The Australian Greens: From Activism to Australia’s Third Party

Dr Jackson gives a glimpse into the individuals and activities of the Australian Greens

Australia has long had a near duopoly in political parties operating in the federal sphere. In part echoing Duverger’s law, in part structured by the collection of conservative parties under two distinct but related banners. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal-National Party coalition for 65 years after the Second World War enjoyed oscillating control of the Australian House of Representatives. Neither party had a perfect record on environmental protection, though both would advance some environmental claims. However, the dramatic rise in environmental consciousness in the 1960s and 70s saw new parties emerge which placed environmental and ecological thinking to the fore.

The first of these parties to experience significant success was the Australian Democrats, who managed for 30 years from 1977 to 2007 to occupy Senate seats while working for improved environmental outcomes. However, it was not until the 2010 federal election that a crack appeared in the duopoly’s control of the House of Representatives, with the arrival of the Adam Bandt, Member for the seat of Melbourne, in the lower house. The Australian Greens had arrived in the House, after being continuously in the Senate for 20 years, crucially at the very moment when the ALP needed them to be able to govern. The resulting Agreement included specific resolutions on tackling climate change.

So who are these Australian Greens? The Australian Greens itself was founded by a diverse range of people in diverse places. The party itself did not grow from one meeting or one person, but as a network of like-minded people active in community and environmental campaigns in different localities. Certainly the earliest parties had strong environmental credentials, but not all environmentalists were keen on such a party.

From the outset, the diversity was represented in strong local and regional characteristics amongst the constituent parts of the party, with plenty of strong characters involved. Some of these individuals would be known to most readers of national newspapers: anti-nuclear campaigner Jo Vallentine, forest campaigner Bob Brown and anti-woodchip mill campaigner Christine Milne being three such activists-turned-MPs.

But for all our knowledge of the MPs, of their, sometimes high-profile, campaigns, escapades, and issues, little has been known about the people who built the party, who populate its local branches, and who do the bulk of the political campaign work at election times. While we know a fair bit about the major parties, at least partly from the steady stream of tell-all books from ex-MPs and party insiders, we know comparatively little about the internal workings of the Greens.

What we do know about the Greens is largely confined to what the party says itself, what Bob Brown puts in his anecdotal recollections, and a very small number of part historical – part theological thoughts on the party’s basis for existence. This is what I set out to discover.

From the outset it is clear that the diversity within the party is a representation of the members themselves: this much should not surprise us if we think of most political parties modelled on a mass-party structure. The Australian Green’s membership, sitting above 14,000 in 2015, has seen plenty of comings and goings since its formative days, and the membership itself has shifted focus and interest since then.

As we might half expect from a party long thought to embody Inglehart’s post-material thesis, the members are very well educated, if a little older (at an average of 54) than might be expected from looking at those who vote for the party. And the membership is evenly divided between men and women, in contrast to the view of most large parties being the domain of ambitious men.

The obvious interests of members stand out: Climate change is overwhelming seen as a critical cause for action, with forests and land clearing closely behind. Interestingly, health and education also figure prominently among members as a key priority for the party for action, perhaps echoing those beginnings as always more than just an environmental party. And indeed, it is an understanding that social justice is just as important as the environment that comes across strongly from the membership.

When we dig deeper, we also find that both party members and activists have a healthy disdain for leadership figures, although the role of Bob Brown as something of a unifying figure still looms large. That caution towards leaders goes back to the party’s roots, with a desire for flat structures and distributed power still evident in party structure. At the same time, a shift towards streamlining processes, delivering clear political messages, and organising effective electoral campaigns points towards the increasing professionalization of the party.

And it is in that professionalization that the key to changes in the Australian Greens is to be found. As the party has grown, matured, and accepted positions in government, it has also rid itself of the image of ‘fairies at the bottom of the garden’ or having fanciful policies. Able to make deals with the government of the day to secure legislation, and at a state level take up Ministerial roles, the party is steadily positioning itself as a natural coalition partner.

While probably the ALP, the question of who the coalition partner might be is still an open question.

Dr Stewart Jackson is a Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations, with a specialisation in Australian politics, at the University of Sydney. His broad interests cover the breadth of Green politics in Australia and the Asia Pacific, with a special interest in party development. These interests also extend to green political theory, particularly environmental feminism, and the intersection of social movements and parliamentary politics.

Prior to becoming an academic, Dr Jackson was involved in Green politics for 20 years as a party activist, including a period as National Convenor of the Australian Greens.


Dr Jackson’s latest book, ‘The Australian Greens: From Activism to Australia’s Third Party’ (published by MUP), examines the individuals and activities of the Greens. The official book launch is on Wed 16 March. Click here for more details



Image: Michael Coghlan ‘Food Not Fracking’ via Flickr Commons