Watermelons or tomatoes? Social democracy, class and the Australian Greens

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[For more on the Australian Greens, click HERE. For more on Green parties around the world, click HERE.]

By Nick Fredman

January 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal; this is a preprint of an article submitted for consideration in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, copyright 2013 Taylor and Francis; Capitalism, Nature, Socialism is available at http://www.tandfonline.com/toc/rcns20/current.


This article* examines the extent to which Green parties can be considered social-democratic formations. The Australian Greens, since 2010 in de facto governmental coalition with the Labor Party, are posited as an important case study of the global Green party movement. The Australian Greens have generally been seen as a far-left party, as expressing the views of the new social movements or as a site of tension between these two tendencies.

It is argued here that there are, however, important connections between the Greens and traditional social democracy, explored through: the response of the Greens to the signing of the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement and the Iraq war, analysed in relation to left nationalist themes; related comments from focus groups with Greens branch members; and data from the 2007 Australian Election Study, used to compare the social composition and attitudes of those voting for the Greens, the Labor and conservative Liberal Party-National Party coalition [Coalition].

It is found that Greens’ discourse is often framed by left nationalism. In social composition Greens voters are considerably closer to Labor voters than to Coalition supporters, although with a higher proportion of business owners, a generally higher educational level and a slightly smaller proportion of union members compared with Labor voters. Greens score on average slightly lower than Labor voters on a pro-union attitudinal scale, but slightly higher on an anti-capitalist scale and considerably higher on an environmentalist consciousness scale and self-identify as more leftist than Labor voters.

It is argued from this evidence that an important basis of Green politics is an interaction between rising ecological consciousness and the development of a highly educated stratum of the contemporary labour aristocracy. Understanding the Greens as, to a large extent, a specific form of social democracy helps us understand that many of the contradictions of their further development will take the form of left-right conflicts rather the oft-posited “left Greens” versus “green Greens” contradiction.


The Green parties around the globe are an important expression of ecological politics today. The Australian Greens grew out of the world’s first green party, the United Tasmania Group, formed by Tasmanian environmentalists in 1972 (Australian Greens 2011). They are an increasingly successful national party in the global Green current, growing substantially in the last decade: their national Senate vote has risen from 4.9% in 2001 to 12.8% in 2010 (Australian Electoral Commission 2001 and 2010), and reportedly their membership has increased from 1538 in financial year 1998-99 to 10,429 in 2009-10 (Willingham 2011). After the 2010 federal elections, their representation includes 22 members of state parliaments, more than 100 local councillors and a member of the House of Representatives, the federal lower house, elected for the first time at a general election. Since this election they have had nine federal senators (up from the previous five) and a balance of power in the Senate, the federal upper house, able to give or deny the Labor government a majority there against the official opposition, the conservative Coalition that consists of the mainly urban Liberal Party and the mainly rural National Party.[1]

Like its sister parties that have arisen across the world since the 1980s, the Greens proclaim four “core beliefs”: peace and non-violence, grassroots democracy, social and economic justice, and environmental sustainability (Australian Greens 2011). These principles suggest antecedents both in traditional leftist concerns with equality, solidarity and radical democracy and in newer movements for disarmament and environmental protection. Much past commentary on the Greens has argued that these parties represent either a fundamentally new form of politics, or a contemporary expression of the socialist or far left. The academic literature often holds that the Green parties are uncomfortable meeting places, if not sites of struggle, between ecologist/new movement and socialist wings.

Contrary to these views, in this article I argue, using the Australian Greens as a case study, that contemporary Green parties can be understood to a considerable extent as contemporary expressions of the traditions of social democracy and Laborism. While Marxist and other far-left traditions have also had some impact on the Greens, as clearly have newer movements, I feel that the focus of this paper is an important and under-researched aspect of Green politics.

The gains of the Greens at the last Australian federal election have given the party a new weight and role in national politics that warrants new attention internationally. Scott (2011) discusses how following the October 2010 federal election the Australian Labor Party (ALP) was able to form government, even with a minority on the floor of the lower house and the same number of seats therein (73) as the Coalition, by forming agreements with the single lower-house Green MP and three independent MPs. One of the latter is former Green and two are progressive-minded rural independents. With the Greens’ support Labor can also have legislation confirmed by the upper house. Scott (2011) calls this a “small c coalition on the left of centre” (p. 4) and relates this development to polling figures from 2007 (when Labor came into office after 11 years of Coalition government) to 2011, which show a steady fall in Labor support and a steady increase in Greens support. Labor has been pushed somewhat to the left, Scott (2011) argues, in areas such as increased support for higher education and in the introduction of a carbon tax.

