, had specified that delegates had to favour proscription of members of other parties. (Macdonald is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party.)

"The green movement will find itself hostage to continual blackmail by parliamentary leaders if it accepts and tries to build a national party structure based on the type of process which led up to and dominated the meeting", Macdonald said.

"What we saw in operation was no more than the first stage in a grab for the exclusive control of the name 'green' electorally, using methods more in common with the old, top-down, politics of power grabs, behind-the-scenes manoeuvres, ultimatums and brinkmanship than with new politics based on diversity, participatory democracy and accountability. Such methods can only guarantee that there will be two national green structures."


The process leading to the August meeting began in April, when five individuals — Steve Brigham, Bob Brown, Hall Greenland, Drew Hutton and Jo Vallentine — issued a written invitation to selected groups and individuals to a two-day conference in May.

The planned agenda was: to work out the decision-making process at the conference; to discuss, amend and adopt a draft structure proposal; to set up a steering committee charged with forming a national organisation; management of the electoral registration of the Greens; and discussion of relationships with other parties. If agreement in principle were reached on forming a national organisation, the steering committee was to liaise with all groups

and prepare another conference to adopt a national constitution. Alternate structure proposals and amendments were called for.

This meeting was postponed to early August because of the NSW elections. At the same time, the "conveners" called for a ballot before the meeting to determine which groups should be represented and how many delegates they should have. They also asked for alternative suggestions as to how these decisions were to be reached.

Many groups wrote back to the Greens (WA) with suggestions on structure or process, but none of these proposals were circulated to other groups by the conveners. Decisions apparently took place at teleconferences between the five prime movers. No minutes of these were circulated.

By early July, another teleconference had changed the agenda again. Now there were preconditions for participation in the national meeting: groups had to agree beforehand to a national organisation and to proscription in some form. In response, some groups, like the Illawarra Greens, adopted immediate total proscription. The Queensland Green Network, an open group, was split when the Australian Green Working Group separated to support proscription.

Other groups opposed proscription but agreed to consider a "sunset clause", to give time for a green party to be established and be up and running before members of other parties were asked to choose whether to resign from their other party.

The next written communication in July in the name of the five shifted the meeting to August 17-18 (a date suggested by a meeting of greens in Sydney) and invited one delegate each from a list of green parties and organisations. The conditions of participation were reconfirmed as agreement with some form of national organisation and some form of proscription. It clearly stated that the meeting was only for discussion of proposals; it couldn't take binding decisions but would make recommendations to be taken back to local groups. The WA Greens were to compile the agenda.


But while groups were in the process of considering their positions and electing delegates, another teleconference was held, altering yet again the agenda, the meeting procedures, the number of delegates per group and the groups invited. The teleconference added a new condition: that proscription would apply to delegates to the meeting itself, not only to any subsequent national party that was formed.

The purpose of this teleconference was to ensure a stack of the meeting, says Macdonald. "Participants in this teleconference, with one exception, were all from groups with total or virtually

total proscription. Instead of each group having one delegate, those groups on the teleconference raised their number of delegates — in the case of the Queensland group it was raised to five. That's how the stack was established.

"This self-selected teleconference excluded seven NSW green parties, all of Victoria, South Australia and the ACT. It was so important to set this agenda and establish the delegate imbalance that the teleconference went on for three hours and, according to Annabel Newbury from the WA Greens, cost $1200.

"The agenda itself was a joke. Proscription was set as the unchangeable first item, regardless of many delegates' protests that it was meaningless to discuss it in isolation. The issue is related to the structure and the form of accountability to be adopted."

'Intransigent bloc'

It was apparent that virtual total proscription would be the only form accepted by those who participated in the teleconference; after a full day's argument, their only concession was a strict six-month sunset clause — operating from August 17, not from whenever a party is actually formed.

"Instead of this being a recommendation for local groups to consider, suddenly the meeting had become a decision-making one, and the vote was declared binding on the national party process", Macdonald points out.

"The conflict resolution practitioner who was facilitating the meeting on the Saturday commented that she had never struck such an intransigent bloc vote in any meeting, and if this was how a national green party operated, she wouldn't have a bar of it."

Tony Jas, the delegate from the North Shore Greens, walked out of the meeting after the vote to proscribe delegates. He couldn't agree that the elected representatives of local groups were not allowed to speak and stated that it flew in the face of the autonomy of local groups.

"It was clear", Jas said, "that the meeting had reached a no-win situation where there were some who were not interested in any other position but their own ... It was condescending of the meeting for them to pretend that this was valid. The meeting was not a decision-making one, so how could it define what the green movement is? That has to be a collective decision, not what a small group may want.

