The Australian Democrats are no template for the Australian Greens

by Patrick Baume

With the ascension of the Greens to nine seats in the Senate and holding the balance of power alone in that house, many pundits have already been keen to write them off as a potential flash in the pan like the Australian Democrats. A Party that is filling the vacuum for people unhappy, for whatever reason, with the two major players that will eventually disappear after it is faced with the cold hard pragmatics of having a real say on policy.

The Democrats did reach the same level of power in the Senate as the Greens have now in 1990 with nine seats, but the similarities end there.

The Democrats began as a party of the centre, essentially small l-liberals, socially very moderate, economically cautious but no fans of either big business or the unions. Their entire stated aim was to "keep the bastards honest." They were the essence of a minor party, always expecting to be the moderator, the umpire and never the main protagonist.

In reality, as the Labor Party went further and further right economically, most of the Democrats membership ended up to the left of both major parties, on both social and economic matters. The Democrats were never able to reconcile this disconnection from their original purpose and by this time the Greens had arisen as the "real" left wing alternative to Labor.

And here lies the nub of it. The Greens have a definitive view of the world that is fundamentally different to the mainstream parties. They may have originated as essentially an environmental movement, but the Party has grown into the expression of a complete view of society.

The Greens are based on the primacy of a sustainable environment over economic growth, and government "protection" of people from the market rather than the mostly unfettered rule of the market, supported by the rest of politics.

Unlike the Democrats, who were started from the top down by a high profile political refugee from one of the main parties, the Greens have grown organically out of the environmental movement over many decades – they have deep and extensive roots.

Many of the people who have voted for the Greens recently may have done so out of a Democrats-style protest about the main parties. However, there are many who believe strongly in the Greens view of the world, who previously may have felt philosophically pushed out of the left of the Labor party or have in the past avoided mainstream politics altogether.

So what's the point of this potted history? The point is that the Greens aren't going away any time soon, no matter what the "experts" say. But it also means that Bob Brown's stated aim of becoming one of the main parties (which could only be done by overtaking the Labor Party) is possible, but extremely unlikely, and has a lot more to do with how the Labor Party handles its own existential issues

What will stop the Greens from becoming a major party – say regularly receiving more than 25-30% of the popular vote – is exactly the same thing that will stop them from going the way of the Democrats. They have a clear and persistently stated ideology, and it's an ideology with which the significant majority of Australians are not comfortable.

But that may not stop the slow and steady increase of the Greens vote to around 15-20%. This is somewhat due to the highly combative nature of the current Coalition under Tony Abbott and the continuing inability of the ALP to work out who they are actually trying to represent as an economically free market. Apart from industrial relations, Labor has nothing to define themselves from the conservatives, and nature abhors a vacuum.

The ridiculously angry debate on a carbon price shows just how difficult the future could be for the ALP. While they may be doing most of the heavy lifting in terms of developing and enacting a policy that will have a reasonable outcome, the Greens will still claim it as their victory, while opponents will blame the ALP.

The Greens can also claim to be the only true "antidote" to Tony Abbott on many issues such as asylum seekers, Afghanistan and gay marriage, where the major parties are in lockstep.

This will only exacerbate if the Coalition does return to power at the next election, and the ALP finds itself in the position of often having to support the conservative government to get legislation through. While this will reinforce the view of them being "Tweedledum and Tweedledee," it will at least mean the Labor Party would be the effective arbiter of which Coalition policies became law and which ones didn't . . . a bit like the Democrats once were.

The Greens provide a coherent and consistent philosophy for the proportion of people who believe the focus of modern consumer society is wrong. Simply knowing what they stand for also gives the Greens a massive leg up over the ALP in reaching out to people who want to be given a clear direction, even those who, if they looked more critically at where that direction leads, would find it deeply troubling.

Canada provides a possible view of that kind of future. The previously dominant centre left Liberal Party have been almost entirely usurped by a new party to their left, which in their first past the post system has also greatly helped the Conservatives. While Canada has a history of greater electoral volatility than Australia, it does show how successful, in the current global climate of deep financial uncertainty, a party that is more socialist than democrat can be in capturing a significant proportion of votes.

But, for those Greens supporters believing that a new age awaits and expecting fundamental change through legislation, they need to remember that they can do nothing alone. The Greens cannot change anything without dealing with at least one of the other parties, and that's the long term reality. Without some pragmatism, the Greens will render themselves effectively irrelevant, as the Senate becomes a constant haggling house between the "old" parties to see what becomes law.

In the end the pragmatics that will inevitably result from the Greens being at the centre of the main game will drive some voters away from them and some others will return to the ALP fold as they slowly learn more about what the Greens actually believe in. However, given the current economic and social similarities of the two main players, I believe it's safe to say the Greens are here to stay.

Patrick Baume is a Media Analyst who blogs on politics and sport at www.gonginalong.com

OnLine Opinion