Varied views on national green party

April 17, 1991

In a panel discussion on green politics at the Ecopolitics V conference in Sydney last week, Tasmanian green independent MP Bob Brown called for the formation of a national green party, and argued that it should exist in parallel with the Australian Democrats, moving towards amalgamation "the sooner the better". STEVE PAINTER looks at some responses to this announcement among groups and individuals in the green movement.

While most green political activists and organisations support the emergence of a green party in Australia, opinion among many this week was that such a development is still some time away.

The main reason is that the green forces are very diverse, ranging from those whose model appears to be a more liberal version of existing parliamentary machines to those who want a fully participatory grassroots movement with parliamentary representation only one aspect of its activities.

Some supporters of the parliamentary approach seem to be edging towards a fast-track top-down declaration of a green party on the justification that urgent action is necessary because time is running out for the planet.

Others have decided that the fast track consists simply of joining the Democrats. Anti-nuclear activist and former Green Labor leader Helen Caldicott used the forum of the conference to announce that she would be a Democrat candidate in the next federal elections.

Like the advocates of a parliamentary focus, supporters of a movement-focussed green party are by no means a homogeneous group, nor is there a rigid division between the two positions (Bob Brown tried to straddle both in his April 6 speech). Nevertheless, there is widespread doubt that a party formed top-down could serve the long-term interests of the green movement.

Shortly after Brown's statement, Green Left Weekly sought the opinion of green economist Dr Rob White of Edith Cowan University in Western Australia. White addressed the Ecopolitics conference on the question of green political economy.

Who decides

"Certainly I support the formation of a green party", said White. "But the first question I had is, Who in fact is making the decision to form it? I'm concerned that these kinds of decisions might be made without actually going back to the grassroots.

"Have groups such as the WA Greens or the various Green Alliances been consulted? I wonder whether there has been enough discussion at the grassroots as to the nature of a national green party, and whether we are ready to form it yet.

"Much of the support for a green party comes from people who are disgusted with the present style of parliamentary politics. It won't work if the new party just adopts a new style of top-down decision-making.

"I agree the situation is urgent and we can't wait around for perfect structures, but we also need to know the party is going to be a step forward and not one more problem.

"I don't think a green party will work unless it is able to really represent a broad range of views and attitudes. It needs the support of the whole movement, and it won't get that unless it is thoroughly democratic. Green party MPs must be fully accountable to the movement and subject to recall by the ranks if necessary.

"There is a long history of parliamentary representatives becoming corrupt over time, not because they are necessarily weak individuals, but because there are enormous pressures on them from very powerful interests."

Bob Brown is aware of such concerns, and referred to them in his speech. "We have to take our time", he said. "One of the things we are basically not about is ... to simply get ourselves on seats in parliament." Among the politicians of other parties, there's a view that once you're in power "you do almost anything to stay there".

'Structure trap'

Greens everywhere are grappling with the problem of how to organise themselves, Brown said. "We know that in Europe the great issue has been the great debate between the Fundis and the Realos, between all sorts of competing interests as to how the structures should be.

"What I'm submitting is that the big danger is that we'll get caught in the structure trap. It is essential for the planet that we get on, organise, give the electorate the alternative and run the risks that are inherent in that."

There is a tendency for greens to be afraid of power, and there's a healthy side to that, Brown said, "but we must not, through fear that we won't get it right, that our representatives will make mistakes, put impediments in the way of having a structure which works, which can make decisions, and which can at least compete with the established major parties, but more importantly than that, with the press and with the multinational organisations which are at the moment the real forces of power right round the planet.

"We cannot, without organisation, match them. We must have organisation and I believe that we must not allow ourselves to be caught in the trap of trying to get the perfect organisation which doesn't allow any individual to be more or less than any other individual within that framework before we move on.

"We can't, unfortunately, ultimately have full consensus, with everybody fully informed on every matter before the major decisions, although we must maintain that principle wherever we can throughout our political process ... It is an ideal we must never let go of, but it is an ideal which we have to fall short of ... The most important thing for us is to get this world onto a green direction, away from the materialist direction which is destroying it ...

"It's very important that we highlight trust in the people that represent us, that we highlight forgiveness in them, their ability to to doggedly persist with those mistakes."

At the same time, Brown added, "we must have accountability so that when the time comes if somebody is going the wrong direction as far as the green movement feels, then they are replaced in their seat of power, wherever it might be, at whatever level of government, by somebody who ... clearly identifies with the aspirations of the majority of green members".


In a panel discussion following Brown's speech, Tony Harris of the Sydney Greens stressed the need for democracy and accountability:

"I don't think we need worry too much about how green politics has emerged in a diverse fashion", he said.

