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The Australian Greens at 25: fighting the same battles but still no breakthrough

Past and present: Bob Brown (centre) pictured in 2010 with Greens colleagues including current leader Richard Di Natale (right). AAP Image/Alan Porritt

On August 30, 1992 in Sydney, media were invited to a press conference to launch a new national political party: The Australian Greens. It was a Sunday, and no television crews bothered to turn up. One journo who did was Robert Garran from the Australian Financial Review, who reported that:

The Greens Party, representing green political groups in Tasmania, NSW and Queensland, has agreed to a constitution, and aims to contest Senate and House of Representative seats in the next federal election. The high-profile Tasmanian Green MP, Dr Bob Brown, said the party offered the electorate the choice of abandoning the two-party system, which had failed to address the nation’s problems.

Brown, who first rose to fame for his environmental campaign against Tasmania’s Franklin Dam, said his party was “more than a one-issue group”, describing its values as being “about social justice, enhancing democracy (particularly grassroots democracy), solving our problems in a peaceful and non-violent way, and about looking after our environment”.

Read more: The Greens grow up

The launch was also reported by a rather interesting (and useful if you’re an historian/geek like me) publication called GreenWeek. Its editor Philip Luker was sceptical of the nascent Green movement’s momentum (rightly, as it turned out), offering this verdict:

Drew Hutton of the Queensland Greens is talking through his hat when he predicts green governments all over Australia in the next decade.

Almost 20 years later, during the battle over the fate of Julia Gillard’s carbon price, Brown was interviewed by The Australian. He pushed the timeframe back, predicting that “within 50 years we will supplant one of the major parties in Australia”.

Therein lies the main problem for the Greens. Many of the things they’ve been warning about have come to pass (deforestation, the climate crisis, human rights meltdowns), yet still they haven’t managed to break through with their calls for change. This is even more alarming given that the real history of the Greens precedes their August 1992 launch by more than two decades.

1971 and all that

There was something in the air in the early 1970s. Readers of a certain vintage will remember songs like Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush (“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s”), Marvin Gaye’s Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), and Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi.

Even the Liberal government of the day could hear the mood music, as the new Prime Minister Billy McMahon created the short-lived Department of the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts. (Not everyone was quite so enlightened; the new department’s minister Peter Howson complained to a colleague about his new portfolio of “trees, boongs and poofters”.)

Meanwhile, a battle was raging in Tasmania over the plan to build three hydroelectric dams that would flood Lake Pedder National Park. In his fascinating and inspiring memoir, Optimism, Bob Brown wrote:

In 1971, Dr Richard Jones, his foot on a Central Plateau boulder, had seen the pointlessness of pursuing ecological wisdom with the old parties and proposed to his companions that a new party based on ecological principles be formed.

The United Tasmania Group, now seen as the first incarnation of the Green Party, contested the 1972 state election, and Jones came within a whisker of being elected.

Lake Pedder was lost, but other battles were still to be fought: green bans, Terania Creek, campaigns against nuclear power and whaling.

In Tasmania the next big skirmish was the Franklin Dam. Green activists mobilised, agitated and trained in non-violent direct action. Amanda Lohrey, in her excellent Quarterly Essay Groundswell, recalls:

An acquaintance of mine in the Labor Party lasted half a day in his group before packing up and driving back to Hobart. “It was all that touchy-feely stuff,” he told me, grimacing with distaste. Touchy-feely was a long way from what young apparatchiks in the ALP were accustomed to.

Those culture clashes between Labor and Greens have continued, despite a brief love-in engineered by Bob Hawke’s environment minister Graham ‘whatever it takes’ Richardson. To the chagrin of Labor rightwingers, the 1990 election was won on preferences from green-minded voters. But by 1991 it was clear that the Liberals would not compete for those voters, and Labor gradually lost interest in courting them.

So in 1992 the Greens went national, and so began the long march through the institutions, with gradually growing Senate success. In 2002, thanks to the Liberals not standing, they won the Lower House seat of Cunningham, NSW in a by-election, but couldn’t hold onto it.

In 2010, after receiving the largest single political donation in Australian history (A$1.68 million) from internet entrepreneur Graeme Wood, the Greens’ candidate Adam Bandt wrested inner Melbourne from Labor, and has increased his majority in 2013 and 2016.

Critics, problems and the future

Doubtless the comments under this article will be full of condemnations of the Greens for not having supported Kevin Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in December 2009. Despite Green Party protestations to the contrary, Gillard’s ill-fated carbon price wasn’t that much better at reducing emissions (though it did have additional support for renewable energy).

However, we should remember three things. First, Rudd made no effort to keep the Greens onside (quite the opposite). Second, hindsight is 20/20 – who could honestly have predicted the all-out culture war that would erupt over climate policy? Finally, critics rarely mention that in January 2010 the Greens proposed an interim carbon tax until policy certainty could be achieved, but could not get Labor to pay attention.

The bigger problem for the Greens – indeed, for anyone contemplating sentencing themselves to 20 years of boredom, for trying to change the system from within – is the problem of balancing realism with fundamentalism. How many compromises do you make before you are fatally compromised, before you become the thing you previously denounced? How long a spoon, when supping with the devil?

You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Focus too hard on environmental issues (imagining for a moment that they really are divorced from economic and social ones) and you can be dismissed as a single-issue party for latte-sippers. Pursue a broader agenda, as current leader Richard Di Natale has sought to do, and you stand accused of forgetting your roots.

Can the circle of environmental protection and economic growth ever be squared? How do you say “we warned you about all this” without coming across as smug?

As if those ideological grapples weren’t enough, the party is also dealing with infighting between the federal and NSW branches, not to mention the body-blow of senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters becoming the first casualties of the ongoing constitutional crisis over dual nationality.

Read more: If High Court decides against ministers with dual citizenship, could their decisions in office be challenged?

The much-anticipated breakthrough at the polling booth failed to materialise in 2016. Green-tinged local councils work on emissions reductions, but the federal party remains electorally becalmed.

The dystopian novel This Tattooed Land describes an Australia in which “an authoritarian Green government takes power and bans fossil fuel use”… in 2022. It still sounds like a distant fantasy.

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