Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Greens?

Originally published on Hijacked (11 March 2015)

Welcome to Hijacked’s new longform series where Team Hijacked journalists delve deep into the issues that matter most to Australia’s student population.

In the darkening woods of Australian politics, green can be a dangerous colour. If you’re The Labor Party, too much is often toxic; if you’re Liberal or National, it usually means eco-terrorism is involved somewhere and, if you belong to the conservative media, it can send you into a death spiral of scary graphics and manic headlines (see above.)

But, right now in Australia, what it really means is change.

For our two main political camps, Labor and the Coalition, that could be the most terrifying prospect of all.

The Australian Greens may have started in the woods, fighting for Tasmania’s iconic Franklin River, but today they are well and truly out in the open. Now the third strongest force in politics, the Greens have closed considerable ground on the major parties in the last few years, holding the balance of power in both the Senate and the House of Representatives in 2010 and increasing their national vote to more than 11 per cent.

At the last election, while their overall vote did suffer a slump at 8.65 per cent, their party-room expanded once again with ten Greens MPs in the Senate and Melbourne’s Adam Bandt shooting back into the House of Representatives. And, unlike the flash-in-the-pan groundswell that saw Pauline Hanson’s One Nation rise in 1998 (which I’m sure most of us would sooner forget), the Greens have been consistently increasing their parliamentary strength for more than two decades.

So what does this mean for our old two-party system?

 The lean Green fighting machine

What was to become the Australian Greens began on the banks of Tasmania’s Franklin River over 30 years ago, as environmental campaigners came together to block construction of a gigantic dam set to flood the World Heritage forest.

It would have been the biggest dam of its kind anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere and the threat of its shadow gave birth to what is now considered to be the world’s first greens party: The United Tasmania Group (UTG). Running in the state elections in 1972, the group came within 200 votes of winning a seat.

But the power of the campaign had grown to such heights that on election night Bob Hawke declared “the dam will not be built” in his first act as Prime Minister.

“I think the Franklin campaign really politicised people,” Greens Senator Janet Rice tells Hijacked. “At last, there was this sense that people banding together and fighting hard could actually win. But it also identified just how important it was to have people who are passionate about these things, be they environmental issues or social justice issues, in the parliament as well.”

Once a “foot soldier” in the Franklin River campaign herself, Rice went on to help found the Victorian Greens across the Strait in 1993. Only a year earlier, her colleague, Bob Brown, had been elected as the Greens’ first national leader.

The Tasmanian doctor, long at the forefront of the UTG, won a seat in the 1992 Senate under the party’s banner of “ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, social justice and peace and non-violence.” These “four pillars” of green politics would go on to unite over 90 parties around the world in the Global Greens Charter.

But when “Uncle Bob” finally stepped aside in 2012, after leading the party to its greatest electoral result of all time, many feared the power of the Australian Greens would also fade into the background.

Certainly, at the next election, the national swing to the right that saw Tony Abbott enthroned as PM also shrank the Greens vote considerably. Much was blamed on the new leadership of Christine Milne, on the damaging 2010 alliance that helped Labor form a minority government and on the determination of the Coalition to lock the party out of their preferences, even to the benefit of Labor.

Adam Bandt, the only Greens MP to so far see inside Australia’s Lower House, is surprisingly forgiving. “One of the best days in the campaign,” he tells Hijacked “was when Tony Abbott took to the airwaves to say: ‘I’m putting the Greens last in the House of Representatives because they’re wielding too much power, even with just one of them in there.’ That was the best endorsement I had. I put that on my leaflets!”

Apparently it worked. Despite bleeding almost a quarter of their national vote, the Greens retained their seats in the Senate (even increasing by one with the election of Rice) and Bandt won his Melbourne seat by over 40 per cent without preferences. What was once a safe Labor electorate had been transformed into the bedrock of the Greens campaign in just a few years.

But, the balance of power they enjoyed in 2010 is now gone.

Dr Tad Tietze at The University of New South Wales, believes the central problem for the Greens was their “shift from standing outside a publicly reviled political class, one that they claimed to want to replace, to becoming responsible participants in the political establishment and, as a result, getting caught in its crisis.”

 Do Greens and governments mix?

But, if you ask Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute, it is the unwillingness of the Greens to negotiate with the major parties that has rendered them “largely irrelevant since the last election.”

“The Greens under Christine Milne [are] willing to put protest ahead of progress,” writes Denniss.

Both the Greens’ decision to vote down Labor’s Emissions Trading Scheme in 2009 and their more recent move against the Abbott government’s proposed increase to the fuel tax have certainly raised eyebrows.

“Where there’s areas we can agree on, we’re happy to explore them,”Bandt says. “But, this is a particularly feral government. They want to tear down things that a lot of us have taken for granted like affordable healthcare and they’re doing it without taking them to an election. So it’s about sticking to our principles. It’s not our job to help the government with bad policies.”

Big Green radicals

Perhaps that’s because the actual job of the Greens is to send the conservative media into periodic rage blackouts.

“The Greens represent a view that is hostile to the nation’s interests,” declared The Daily Telegraph’s editorial just weeks before the last election. Three years earlier, The Australian wrote that the Greens were “bad for the nation” and “should be destroyed at the ballot box”.

Rice believes it comes back to what the Greens stand for – namely “getting corporate Australia back in line.”

“The conservative media are working to support those vested interests and they’re relentless in their attacks on us,” Rice says. “But, while there’s still the extreme Green label that the Murdoch Press like to push, there’s also social media and online magazines like Hijacked that weren’t there 20 years ago. There’s now the potential to bypass the strength of The Australian and The Herald Sun.”

Young and restless

So, dear Hijacked readers, you could very well fit snugly into the mould of the typical Greens voter yourself – presuming you’re young, tertiary educated and fond of kicking back with some alternative media on a Tuesday night.

“People talk about the idealism of youth,” says Rice. “I think young people see that the Greens have maintained that idealism and that it’s possible to maintain it. They see the difference between us and the old Labor/Liberal way of thinking. They know that we’re authentic. We’re not going to sell them out.”

According to research by the Whitlam Institute, “the youth vote had a substantial, possibly determinative, impact on the outcomes of the last four Federal elections.”

Perhaps it’s little wonder, then, that the Greens are taking our votes so seriously.

“This government’s policies are essentially declaring generational warfare,” says Bandt. “It’s no coincidence that young people helped put me in parliament. We changed the way government was done and it gave us a lot of good outcomes, things other parties like the Democrats never had because they were only in the Senate.”

Three’s a crowd

So, with the Greens vote down after the last election, but still consistently growing in strength, are we nearing the end of the two-party system?

Across the country, more than one in five Australians are now voting for someone other than the major parties, including, ahem, Clive Palmer.

“I think the two-party system as we know it is dead,” says Bandt. “And it’ll only be further buried into the ground with time. I think we’ll certainly increase our vote at the next election and I hope one day to see a Greens government, as is the case in many places in Germany.”

While today the Greens may still be relegated to the sidelines of Australian politics, at the rate they keep tagging players into the game, they should not be underestimated.

Now more than two decades on from Bob Brown’s first appearance in the Senate, his party has – at the very least – earnt a place on the field.

 

By Sherryn Groch

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