Green Politics in Australia: history, current trends and likely future developments

by PETER O'DWYER August 1997


Environment and politics are inextricably linked and since the 1970's the obvious manifestation of this has been 'Green Politics' (Hutton, 1987). A new politics concerned not only with environment but "ecology, economy, equality and eternity" (Brown, 1992).

The formation of the first truly Green political parties in the world occurred in Australasia with the establishment of the United Tasmania Group (UTG) in March 1972 and the Values Party in New Zealand in May 1972. Twenty five years on most democracies now have 'The Greens' and most people can vote Green. This new global political movement has arisen seemingly against the tide of conservative and materialistic political systems which are not only firmly institutionalised but also exclusive in nature.

Hughes (1989) argues that Green Politics can be seen as "the direct descendent of the social democratic movements of the last century, including anarchism and socialism and the political visions that have dominated these movements for the last sixty years: 'democratic Marxism' and Marxist - Leninism". Hughes goes on to contend however, that what makes the emerging Green political milieu new is "the integration of all the subordinate currents of the social democratic tradition such as feminism, anarchism, religious radicalism and ecology into an ecological world-view in which one problem does not have to be a linear cause to all the rest".

Plumwood (1992) also notes that these previous oppositional theories such as Marxism "now seem so defective because they had so many blind spots.... And that very incompleteness, the failure to address a wide enough range of concerns, led to their failure in practice as well as in theory" allowing domination in various forms such as state and bureaucratic tyranny, sexism, militarism and power over nature.

A clear catalyst for the Green 'revolution' in Australia (eg Birkeland 1992, Close 1992, Bean et al 1990, Sandercock 1977 and Mundey 1974) has been the structure of our democracy which has seen so many important decisions made by apparently faceless bureaucracies and/or uncontrollable corporations. A democracy which has led to political institutions that "represent the formal abandonment of notions of mass participation in political life;" ... and which are "...indeed 'designed' to preclude the possibility of massive regular participation" (Dobson 1995).

It can be clearly demonstrated that the modern history of Green Politics in this country is directly linked to the exclusivity of political institutions and the centralisation of political and economic power. In Tasmania for example, during the 1960's and 70's this centralism was obvious in the Hydro Electric Commission (HEC). Its blatant arrogance is exemplified in the following extraordinary quote (see Birkeland 1992) from the then HEC Commissioner who said in response to a poll indicating 46% of Tasmanians were opposed to the flooding of the Franklin: "If the Parliament tries to work through popular decisions, we're doomed in this state and doomed everywhere". Such attitudes in this country led to action by people - including extra parliamentary action - which can today be seen as playing "a vital role in bringing greater degrees of democracy into being" (Mundey 1974).


Any discussion of Green Political history in this country would be remiss in ignoring the famous (or perhaps notorious depending upon one's point of view) Green Bans of the early 1970's. These actions were instigated by an improbable alliance of 'middle-class environmental groups' and the radical Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) in New South Wales. These actions changed the face of local political action within Australia.

Sandercock (1977) describes this "paradoxical alliance of groups of basically conflicting political philosophy in a common cause" as marking the third stage in the evolution of a "new politics" in Australia. The first phase was the emergence of 'local associations' such as those in the older inner suburbs of Sydney (eg the Glebe and Paddington Societies). These special interest groups represented "a new middle class with a cosmopolitan and essentially aesthetic concern for the quality of its residential environment". They prided themselves in being 'non- political'. Their emergence can be seen to be in direct response to the disillusion generated particularly in the 1960's with "the omniscience of the 'technical expert' and the omnipotence of government" (Sandercock 1977). This was also coupled with growing malpractice and corruption in a number of metropolitan Local Councils.

These somewhat exclusive societies were precursors to the second phase of more politically orientated 'Residents Action Groups'. These organisations were concerned with larger issues including pollution, quality of life and future generations. They emerged with a much more varied class structure and access to political resources including professional skills and an ability to win positions on Local Councils. By 1974 there were over 500 such groups around the country.

These groups reflected a feeling among many sections of the community that there was "no where within the existing administrative and political structures ... to be directly heard and considered as an 'effective factor' " (Sandercock 1977). It was a mood which lead many to the conclusion that it was time to take matters into their own hands.

In June 1971, this action took a new direction. In the leafy middle-upper class suburb of Hunters Hill in Sydney, AV Jennings were proposing to develop a piece of remnant bushland known as Kelly's Bush for luxury homes. This area was the last remaining bushland on the Parramatta River. The Local Residents Action Group petitioned the Local Council and the Local State Member to no avail. In a last ditch effort they approached the BLF to see if the Union could assist. A ban was subsequently imposed by the Union on the works to allow an opportunity for negotiations to continue. The result of this action was the birth of the Green Ban.

