It has been no secret that I have been highly critical of the Greens in recent times. This criticism has not been without reason and it runs deeper than mere policy matters and their focus as a political party, and the direction they should be going as the third largest political party in Australia. This criticism runs down to the very core of the Greens as an organisation.
I was, up until May of this year, a member of the Greens. Behind the flashy parties and dance music that is common at their functions, operates a shady, almost quasi-cult-like, organizational structure where criticism is all but laughed at and dismissed. Despite also their claims of being a bottom-up grassroots party, normal members, whether they realise it or not, have no real say as far as actual meaningful decision-making is concerned.
Members of the Greens, unless they hold leadership positions within the party or they are an elected representative, are merely a bank for campaign volunteers during elections, or a bank of money for the party to suck dry.
When I first joined the Greens back in 2014, following the Victorian State Election that year, I was excited to be joining a party that offered a new way of doing things – a party that seemingly gives its members meaningful voice and collective decision-making power. At that election, I was working on the campaign for an independent candidate at the time who was standing for the seat of Geelong. This candidate, though unsuccessful in seeking election, ran on a platform that aligned very much with that of the Greens – I was also excited to be joining a party that had many of these same values. I was also very pleased with how the Greens staunchly opposed Tony Abbott’s first Federal Budget. I wanted to be active in advocating for a better and progressive future.
However, as time elapsed, that initial excitement I had about the Greens gradually deteriorated into a feeling of disenchantment. After sitting through countless branch meetings over the 2015 and much of 2016, it became clear that decisions are largely and increasingly from the top down and that internal elections are not even entirely democratic or transparent. It also eventually became clear that members of the Greens, unless they hold leadership positions within the party or they are an elected representative, are merely a bank for campaign volunteers during elections, or a bank of money for the party to suck dry.
Although it is different for different seats, largely, even the preselection process is undemocratic, with the ideal candidate for an election chosen by a handful – If that – of power-brokers within the party behind closed doors. Prospective challengers to the ‘chosen candidate’ are dissuaded from standing for preselection to allow the chosen candidate to stand uncontested, and that is before the actual membership gets to have a say. Office bearer positions within the party largely run uncontested, also decided behind closed doors before actually going to the vote of the party membership.
The lack of transparency in preselections is such that party members, who the preselection is directly accountable to, are actually unaware that the preselected candidate for a given election has already been decided before they actually get the chance to vote. Members actually have to actively seek information out regarding preselections in their own electorates, rather than being told what is happening, for example, during a branch meeting. I only found out what was going on due to being close enough to certain people within the party that they spilt the beans when I asked.
“The Greens in Geelong lack two things: a lack of will to do anything, and a lack of talent.”
It does not just stop at the lack on internal democracy and lack of transparency though. It also runs down to the lack of actual mobilization, activity and activism on the ground on part of the party as well. Very rarely were party members in Geelong actively mobilized for ground actions, rallies, and such. Nor were they ever involved in any other activist or advocacy groups. If members were mobilized, it was half-hearted at best. As a mere member at that point, I could only suggest to local party leaders that people be mobilized for certain actions and events – it was actually up to those leaders to put those suggestions into action, which they never did. It is important to keep in mind that combined; there is nearly 250-300 members in Geelong, Bellarine and the Surf Coast branches. Geelong, alone, has more than 100 members.
In 2015, at a marriage equality rally in Geelong, attended by a handful of Greens members, including Senator Janet Rice, I was effectively informed by a staffer of Richard Di Natale that “The Greens in Geelong lack two things: a lack of will to do anything, and a lack of talent”. He was spot on, and it still rings true even today. It is so weak, in fact, that one particular individual from the Surf Coast Greens branch effectively dictates the affairs of both the Geelong Greens and Bellarine Greens branches; and the aforementioned branches are used to Surf Coast’s own advantage to their detriment.
Increasing participation in the party, therefore, is not in the interest of some, who are hell bent on maintaining the status quo for it is their hold on power. In the case of the Geelong Greens branch, increased participation, including attendance at branch meetings, would give it the strength to dictate its own affairs locally and would in effect remove the power held by a handful of individuals within the party. Something that these powerbrokers were always going to oppose.
Elections Campaign Dilemmas
When it comes to election campaign decisions, very few people actually contribute to the making of decisions. Instead of branches themselves making decisions, each electorate is organized into a campaign committee – which includes the candidate and six or seven other representatives drawn from the branches the electorate area covers. It stems from the increasingly top-down decision making that the Greens seem to be embracing at the expense of grassroots membership, and the removal of power from the broader party membership. Branches themselves have very little to no power over how a local campaign is run.
