Why 14.3% of the vote is the perfect result for the Greens

My article in the recently published in issue of Greenmail.  James Ryan


The Greens now face their toughest test in 30 years. We are at a fork in the road and the wrong choice of path may preclude any return. We need to choose what role in Australian politics the party should seek to fulfil from this time fresh from winning lower house seats in both Victoria and NSW.

On one side there is heady allure of becoming a party of government; of replacing the Labor Party, of getting ‘bigger’, more professional, and to lead the country instead of yelling from the sidelines.    Greens poll numbers - Newspoll

On the other side are those who believe the Greens should remain a party of principle; a party of social change with its roots in activism; a party which acts as an opinion leader rather than as a party of government. Supporters of this view maintain that Parliaments do not lead our society, rather they follow, they reflect the attitudes which have already been decided within the community.

The Greens have been built on the principles of grassroots democracy aka participatory democracy. We believe in communities having a say at all levels and at all times in decisions which affect their lives. We emerged from the greens bans and forests movements to give political voice to the alternative and progressive; to serve as the voice for activists who push the lawmakers towards change. Our slogans used to be people power, No Dams, and Save Chaelundi. Now it is No Coal Seam Gas, Welcome Refugees, animal rights, marriage equality and maintaining public sector employment.

Our purpose has always been, and should continue to be, the progressive agenda. This is the proper role of the Greens, to be leading, it is not to set out to appeal to the majority. It is to always take the ethical choice of speaking out for those who have not yet found their voice.

An example

Since becoming part of Government in 2008 the ACT Greens became responsible for authorising the Kangaroo cull in the ACT. It is a decision which reverberated throughout the Australian animal rights movement. In 2012 elections the ACT Greens were decimated. They were reduced from 4 elected members to just one. The damage didn’t stop there. The pragmatism of the ACT Greens in government arguably led to the creation of a new political party, the Animal Justice Party, which has just taken the final seat in the NSW Upper House.

The political science of western democracies is well established. Two major parties (or coalition of parties) are locked together in a struggle to form government. In seeking to attract enough of the primary vote needed to secure government each party moves to the middle. Each party hovers as close to the middle as they can while still being able to claim they are different to the other major party which is also hovering in the middle. Naturally these mainstream parties will not endorse progressive policies as these run the risk of offending the middle.

This behaviour by the major parties was classically demonstrated by Kevin Rudd’s infamous declaration that climate change was the “greatest moral, economic, and social challenge of our time”.  Rudd wasn’t expressing a personal belief, he was making a political statement built on his judgment  that the community campaign for action on climate change (which the Greens had supported for years) had grown so strong it was now a vote winner. The political expediency of his statement is evidenced by the lack of effort to follow through with a price on carbon once his first flawed attempt sunk.

Another example

On the issue of refugees and abiding by our international obligations each of the major parties have policies which reflect their assessment of what the Australian community will support. If the Greens were to seek government then I predict that we too would be eliminating al ‘risky’ policies and might even consider support for offshore processing.

Greens who support the goal of becoming Government protest at this analysis. They say we would take the community with us. Somehow the community as a whole will finally (and suddenly) be convinced that the Greens policies really are the answer. If that theoretical circumstance happened then I agree we could form government.

However the scenario goes against all political experience, the experience that major parties will co-opt policies once they are popular; and most importantly the experience that the prgressive issues keep changing. It is impossible to be a consistently progressive voice and to be popular at the same time.

14.3% of the vote is the perfect vote for the Greens.  14.3% elects 12 senators (over two election cycles) into the Federal parliament and would comfortably give us 6 members of the NSW Upper House.  In each of these forums we would then have an incredibly strong position to conduct campaigns that bring about social change and give voice to the things that matter.

Via the synergy of community and Greens campaigns we have brought change to Australian politics on political donations, on forests, on marriage equality and on coal seam gas and mining.Ian Cohen & warship in Sydney Harbour

It is obviously a bonus that some of the most progressive areas of our community (like Balmain, Newtown and Byron Bay) will support lower house members.  However we should think about what happens if we try to expand the number of lower house seats we attempt to win. Inevitably the campaign to win more electorates with slightly more conservative constituencies will lead to pressure to alter our policies, to become more acceptable to the ‘middle’.

In 1995 I joined a party which was focused on electing a feisty Ian Cohen into the NSW Parliament. Our foremost image was of Ian clinging to the bow of a nuclear warship as it came into Sydney Harbour. We weren’t worried about offending middle Australia, we weren’t worried about being called names. We were standing up for what matters. That is the party I joined.

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