Greg Barns & John Cherry

This year, Bob Brown celebrates the twentieth anniversary of his election to the Tasmanian Parliament. Yet, according to Amanda Lohrey and some political commentators who should know better, the Greens are Australia’s newest political fad and are destined to replace the Democrats. We would caution against such bland assertions, as history tells us that politics can change. The Greens have been up before and then failed to live up to the media’s expectations. In any event, there is no rule that says it has to be an either/or choice – Democrats or Greens!

The Australian Greens party was formed in 1992 as a result of a merger involving state-based Greens parties. At the 1993 federal election, Bob Brown unsuccessfully contested a lower house seat in Tasmania, gaining about 14 per cent of the vote, although a second Greens senator was elected from Western Australia. The next three years saw the Greens rapidly expand, returning MPs for the first time in the WA, NSW and ACT elections. During 1995, the Greens polled higher than or within half a per cent of the Democrats in 17 of the 22 AC Nielsen polls and 16 of the 28 Morgan polls. They collected over 24 per cent in federal by-elections in Wentworth and Kooyong. In short, they were on a roll.

Yet, when it came to the 1996 election, the Democrats outpolled the Greens 10.8 per cent to 3.3 per cent nationally, and in every state except Tasmania. It would be another six years before the Greens recovered to be in a position to challenge the Democrats again.

What went wrong for the Greens in 1996 and are there lessons for 2003?

Simply put, the question is more correctly what went right for the Democrats. When it comes to federal elections, voters continue to differentiate between state and federal issues. The Senate, as the House of Review, is widely supported in its role, and accordingly tactical voting – voting for a major party in the House of Representatives and a minor party in the Senate – is common. The Democrats, as the specialist balance of power party, are respected as the party best placed to hold the balance of power and ensure that common sense, fairness and accountability govern the Senate’s decision making rather than ideology and political grandstanding.

Over the last ten elections, the Senate vote for the Democrats has been on average 2. 6 per cent higher than the vote in the House, as recorded in public opinion polls.

The Democrats also tend to do better in federal elections (where their Senators command a national profile) than in state elections. Over the past decade, the Democrats Senate vote has been, on average, 3.9 per cent higher than the vote in the nearest state election, while the Greens vote has been 2.2 per cent lower.

Can the Democrats recover? History suggests that they can: they have done so after a botched leadership change in 1990, the Kernot defection in 1997 and the instability/difficulties leading up to the GST-induced leadership change of 2001. This does not preclude the Greens also being successful, although Bob Brown will know from his twenty years of experience how fickle political fortune can be.

It should also be noted that the Greens voter and the Democrats voter are not necessarily one and the same. The former is a protest party of the left, the latter a party of the centre-left. The Greens’ platform of opposition to globalisation, which enshrines the ability of workers to strike in almost any situation (thus it was able to attract some hard-left unionists in the recent Victorian state election), as well as its capacity to package itself as the perennial naive player on the political scene despite the fact that it is in reality part of the “furniture”, means that it attracts left-leaning ALP voters – those who want to protest against the “system” – as well as those for whom the forestry debate is front and centre of their political activism.

The Democrats, on the other hand, attract voters concerned about sharing the benefits of globalisation equitably, maintaining the primacy of liberty in a democracy and ensuring that human rights informs policy prescriptions and outcomes. These voters are found across the political spectrum.

In fact, in the current national debate on liberty versus security, and in relation to other issues such as government policy on refugees, the need for symbolic as well as practical reconciliation with indigenous Australians and the growing power of executive government, the pull of the Democrats remains.


Greg Barns is an Australian Democrats member and former senior adviser to the Howard government.

Senator John Cherry is the Australian Democrats Senator for Queensland.


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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