Scott (2011) further argues that these developments are of significance globally in comparison with European experiences of the Greens in government, such as the German red-green government of 1998-2005, which he contends will be an increasing international trend also evidenced by recent gains by the Greens in Laender (state) elections.

Through most of the party’s existence there seems to have been two broad interpretations of the Australian Greens. Those antithetical to the party, at least those from the right or those who see conservation as somehow above politics, tend to see the Greens as basically a continuation of the Marxist or far left, in devious pseudo-environmentalist disguise.

Larry Anderson, a former MP of the rural-conservative National Party, stated during the 2004 federal election campaign that, “This idea that they are some warm, nice midway house between the coalition and the Labor Party overlooks the fact that actually they are a home for people who in the 1950s would have joined the Communist Party… They are watermelons, many of them — green on the outside and very, very, very red on the inside” (Blenkin 2004). In the lead up to the 2010 federal poll conservative Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell claimed “one wing of the Greens are like watermelons”, including former “Stalinists”, and that the part was fundamentally un-Christian in its opposition to religious schools and support for abortion, euthanasia and equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians (Pell 2010). Pell (2011) has repeated his suggestion of a hijacking of ecology by radical political forces in his attack on those who argue that the evidence for human-induced climate change is settled as “deep greens” who are “totalitarian … zealots”.

Sloan and Lines (2003) argue that the Greens no longer speak for conservation in Australia, because of their increasingly left-wing pose.

Those more favourable to the party, including the views expressed in most of the small number of academic articles published in Australia on the subject, stress the radical newness of the Greens. Turnball and Vromen (2006) see “post-materialist values” and the radical democratic practice of newer social movements as characteristic of the Greens. Similarly Miragliotta (2006), while seeing the Greens as to some extent a pragmatic adaptation by social movement actors to electoral realities, argues that the Greens represent a new radical politics on three counts. First, in their rejection “of both capitalism and communism”, rejecting materialism generally in favour of an ecological consciousness. Second, in their policy stances, at odds with the major parties in relation to opposition to free trade and uranium mining, and support for economic self-reliance and greatly improved public education and health. Third, in espousing participatory party democracy in contrast to traditional party elitism.

Theorists have for some time argued that political forces with an environmental focus are in fact bound to contain elements both of the extant far left and of radically new social movements, sometimes seen in tension. Dobson (2000) contrasts “ecologists” to “ecosocialists” or “ecological Marxists”, in that despite commonalities the former fundamentally see industrial society as the problem, while the latter maintain a focus on capitalism. Eckersley (1992) too sees common ground but also a tension between ecosocialist and “ecocentric” visions of a Green politics. In his view, ecosocialists are not sufficiently attuned to what is “distinctive” in “Green thought” because, while they may question the “cornucopian” assumptions of modern political thought, they do not question its “anthropocentric” assumptions (p. 120), a necessary questioning which he sees as a distinct moral standpoint (p. 40).

In a somewhat similar vein Hutton and Connors (2004) see tensions within the Australian Greens as relating to explicitly moral approaches to politics, if in this case regarding social and economic questions. They see the party as a coalition of “left Greens” who subscribe to a class-based “ideological commitment to redistribution” and “green Greens” who have a “moral commitment to social justice” (p. 36). While this distinction is possibly valid, I do not think it is so sharp in regard to social-democratic as opposed to Marxist and other far-left influences upon the Greens. In terms of historical antecedents, representations of capitalism or neo-liberalism as morally degrading, and socialism or social justice as morally uplifting, are long-running themes in British and Australian social democracy.

We can see these ideas in the work of self-proclaimed Christian socialist and British Labour leader Richard Tawney (1964)[2], and in the essays of recent Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd, a self-proclaimed Christian social democrat (Rudd 2006a, 2006b). In terms of recent practice, Hutton and Connors exemplify their distinction by pointing to Greens’ leader Bob Brown’s consideration in 2002 of support for the privatisation of the then public telecommunications provider Telstra in return for forest protection, seen as a moral imperative. They rightly point out that such a deal would have been anathema to left social democrats or Marxists, and argue that Brown, in changing his view and deciding to clearly oppose the then Coalition government’s privatisation plans, must have been pressured by left Greens.

