Who are The Greens? What the numbers tell us

Stewart Jackson has set out to examine The Greens’ transformation from a small party linked to social movements to a professional electoral party. He studies the changes in internal party structures and in attitudes and activities of members.

Using academic categories, Jackson concludes that The Greens are on the trajectory to becoming a professional electoral party, organised around professional staff and geared towards electoral success—but retain many social movement features.

He examines the origins of The Greens and their electoral history, from 1972 when the United Tasmania Group stood the first Green candidates, through to the establishment of the Australian Greens in 1992.

Fast forward to 2016, and the conservative pull of parliamentary pragmatism is dragging The Greens to the right, endangering the possibility of shifting politics to the left.

The book provides a wealth of detail about The Greens’ membership, mainly sourced through his own surveys of party members. As a former Greens national convenor and a member of the party since 1990 he has had unique access to the party.

He covers everything from how often members attend Greens meetings, protests, and handed out election material.

Although only one in five wanted the party to be more left-wing, its members and activists generally see it is a left-wing party and situate themselves on the left. This stands in contrast to what we normally hear from most of the Greens federal MPs and Senators, who are anxious to avoid the term.

There is a division between more right-wing members, usually single-mindedly interested in climate change and environmental issues, and those further to left who are more concerned with economic and social issues.

In the last year the party has grown nationally to reach 14,000 members, an increase of 30 per cent. But the party’s parliamentary success has encouraged more conservative people to join over time. He writes that, “Those who joined more recently—after 2001—strongly disagreed with moving the party to the left whereas those who joined earlier were more likely to be evenly split or ambivalent.”

The changing membership seems likely to assist in moving the party further towards electoral pragmatism.

Greens members are rather old, with the average age of members 54. This is similar to the age profiles of the major parties, but in marked contrast to The Greens’ electoral support, which is strong among younger voters.

The wealth of statistical information here is useful, but inevitably makes for rather dry reading.

Are The Greens middle class?

Jackson characterises The Greens as “middle class radicals”, citing the fact that almost three-quarters of members are in “managerial or professional roles”. But the picture is more complex.

He also notes that 30 per cent of Greens members, and 40 per cent of those in employment, are union members. This is close to double the rate among the general population.

The Greens’ leadership can be fairly described as middle class. Greens leader Richard Di Natale makes very little attempt to appeal to working class voters, pitching The Greens to middle class voters instead by saying they can offer, “leadership…that’s prepared to tackle climate change and manage what is the real economic transition here.”

He says he in politics to get “outcomes”. One example of what this means in practice was The Greens’ putting reform of Senate voting laws ahead of defending unions from the ABCC.

Yet a substantial proportion of The Greens’ vote comes from former Labor members. Statistics from the ANU’s Australian Election Studies show that in elections where The Greens significantly increased their vote, in 2001, 2004, and 2010, between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of those who voted Greens said they had voted Labor the previous election.

The Greens do have many working class members. Those counted as “professionals” in The Greens include doctors, accountants and engineers, but also white collar workers such as teachers and nurses. The bulk of unionists among Greens members are found among education, public sector and services unions, making up 77 per cent of Greens unionists. By contrast only 15 per cent of Greens unionists are in blue collar unions.

Jackson’s analysis of the conservatising impact of parliament is disappointing. Because there is still member involvement in setting national policy, he downplays the influence of the “party room” in influencing policy and political focus. Yet The Greens’ leadership moves in opposing inheritance tax, BDS, and cutting private school funding, demonstrate their influence in toning down policy in order to win right-wing votes and appear respectable.

Despite this, the book is a useful source to aid an understanding of the nature of The Greens as a party and where they are going.

By James Supple

The Australian Greens: From activism to Australia’s third party
By Stewart Jackson
Melbourne University Press, $59.99 (ebook $16.99)


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