Graham Richardson

If ever there was an essay which needed to be written it is Amanda Lohrey’s Groundswell: The Rise of the Greens.

Now that the Greens are enjoying electoral success, some examination of their past and some musings about their future seem to be in order.

When I first became an official of the Labor Party at the end of 1971, it was generally accepted that only 10 per cent of the electorate was not tied to a major party. This 10 per cent were the swinging voters of the day. Even the name “swingers” indicated that voting for a major party was the only real choice.

The only minor party of any note at that time was the Democratic Labor Party, and by then its death throes were well and truly under way. There was no room for small parties because, overwhelmingly, voters were tied either to Labor or to the Coalition. The Democrats had not yet kicked off and the Greens were not yet any kind of political force.

In just three decades, the percentage of voters committed to one or other of the major parties has really plummeted. Even being kind to them, 75 per cent would be a maximum figure. It is that decline in base support, particularly on the Labor side, which has given real impetus to the rise of the Greens.

Disillusionment in the major parties has been growing for all of these last thirty years. The euphoria of Labor voters when Gough Whitlam was elected didn’t last long. The harsh realities of government proved too great a hurdle for a Labor Party which had spent so many long and bitter years in opposition. Too many of the men who became ministers in that government were too old, too stupid and too embittered from their long walk in the wilderness.

Whitlam had a vision. He could dream the big dreams but he didn’t really know how to manage those around him. Within three years his government had descended into utter chaos. Kerr’s intervention is probably the main reason that the enormous number of Australians who worshipped Gough (let alone the man himself, who never suffered from a lack of self-esteem) have been able to erase completely from their memories the turmoil of ministers getting tied up with a spiv like Khemlani, a notoriously distracted treasurer, sackings, comings and goings, a faltering economy, an overnight 25per cent cut in tariffs – just to name a few.

This litany is not to be taken as any attempt to deny the wonderful, magical policy movements in health, education, heritage and the infusion of huge sums of money into helping out the far-flung neglected suburbs of our major cities. It is meant, though, to remind all those Whitlam worshippers that today’s icon was massacred in the polls in 1975 and again in 1977 by an electorate deeply disturbed by his years in power. Many who had voted Labor for the first time vowed never to do it again.

Malcolm Fraser did the same thing for the Coalition. Given a massive majority and for a time a majority in both houses, Fraser could achieve almost nothing. The notorious tax indexation promise, dredged up to win an election and jettisoned just as quickly when its cost proved too great for the budget to bear, set the tone.

The economic mess of 1982 (when John Howard was treasurer) was the last will and testament of the worst prime minister since World War II.

Conservatives had seen too much incompetence and too many broken promises. The Coalition’s electoral base was fractured and more swinging voters, or at least voters prepared to look for other alternatives, had been created.

During the Fraser years, the birth of the Democrats with their slogan “Keep the Bastards Honest” created a destination for at least some of these displaced major party supporters.

The ’80s and ’90s should be described in terms of economic rationalism rather than Labor dominance. It was the strict adherence of both sides of politics to this ideal that provided the framework for policy. Any minister who wanted to oppose or even temper this grand plan was by definition “irrational”. If you thought the pace of tariff reform was too fast, you were a troglodyte. More importantly, if you dared to challenge the orthodoxy of extremely tight budgets, then you were a real moron.

That kind of climate didn’t breed much Cabinet debate. It didn’t guarantee over time that Labor’s base would continue to stick blindly to the voting pattern established over eons. The base continued to fracture, as did that of the conservatives.

Since Whitlam’s investment in education, more and more of the sons and daughters of the working class received higher education. They bought homes and wanted to send their kids to private schools. They worried much more about their mortgages than about third world poverty. They refused to follow the lead of their parents in voting Labor.

The seat of Macquarie in far western Sydney is a classic example of this phenomenon. A decade ago this was a safe Labor seat. Now the Liberals’ Jackie Kelly appears to have an unassailable lead. It is mortgage debt country with a capital “M”. If you drive around this seat it is really hard to understand why it isn’t still a safe Labor seat. John Howard probably has a better understanding of these people than most.

Many of them are very new Liberal voters. They are not yet welded into the base, they haven’t yet secured their permanent political home. The party best able to represent their interests will always be in with a show.

The disaffection of Labor voters, as demonstrated by the difficulty (at the moment almost the impossibility) of keeping the first preference vote at or over 40 per cent, has in recent times come mainly from the party’s working class base. But it must always be remembered that Labor’s base is made up of a significant minority (probably somewhere up to a quarter of the ALP vote) of professional, academic and better paid voters.

Their critics call them “chardonnay socialists”. They are said to be a self-proclaimed elite who know what is better for the country even if no one outside their group believes it. Nothing any critic might say, though, can alter their legitimacy as a part of Labor’s constituency.

The one thing that has turned Australian politics on its head more than any other in my lifetime has been refugees, and that issue is epitomised and immortalised by just one word – Tampa. Like most of us I wish I had never heard of this god-forsaken boat. Up until its arrival Kim Beazley was looking good. Sure, his lead in the polls had been whittled away over the months of June, July and August, but he still had, I believe, enough of a lead to win an election against John Howard.

That lead evaporated in an instant. I have never seen the mood of a nation switch so swiftly. A big majority of the electorate had been unhappy with “boat people” for a long, long time. Pauline Hanson for all her intellectual inadequacies had shown how the dispossessed, unhappy older white Anglo-Saxon Aussies reacted to an opportunity to express their resentment at the funds directed to Aborigines or refugees. For a few years she ploughed the fields of latent racism with unerring accuracy.