In the words of the then leader of the BLF Mr Jack Mundey, the term Green Ban was carefully chosen to show that workers were "socially aware". The old term blackban, having a connotation of workers using industrial muscle to improve wages and conditions. The philosophy of the Green Ban was based on the notion of the workers questioning either by "hand or brain, the end of their labour". That is whether their labour "was socially beneficial to the community at large or whether it leads to further destruction of the environment" (Mundey, 1974).

Within the course of months from June 1971, there were over 40 Green Bans in place in Sydney and other parts of NSW. By mid 1973 over $300 million of development had been halted. While they were all seen by the Union leadership as a response to the "frustration of people and how helpless they felt," they were not seen as an end in themselves. Mundey (1974) saw them as a tactic to bring about peoples participation " as not to just allow the engineers, architects, town planners, developers and their friends in high places in government to determine how the community should develop."

In other areas of the country, similar obstacles and frustrations were in place leading to various Green responses. The less well known but no less effective activities of the Plumbers and Gasfitters Union in Adelaide and the blackbans on oil mining on the Barrier Reef in Queensland and the Newport Power station proposal in Melbourne are examples.

In Tasmania the frustrations of dealing with the belligerence of the HEC seemed to epitomise these struggles. A committee was formed in 1967 to try and save Lake Pedder from being flooded. The formal government announcement to expand the Lake was announced in 1969 further strengthening the groups resolve to take action. In March 1972 the UTG was formed to take the fight into the ensuing State elections.

Despite not winning any seats of Government and eventually losing the Lake, the Greens went on to win not only some significant environmental battles, including the Franklin River and the Lemonthyme and Southern Forests, but also political representation with the first Green, Mr Bob Brown gaining a seat in 1983. Today there a five Greens still holding the balance of power within that State assembly.


While there are many milestones in the evolution of Green Politics in this country which could be discussed including:

the formation of the Australia Conservation Foundation in 1965 and their electoral involvement in federal politics since 1980;

the formation of the Australian Democrats in 1977;

Federal involvement in Green issues through the external affairs power;

the victory of the Labour government in 1983 with the acknowledge aid of the Green movement;

the formation of other Green parties such as the Australia Party, Green Alliance and the Nuclear Disarmament Party; and

the Tasmanian Labour / Green accord which elevated Greens to a new level of political importance in that State,

the rise of Green Politics in Australia political history during the 1990 federal election is particularly worth noting. Environmental politics had never played such a crucial role or been so closely associated with the final outcome of such an election. (Bean et al, 1990). At that election the Australia Labour Party (ALP) not only attracted fewer first preference votes than the Liberal / National Coalition but also a lower two party preferred vote in winning its historic fourth term by 8 seats.

During that election campaign "the ALP pursued the Green vote single mindedly..." (Warhurst 1990). So much so that it was ironically through advertising, news management and campaign assistance that the ALP stimulated public awareness of the Green parties (Lloyd 1990). In doing so the ALP was able to regain power via the preferences of Green voters.

Papadakis (1990) describes the outcome of this particular election as "a significant interruption to the traditional dominance of the two established parties in the House of Representatives...." through dealignment or weakening of traditional political alignments. It represented a significant shift in the political landscape towards 'new politics' (concerned with self fulfilment, greater participation and aesthetic needs) and away from 'old politics' (concerned with economic growth and traditional values).


By the end of the 1980's it seemed we were entering a new Green era. Environment had become a mainstream issue and was demanding and getting the respect of the established Parties. This year the Greens in Australia have been celebrating 25 years of growth. Today the Australian Greens are a confederation between 7 autonomous Green Parties located in ACT, NSW, NT, Qld, SA, Tas and Victoria. In addition the WA Green Party has an alliance agreement with the Australian Greens. The confederation was founded in 1992 and reached its present extent in 1996. Many Greens have been elected to Local Councils, ten to State Parliaments and two in the Senate.

The Australian Greens has a convenor, a secretary and a treasurer to administer common issues between the State parties. There are also coordinators for various issues such as national policies, election campaign issues, international contacts and constitutional review. All officially affiliated branches feed into policy making at the national level, and accept the positions of spokespeople from the Australian Greens. However, State groups are not bound by any national policy or decision of the Australian Greens or other State groups.

Despite the enormous growth in the Green movement there are a number of continuing trends working against Greens moving towards that 'critical breakthrough' on the political stage. The most obvious are:

a) A Shift in the Major Parties: Since the 1990 elections the major parties have taken on a Green tinge, adapting and absorbing Green Politics into their electoral appeal. The major parties have increasingly shown an interest in the environment, largely because there are votes in it, and they now have environmental policies well established within their party platforms.

b) Economic Pressures: Since 1990, the environment has not figured as significantly in general elections, being relegated behind economic and political concerns within the electorate. This trend is likely to continue at least until after the next election at which tax reform is likely to hold centre stage. The Sydney Olympics and the approach of the millennium are also likely to distract the electorate from Green Politics.