At a branch meeting in late 2015, I was chosen to represent the Geelong Greens branch on the Corangamite campaign committee for the 2016 Federal Election. Being a large electorate area, the catchment areas of four branches fall within the Corangamite Federal Electorate. On this campaign committee, the desire of individuals to control as much power as possible was nothing but exemplified. One particular individual was designated as the campaign manager for the Corio campaign, while also doing much of the managerial stuff for the Corangamite campaign as well.
Even candidates, and prospective candidates for that matter, are heavily controlled and directed. They are told not to do anything that could land them on the front page of the Herald Sun.
I often fielded complaints from people that this particular individual was taking on too much and spreading their bases too thin. Despite being the one nominally responsible for designating tasks to other people and providing (or organising for the provision) of training, and despite other people offering to take on particular tasks to reduce their workload; this particular person refused to relinquish their hold or delegate responsibility to other people who were interested in taking on those responsibilities.
“I would do a deal with the devil if it meant the Greens getting more seats in Parliament.”
The “lack of will … and lack of talent” might just stem from the fact that people are all too often kept in the dark and are not provided with the adequate opportunities to up-skill due to old hands not willing to hand the torch over to the younger generations. The fact that this particular individual told me that they “would do a deal with the devil if it meant getting more seats in Parliament” really says all you need to know about the sort of person I was dealing with at the time.
Even candidates, and prospective candidates for that matter, are heavily controlled and directed. They are told not to do anything that could land them on the front page of the Herald Sun. If you have ever been on a picket line or at a protest at the front of a MPs office and have not seen any Greens in attendance; that is why. It is all about respectability, even though Labor (a party of government) people would and happily do turn up to protests or to the front line of pickets.
Post-Election Blues, change needed
Post federal election, it became apparent that the Greens did not increase their total number of seats. Adam Bandt retained the seat of Melbourne with a small primary vote swing in his favour (but well short of their target of the 50% primary that the party was aiming for). Although the party gained big swings in seats such as Batman and Wills, they failed to pick up any additional lower house seat. In the senate, their vote plateaued, even going backwards in some states. They lost one of their South Australian Senators and came close to losing one in Western Australia and in Tasmania.
The Greens did not appeal to a struggling working class with a progressive economic narrative. Instead, right wing parties appealed to them, based on xenophobia and through fear mongering based on race.
At the same time, One Nation stormed back into Parliament for the first time since 2005. Though some of their vote was attributed to a racist sentiment within some sections of the community, it was clear that there was more to it than that. Much of that vote was attributed to poor economic conditions and a lack of meaningful representation – something that the Greens, in cozying up with the establishment, did not provide. The Greens did not appeal to a struggling working class with a progressive economic narrative. Instead, right wing parties appealed to them, based on xenophobia and through fear mongering based on race.
This was a time when Bernie Sanders was making huge waves in the United States, targeting economic issues, and inspiring a whole new generation of activists. Jeremy Corbyn, in the United Kingdom, would also be on the ascendancy with a similar narrative. While the Greens continued to act as a closed shop, restricting the ability of members to engage with supporters – the campaign of Bernie Sanders actively encouraged grassroots participation by supporters and grassroots mass decision-making within its campaign.
I wrote up an opinion piece following the Federal Election expressing a similar sentiment and shared it on social media, expecting to be completely blasted by members of the Greens. To my surprise, the response to this particular piece was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. It made me think that there was a serious mismatch between what people at the top of the Greens hierarchy were telling us, and what regular members and supporters were thinking. They just needed someone to come out and say something, to open up Pandora’s Box if you will and indeed, it did.
It is clear, however, that the hierarchy of the Greens do not see value in talking to the working class. It is a pretty common sight among Greens members to dismiss the working class as ignorant, uneducated and as unwashed trash that need to be lectured rather than engaged.
Changing things and getting things done
Although the organizational structure of the Greens needed to be more grassroots rather than the top down direction it is heading, it was clear that this was not going to happen. In order to bring about change at the local level in Geelong at least, I had to be in one of these positions of power and use it as an opportunity to mobilise and strengthen the grassroots, and increase the level of participation in Geelong.
It was no longer just fundraisers; the Geelong Greens were well on the way to paving their own way outside of the influence of the Surf Coast Greens. It was no longer the Geelong Greens doing Surf Coast’s thing, it was Surf Coast doing Geelong’s thing.