The more educated part of the Labor’s base just couldn’t cop Beazley (or indeed Crean) going along with putting refugees behind barbed wire. Men, women and children were to be incarcerated all over the Pacific and yet another fragmentation of Labor’s base occurred. Whatever lefties remaining in the ALP jumped ship and headed for the Greens, whose stance on the issue was unequivocal.

As an aside: to be successful in any form of endeavour you need luck. With all due respect to the undoubted political skills of John Howard, how lucky was he when the Tampa came along? Sure he handled it brilliantly and the election a few months later turned into a personal triumph for him. But how much would history have been altered if the nearest ship to a sinking Indonesian vessel had been from the US, the UK, France, Germany or any other European country except Norway? The one country Australia could afford to insult or ignore was a country with only three million people and with which we have almost no trade. Would we have sent our armed forces to board an American or British ship? – I don’t think so.

The alienation of Labor voters, either blue collar or professional, from the party’s base had been going on for three decades, and it meant that the Greens had a larger group of disaffected voters whose affection was up for grabs.

Up until the Tampa, One Nation had been a focal point for disaffected Labor and conservative voters. John Howard swallowed up that latter lot in one gulp. But just as voting Liberal was the natural result after the destruction of One Nation, the Tampa left some of Labor’s constituency with nowhere to go but the Greens.

At the same time, as Lohrey correctly points out, the Democrats had set about destroying themselves. Lohrey says you can’t put the disintegration of the Democrats down to Natasha – and she’s right. No, you can put it down to Meg Lees. Trying to hold down a group like the Democrats was never going to be an easy job. They never did stand for anything in particular, and the day that Lees put her hand up for the GST the betrayal felt by the Democrats voter was palpable. An army of Natashas couldn’t have kept them together after that. Add to that problem the child-like, puerile antics of Andrew Murray, the pathetic ineptitude of putting Brian Greig in the leadership and then the lacklustre performance of the latest leader – whatever his name is – and you have a recipe for death and disaster.

Obviously, many Democrats deserters will have headed straight for the Greens. With all the decay in Labor’s base in particular, and to some extent in the conservative base as well, the Greens should be doing well.

You don’t need to read too much into their successes either. Lohrey says that, “The message from the Western Australian state election of February 2001 was this: after a period of stagnation in the ’ 90s the environment was back on the political agenda.” Well, the scandal-ridden Court government had been ripe for the picking for some time. The Greens did well in that election but Labor’s performance was not too shabby either.

Amanda Lohrey’s essay was written before the Victorian state election, but here the dangers of predicting too much for the Greens was underlined. Despite confidence in their capacity to poll well enough to win a couple of inner-city electorates, the Greens couldn’t quite make it. After the Cunningham experience, perhaps they thought the kind of results achieved there could easily be replicated elsewhere. Life is rarely so simple.

In Cunningham, a Labor member had resigned years before the scheduled election and Labor had not given its traditional base too much to cheer about in a very long time. In Victoria the combination of a very popular Labor leader with enough pro-environment policies being put out by the government meant that the Greens could do very well but still fail to gain any lower house seats.

I suspect that a similar result in New South Wales is almost certain. Labor, under Bob Carr, will have a fairly comfortable majority. If the Greens were going to have a win in the lower house, it would probably be in the seat of Port Jackson – an inner-city seat where a council run by a coalition of greens, assorted leftists and old Laborites has managed to oppose pretty well all development. That is an attractive attitude to voters looking for not much change in their expensive, privileged backyards. Nonetheless, my betting would be that Labor’s Sandra Nori will hang on narrowly and the Greens will do well without winning.

It is an old irony that Bob Carr has created an impressive number of national parks and is accused by the usual potpourri of four-wheel drive and horse groups of locking up too much of the state.

At the same time many Greens claim Carr just doesn’t do enough. On election night Labor’s victory will very much be put down to the leader, just as it was, quite correctly, in Victoria. Leadership does matter in politics, and here Lohrey rightly identifies the position occupied by Bob Brown.

Brown has absolutely no charisma. Still that does not seem to matter in a country that managed to make John Howard its prime minister. Brown is definitely no Winston Churchill when it comes to oratory. Still, that didn’t stop Howard either, did it? He does have one quality that few if any politicians have. He is totally credible. He never says anything he doesn’t believe. He never seeks to compromise. He doesn’t twist his words to avoid giving a commitment or to duck a difficult question. Brown conveys honesty and conviction. He is an absolutist.

In 1987–88, the Hawke Cabinet debated the whole issue of World Heritage in Tasmania. The debate lasted weeks, taking up three full cabinet meetings. Cabinet very narrowly approved a big extra chunk of Tasmania being put into World Heritage. After the decision, on his own authority, Bob Hawke put even more of Tasmania into World Heritage than his Cabinet had approved. When I told Bob Brown of this great victory, which had only been achieved with much of my blood being spilled on the Cabinet room floor, all he could do was express his great disappointment that the discussion did not go far enough.

He can drive you mad but you always know exactly where he stands. There are many Australians, and they are not all Greens, who have yearned for someone to be like this in Canberra. Brown’s popularity will be central to maintaining the Greens’ forward movement.

The problem is that these days he speaks far more about refugees and wars. To build this new Green constituency he must stray far and wide from an environmental agenda. Then he and his colleagues must find the way to clasp all these new people, drawn not by saving trees but by the pursuit of broader social objectives, to their Green bosoms. I wish them all the luck in the world – I fear they are going to need it.


Graham Richardson was federal Minister for the Environment from 1987 to 1990. His autobiography, Whatever It Takes, was published in 1994.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 8, Groundswell. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 9, Beautiful Lies.


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