Early years – origin of differences

The account of the origins of the party is engrossing but exploration of the root causes of early differences lacks depth and balance…

INSIDE THE GREENS does a reasonable job covering the early history of the Greens, though it is a little too focussed on Tasmania and the Bob Brown view on the early days of the party. There are some errors too.

The Greens in Australia had a number of origins. In 1984 the first party to use the name “The Greens” was the Sydney Greens. The party gained registration for the name with the Australian Electoral Commission in 1985 and by the 1990 election a loose national network existed. The party, with Tony Harris as the Greens first Registered Officer, readily gave access to the registration and party name “The Greens” with those groups that shared the party’s four principles which had been borrowed from the original German Greens. 

The Greens first election platform issued in October 1984 set out the party’s emphasis on people’s rights and grassroots democracy: “What is distinctive and unifying about this new force in Sydney is the emphasis on encouraging people’s self-confidence in their right to have their say, their right to democratically determine matters – whether they are large or small – which affect their lives.”

The Greens in Sydney marching in an anti-nuclear demonstration in late 1984

Inside the Greens correctly identifies the role of the Green Ban movement and two groups in Tasmania as being part of the party’s early history. The United Tasmania Group formed in the 1970s and the Tasmanian Green Independents formed in the 1980s but neither adopted the four Greens principles and did not use the name “The Greens”. They evolved into the Tasmanian Greens which formed in 1992. 

Each state of course has its own history of formation of a state Green party. The WA Greens has a rich history. There a number of progressive groups combined and it became the first Green party to have a member elected to the federal parliament when Jo Vallentine was elected to the Senate in 1990.

In August, 1991, a small meeting was held in Sydney to discuss the formation of an Australian Greens party. Tensions arose over the view being expressed by Bob Brown. He and Drew Hutton, a Queensland Greens representative, were effectively demanding that those at the meeting immediately agree that participating Greens parties adopt proscription of members of other political parties or those Green parties would be excluded from a national Greens party. (1) Paddy Manning writes “In fairness that was the whole point of the meeting.” This was one of the crucial issues for the formation of the Australian Greens, but the comment however, is too simplistic and overlooks important factors. 

Very few, if any, of the Green parties in NSW had at that time adopted proscription, and their representatives at the meeting were not authorised to commit to it, until their party had decided the matter. They were democratic organisations that had to consult their members. Many parties were open to considering the question. 

What form of proscription was it to be? Would it apply to all members; or with existing dual party members “grandfathered” in some way as was the case when the Greens WA finally joined the Australian Greens in 2003; or some lesser form of membership without voting rights; etc. It was an issue that needed discussion and then a decision by respective parties. The undemocratic nature of Brown’s demand was problematic.

It was the Greens in NSW that held the party name and registration with the Australian Electoral Commission and without Greens NSW groups participating, the meeting would have been hollow. Brown and Hutton backed down when they realised that the whole endeavour would fail if they did not agree to the sensible compromise that Greens parties would be given six months to decide how they would respond to the issue of members of their party also being members of another political party. After a torrid struggle with members of the Democratic Socialist Party most local Green parties in NSW did adopt proscription and went on as part of the Greens NSW to become founding members of the Australian Greens the next year.

In the lead up to the formation of the Australian Greens in 1992, the Tasmanian and Queensland Greens insisted that a conscience vote in parliament for all federal Greens MPs be included in the Australian Greens constitution. The Greens NSW opposed this because it considered a conscience vote to be elitist and in fundamental conflict with the Greens principle of grassroots democracy. The Greens NSW view was that MPs should not have the right to ignore policy and decisions of the party which are made by the membership. The conscience vote clause in the constitution that was eventually agreed to does not apply to NSW MPs. 

The Greens NSW also stood firm and insisted on clauses that would largely protect the autonomy of state parties to manage their own affairs. They were both make or break compromises that allowed the Australian Greens to form. The so-called conscience vote and state party autonomy are key examples of different views on party structure which underpinned much of the tension between the Greens NSW and some senior Australian Greens figures such as Bob Brown and Christine Milne. The Tasmanians pushed for a more hierarchical national party structure with MPs wielding a great deal of power within the party, while the Greens NSW preferred a genuine grassroots, federated structure. 

That fundamental difference emerges regularly throughout the history of the Greens. Considering those competing views are the root cause of much of the division within the party which Inside the Greens focuses on, they could have been explored in greater depth.

Instead the book largely presents the Greens NSW as being problematic and holding back the Greens, rather than making a valuable contribution, including that of making a principled and essential stand for party democracy.

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  1. Inside the Greens Pp 112-113

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