While Brown’s initial approach, prioritising trees over public ownership, may be literally “ecocentric”, Hutton and Connors perhaps do not emphasise enough that in this affair the weight of party opinion apparently overruled the acknowledged leader. Brown’s initial position might also be construed as a pragmatic compromise typical of social-democratic politics. In any case, it is shown below that at least some of Brown’s more recent positions appear informed by left social-democratic tradition and do not have any obvious connection to radically new, ecocentric approaches.

Through 2010, as the Greens entered a governing coalition in the state of Tasmania with Labor in March 2010 and appeared to be heading towards Senate balance of power and lower-house representation in Canberra (as they did in October of that year), a conception of the Greens as having something to do with traditional social democracy became evident in media discourse.

Before the Tasmanian coalition deal was signed, Richard Flanagan, a well-known Tasmanian author, argued that the former Labor state government of Premier Jim Bacon had slavishly acceded to the demands of the forestry industry while attacking the Greens, and thus had “ceased to become a force for any progressive politics”. He saw this as the reason that blue-collar as well as “middle-class” Labor supporters were defecting to the Greens, and that the salvation of progressive politics lay in a Green-Labor governmental agreement in Tasmania and a general united front nationally (Flanagan 2010).

The social-democratic nature of the Greens was expressed, in a negative way, by Passant (2010), who pointed to the history of co-option and betrayal associated with reformist socialism. Hartcher (2010) argued against the “watermelon” metaphor by pointing to Bob Brown’s clear advocacy, at a pre-election National Press Club address, of “old Labor redistributive socialism”, with measures such as higher taxes on the wealthy and big mining companies, and permanent public ownership of a national broadband network. The Greens are “actually more like a tomato, red not just on the outside but all the way to the centre”.

Charnock (2009) provides analytic rigor for a conception of the Greens as substantially influenced by social democracy by arguing that the party is “part of a left-wing bloc” (2009, p. 245). The notion of a bloc suggests a spectrum of leftist views with important commonalities, if not necessarily without contestation and contradiction, rather than sharply distinct “socialist and environmentalist wings” within the party or its support base. Charnock supports this argument by showing the correlations among voters between supposed “post-materialist” values and traditional leftist concerns, the strongly leftist self-identification of Greens candidates and the strong perception of the Greens as leftist by voters. In this article I seek to extend and broaden Charnock’s contribution by showing the connections between the Greens and Australian Laborism and social democracy more explicitly.

My overall approach here is a “triangulated” one, that is, one combining qualitative and quantitative data and analyses. Such an approach is particularly useful when examining different aspects of a complex social phenomenon (Bryman 2004, pp. 451-465), relevant here as I argue that the nature of the Greens can be best examined through the varied angles of its public positions, the views of branch-level activists and the nature of its voter base. I thus examine the nature of the Greens, particularly with respect to the traditional political and social bases of social democracy, through three sets of evidence. First, I explore the extent to which the public response of the Greens to two controversies of the past decade, the signing of the Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) and the march to war in Iraq, were framed by left Laborite traditions of, respectively, economic nationalism and a conception of Australia as politically dependent upon imperial power.

Second, I analyse comments on related issues from focus group discussions with Greens members, conducted for my doctoral research on national identity and leftist politics.[3] The general method followed in analysing both my documentary and focus group data is what Bloor and colleagues (2001) term “logical analysis”, in which the logic of writers’ and participants’ arguments are reconstructed and their premises teased out and related, particularly in this case in regard to historical antecedents.

Third, I analyse data from the 2007 Australian Election Study to compare the social composition of Greens, Labor and Coalition voters and also the attitudes of supporters of the three party blocs to questions directly related to class and to environmentalism.

Left nationalism and the Greens

If, as I contend, the Australian Greens have strong roots in social democracy then we should be able to discern aspects of the traditions and history of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), including its contradictions, within the discourse and practice of the Greens. The ALP has always been and remains a contradictory formation, with a working-class base and dominant, if sometimes contested, pro-capitalist leadership and approach (Bramble and Kuhn 2009). An important expression of the contradictions of Laborism, and the aspect focused on here, is its attachment to a specific form of nationalism, or perhaps more accurately a related set of nationalisms.

