In addition to the usual Electorate profiles, during the State election in 2020 The Westender asked experienced politicians, or ‘elders’, from the three major parties to provide their assessment of the key issues.

We have again asked party ‘seniors’[i] to speak with us about Griffith in the Federal Election on 21 May, 2022. These retired politicians and activists can be less constrained by party HQ and freer in their comments.

Here we talk with Greg George a co-founder of The Greens in Queensland. Mr George was the Green’s candidate for Griffith in 1998 when Kevin Rudd secured the seat for Labor.

He participated in the activist surge of the 1970s, from which he said The Greens emerged in the 1980s. Here he gives us a potted history of the Queensland Greens, providing some interesting context for The Greens parliamentary ambitions of today.

The Formation of The Greens Party

Towards the end of the 70s I and some others were pretty unhappy with where we ended up, which was in ideological dead ends really, with a touch of sectarianism to it.

We had no awareness of where we were going really. There had already been a green party in Tasmania and in New Zealand, under other names. In Europe Die Grünen in Germany, became internationally prominent with the leader Petra Kelly.

We came from a pretty radical background and the idea of going into parliament was not only something that hadn’t occurred to us, but it was also something that we would have rejected. Nevertheless, we were working with intuition, and we started walking towards that intuitively.

So we formed an umbrella group to get away from the isolationist position we had gotten ourselves into – People for Direct Democracy. You can tell from the name that parliament wasn’t on our minds. That encompassed everything that was happening. Activism in Queensland lasted a lot longer than elsewhere because of Joh Bjelke Petersen.”

That coalition was a reflection of the kinds of things that were happening, like War Resisters League, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, various Christian groups, some modeled on Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker Movement in the US, people that came out of the campaign against nuclear weapons and uranium mining.” 

We ran with that for a number of years doing innovative civil liberties campaigns and so we brought together a coalition of all of these groups in Brisbane called People for Direct Democracy. 

Queensland Greens

The Nuclear Disarmament Party was formed and stood in the 1984 federal election and did very well.

Drew Hutton and I went along to the polling booths and handed out how to vote cards for the NDP, so whether we knew it or not, we were heading towards a parliamentary organisation. We then formed the Brisbane Greens and later the Queensland Greens. In the nineties we and the Tasmanians, by then a Green Party proper, successfully initiated the effort to form a national greens party.

In Queensland we started from a small base but grew rapidly. We had been very successful in playing a role in Queensland politics. We had a lot of media coverage and so on. Drew was instrumental in having an inquiry into mining in Queensland. So, we were prominent, but unsuccessful in getting elected.

As we grew people would be very annoyed if we didn’t stand a candidate, no matter how hopeless, even way out west, they wanted us to have a candidate. So, lots of us stood without any hope of getting in.

In Australia, The Greens basically started to grow on the basis of two things, natural icons such as the dams issue in Tasmania, and moral perfidy, war and so on, later refugees. The Greens prominence revolved around those two things. But we developed a complete policy platform, which was not surprising at all, because that’s what the European greens had done, particularly the German Greens. It was a full platform. And there was also a values statement, a charter, across democracy, peace, environment, and justice. But until more recently it has been hard to get any media or public profile on all that except when the media wanted to beat up an issue, usually drugs.

In Queensland The Greens have succeeded in electing a Federal Senator (since 2010), two members in the State Legislative Assembly (elected in 2017, and 2020 respectively), and a Brisbane City Councillor (first elected in 2016). Nationally there is one Greens MP in the House of Representatives, and nine Senators. The Greens hope to increase numbers in both houses in 2022, and are hopeful of a second senator for Queensland, and up to three Queensland members in the House of Representatives.

Drew Hutton recently wrote on social media – “I have been concerned for a long time that The Greens have locked themselves into a middle class, inner city, tertiary educated, identity politics-driven ghetto that gives them a maximum 12% vote across the country, a couple of lower house seats and no real hold on political power. They also don’t seem to know how to break out of this. They could start by electing a bunch of spokespersons who look and sound like Jacqui Lambie.”

