The Brisbane Greens Are Building a Mass Party With Unashamedly Left-Wing Politics
The Australian Greens won three new lower house seats and the Senate balance of power at the last election. By combining radical reforms and community activism, they are building a mass organization with the power to challenge the political establishment.
- Interview by
- Stuart Munckton
In Australia’s federal election in May, the right-wing Liberal-National Coalition lost power for the first time since 2013. The Australian Labor Party (ALP) won government, but with a swing against it. Uninspired by Labor’s small target campaign, Australians voted in record numbers for independents or candidates from minor parties.
To Labor’s left, the Australian Greens won a historic breakthrough. Thanks to a stunning result in Brisbane, the Greens went from one lower house seat to four. In the Senate, the Greens won three additional seats and now hold the balance of power.
The Greens campaigned on a social democratic platform demanding rapid climate action, the reversal of energy privatization, large-scale public housing construction, and expanding Medicare — all funded by taxes on billionaires.
In Brisbane, hundreds of volunteers drove the Greens’ campaign, after having spent years knocking on doors and building relationships with voters abandoned by the major parties. In particular, after devastating floods earlier this year, Brisbane Greens volunteers distributed supplies to residents and helped with cleanup efforts. The result was a series of historic swings toward the Greens of well over 10 percent, with Greens candidates winning three lower house seats — two from the Liberals and one from Labor.
In the lead-up to the election, Liam Flenady worked as campaign manager for newly elected Greens MP for Griffith Max Chandler-Mather. Now chief of staff for Elizabeth Watson-Brown, Greens MP for Ryan, he spoke with Jacobin about the breakthrough and new challenges the party faces.
How do you explain the Greens’ win, and why did it blindside the political establishment?
The political establishment and the media didn’t see this coming because, with rare exceptions, they have become disconnected from the lives of most ordinary people. I’d say that’s also the primary reason for the breakthroughs.
For years, our starting point has been the fact that the structures that used to organically connect people to political parties have withered. At the same time, the major parties aren’t responding to the things that matter to people, from the cost of living to climate change to local community issues.
Most people either express dull rage at the political class or have tuned out. This means that if a Greens volunteer knocks on someone’s door and talks about what matters to them, there’s a good chance we’ll win their support. This is especially the case if we criticize the political class and refuse to speak in its language.
Across Brisbane, we did this on a large scale. In Griffith, for example, we had almost thirty thousand conversations like that over twelve months. This was possible because we have spent about seven years campaigning almost around the clock. We won one Brisbane City Council office, grew our community organizing, and then elected two Greens MPs to the state parliament who themselves then did significant community work. Those efforts put us in a good position for the federal election.
It was also decisive that the major parties have dropped any semblance of social democratic politics. The public has generally not adopted the major parties’ neoliberal consensus. By contrast, the Greens put forward strong social democratic policies. Without the right political platform and intervention, no amount of door-knocking will yield results.
What lessons do you take from the breakthrough?
We won each of our three new lower house seats with slightly different campaign scales, tactics, and messaging. So it’s hard to come up with universal lessons to apply. Having said that, here are some lessons I’ve drawn from the experience.
First, we put forward policies revolving around redistributing wealth and power away from big corporations and billionaires and toward everyday people. When we talked about it to people one-on-one, that program was immensely popular.
Second, those kinds of conversations need to come from a place of solidarity. This means not preaching to people about the virtue of your politics. Instead, we tried to relate to what matters in their lives and to talk about why we all deserve better.
Third, there is enormous power in linking big-picture conversations to community organizing that gives people a tangible experience of a political project helping improve their lives.
Fourth, there are many people desperate to engage with meaningful radical politics. But they need to see a coherent plan that connects their actions with a concrete goal. There are thousands of people ready to be mobilized in this way.
Finally, I’d simply say that our breakthrough shows that wins are possible. They take hard work and time. But conditions in Australia regularly open up new electoral opportunities for the Left. The main question is whether there is an organized force capable of seizing them.