Laborism has traditionally been concerned with a self-reliant and independent Australia. As Hobsbawn has argued, left-wing forms of nationalism have had significant impacts in countries with strong working-class movements since the latter part of the 19th century. Democratisation gave the working masses an identification with, and at least some real stake in, the consolidating nation-states, to the extent that struggles for democracy and justice were generally seen in terms of changes to the existing state and involving all classes that made up the nation. There was however a contradiction between the broadening of nationalism and its fundamentally bourgeois nature:

What made this populist-democratic and Jacobin patriotism extremely vulnerable, was the subalternity, both objective and — among the working classes — subjective, of these citizen masses. For in the states in which it developed, the political agenda of patriotism was formulated by governments and ruling classes. (Hobsbawm 1990, p. 89)

Left economic nationalism

A key aspect of contradictory leftist nationalisms has been populist, rather than consistently class-based, conceptions of socioeconomic structure and alternative economic strategies. Populist-nationalist ideology has often been explicitly counterposed to more class-based and internationalist ideas, not least in early struggles over the nature of the ALP. Class analysis takes Australia as a capitalist social formation dominated by a national bourgeoisie that owns and controls the means of production and exploits the working, small business and farmer classes. Advocates of nationalist and populist views, particularly those that have any connection with or who avow sympathy for the left or the labour movement, may take on elements of class analysis. But such views stress a cleavage between “the people” or “the nation” and parasitic groupings, often constructed as alien to the nation, based on particular economic sectors and, generally, foreign capital. Strategies tend to focus on protection of and assistance to “our” industry and enterprise through exchange controls, tariffs, quotas and subsidies.[4]

For example, from early in the history of the labour movement, a central part of the populist-na­tionalist nexus between foreigness and parasitism was a critique of banking capital as the “money power”.[5] The merging by the early 20th century of banking and indus­trial firms into finance capital was misconstrued as the domination of parasitic money changers, many of whom were British, over productive layers of society. This critique at times had anti-Semitic overtones, as in the title of a seminal text, Frank Anstey’s The Kingdom of Shylock (Anstey 1917), and a 1930 labour press cartoon showing Otto Niemeyer, sent by the British Reserve bank to enforce austerity measures on Australian governments, as a caricatured Jewish-Asiatic octopus devouring Australia (The Worker, Brisbane, August 27, 1930, reproduced in Alomes and Jones, 1990, p. 207). The latter appeared at a time when anti-bank feeling was being forcibly expressed by New South Wales Labor premier Jack Lang, who railed against “foreign bankers” and “financial imperialists” and attempted to repudiate some debts and lower interest payments before his heroic stature was con­firmed by his dismissal by the NSW governor (West, Holmes and Adler 1979, p. 29).[6]

The long-term pursuit by Prime Minister John Howard’s Coalition government of an Australia-US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA), eventually signed in 2004, provoked considerable controversy and a widespread campaign of opposition that included Greens leaders and activists (Ranald 2006), and the issues it sharply raised provides an ideal recent case study in how different political forces address economics and trade.

Conceptions of Australia as exploited and in need of independence were to the fore among those who campaigned against the agreement. The discourse of the Greens was of a piece with that of the mainstream of the labour movement and most other campaigners. The trade union covering media and cultural workers posited the US and Australia as seemingly different social systems with different goals: “For the US, these negotiations are all about business. For Australia, the issue is one of national sovereignty and the right to foster cultural expression” (Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance 2003). For the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (2003), the issues could be summed up by the slogans, “Maintain Australia’s economic and cultural independence” and “Australia must not become the 51st state of America”.Similarly, a Greens leaflet demanded, “Australia is not the 51st state! Back off! Australia is not for sale!” (Australian Greens 2003). The campaign’s umbrella coalition, the Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network (2003), fought the agreement under the slogan, “Don’t trade Australia away”, and a logo of a stylised Australia coloured in with a US flag inside a crossed out circle.