What do you make of this? Is this a response to the low number of Greens actually getting elected?

The issue that Drew is addressing is what we always thought was going to happen to The Greens, which was that there would be a ceiling. Those who started The Greens here always expected we would bump up against the ceiling. And federally, it has looked like we bumped up against that ceiling for a long time because the vote hasn’t been growing, while at the state and local levels growth continued. At the federal level, The Greens have been very successful and stable. But the federal vote hasn’t been growing.

Back then we thought that to go beyond a ceiling, when we got to it, things would have to happen outside the parliamentary arena, and this is what we always expected. Lock the Gate probably marked the beginning of that. The changed broader political context, along with a tremendous amount of hard work by the Greens party members, might be why there will be some gains in this federal election.

For a number of decades things went very quiet in terms of social movement activity. There was a great outburst about the Iraq War, and it disappeared as quickly as it appeared. The environmental movement had settled into just walking the corridors of power, and in some cases was abject in their dependence on the Labor Party. So, The Greens was all that was happening, really. But that’s changed. It’s changed radically. And if it weren’t for COVID, you would have seen more manifestations like you did at the school strike for climate in 2019. That went away a bit because of COVID, but it will come back.

And you’ve also got lots of really interesting things being formed, like Australia Remade and The Next Economy, and other innovative civil society and economic transition initiatives. But even more significantly, you’ve now got this profusion of independents. So, what is happening is a breakup of the coalition side of politics within the parliamentary sphere, which is what the independents more or less represent. There’s a whole range of things happening out there that are changing the political structure and the political culture in Australia. And it’s in that situation where The Greens are going to be able to be more influential, because there’ll be a huge base of support for them to reflect within parliament. It may or may not mean more people elected and reaching a new level federally. But that won’t really matter, because there’ll be this huge range of activity, including new organisations and so forth, which will start to interact with The Greens. That’s how we began, as part of social movements.

Forming a political party, running a bigger party, and standing candidates is an incredible amount of work. Most people don’t get that. The Greens have a huge number of workers, but those workers are spending all their time working on election campaigns. It’s inevitable. So, there’s a sort of gap happening there. And that’s what I think Drew was referring to. I think the solution is in that growing ferment more than the symbolism of candidates. If you try too hard with the symbolic it will probably just be more identity politics not the economic transition focus which should be the leading issue now that most of the identity issues have been substantially won.

Turning to Griffith, what do you think has changed since the election in 2019 and what might make a difference this time?

People know that the issues are global warming and social inequality, what I call social cruelty, lack of care. It’s been said many times that people will poll positively in favour of global warming action, but the hip pocket nerve will twitch when it comes to an election, and they won’t vote according to what they’ve said. That’s true. That happens, and it could happen in this election.

But the cowardly custard that is the Labor Party on the global warming issues means that people are forced to keep looking around and there’s no other option but The Greens on that issue when people care about that deeply, though in Coalition seats they have the independents.

The Labor Party is a bit better on social equality, but not much, because they’ve been doing this small target kind of thing, which leaves people wondering: “who’s going to represent a response to stagnating wages and the breakdown of aged care, the breakdown of healthcare, who’s going to do something about that?”

What differentiates The Greens from Labor?

Max Chandler-Mather has put out two pamphlets, one that focused on the values, and it was very low key, non-ideological, but a completely truthful, brilliant little pamphlet one of the best I’ve seen in all my years of politics.  And then he brought out sort of a more programmatic one, addressing the whole range of issues, from transport, equality, quality care – basically, what you could identify as respect or kindness issues which I think is core to an economic transition. I think those do the differentiation job.

The teal independents are not attempting to cover off on all issues, but are sticking with action on climate change, integrity, and leadership as their key issues. In contrast The Greens present a full raft of ambitious policies. Do you think this works when even in a balance of power arrangement The Greens would have limited capacity to deliver on those promises?

There are two aspects to that.