The Greens are now effectively the left-wing opposition to the new Labor government. How is the party approaching this opportunity?
This is tricky and will become clearer as things progress. There’s a balance to strike between using our Senate balance of power to win concessions from Labor and agitating around bigger-picture changes.
We can’t block the Labor bills that the Liberals support, and that limits our negotiating position. But that’s not the only limit. Without broader social power behind Greens MPs, we’ll win some amendments to Labor’s agenda. But more often, Labor will rely on the inertia and low expectations of civil-society institutions, and they won’t feel pressured to concede.
There are different views on this, but I feel our best opportunity in this parliamentary term is mounting a coherent left challenge to Labor and shifting the sense of what can and should be done, particularly in response to crises that may arise. This could lead to significant Greens wins at the next election and force Labor to tack left, further shifting the terrain in our favor.
What are your impressions of parliament and the political establishment since working in Canberra?
There’s some obvious stuff. For example, just hours before the government’s first real day of parliament, I walked past new Labor prime minister Anthony Albanese addressing the Business Council of Australia. Or, at one point, I sat at a table in the National Press Gallery across from a Westpac banking executive who was also ex-president of the New South Wales Liberals. I overheard a conversation in a hallway of someone recounting how he was poached while working as a BHP mining executive. The sense that Parliament House is owned by corporations is obvious and goes much deeper than corporate donations.
Then there are little things you pick up on. The supposedly neutral Parliament Library — whose staff is fantastic — does research for MPs. However, it can present very conservative advice as though it’s objective. An inexperienced MP or team might not pick up on this. It demonstrates the way these institutions reinforce neoliberal hegemony.
It’s also become clear to me that parliament is a vortex of stakeholders. NGOs, think tanks, trade union leaders, lobby groups, and industry representatives spend enormous resources trying to win influence. For progressive organizations, Parliament House can become their purpose and life, and this narrows their perspectives. It’s astounding the degree to which Labor and the state can assimilate and dissipate popular sentiments via these mechanisms.
In many ways, parliament is also a kind of participatory theater. The actors themselves are the audience; it’s a spectacle for the political class and a small, unrepresentative percentage of the population who feel connected to politics.
How is the political establishment responding to the Greens’ breakthrough?
It remains to be seen. Labor is set on delivering its small target election promises while criticizing us for making “the perfect the enemy of the good.”
However, as we approach the next elections, Labor may do two things simultaneously: offer a few policy concessions to its left to try to neutralize the Greens, and mobilize the party’s considerable attack machine against us. We will only overcome these potential dangers if we have a coherent alternative program, become relevant to the lives of new voters, and win their trust.
What tensions do you see between parliamentary politics and community base-building?
There are time pressures. One hour spent in parliament is one less spent in the community, and we can’t avoid parliamentary debates. This can be overcome by using the electoral offices and branch structures to train and develop more organizers. The MP’s office can become the core of a much vaster network of activity. We’ve spent years developing a network of thousands of volunteers — probably our main challenge at the moment is making their work organized, effective, and meaningful.
There are also political pressures. At times, to stay true to our core base and our principles, the Greens will need to take controversial positions. That may put us out of step with our broader voting base, potentially fragmenting our voting coalition. The only way to solve this is by becoming useful and relevant to people’s lives, so that our voting base trusts us when we take bigger political steps than they may have been prepared for.
This means if we don’t build and mobilize our broader base, the temptations to moderate our politics will grow. That’s why, for many of us, the community is the priority, and much of what goes on in parliament is a distraction.
On the Left, “extraparliamentary politics” often seems to mean “calling rallies.” The Brisbane Greens appear to have a broader understanding.
Extraparliamentary work is extremely important, as we need greater social implantation to win new seats, build our capacity to extract concessions, and, ultimately, to win government. If we want to implement our platform, we’ll need a significant social force behind us to defend reforms against enormous resistance from big business and elements of the state.