For his part, Bob Brown declared that the Howard government’s threat to recall parliament if the US congress did not approve of Australian legislation enabling the AUSFTA was a “a new low in subservience to the Bush Administration”, and hoped that Congress did indeed reject the AUSFTA as then “Australia can get back to running its democracy without waiting on America’s say so” (Brown 2004). Then-Greens senator Kerry Nettle echoed such representations of the conflicts over the agreement as consisting of the contradiction between the national interests of Australia and those of the United States. She argued that the agreement “was not in Australia’s best interests” and would “give US corporations greater control of Australia’s medicines, quarantine laws, manufacturing, agriculture and cultural industries” (Daily Telegraph, April 20, 2004,12).

Within both the Greens branches I conducted focus group discussions with in 2006 and 2007, asking for general opinions on national identity and political practice, the AUSFTA and general questions of trade and globalisation were raised. Comments from one Greens group on the AUSFTA per se reflect a straightforwardly nationalist, unified “we” conception of trade in which the incompetence of the Australian trade representatives was a key issue (with these rural Greens showing a particular antipathy to the rural-conservative National Party), along with nationalist-inflected suggestions on the weakness of Australia’s economic position.

Bill: Well it’s free on one side. America still keep all their internal restrictions and subsidies. So it’s not a free trade agreement at all.

Roger: We had a couple of donkeys over there.

Bill: For Christ sakes, we sent the National Party there.

By contrast, members of the other Greens group did not raise poor deals for access to US markets for Australian agricultural products, an absence perhaps related to their urban location. In discussing trade, this group at several points raised a conception of Australia as an exploitative country and discussed the use of “globalisation” and “the national interest” by governments as ideological myths. For example:

Johan: Now the national interest, is that the interest of BHP when they go off to South America or Africa or somewhere and, you know, get copper, lead and zinc out of the ground for next to nothing?

This group also debated some subtle differences when discussing the need to reject the imperative of maximising export profits, specifically a policy of phasing out coal mining on environmental grounds. Barry, who notes that he came to the Greens as an environmental activist and only later took up “social issues”, sees a straightforward matter of replacing export profits and jobs from mining with those available from tourism.

Barry [public servant]: Is it in the national interest to support these 20,000 [working in mining in Queensland], plus the executives, or to say it’s in the national interest to say no, no, we’ll phase that out in the national interest and support the 60,000 jobs forever on the Barrier Reef?

Here he articulates a theme that I found among a number of Greens (Fredman 2009, pp. 288-328) contrasting long-term, rational, “true” national interests to short-term, profit-driven, “false” national interests. In response to the above comments Paul, a union organiser who came to the Greens as representing a “vision of a better society”, expressed the same policy, but was more concerned with relating to working-class identity and the need to win over workers.

Paul [union organiser]: … we have to be very mindful of the fact that coal-mining communities, forestry communities, they are communities in their own right… My uncle and my grandad were both miners… To overnight say tomorrow you’re not going to be coal miners anymore, that’s stripping a person of their entire identity. So the Greens’ policy isn’t about saying tomorrow that’s it we’re not going to be doing any more coal mining, it’s looking long term in terms of what are we going to be offering as alternatives.

From this exchange there appears to be potential differences among these Greens about how to relate to different layers of workers and how and to what extent the logic of profitability can be rejected.

Left-nationalist opposition to war

One of the four key planks of the global Green party movement is opposition to war, but as in the case of economics and trade the approaches of the Australian Greens to war should be seen not so much in terms of recent social movements but in the light of long-standing labour movement debates. A strong tradition of Australian social democracy, since the time of the Boer War, has been opposition to engagements in foreign wars on the basis of the Australian nation’s need to pursue a course independent of great imperial powers.

For example, as part of the campaign against conscription in the First World War, the labour movement news­paper The Worker argued:

“The whole trend of Australian policy was to build up a self-reliant nation, capable of its own defence in case of attack…The theory that Australian defence means the compulsory deportation of our citizen forces to foreign battlefields is entirely new” (September 14, 1916, quoted in McKinley, 1990, p. 55).

Left Labor MP Jim Cairns also reflected this theme in 1965 as the Australian intervention in Vietnam began:

Our failure to achieve a distinctive Australian outlook is preventing us from solving our Australian problems. The basic assumption of our “defence” policy, for instance, is that we cannot solve our military problems: that we must depend on ‘powerful friends. (Quoted in Kuhn, 1997, p. 167.)

