The last federal election saw the largest vote for minor parties in Australian political history. The Greens, who present themselves as a progressive alternative to Labor and the Liberals, seemed well placed to benefit from the anti-establishment mood. But instead they suffered a 0.6% swing against them in the Senate, and lost a Senator in South Australia.
The disappointing result has caused major ructions within the ranks of the party, with different tendencies blaming each other for their inability to connect with voters.
While people are becoming more disillusioned with the political establishment, the Greens are aiming to become a bigger part of it. For example, during the election campaign they made several appeals to Labor to consider a coalition with them.
In fact, over the past decade, Greens MPs have given support to both of the major parties. From 2010 to 2013 the party signed a stability agreement that kept Julia Gillard in power. During that time, the Greens supported budgets that made deep cuts to social spending.
Since Richard Di Natale assumed the leadership in 2015, the Greens have supported the Coalition’s pension cuts and Malcolm Turnbull’s Senate voting reforms. This has been part of a long term strategy, first outlined by Adam Bandt’s campaign director in 2010, to “cut through this old image and false perception of the Greens as tree-hugging radicals”.
At the recent election the Greens received 10.2% of the vote in the House of Representatives. This was a slight increase on their 2013 result, but still less than the 11.7% they received in 2010. While they comfortably held onto Adam Bandt’s inner city seat of Melbourne, they were unable to make any other breakthroughs. The Greens Senate result was actually their worst since 2004.
Di Natale has tried to dismiss speculation of a rift within the party, but major divisions clearly exist. The founding leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, recently went public with his criticisms. Speaking to the ABC’s 7:30 program, Brown launched an unprecedented attack on the New South Wales branch of the Greens, calling on Senator Lee Rhiannon to resign.
“They need a clean out in New South Wales”, he said. “The people who have been for decades running the NSW Greens need to retire and make way for new blood and people more in tune with the electorate in 2016. This is no longer 1986.”
Compared to other branches of the Greens, the NSW Greens have a larger activist base and are more involved in community campaigns. For example, their candidate in Grayndler was Jim Casey, a leader of the firefighters’ union and a self-described socialist. In states like Victoria, Greens candidates are mostly doctors and lawyers.
While some in the NSW Greens would like to pull the party towards the left, the main trajectory of the organisation is towards the right and for an almost exclusive focus on elections. The activist layer in NSW is very much marginalised, and the bulk of the population judge the party on their performance at a national level.
Especially since 2010, people have experienced the political limitations of the Greens. In the main they are not seen as an alternative to the status quo. This, coupled with the fact that the Labor Party pulled out all stops to combat the Greens in NSW (and were supported by the Murdoch press), explains why their vote was lower in NSW compared to Victoria.
The idea that the Greens would win more votes if they were even less radical is not accurate. By appealing to middle class professionals and “business people”, the Greens are limiting their potential social base to a select few inner city areas.
The only way to really challenge the major parties is to have an orientation to the vast bulk of working class people who live in the suburbs. While social issues are extremely important, these people often vote with economic issues in mind. There is huge scope to engage them with a genuine economic and political alternative to capitalism.
The path to developing an alternative to the major parties will take time, as people test out different ideas. But a new left formation that takes up class questions with gusto has the potential to make real breakthroughs.
By Conor Flynn