Jack Waterford

I’m with Amanda on the view that a green vote, loosely described, is here to stay, and that the nature of politics has changed enormously over the past twenty years. But I think that the causes are more complex and more general than she describes, and the risks greater.

The change in politics may have been catalysed by environmental consciousness, and may have been, in hard times, sustained by it. But the consciousness that now makes up the broader movement is, it seems to me, far wider and, as a consequence perhaps, less deep. Therein lies some of the risks for the party, such as it is.

The shift in politics is more symbolised than caused by the bipartisan spirit, between Labor and Liberal, on economic rationalism. It also ref lects the changes brought about by our becoming a post-industrial society, one where traditional conflicts between capital and labour seem old hat, but new ones, particularly affecting the environment or personal amenity, seem more pressing. Where much of the agenda of an old generation of reformers (particularly on human rights) has been ticked off and, even if it didn’t produce the nirvana we had expected, there do not seem to be great reforming causes any more. And where a new selfishness and lack of community focus in the middle (or, as John Howard would put it, “aspirant’’ or “battler”) classes has seen a collapse of institutions, a cynicism about organised human activity and a view of a world as hostile and uncontrollable once one ventures beyond the front gate. And where, most immediate human needs being more or less satisfied, people have become increasingly suspicious of those who want to appropriate our wealth to others. Where parties are not much more than brand names, marketed by professionals, and where consultation or grass-roots involvement in policy-making is a complete farce. Where politicians, themselves increasingly remote from community organisations, consult pollsters on “what they are thinking out there” and believe the evidence supports a culture of meanness and exclusion, a sense of helplessness against major economic and social forces, and “choice”.

Perhaps they, or some of them, are thinking like that out there, but there are also deep spiritual hungers, a feeling that there must be more to life than acquiring a DVD or doing another house extension, an uneasiness about the atomisation of the family and the evidence that we have been mining, rather than farming, our heritage, and some recognition that even the battlers are doing well by comparison with marginalised groups such as Aborigines. People are still suckers for moral leadership, for ideas that lift them out of the mire and show them the light on the hill, and for leaders and politicians who have a sense of purpose, some charisma and some nobility.

Such leaders, post-Whitlam, are in short supply from conventional politics all around the world. They are hardly evident in the conventional institutions either. When they do emerge, it tends to be from small-scale issues that in some manner encapsulate some of the community unease and thus make them major figures. As Amanda says, the phenomenon of a Bob Brown has some parallels with the phenomenon of a Pauline Hanson: at first instance, moreover, it is the capacity to articulate discontent which is probably more effective than the promise that one has a vision of a community in which such discontents would disappear.

The focus of the Greens is still deeply environmental, and so are its primary activists, but the base has widened to embrace a full range of ideas, not least after the 2001 election when Labor betrayed its membership base on refugees, whether on the argument of being a small target or because some actually agreed with the Howard government. The moral disgust felt by many traditional Labor voters is profound and unlikely to be retrieved in the short term, certainly not by gestures such as those made by Carmen Lawrence.

Yet if the “grass-roots” nature of the green movement has nurtured and developed the party, and new styles of meetings and consensus politics have kept people involved and committed, it is quite possible to overstate the “democratic” nature of such movements. In fact they are far more susceptible to small groups of activists, not least to those with agendas almost calculated to drive away recruits. The grass roots flourish only when there is a campaign in action, and one cannot do it all of the time. Populist movements always have trouble with nutters (ask Pauline Hanson), but there are rich pickings to be found among some of the environmental fundamentalists, not least among those most focused on issues such as animal rights, militant vegetarianism and modern secular Manichaeanism. Likewise, the tendency of members of failed or stalled religions – Stalinism, Trotskyism, postmodernism and feminism, for example – to seek to harness and turn vibrant movements to their own purposes is a continual worry, the more so when such zealots tend to have the time to attend, and wait out, interminable meetings. There are many more Roundheads than Cavaliers, Methodists than Catholics, sin-banners than tolerators, and anarchists than entrants. Even within the environmental movement ideological divisions – between, say, the “realists” and the fundamentalists – run deep and tend to be resolved more by the charisma or decisiveness of leaders than by exhaustively reached consensus. As the movement becomes broader, however, the contradictions will abound, and in ways that will prove hard to reconcile.

The history of co-operation between Greens and Aborigines, for example, is not good: every time they have jumped into bed together, one or the other has complained, in the end, of rape. There is a natural sympathy with Aboriginal aspirations, not least with land rights and the notion, rather fanciful, that Aborigines enjoy a deep spiritual relationship with their land and are natural nurturers of it. But the experience and the mutual suspicion is such that most smart Greens will utter no more than polite slogans of support, eschewing much involvement. They cannot avoid some reconciliation forever.

There are fundamental contradictions between members of coercive tendency and those whose focus is on gentler persuasion, likely in time to create problems in constituencies such as the rural religious. The Greens, and Bob Brown personally, won much moral credit over their forthright stand on refugees, but had been rather more marked, some time before, for being opposed to immigration at all. That’s not necessarily a contradiction, but it can underline some of the issues of focus. Aggravating the problem, of course, is the fact that many activists, of their nature, differ from broader members, yet have disproportionate influence. Leaders – and the Greens have had some excellent ones – find that coalitions of the willing (or available) are not the best company.

Amanda deals only in passing with the separated Greens brethren in Western Australia. Politicians from other parties found Greens Senators from that state (Wendy and Tinkerbell as they came to be known) impossible to deal with because they were politicians of an entirely different stripe, entirely unwilling to negotiate, compromise, to trade support on one issue for another or to make up lists of concessions or achievements they wanted as the price of reluctant support. They came to be regarded as anarchists almost determined to prove that the system could not work. By contrast, Bob Brown commands a deep respect, even from his political foes, without ever being accused of being a “realist” (dread sin) or a trader, and there is as much respect for his political nous as for his principles. It cannot be said that the contrast with the Western Australian Greens was simply because they were of a “new politics” that old politicians simply could not understand.

In many of these respects, the Greens are far better off than the Democrats, now almost certainly in terminal decline. As Amanda notes, the Democrats originally pitched themselves as being in the centre – to the left on social issues, more conservative on economic ones. But they never had a real constituency, let alone one to which they could be accountable, and the fiasco of their party government is something Greens should study carefully. Just as significantly, once the Democrats decided to become “participators”, even arbitrators between positions taken by the rival big parties, they were squeezed: themselves bastards and unable to go as far as the Greens on almost any issue of principle, particularly the environment.

A time will come, however, when the Greens must actually participate in government, as they do in Europe. That’s the test of capacity to compromise, though it is different from the role the Democrats invented for themselves, or the disastrous affair in Tasmania when the Greens supported (as the rope supports the hanging man) the Labor Party.


Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.


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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