In the history of the Australian labour movement such left-nationalist approaches to war and foreign relations, focusing on national unity around independence from allegedly dominating powers, have been opposed by far-left minorities espousing anti-imperialism, that is an analysis of Australian capitalism as a willing ally of bigger imperialist powers, a view of war as an inherent feature of the contradictions of capitalism and a focus on self-determination for colonised peoples.

Since the end of the Second World War, the mainstream centre-left position has moved towards “liberal internationalism”, which also purports to stand for the self-determination of nations but within a framework of individual rights and the peaceable global operation of the rule of law guaranteed by authoritative international bodies (Fredman 2009, pp. 243-252).

In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Greens leader Bob Brown consistently used left-nationalist themes on issues of war and security, but also tied these to broader concerns and understanding than, for example, then Labor leader Simon Crean, whose discourse was framed in a blandly legalistic version of liberal internationalism (Fredman 2009, pp. 257-269). Brown linked Prime Minister John Howard’s closeness to the White House and concerns about a “democratic deficit” in lack of support for the war, in stating:

Mr. Howard has shown he speaks more for the White House than the widely held feeling in Australia that this is not our war. After the speech [US ambassador] Tom Schiefer could say ‘he speaks for me’ but millions of Australians will say “he is not listening, he doesn’t speak for us”. (Brown 2003a)

In a statement released several days later Brown used the metaphor of US domination of Australia via telephone:

Prime Minister Howard’s relaying to Australia of today’s phone call from President Bush is the worst humiliation so far for the millions of people wanting an independent voice for the nation on the issue of Iraq… [In deciding on deployment Howard] simply awaits President Bush’s next phone call.

In this case Brown rhetorically contrasted subservience to the US with a liberal internationalist concern with the UN in stating, “Our Prime Minister is not thinking of global law, the UN Charter, or the options for containing Saddam Hussein so much as accolades in a post war Rose Garden” (Brown 2003b). On the eve of war Brown’s expression of left nationalism was significantly different to that of Crean’s (to the extent that Crean expressed any traditional left nationalism). Brown clearly linked both an internationalist concern for the Iraqi people and an underlying economic basis for US intervention to a conception of Australian subservience:

This morning in Baghdad and Basra millions of innocent Iraqis are huddling in terror … President George Bush has effectively sent Australia to war … This is an oil war, this is not Australia’s war. (Brown 2003c)[7]

Yet at other points in regard to Afghanistan, Brown’s left nationalism has been linked not to opposition to war from a consistent anti-imperialist position but to an isolationist stance, of avoiding Australian involvement, in terms that implicitly accepted key tenets of the “national interest” security and defence agenda and the necessity of US intervention in that nation. In opposing extra troops being sent to Afghanistan in early 2006 Brown stated:

This is the Bush administration’s war and it is up to President Bush to ensure the security of both countries, not the Australian Defence Forces… Our troops should be in Australia and our neighbourhood where our national interests are concentrated. (Brown 2006)

Similarly, in April 2007 Brown argued:

The 300 [SAS troops being sent to Afghanistan] should remain in our region where instability is rife and our defence forces are already stretched… The current Afghanistan mire comes out of the Bush administration’s mistake in withdrawing from Afghanistan and invading Iraq. It should be President Bush dispatching the extra contingent to Afghanistan, not Australia. (Brown 2007)

While opposition to Australian troop deployment has been continually and publicly advocated by Brown, including an attempt in early 2010 to bring a debate of withdrawal of Australian troops to the Senate (Brown 2010), the attitude of Brown at least to the legitimacy of the war as a whole has remained unclear. In any case these examples, by not making clear whether the war in Afghanistan itself is justified or not, rather opposing Australian involvement from an isolationist stance that avoids a more radical and consistent anti-imperialist position, suggest the contradictions of left nationalism as an alternative to conservative expressions of national interest and foreign policy.

Similarly, my focus group participants expressed an amalgam of internationalism and left nationalism in regard to Iraq, war and security. Representative statements included:

Tony [regional Greens]: Bob Brown exemplified our vision for Australia’s national’s interest, values and national identity when he stood up in the parliament and told George Bush what for…

Roger [regional Greens]: Here we are, a little outpost of the American empire, and … at the bidding of George Bush and his corporate war machine at any time and place … regardless of whether it’s in our national interest.

An anti-imperialist understanding of war is alluded to here by reference to its capitalist or “corporate” nature, while left nationalism is expressed by the contrast between conservative subservience to the United States to an independent and authentic expression of Australian-ness exemplified by their own party.

