Groundswell: the rise of the Greens

Submitted by on 9 April, 2004 - 12:00

by Amanda Lohrey in Quarterly Essay, No. 8 2002

Amanda Lohrey's essay on the history of the Greens proclaims "the political potency of ecology". "This movement and its ecological narrative have the power to subsume the traditional grand narratives of capital and labour and indeed to some degree they already have." "The Green constituency is based onÂ…a new paradigm or grand narrative of what politics is about, i.e. the 'ecological'."

She attributes this to the material reality of environmental destruction as an issue of universal impact, though (by the way) with greatest impact on the poorest. This has generated a "structure of feeling" that has fueled passions for environmental issues, which in turn have found political expression in the organic and authentic nature of the Greens. The Greens are poised to replace the Democrats as the third party of Australian politics in large part Lohrey argues because "they are an organic party in the sense they have evolved over a lengthy period of time and out of several community campaigns organised at the grass roots." The Green constituency is committed to a new world view, whereas the Democrats are essentially reactive and "a barnacle on the bow of the major party constituency."

Lohrey's story of the genesis of the Greens starts with a major defeat for Australian environmentalists - the flooding of Lake Pedder by the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Commission in 1972. Next the HEC planned to dam the Franklin and Gordon Rivers in Tasmania's South West. The Tasmania Wilderness Society, with Bob brown as a founding member, launched a campaign to save the Franklin River. In December 1982, after other work had not secured the wild status of the rivers, the Wilderness Society began a blockade. "By the end of 1983 more than 1400 blockaders had been arrested, 600 of them choosing to go to gaol." The blockade was organised on Non Violent Direct Action principles, with affinity groups, a method of organising inherited by anti-capitalist blockaders of the forums of international capital 15-20 years later.

Between defeat at Lake Pedder and victory at the Franklin were the Green Bans of the NSW Builders Labourers' Federation in the mid-1970s, a story that Amanda Lohrey does not tell. Yet it is said that Petra Kelly based the name for the German Greens on those Green Bans. The Green Bans story contradicts the claim that the capital-labour grand narrative is superseded by the ecological, because it shows the impact of inter-linking the two. This history is very Tasmanian, not only because Tasmania is Amanda Lohrey's home, but because of The Franklin River campaign, Norm Sanders, Christine Milne, the Green-Labor Accord and Bob Brown. This history is also more inspired by the imagery of campaigns to save forests and wild spaces, than of urban environmental struggles. It all adds up to the omission of the BLF Green Ban story.

The Wesley Vale pulp mill campaign loomed in Tasmania in 1987, and Christine Milne led the Tasmanian Greens to win the balance of power in the Tasmanian parliament. They sustained a Labor government with a Labor-Green Accord, referred to as "The Accord" although that other Accord between the ALP-ACTU of 1983 onwards occupies another political consciousness.

The first local Green Party, the Sydney Greens had been formed in 1983 after the Franklin success. For nearly another ten years the Greens were state-based until in 1992 "a rule was introduced that members of Green Parties could not be members of any other party, one of several measures which effectively disposed of the Socialist Workers Party influence. Purged of the SWP [now DSP, J.B.], NSW came on board, the Greens at last became a national organisation." The DSP sees their purging as motivated solely by anti-socialism, but since the Greens have obviously benefited from becoming a national party, many Greens would view the DSP's opposition to a national party as based on factional self-interest rather than the interests of the Greens.

Lohrey presents the Greens winning of seats in parliaments, and the sustaining of minority governments in Tasmania and the ACT, as achievements, without questioning the records of those governments. When the Queensland Greens under the influence of Drew Hutton allocated preferences against Labor in the 1995 state election, this was evidence that the Greens had to be taken seriously.

There is an underlying contradiction in Amanda's Lohrey's expression of admiration for the Greens. On the one hand she laments that "Labor and business now share the same view of things in which the bottom line is economic, not social". Yet she quotes Drew Hutton's concerns uncritically, as he anticipates problems with maintaining a balance between the social justice and the deep ecology formation within the Greens. 'What worries me most in the Greens' says Hutton, 'are those people coming from what I would see as an ideological social justice position, ideological leftism. That traditional leftism has run its course - there's no longer any currency in it. And all the hard-headedness and practicality and intellectual honesty and focus that caused the Greens to get off the ground in the first place against all the odds could get lost in ideological fervour and that's the biggest danger'."

Hutton is presumably referring to what are loosely known as the "Red Greens". The Red Greens inherit some of their outlook from the tradition of the BLF Green Bans, and as this essay skips over the Green Bans, it also gives no voice to any Red Greens.

Amanda Lohrey puts the case that the Greens were seen as anti-progress and anti-science when they first emerged, whereas really, and now it is evident, they are advocates of a rational scientific approach to human endeavours. The essay adopts conventional wisdom though in seeing "economic" concerns as being counter-posed to other concerns, such as social and environmental, just as conventional wisdom 30 years ago saw ecological concerns as counterposed to science. But in the case of both science and economics: the question is science for whom, in whose interests, and economics for whom in whose interests? Actually the challenge is to reclaim economics from capital and its "market" as the domain for a rational and democratically decided allocation of resources, taking science into account, and not profitability, but for social and ecological need. In fact it is in recognising and challenging the power to allocate resources, residing with capital, the wealthy, the corporate boardrooms that the mainstream Greens' plots are barren. The capital-labour grand narrative may be dormant in terms of potency, but if it does not bud again, the ecological narrative will be stifled before it can flourish and weed out the environmental destroyers.

It will not be a case of Drew Hutton's simple 'ideological fervour' that will start to crack the illusion of the Greens as a whole offering a new political hope. It will be the reality of the Greens, as they continue to have electoral successes, having to take positions on all issues, not just ecology, that will show that under capitalism there can be no new paradigm that can change society regardless of capital. The forging of a truly fruitful Red Green alliance will depend on socialists both within and outside the Greens orienting to a critique of capital and to working class struggle in pursuit of a genuine democracy of producers and consumers. The socialists outside the Greens can best sow the seeds for such an alliance by engaging in political dialogue and discussion and seeking joint work in working class struggles with the many Greens who also think of themselves as Red.

But the socialists outside the Greens can also learn from the success of the Greens in growing as a party, most particularly from the way in which the Greens have been built out of grass roots campaigns of ecologists that have won very particular victories. Socialists can help to regenerate a consciousness of the fundamental conflict in interests between labour and capital, the consciousness that is the basis of a struggle for socialism, by placing their efforts into cultivating and tending to the interests, struggles and victories of working class people in Australia.

Reviewer: Janet Burstall

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