"If we go back to the Labor Party 100 years ago, it didn't spring out of the ground complete with national conference and silver bodgie prime minister already intact. It developed over time, there were false starts, squabbles, etc, and you'll find that has been the case in the formation of green politics.

"There are different parts of the country where things have risen and fallen. A Green Party in Brisbane got going about the same time as us in Sydney in 1984, and it promptly fell about all over the place and broke up. There was a Green Electoral Movement in South Australia some years ago which rose and fell."

Today, he asked, "are the conditions there, and is the will there, to put together some kind of national structure and integrated structure across the country?

"People come to green politics from all sorts of areas. I originally came from the left wing of the Labor Party and I still retain what I would call a libertarian socialist perspective ... I think all the green perspectives belong within green politics.

"I would like to think we could find something where people could agree to disagree. It's a crucial thing at the heart of the formation of any political movement: a fundamental sense of democracy. I think we have to have that kind of determination within the green party to respect differences and diversity.

"In the best of all possible worlds, tomorrow all the green parties, the Democrats, the New Left Party ... the Democratic Socialist Party ... could all disband our existing organisations and dissolve into a new organisation ...

"We may have to settle for less than that, perhaps considerably less than that. But I do think we should make a start in terms of thinking about the kind of structure we want.

"As far as I'm concerned, it has to be a democratic structure. It has to have accountable delegates to whatever levels of party bodies there are.

"The key to green politics is at the local and regional level ... There should be a vibrant green political movement based very much at nd the key organisations should be the local parties. I'm quite happy about whatever other structures are on top of that if they are democratic.

"Provided we have a basic sense of democracy, a basic commitment to democracy, to accountability of all delegates, to autonomous, vibrant local parties and a celebration of our diversity ... I think that is the essential thing that is needed.

"I think the conditions are there, if we have the will, to put together some sort of national structure."

'Open process'

Sid Walker, a Canberra environmentalist who also presented a paper to the Ecopolitics conference, welcomed Brown's statement, though also with some reservations:

"I think it's good that someone, or a group of people, has taken an initiative because I share the view that it's time to organise a serious third force in Australian politics on the green and progressive side.

"I think the time is also ripe for that process to become more formalised and more obviously open to all interested individuals and groupings on the green and progressive side of politics.

"I support the initiative, and I would like to feel that it is being opened up to the democratic process. I was a little disappointed that there didn't seem to be any specific proposals to have meetings come together in a way that would get these issues talked about with everybody taken into account.

"I agree that we shouldn't get too bogged down, and there are times when you have to respect the right of individuals and groups to take an initiative. But I do think, the initiative having been taken, it's now time to go on from that and have a more clearly open process.

"I was a little concerned at suggestions from Bob Brown that the issues of structure were perhaps not as important as actually getting this green party happening.

"How the party is structured is a crucial issue if we want to avoid becoming the type of organisation that the ALP has become in the course of 90 or 100 years.

"How do we avoid becoming a top-down, undemocratic political movement in the way that the ALP has become, and I don't think we can avoid it without putting a lot of care into developing internal structures within any new party which ensure that representatives are very accountable to the membership as a whole and take the membership's decisions seriously.

"It might be boring to spend time discussing structure, but if it's not done now, it seems to me we have no protection against things going wrong in the future."

Maurice Sibelle, coordinator of the Green Alliance campaign in the recent Brisbane city council elections, questioned whether the tional green party:

"In Brisbane we were able to unite very diverse forces for a very successful campaign. We won more than 20% in some areas, and our preferences were vital to the overall result. Greens will certainly be taken seriously in future local government elections here.

"But we didn't have a green party, and in fact a party would have prevented us from uniting such a wide array of forces, including three parties, numerous community groups and many individuals.

"The way the movement is at the moment, there was no point talking about a party for the Brisbane elections, and I don't think much has changed in the few weeks since then. I'd like to see a party in the long term, but that looks very difficult at the moment.

Electoral alliance

"A party is not the only possibility. An electoral alliance can be very effective and democratic, and it has the advantage of minimising controversy about structure.

"Most voters know very little about the structures of the parties they vote for. If we stood as the Greens, it wouldn't matter to most people whether we were a party or an alliance, but it could be important to us because we'd cut through most of the problems of organisation, which could otherwise consume a lot of energy.

"We were able to develop policy and select candidates with very little fuss.

"The Green Alliance didn't have much discussion of prospects for a national green party because that wasn't its role. This is only my opinion, but perhaps such an alliance might be a better model at this stage, when the movement is so diverse.

"It would certainly be wrong to impose a structure from the top, or even worse to end up with a few self-appointed national parliamentary leaders with no structure around them.