The social and political nature of Greens voters

In this section I present analyses of data from the 2007 Australian Election Study (AES) (Bean et al. 2008) on relevant social attributes and opinions of Greens voters in comparison to other party blocs.[8] The object was to investigate to what extent — by social composition, union membership, attitudes towards class, as well as the environment and self-identification as being leftist — Greens voters could be considered as being on the leftist end of a broadly social-democratic bloc that is mainly but not entirely working class.

I also show the differences in educational attainments between the voting blocs as part of my argument about the social nature of the Greens. For these analyses I use votes in the House of Representatives, assuming this is a measure of a more committed vote than that for the Senate (as Charnock 2009 notes there has been for some time a tighter relation between general party identification and lower-house voting than between such identification and Senate voting).

The results are presented in charts showing, for each party bloc, relevant percentages (of class membership and union membership, with percentages relating to educational attainment presented in a table) or averages (for the scores on attitudinal scales as explained below). These charts have error bars representing 95% confidence intervals, that is the range of values for the mean score or percentage, as relevant, among the sample within which we can be 95% confident that the actual population value lies. This procedure was considered the most straightforward way to show the overall trends and differences in the results while acknowledging margins of error, which are considerable for the relatively small sample we have in this survey, particularly for Greens and National Party voters. Note that where there is no overlap in the confidence intervals we can immediately see that there is a statistically significant difference results at a 95% level (that is, we can be 95% confident that the difference found in the sample derives from a difference in the whole population), but also where there is some overlap there is still the possibility of a significant difference, which I calculate and report as appropriate.[9]

I wanted to first analyse the sample by party and class according to a Marxist conception of class — as a dynamic field of relationships within a system of social production consisting under capitalism of a working class constrained to sell its labour power, a ruling class owning and controlling the means of production and a variegated middle class with intermediate levels of ownership and control in the socioeconomic field — rather than the mainstream sociological passive categorisation of individuals by occupation, status and/or in­come (Fieldes 2005; Kuhn 2005, 2006). That is, I wanted to do this to the extent possible with a fixed-response sample questionnaire, which requires some simplifications and abstractions, even with a questionnaire that records considerable demographic detail such as the AES. I first selected out only those in the labour force (leaving a sample size of 1667), and then used questions on position type (upper managerial or not) and whether the respondent was employed or self-employed to create a class typology of workers (74.7% of the sample) and two middle-class categories, salaried upper managers (6.5% of the sample) and business owners (18.8% of the sample).[10] The validity of this operationalisation of class is well demonstrated below, where the results indicate associations between social positioning, consciousness and party affiliation that are highly relevant to the topic at hand. Figure 1 shows the class composition of each group of lower house voters.

Image removed.

Figure 1: Class composition of each main group of 2007 lower-house voters,
per cent with 95% confidence intervals.

As we can see from Figure 1, the general pattern is that the Labor voting base is considerably more working class, and considerably less managerial or business owning, than the Coalition base, with the Greens appearing somewhere in between in terms of workers and business owners. The significant difference between all class groups among Labor voters and conservative voters (apart from the small number of National Party upper-managers) is readily apparent. Similarly the proportion of National Party business owners is clearly higher than that among Greens, and that of workers lower. Calculations also show that there is a significantly higher proportion of workers among the Greens voters (76.7%) than Liberal voters (66.8%), but the apparent difference in this regard between Green voters and Labor voters (82.3% workers) is not significant. Similarly, there is a significant difference between the proportion among Greens of upper managers (3.8%) and that among Liberal voters (9%), while this proportion among Labor voters (5.2%) is not significantly higher than that of Green voters. In terms of business owners, the proportion among Greens (19.5%) is significantly higher than that among Labor voters (12.5%) but not significantly different from that among Liberal voters (24.2%). Note however that business owners make up 25.8% of all Coalition voters, and this is significantly higher than the proportion among Green voters.

Thus a detailed examination confirms the general picture that the basic class nature of the Green voter base is quite similar to the Labor voter base, with the proportion of business owning Greens however between that of Labor and the Coalition (note there appears to be either a somewhat lower proportion of workers among the Greens than Labor or that of higher managers, or both, but we cannot tell from this sample).