Working within the existing structures, I put my hand up to become secretary of the Geelong Greens branch. As described above, decisions such as this are made behind closed doors before they even get to a branch meeting and on my case, it was no different. I was ‘elected’ as Branch Secretary the annual general meeting in early September, 2016.
I had three goals as secretary: 1. grow the party membership and increase engagement of existing members to arrest the high turnover rate; 2. Increase the profile of the Greens in Geelong by ensuring visibility on the ground, at relevant activist meetings and at events; and 3. Grow online engagement through social media.
I was well on track to achieving goal number three: we had established a branch Facebook group and engaged numerous members and supporters, new and old, and floated numerous ideas as well. This effectively empowered and gave voice to people within the party who had previously not had a voice. This also tied into goal number one: members were being politically engaged and also being encouraged to think about what the branch and party could be – attendance at branch meetings was growing and regular, meaningful discussions on policy were being had.
It was no longer just fundraisers; the Geelong Greens were well on the way to paving their own way outside of the influence of the Surf Coast Greens. It was no longer the Geelong Greens doing Surf Coast’s thing, it was Surf Coast doing Geelong’s thing. As for goal number two – the Greens had an increased presence on the ground and within the community as well.
Downfall and a political attack
It was apparent that the power brokers that controlled the Geelong Greens for the benefit of the Surf Coast Greens were not going to take a diminishing of their power lightly. In addition, I had already spooked the hierarchy of the Australian Greens Victoria from earlier commentary I made. Of course, the hierarchy were obviously not going to take threats to their hold on power very kindly either.
They could not just get rid of me … They needed an excuse, a scapegoat that they could use as cover to protect themselves. Unfortunately, in late March of this year – I gave them that excuse; and they rounded on me for “bringing the party into disrepute.”
By early 2017, the Greens hierarchy wanted me gone. They could not just get rid of me without raising suspicion within the broader party membership, however. They needed an excuse, a scapegoat that they could use as cover to protect themselves. Unfortunately, in late March of this year – in frustration with personal issues I was going through at the time, I gave them that excuse; and they quickly rounded on me for “bringing the party into disrepute” and they asked me to leave the party, which I refused.
Asking someone ‘nicely’ to leave the party is a rubbish notion; there is no way of asking someone ‘nicely’ to leave an organisation.
I also quickly discovered that a particular individual also managed to persuade other people, who had initially been on my side, to also round up against me. The fact that one individual could hold so much sway, as to encourage others to actively intimidate me and push me out of the party, had me absolutely flabbergasted.
I did not take it lying down, however. There, I saw, how their ‘natural justice’ works. Under the constitution, apparently, a member of the party can ask another member ‘nicely’ to leave the party. Asking someone ‘nicely’ to leave the party is a rubbish notion; there is no way of asking someone ‘nicely’ to leave an organisation. Anyone who thinks you can nicely ask someone to leave an organization you both are a part of is absolutely kidding themselves. What's more, I was undermined and rounded on by people who I thought I could trust, for their own selfish gain.
The fact that literally everyone I have spoken to has been on my side through this whole ordeal; community members, activists, people from other parties, everyone, except for the Greens; is indicative that the consensus runs in my favour and against that of the Greens. Ultimately, I was expelled as a member of the Greens. When I told one particular individual within the Greens that Geelong Trades Hall came out in my support at the time; I was dismissed by them saying that "they are always looking for a fight". Needless to say, that statement completely misses the point: no, they weren't just looking for a fight; they were standing up for someone who had been kicked in the teeth by the local media.
The truth of the matter is that the Greens have massive hierarchical oversight. The hierarchy don't want to give up their power and control, so they treat the broader party membership as though they don't know anything. They will welcome anyone who will just conform, hand out a few how to vote cards on election day and not try to upset this harmony. However, when someone catches on, look out; because the hierarchy will come crashing down on that agitator like a tonne of bricks.
A statement by another former Greens member, now Socialist Alliance member, really sums up the Greens as an organisation: “People join the Greens like they would join the Rotary. For them, it is more a social club rather than a vehicle to achieve meaningful political change. When someone comes in and upsets this perception and actually encourages people to do things, that person suddenly becomes an internal target.”
About the author:
Matt Hrkac is a writer and activist based in Geelong who regularly contributes to Green Left Weekly. He has particular interests in politics, elections and the trade union movement and has had extensive involvement in a number of local campaigns. He is a former member of the Greens.