The rise of the Greens

Amanda Lohrey


In September of 1998 I sat in the Stanley Burbury Theatre at the University of Tasmania listening to a light-hearted debate in which Bob Brown told the story of how he had first arrived in Tasmania. It was 1972 and Brown was twenty-seven, a young doctor who had come from Sydney via New Zealand to work for six weeks as a locum in a busy practice in the northern Tasmanian city of Launceston. Called out late one night to an outlying town that he scarcely knew, he drove around the unfamiliar streets for some time trying without success to locate his ‘call’. Finally he decided to ask for directions and stopped outside one of the few houses with its lights still on. When he approached the front door and knocked, a weak voice from inside called, ‘Come in.’ Brown opened the unlocked door and found a man writhing in pain on the floor.

‘I’m Bob Brown,’ he said. ‘I’m a doctor.’

‘Well,’ gasped the man on the floor, ‘you’re the best bloody doctor I’ve struck. I called two doctors and none of the bastards came and I didn’t call you and you’ve come anyway.’

Since then this story of the doctor who wasn’t called but came anyway has stayed with me as somehow quirkily apt in its capture of the evolving dynamic that we now refer to as the green movement. It’s also the perfect introduction to the enigmatic man who has become its national leader.

But if Bob Brown and his cohorts are the ‘doctor’, then what exactly is the ‘ailment’ and wherein lies the ‘cure’?


Recent elections suggest that the Australian Greens Party is about to supersede the Democrats as a third political force in Australian politics. The reasons for this are both various and compelling. Though the fortunes of the Greens have fluctuated in federal elections over the past decade, it nevertheless remains the case that taken overall their support has grown steadily. Unlike both the Democrats and One Nation, the Greens are an organic party in the sense that they have evolved over a lengthy period of time and out of several community campaigns organised at the grass roots. Although for some years they have had strong personal leadership in the form of Bob Brown, unlike the Democrats and One Nation the Greens Party was not founded through the personal fiat of one individual. It has a strong history and folklore that pre-dates its leader and was a forceful influence in shaping him and the character of his leadership. Though Brown is not to be underestimated as a factor in the success of the Greens Party, even more telling is the broadening out of its base and the fact that over the past two decades it has evolved into a real constituency, something more than just a broad-based protest vote.

This constituency has been shaped by certain social and political changes of the last thirty years that have led to the emergence of a new political sensibility. Within this sensibility is a spectrum that ranges from right-wing tokenism to radical pantheism, but the extent of it is reflected in the no doubt perfectly sincere if somewhat risible remark of former federal Liberal Minister for the Environment Robert Hill to the effect that ‘Everyone now is an environmentalist.’ Corporations are for the most part routinely called upon to present Environmental Impact Statements, however fitted up, and no local council debate is complete without some genuflection towards the clean and the green.

Whereas the Democrats have always been a broad-based protest party, the new Green constituency is based not just on individual policy items, such as the preservation of old growth forests, but on a new paradigm or grand narrative of what politics is about, i.e. the ‘ecological’. This of course is not a local phenomenon and has become the basis of a proliferating number of Green parties across the world which collectively amount to a significant component of the global Green alliance. This movement and its ecological narrative have the power to subsume the traditional grand narratives of capital and labour and indeed to some degree already have. It is not a force with which, in the long term, the Democrats can hope to compete. The Democrats have never had a natural constituency as such, some core element for whom they represent a set of primary values. They did not evolve from a grass-roots movement. In emerging from the moderate Right they offered a safe protest vote for disenchanted Liberal voters and in their stress on participatory democracy and critique of elite castes and party machines they also appealed to progressive or Left elements in the community. But always within the Democrat vote there was an early green vote that had nowhere else to go. Indeed the first green activist elected to an Australian parliament, Dr Norm Sanders (Tasmanian House of Assembly, 1980), joined the Democrats – and subsequently served as a Democrat senator – because there was at that time no Greens party to join. Sanders was and is a flamboyant and outspoken character whose most famous pronouncement in relation to his new party was to undermine its slogan by saying, ‘If we get into power we’ll be just as big a pack of bastards as the rest of them.’ Recent events appear to confirm the acuity of his remark, although it is not my intention here to take a cheap shot at the Democrats. Their record on the environment, particularly their early record, has been for the most part honourable. Nevertheless, in federal elections over the past decade their vote has been declining, even before the unhappiness occasioned by their support for the GST. Single issues like the GST come and go on the political horizon but what is more important over time are changes at the deeper level, and the new Green constituency grows out of just such a deep paradigm shift in what the postmodernists like to call the social imaginary, i.e. the parameters of what can be conceived of in a society and the evolving myths it has of itself. It bears an important relation to what the British social theorist Raymond Williams once referred to as the dominant ‘structures of feeling’ that permeate a culture in any given era. By this Williams meant the area of tension between ideology and primary experience; between the official consciousness of an epoch, as codified in its doctrines and legislation, and the whole process of actually living out its consequences. It’s in this gap that new political sensibilities begin to evolve.