"I left because I thought that sitting in the audience as an observer in some way validated what had taken place, and I wasn't prepared to validate that decision at all."

Ignoring process

Proscription is no guarantee against manipulation and hidden agendas, points out Sue Bolton, a delegate from the ACT who was barred from the meeting by the proscription vote. "Backroom cliques, secret networks and self-appointed stars can manipulate, set the agenda and block decisions, can't they? An open, democratic and accountable process is the best guarantee against such worries.

"What is widely rumoured although never stated openly is that those who are pushing proscription are the leaders of the peak environment councils like the Australian Conservation Foundation and the Wilderness Society who want a 'reputable' green party to run 'candidates of note'. These organisations aren't noted for their own internal democracy and accountability, as an article in a recent edition of Chain Reaction outlined."

Bolton says the national procedure so far has been "a violation of the autonomy of local groups and parties which is basic to the way green parties developed in many states. Tony Harris, the registered officer of the national green name electorally, has spread access to the name to any group that would abide by the four principles of the German Greens. This invitation was extended to members of other parties, other activist groups, other social movements, and it's how every group presently registered as green got access to the name.

"It was very clear that delegates from Tasmania, Queensland and West Australia had no real idea of how the process has proceeded in other states. What's more, they didn't care. They are prepared to ride roughshod over a process that has been developing slowly, from the bottom up, in the name of electoral expediency and exclusive control of the green name.

"Those who say they want a proscribed party and it's their right to have one, ignore the way the process has developed elsewhere. They can have their separate party any time, but instead they have manipulated this meeting in an attempt to claim exclusive title to the name. In the process they want to expel activists and distort the very basics of the green process. They don't care about people, they just want power."

Electoral registration

Bolton said the aims of the meeting organisers "came out most clearly" when a delegate moved that any national organisation of greens would not attempt to revoke the green party status from any party which did not wish to be involved. The prime movers all backed away from any such assurance.

"Drew Hutton stated that it was dangerous to pass such a motion and mentioned that there may be cases when deregistration would

need to be pursued. He cited the possible example of the South Australian Green Party. Bob Brown said the issue was a diversion and he couldn't say anything on the question. Others objected that such a motion couldn't be binding, and the motion was ignored. Yet right at the start, Annabel Newbury stated that green registrations had been given improperly, so it looks like there are some who will start legal battles over the name, or at least threaten to do so."

NSW Green Alliance delegate David Nerlich, in written notes on the meeting, also pointed to the question of registration, which he had raised at the meeting: "If both camps are to have continued access to registrations process, then it's a split we can live with, if only one does then it's exclusion and it's war ... Steve Brigham said we might have to look at sharing the rego if a split couldn't be avoided. This was not resolved however. There did appear to be a school of thought that the new organisation should have every intention of gaining exclusive use of the name Green."

"The genuine sentiments of local green activists for some sort of unity are being manipulated to force them into decisions that they have not previously supported" Lisa Macdonald said. "Threats to withdraw from the process, to force a split nationally are being used to intimidate those who don't like the way the process has been carried out and who are protesting violations of the autonomy of the local parties.

"At the same time, the urgency of ecological problems is used rhetorically to urge activists to sacrifice process to get greens into parliament 'to save the planet'. The relationship between means and ends is totally ignored. In the context of what is happening in Eastern Europe and the USSR, you would think that the dangers of subverting process to the urgency of achieving goals by any means would have been made clear."

Autonomy and collaboration

According to Bruce Welch, most people who work with the greens, or participate in green election campaigns, do so "because they want something different from the major parties.

"We have to stress that difference, to maintain that genuine local autonomy that is attractive in green politics, and carry out state and federal campaigns and elections on a basis of real collaboration among autonomous local organisations."

The green process is still in its early stages. It needs time to develop further before a national party structure is established. Realistically, the stage today is one of building a national network so that people can get used working together, building trust and finding out what works best.

David Nerlich points to a realistic way of eventually overcoming the divisions: "I feel the ongoing network of local parties will seek to welcome and relate to the new formation as a group like any other, or as several groups as they currently are. The worst thing about this process is that it is distracting us from constructive activism and engagement with the community ... I suggested to the meeting that the best way to build national formations/relations would be to start a national campaign around some national issues. This was actually dismissed as 'marshmallowy' at one point.

"Perhaps this idea too is one that may be reached by default after all the empire building runs its course?"

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