Sadly, the debate around parliamentary versus extraparliamentary work tends to boil down to elections versus calling rallies. According to this framework, a good MP does their parliamentary stuff, and then goes to rallies, or supports them. For too long, however, left groups and NGOs have fetishized rallies as a tactic. Far too often they become demoralizing experiences, expressing weakness while only appealing to already deeply engaged and committed people.
We will need to do a lot of work to revive rallies and build actual social movements. Demonstrations should represent an actual show of strength rather than, at best, momentary large mobilizations that lack depth and staying power. We need deep community and workplace organizing to cohere new social forces with the capacity to fight for their interests.
Importantly, this means orienting to the people who won’t come to a rally, who are also those switched off from electoral politics. If we rely on self-selecting rallies of progressives, we’re doomed to a downward spiral of mobilizing capacity. We need to find more ways to tap the vast wellspring of politically disengaged people.
Much of this will have to occur outside the Greens. However, many of us in Brisbane feel the Greens can play a significant role in spearheading the work of rebuilding social movements. This could mean establishing mutual aid networks or free breakfast programs for school kids. It can mean planting community gardens, mobilizing the community during natural disasters, or winning a safer side street for kids to play on.
I also think it’s important that a lot of this work happens under the umbrella of a political party. That helps us connect people’s immediate interests with a broader political vision. This opens up space for discussion and can help people’s politics change as they engage in collective community work.
In Brisbane, the Greens won largely in inner suburban seats. Is there a tension between consolidating that base and expanding to the outer suburbs?
It’s true that the Greens’ main social bases are currently among two groups living in the inner city: educated middle-class homeowners and young, educated renters. But just because a movement or party emerges within a particular social base doesn’t mean it is bound to remain within it forever. It’s a question of the right orientation. If the Greens spend all our time speaking only to our existing base, we will reach a hard limit of support and power, isolated from the constituencies we need to win a majority.
But it’s not inevitable that we’ll fall into that trap. In Griffith, my experience was that our message resonated just as powerfully — perhaps more so — with younger voters on low incomes or in casual work, retirees in public housing, and working-class families who are renting, many of whom live well beyond our core base in South Brisbane.
The Greens can potentially forge a coalition between a professional, progressive middle class and radical inner-city renters on the one hand and, on the other, two groups under growing strain: working-class suburban renters and the lower bracket of suburban mortgage holders. This also means building a more diverse party by organizing in multiethnic working-class suburbs.
I feel the Greens in Queensland are on the right track to break down these barriers between class subcultures by mobilizing the common disdain for the political class alongside universalist redistributive policies and community organizing about issues that matter to locals. As with all coalitions, this would have its contradictions, but it’s vital to work toward.
Ideologically, the Greens are a broad party. You have described yourself as a democratic socialist and spoken of the influence of Marxist theorists like Ralph Miliband and Marta Harnecker. How do you see the Greens in the struggle not just for some piecemeal reforms but to more broadly advance a democratic socialist project?
What a party does is far more important than what it calls itself. It’s more important we agree on a political framework for the present than fight over interpretations of ideology.
In the Queensland Greens, there are different political shades, from left liberalism to anarchism. But we have a strong agreement that we need to take seriously the disconnect of politics from society. There’s strong cohesion around the strategy of door-knocking and community organizing, which is reinforced by a nontechnocratic political platform supporting wealth redistribution and universalist reforms.
It’s early days, but I’m hopeful that over the next few years, this strategy will gain more traction around the country. To the extent it does, we can begin to fulfill what I think the function of a democratic socialist party should be. That is, we can build a party with both the electoral and social forces necessary to counter the interests of big business and the state, and to deliver transformative gains for everyday people.
This is where an understanding of the history and theory of the socialist movement comes in handy, since it provides a lot of lessons and tools for how we identify and build social forces. It gives a clearer analysis of power, and the barriers to reform, than other traditions of political thought. In this sense, I feel the Greens could benefit from engaging more self-consciously with socialist ideas.