While there has been much fanfare about historic electoral gains of the Greens at the recent election, including the likely ramifications of the party holding the balance of power after July 1 next year, the Greens are in fact a party at the crossroads.
A closer analysis of the Greens’ 2010 election performance suggests the party is at a turning-point as the hard left faction of the party finally takes hold.
There has always been tension inside the Greens between people who are primarily motivated by environmental concerns and those who use the environment merely as a vehicle to pursue a wider agenda to reshape and revolutionise society.
Only in the past fortnight, the Greens in the Australian Capital Territory have begun a push for governments to invest only in “ethical” companies, with bans placed on any company which is involved in selling or producing alcohol, tobacco, gambling products, coal, oil or uranium, or engaged in any form of intensive or animal farming.
As with all Greens tactics, the agenda is never-ending. In other words, even if a demand is met (a timber coop locked up or a national park created), a new demand is immediately created.
Even if the ACT Government were to agree to this proposal (which would involve bans on investing with much of the productive capacity of Australia), the party would press for similar mandatory bans by other investment vehicles including superannuation funds.
The recent election has seen the arrival of the hard-left faction inside the Greens, including former communists, former members of the Socialist Party of Australia (a Marxist-Leninist party aligned with Moscow during the Cold War) and fellow travellers.
Over time, this group will become an unstoppable force inside the Greens.
Though never acknowledging these tensions publicly, federal Greens leader Senator Bob Brown is very aware of them and has worked hard to rein in their more radical agenda because he is enough of a political realist to see that the hard left will ultimately cost the party votes among the affluent middle-class who support the party.
But Senator Brown also knows it is a difficult balancing act, because the more radical elements in the party are impatient and constantly pushing the limits of the party’s policy agenda.
Since the 2004 election, when a raft of radical Greens policies cost the party votes, Senator Brown has pursued a far more pragmatic and co-operative policy agenda.
This reasonable approach has particularly been the case since federal Labor won power in 2007.
But Senator Brown turns 66 in December and has told friends he is growing tired and increasingly anxious to pass the leadership baton on to a younger person.
It is not surprising that Senator Brown wants to slow down. He has been a full-time activist for close to 40 years, beginning with his campaign against the plans to flood Lake Pedder in Tasmania, an event which prompted him to abandon his medical career for politics.
He was in the Tasmanian state parliament for 13 years and has been in the Senate for 14 years, and has been the public face of the Greens at a national level for the entire period.
But after playing such a dominant role at the federal level, it will not be easy to find a replacement.
It is understood that Senator Brown does not want to hand over the reins to fellow Tasmanian, Senator Christine Milne, whom he regards as too old-fashioned. Instead, he has been grooming the 28-year-old South Australian Senator Sarah Hanson-Young – the youngest person ever to be elected to the Senate, for the job.
But the new parliamentary intake of Greens may have other ideas.
NSW Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon openly defied Senator Brown in the lead-up to the election, refusing to resign from the NSW upper house after it had been revealed she had been misusing her office as a federal campaign headquarters.
Ms Rhiannon is a former member of the Moscow-aligned Socialist Party of Australia member, and her parents were prominent members of the Communist Party.
As The Australian‘s Nicola Berkovic recently wrote: “Ms Rhiannon has been labelled a ‘watermelon’: green on the outside, red on the inside. She comes from the NSW Greens, who are seen by some as the urbanised hard left of a bigger and more factionalised Greens party, long dominated by Tasmanian-based wilderness campaigners.”
Similarly, House of Representatives MP Adam Bandt was a radical student activist.
According to The Australian newspaper, Bandt once described the Greens as a “bourgeois” party. Bandt wrote for a Marxist website during the 1990s in which he attacked capitalism, arguing that ideological purity was paramount.
“Communists can’t fetishise (sic) alternative political parties, but should always make some kind of materially-based assessment about the effectiveness of any given strategy come election time,” Bandt wrote in 1995.
The Greens coming into the federal parliament now are (using the old terminology of Trotskyites) “entrists”.
While Senator Brown has been the Greens’ torch-bearer at the federal level for the past decade and a half, the truth is he has always been chiefly motivated by a genuine personal passion for the Tasmanian forests, followed by concerns about international human rights.
The new breed of Greens are hardened political operators who abhor Brown’s pragmatism and relative restraint, and, in some individual cases, can’t wait for him to move on.