Negotiated government, which happened under Julia Gillard, was largely successful, and you know, all the pundits have to admit it. Even slightly informed Australians know that that’s a possibility, and the better informed know it can work.

And of course, it was healthy back then, because there were a few really good independents too.

We had just one person in the lower house. It didn’t matter. In that period The Greens had a powerful role as part of the cross bench.

The independents, and the cross bench this time, could be really healthy. What the independents are doing is fantastic. But they came from nowhere. The Greens are not coming from nowhere. The Greens represent a range of issues most crucially not being market fundamentalist but using government to make life better for people, to make the country more egalitarian. People, more or less, know that. That’s one of the reasons The Greens have to fill in those blanks.

So, if The Greens just put forward global warming responses, if they just stuck to that, they still have to say where the money is coming from, especially when taxation has been run down. They still have to come back and say, well, this saves money in the end. If you bring in these policies, you don’t have to go and put your ambulances at the bottom of the cliff. They can’t leave those areas blank; they’re forced to talk about them.

Are there any issues that you think are emerging in Griffith that will sway people towards The Greens?

Even if both Labor and the Coalition don’t want to focus on big, serious nation building issues, that’s what it should be about. Federal electorates are large and local issues vary across the electorate. Housing, parks, transport, aircraft noise are the local issues that people might notice. But I’d say they’re not going to make much difference. I think people are going to vote on the basis of national issues.

If the May election results in minority government, what could a party holding the balance of power achieve?

When the major parties say they will not form government with The Greens or crossbench, everybody knows that’s bullshit. Albanese knows it’s bullshit. They’ll do whatever they need to do – either an ongoing period of negotiation with a cross bench, or as happens in parliaments all over the world, a deal.

The Greens, if they were being asked, could give the Katter-type response and maybe they will. They could say, “well it depends on how far they move towards us.”

However, there’s is an elephant in the room in this kind of discussion. The biggest mistake the Australian Greens have made was not bringing through Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS). It was a terrible mistake. Not because it was a good scheme, it was a weak scheme, but if that had gotten up Abbott never would have been able to do what he did with his gutter politics.

The main thing that was wrong with that rejection was that it was blind to a broader complex of forces. Granted, no one knew how insane global warming politics was going to get. It wasn’t that insane back then. It was only a little bit crazy.

You can see the Australian Greens were aspiring big, and you might say they were entitled to aspire big because they didn’t think we were going to meet this massive insanity. But nevertheless, signs of insanity were there, signs of indifference anyway were there, and it would have just got a foot in the door. Getting it right in the deal with Gillard hasn’t cleared the air. The Greens should ‘fess up’ on this.

I don’t think Abbot would have been able to do so much with the issue if the CPRS had gotten up before he came in just because it was so feeble. It wouldn’t have affected anyone initially.

Now everyone knows it’s serious stuff. Floods, fire, and there’ll be famines, too. You could have said of the CPRS, this was our best effort, but it is obviously too weak, now we can throw it out and start again.

How far away do you think we are in Australia from an arrangement similar to New Zealand where they’ve brought greens into government?

New Zealand hasn’t gone fully down the kind of insane politics track on any issue that Australia has. They had a trans-person in their parliament decades ago.

The ACT has Greens in government, so it’s happened.

I think the operative factor here is context. When people are out on the streets on global warming and so forth, when unions start to grow again because of the gross nature of inequality, when care is a focus in every area of politics, it’s creating a new political culture, which is voicing those issues of respect and kindness that Australians actually poll strongly for.

Parliament has been faking it on really crucial issues for a long time. Getting under intense pressure to stop fighting, and to start doing real things with government and getting whatever taxation revenue is necessary to do it or borrowing it, just as we did during COVID; when all that happens here, regardless of whether The Greens are bumping their heads against the ceiling or not, anything can happen. It’s not going to be because of what happens in Parliament. It’s going to be because of what happens outside.

[i] We had hoped to talk with a local member of the LNP,  who has been a candidate in South Brisbane in the past, but party HQ stepped in. If things change, we will let you know.

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