c) Continued Fragmentation: The continued fragmentation of the Green movement across Australia and the subsequent splitting of the Green vote among several Green Parties is likely to continue for some time. Indeed this issue reflects "the perennial problem facing radical organisations seeking to make fundamental changes to society" (Garner 1996). At the core is the issue revolving around, on the one hand a choice of adopting a traditional hierarchical organisation approach to work within the existing political framework and on the other hand one of maintaining ideological purity by refusing to compromise principles for electoral expediency.

d) Shades of Green: Closely related to the above point is that Green Politics is associated with a wide spectrum of interests ranging from moderate reformism to radical approaches. Dobson (1990) refers to light and dark green approaches while the terms 'shallow' and 'deep' ecology are also commonly used (see Harding 1992, Garner, 1996). These approaches contribute to continued fragmentation of the movement because there is little agreement as to the degree of economic development and material prosperity acceptable (Yearley 1992). Put crudely there is conflict between the politics of recycling, transferable pollution rights and catalytic converters versus the politics of impending environmental catastrophe and the need to create a new kind of society. Sustainable development versus fundamental economic, social and political change (Garner, 1996).

e) No Wesley Vales: Apart from an electoral system which favours minority representation, the initial success of the Greens in Tasmania could be seen as a result of the Greens having, at that time, significant issues to focus on and being successful in becoming the focal point of the environmental movement, influencing the direction of environmental campaigns and lobbying. The Western Australian Greens too have had some success in this regard being more well organised than other main land States. The fact that Green Politics seems to have taken a back seat of late perhaps reflects a trend towards indifference of the environmental movement to Green Politics and the refocussing on conventional pressure group lobbying. The ACF for example has had a long history of environmental advocacy with access to decision makers. They however do not campaign for the need for a separate Green Party.

f) Jumping on the Band Wagon: In recent years there has been a growth in 'trendy variations' of the green theme (eg Green growth, green consumerism, green investment, "Green Olympics", green advertising etc). While not necessarily a bad thing from a Green Politics perspective such ambivalence generated by these variations can lull people into thinking that they are ends in themselves (Porritt, 1991).


Papadakis (1990) notes that in Australia "the prospects for a rapid shift in the social and ideological bases that appear to shape the party system appear remote." However the success of the Democrats in the Senate since 1977 and the 1990 Federal election results represent significant tilts at the system and perhaps the next time around we may see an even greater impact. In the mean time it is evident that the major parties will continue to adapt and absorb 'new political' issues. As a consequence it is possible that there will be a growing focus within the major parties on essentially non-economic environmental and quality of life issues.

It is also likely that politicians will remain largely focussed on votes and consequently the big picture will remain fuzzy. The apparent inability or unwillingness of the electorate to grasp the big picture was a contributing factor to the Liberal-National victory in the 1996 election. Green issues played virtually no role in the electorate's mind on that occasion. Consequently in can be seen that short term solutions will continue to prevail (eg sell Telstra to spend some money on the environment rather than long term budgeting for the same results).

In response we may see, as suggested by Washington (1991), Green Politics becoming more politically active at all levels from local to federal government. The lessons learnt in both Tasmania and Western Australia indicate that this will require quality candidates to stand for election, not only with the support of the Green movement but also backed by well organised, unified and effective campaigns.

Porritt (1991) also notes that at its simplest the future of Green Politics depends on a collective ability to cope with reality. Not only reality of the state of the world but also the reality that the only possibility "to affect a lasting green transformation" will be "through the democratic processes that we have available to us. Without such realism there is little point attempting to envision a different future." If such a proposition is accepted then it follows that it is likely that there will be need to be some form of eventual coalition between the Australian Democrats and the Greens to give a more effective focus for the Green vote within this country.


As Barnsdale (1997) argues "Green Politics is about grass roots democracy. Accountability needs to spread throughout society..." Conceived in an overflowing public meeting in the Hobart Town Hall the first Green Political party commenced with policies for peace, democracy, social justice and ecology. Today the Greens find themselves needing to keep hold of their visionary goals and revolutionary ideals while steering a course with "an open scientific approach to what is possible" (Hughes, 1989).

As with ecology, political history indicates that many periods will only allow slow and incremental change and that from time to time, crisis periods will allow rapid and revolutionary change. Waiting and understanding when that 'window of opportunity' is open and in the mean time waging a more modest "war of position" is the present day challenge for Green Politics (Hughes, 1989). This however perhaps should not be so difficult for "a movement that constantly exhorts people to think more about long term rather than short term" (Porritt, 1991).


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Brown B (1992) Comments made during the "Wither Green Politics?" Panel Discussion, Ecopolitics V Conference 4-7 April 1991.

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Sandercock L (1977) Cities for Sale Melbourne University Press, Melbourne

Warhurst J (1992) "The National Campaign" in Bean C McAllister I & Warhurst J (eds) (1990) The Greening of Australian Politics - The 1990 Federal Election Longman Cheshire, Melbourne pp17-32

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