Since the time of the industrial revolution a key element in the official ideology of Western culture had been the utopian potential of science but much of the lived experience of individuals had involved an increasing dislocation of the self from nature. One of the earliest outcomes of that sense of physical and psychological estrangement was the Romantic movement. The Romantics looked back to the past and to some idealised pre-industrial Eden, but the manifest ability of science to improve the individual’s quality of life, not least through modern medicine, eventually put paid to the Romantic critique of Progress. It was not until the sixties that signs began to emerge of the development of a new ‘ecological sensibility’ and of a different kind of critique of industrial civilisation from that of the Romantics, one that arose out of a radical re-visioning of the future – not as a utopia produced by technology but as a potential wasteland of ecological disaster.

From the sixties on a number of eco-philosophers began to identify and articulate what Peter Hay has described in Main Currents in Western Environmental Thought as an ‘ecological impulse’, which he defines, in part, as an ‘instinctive dismay’ at the effects of technological advances upon nature. ‘The wellsprings of a green commitment’, writes Hay, ‘are not, in the first instance, theoretical; nor even intellectual. They are, rather, pre-rational.’ This pre-rational impulse is ‘a deep-felt consternation at the scale of the destruction wrought, in the second half of the twentieth century, and in the name of transcendent human progression, upon the increasingly embattled life-forms with which we share the planet. It is an instinctive and deep-felt horror.’

The term ‘ecological sensibility’ is first deployed in the early seventies by the American political philosopher John Rodman. Defining sensibility as ‘a complex pattern of perceptions, attitudes and judgements’ that constitute ‘a disposition to appropriate conduct that would make talk of rights and duties unnecessary’ (my italics), Rodman lists among the attributes of this sensibility ‘a style of cohabitation that involves the knowledgeable, respectful, and restrained use of nature’. For several decades there had been a reverence for wilderness in North America promoted by the great naturalists like John Muir but this, like the Romantic movement, placed a strong emphasis on the past and the preservation of some idealised primal landscape. It wasn’t until the sixties that a new and radical critique emerged from within science itself to identify and oppose the destructive effects of pollution on a viable future.

That critique can be dated from the publication of one of the most seminal books of the twentieth century, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Carson was a zoologist, and her observation of the effects of chemical pollutants on animal and bird life produced the first wave of recoil – the ‘instinctive ecological compassion’ that Hay refers to – that was to kick-start the modern environmental movement and its key ecological insight of the interconnectedness of all life. In the decades that followed, Man-within-Nature came to be seen not in the pastoral mode – nature as benign backdrop that can mostly be taken for granted – but as a more dynamic model of interconnectedness and interdependence. It’s around this time that notions of sustainable development emerge, and economic, political and social theory begins to swerve away from a central concern with human relations and towards the physical world as the necessary basis for social and economic policy.

The political potency of ecology – its potential to shape a mainstream constituency – derives from this key ecological insight about the interconnectedness of all life, namely that we exist in and are dependent on a system of relationships that are universal. This interconnectedness is something that is increasingly demonstrated by scientific findings about, say, global warming, and as science mounts its own critique of industrialism it offers a more and more coherent and convincing articulation of the ‘ecological impulse’; that latent disposition of the human mind towards preservation of the environment which eco-philosophers have argued for as a defining quality of human nature. What has hitherto been experienced as an inchoate sense of connectedness emerges – through scientific articulation – as a basis for programmatic action, since with an increase in intellectual understanding comes an enhanced sense of personal accountability (about even such ‘simple’ everyday things as garbage disposal and taking the time to sort recyclable items).