"The first alternative runs the risk of stifling much of the energy of the local green groups and handing too much power to a small circle who might monopolise the real decision-making.

"The second course just sets up people for a lot of pressure they probably wouldn't be able to handle, even if they were very committed individuals. In any case, leaders in such a position would find it very hard to get the support of the movement, because greens tend to be rather sceptical of self-declared saviours and stars. This would leave them dependent on the media and parliamentary apparatuses, and that's a very slippery slope straight back into the traditional parliamentary game.

"I'd like to see a green party, but we needn't be too disappointed if an alliance is a more realistic form of organisation at this stage. Perhaps we need to lay the foundations for the sort of green party we really want, rather than rushing into something that's going to risk a lot of unnecessary division. "Using the alliance format, we needn't miss any opportunities in the process."

Grassroots discussion

Sydney environmentalist Susan Campbell also felt that a national party might not be the appropriate vehicle for green organisation:

"My involvement with the greens, both locally (the Sydney Greens) and more broadly (the NSW Green Alliance), came about because of the group's commitment to non-hierarchical decision- and policy-making, and to a democratic process which empowers individuals at a grassroots level.

"I would welcome wholeheartedly any broadening of the communication network of concerned environmentalists. However, before a green party is formed, I believe there needs to be full discussion with all the established political greens as well as other environmental groups around the country.

"Perhaps, rather than a party as such, which conjures up images of hierarchies and centralised power, a well-organised network of local greens Australia-wide would serve the green principles better.

"I do not think any such decisions should be rushed into. I would be deeply suspicious if a decision to set up a green party required any compromise of green principles, either of policy or process. I seriously doubt that a group can move away from an initially pragmatic or expedient position to a more idealistic or green one at some unspecified time down the track.

"We, and the planet, cannot afford to fall into the old political pitfalls. We need to get this right."

Others, such as Tasmanian lecturer Robyn Eckersley, would give higher priority to electoral concerns:

"What I would like to see in Australia is the merging of the Democrats with the new green forces to produce a green party at the federal level ... The Democrats have got a lot of very good policies and there are some good people in the Democrats and I think if we can merge, it will get the political commentators talking.

"It's something new, and it would be much talked about in the lead-up to the next federal election, and there's a real chance we could not only get Senate seats but lower house seats, and that would be a beginning of maybe a much more viable political force at the federal level.

"At the state level, of course, we've got this green experience in Tasmania. I think we need a strong movement and we need a party, and they've got different roles. The movement spearheads one perspective, makes a no-compromise stand. The party puts together a coherent program that will appeal to everyone.

"The movement can be critical of the party, but they'll obviously have links. At the moment, in Australia the press confuse parliamentary greens with the movement, and they don't recognise their distinct roles enough in the way they do the labor movement and the

"It's going to be the same thing with the green movement. We need to push into electoral politics. I know the dangers of cooption, corruption, all those things."


Australian Democrat leader Janet Powell was also on the panel when Bob Brown made his call for a national green party. Far from being surprised, she quickly got down to discussion of details:

"I think it is important how we handle each other and how we handle the challenge that's before us. It's not just a challenge, it is the most marvellous political opportunity that has been before this country for 200 years."

Discussing Brown's attitude towards accountability of politicians, she said: "We have to allow for mistakes and we have to build in accountability. We think we've got a pretty good balance of all that in our organisation ... I do invite you to look closely at our structure.

"I want to put forward a particularly practical suggestion as to how we can handle each other as this process goes along.

"It's clear we have disparate green individuals and political aspirants. We have small green groups of one type or another all around this country ... and it's very difficult to get much further. All of that does have to come together in some way, and as Bob said it mustn't get bogged down in too much detail and too much fear.

"It must come together, and we in the Democrats must not see that as a threat. That's what Graeme Richardson wants us to do. He has clearly said the green party will come along, it must come along, and it will destroy the Democrats. We have to get all of that out of our heads.

"We could have done much better, between us, in the last election had we been closer together. We did pretty well, and I thought we got along very well ... but we must become closer together ... We can only do so much in parliament. We have to have the support, we have to be public. It's not enough just to go and lobby quietly."

Australian Democrat Queensland Senator Cheryl Kernot also thought Bob Brown's proposal was feasible:

"I think the experience we had in the Brisbane City Council elections as a Green Alliance was a really positive one, which made a lot of people feel that it could happen.

"There's a lot of working through to be done though. I don't know if it's going to happen in the short or long term.

"The timing of it has been a bit of a surprise to some people and I think there are still stereotypical views of both Democrats and greens that are held by members of both. That, along with some ideological baggage has to be cast off or worked through.

"But the most exciting thing is offering to the public of Australia a

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