The deepening realisation that everything in the material universe is connected with everything else has produced at the political level a kind of green prism through which, increasingly, every aspect of politics is filtered. The more connections are made about the impact that one area has on another thousands of miles away – or the consequences one action will have on the parameters of action a long time in the future – the more the ecological constituency grows. This is happening in Australia as awareness focuses on an ever-expanding set of crises about such things as salinity, water conservation and blue-green algae, not to mention the effects of global warming. Its impact can be felt within the building and energy industries where greater emphasis is now being placed on energy conservation and the wind generation of electricity. And it is happening in what is being hailed as the next industrial revolution – ecological or sustainable capitalism.

The ethical responses to this are diverse. The deep ecologists, for example, despise the varieties of instrumental environmentalism that place immediate human welfare firmly at the apex of a hierarchy of needs. Philosophical differences aside, however, it is clear that at the level of everyday community concern there is a growing political constituency of great heterogeneity, made up of individuals and groups that cut across traditional class, economic and regional divides. In Australia this new Green constituency includes both disenchanted small ‘l’ Liberals and radical social justice reformers; investment analysts and kindergarten workers; accountants and ferals; Christians and Buddhists. There are revisionist farmers who see a new market in Europe for ‘clean’ produce; workers in the corporate sector who have initiated green investment strategies and trade unionists who have begun to understand that smog is not democratically distributed and the dumping of workers onto polluted housing sites is as big a problem as workplace health and safety. There are doctors and nurses who see an exponential growth in health problems arising out of pollution and teachers who have to keep a special drawer in their desks for the asthma puffers of so many of their small charges. These people have added their voices to a protest movement that began with water and forests and has grown into a widening critique of corporate values in the era of globalisation.

The political analyst and environment historian Tim Doyle has set forth a palimpsest model of how this constituency operates at the level of grassroots activism, made up at any one time of hundreds of local organisations claiming to espouse environmental values. Doyle defines the palimpsest as ‘a series of amorphous networks with no overriding collection of goals … a strong potential constituency at any moment that does not depend on a base’. It includes both formal organisations, informal groups and individuals and ‘is a snap-shot in time of a social movement that is alive, always moving, always redefining its shape and force … Although the movement does not have a common goal, each network does. The intermeshing of these networks makes up the movement.’ It may involve Doctors for Forests, your local Landcare group or Clean Up Australia committee, the WWF Great Barrier Reef campaign or any one of a constellation drawn from, on Doyle’s estimate, a staggering 20,000-plus groups with a total active membership well in excess of the combined membership of all political parties in Australia.

As the palimpsest model demonstrates, a constituency is a social context that exists naturally; it arises and evolves without being manufactured – that is its strength – whereas it is in the nature of representation (parliamentary representatives, labels, symbolic and organisational structures) that it comes after and is secondary to the emergence of what has hitherto been latent. This is the political potency of the Australian Greens Party, that it has arisen out of and continues to evolve from its grass roots – from concerns that developed out of the cultural revolution of the sixties and seventies, and the new sensibility I have alluded to – and that it has grown in strength and scope from one campaign to the next.


This is an extract from Amanda Lohrey's Quarterly Essay, Groundswell: The rise of the Greens. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.


Amanda Lohrey has written two Quarterly Essays, Groundswell: The Rise of the Greens and Voting for Jesus: Christianity and Politics in Australia. She is also the author of the novella Vertigo and of the short story collection, Reading Madame Bovary, which won the Fiction Prize and the Steele Rudd Short Story Award in the 2011 Queensland Literary Awards. Her novel, The Philosopher's Doll, was longlisted for the Miles Franklin Award and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2012 she was awarded the Patrick White Literary Award.


Lech Blaine
Peter Dutton's Strongman Politics
Alan Kohler
Australia's Housing Mess and How to Fix It
Micheline Lee
Disability, Humanity and the NDIS
Megan Davis
On Recognition and Renewal
Saul Griffith
Electrification and Community Renewal
Katharine Murphy
Albanese and the New Politics