The following two figures and analyses summarise more subjective aspects of class relations. Figure 2 shows the proportions of party voters who state that they belong to a trade union.

Image removed.

Figure 2: Union membership by party vote, per cent.

Figure 2 shows a similar pattern to Figure 1: a clearly significant difference in proportions between Labor voters (33.4% of whom report union membership) and Coalition voters (among both parties of which 15.7% report union membership), with the Greens in between but closer to Labor. There is a significant difference between this proportion among Greens voters (25.6%) and Coalition voters, and a smaller difference between Green and Labor voters that calculates to be just significant at the 95% level.[11]

Figure 3 shows relevant attitudes by party vote in terms of three scores that I calculated, using the numerical coding the questionnaire data file contains for response categories. Two scales aimed to measure attitudes directly related to class. I constructed a “pro-union” scale based on responses to the following two questions, which were coded in a standard Likert 5 point scale (that is, responses of “strongly agree” are coded as 1, and so on up to responses of “strongly disagree” being coded as 5):

The trade unions in this country have too much power.

Still thinking about WorkChoices[12], how much do you approve or disapprove of these changes?

I also constructed an “anti-capitalist” scale based on the responses to the following two questions, which were coded as those above:

Big business in this country has too much power.

Income and wealth should be redistributed towards ordinary working people.

Note as I wanted higher scores (which are actually more disagreement) to be more pro-union for the first scale I left the scores to the first two questions (put in anti-union terms) as is, while I reversed the numerical order for the second set of two questions so that higher scores mean stronger agreement.

A third scale aimed to measure environmental consciousness and was constructed from responses to the following questions:

Do you think Australia should or should not participate in the Kyoto agreement to reduce global warming?

Do you think that global warming will pose a serious threat to your way of life in your lifetime?

How likely are you to join any environmental groups or movements?

The first two questions were also in scale of decreasing agreement, and the third question was coded in decreasing order of willingness to join such a group from “already a member” to “would never consider joining” (so again the order was reversed so that higher scores refer to more agreement).

The three scales were constructed by subjecting the responses to the relevant questions to factor analysis: that is, a statistical procedure whereby a number of items such as questionnaire responses are reduced to a smaller number of factors, within which items correlate relatively highly, and between which items do not correlate very highly. The purpose is to identify underlying structures, in this case of attitudes, that are evident in items that we hypothesise are related before conducting the analysis.[13] The factor analysis procedure can assign for each factor produced a score for each respondent, calculated on how high the respondent scores on each item in the factor. To account for differing measures among variables, these scores are standardised, that is converted to a scale with a mean of 0 and a standard deviation of 1 (so that most scores are between -1 and 1). Figure 3 shows the mean scores for each party group for each of my three “consciousness” factors.

Image removed.

Figure 3: Mean consciousness scales scores by party vote.

Clearly both Greens and Labor voters are on average considerably more pro-union and more anti-capitalist than both Liberal and National voters. Further, the average pro-union score of Labor voters (0.62) was found to be significantly higher than that of Greens voters (0.49), while the average anti-capitalist score of Greens voters (0.39) was found to be significantly higher than that of Labor voters (0.28). Greens voters scored on average considerably more highly than Labor voters on the environmental consciousness scale (0.71 to 0.31) but both scored more highly on this scale than Coalition voters.

I also compared responses by party vote to the AES question asking for the respondent’s self-identification on a left-right scale, measured from 0 to 9. The plot of the means is given in Figure 4.

Image removed.

Figure 4: Mean left-right position by party vote.

In this case, it is readily apparent that Green and Labor voters on average see themselves as well to the left of the self-positioning of Coalition voters and that Greens voters on average see themselves to the left of such positioning by Labor voters, as there are no overlaps in the relevant confidence intervals. The generally highly leftist identity of Green voters is no doubt related to their having the highest average anti-capitalist score. These figures, confirming the leftist nature of Greens voters, complement the findings by Charnock (2006) referred to above, that Greens candidates strongly self-identify as leftist and the public generally sees the Greens as the most leftist parliamentary party.

Finally, I further explored social differences between voters by examining differences in highest post-school qualification. This seemed best to view in a table due to the number of qualifications, and the results are shown in Table 1. I also use this table to indicate the association between education levels and environmental consciousness, by showing the mean score for this scale for each education attainment group.

Highest educational attainment

Education attainment among each party voting group,
per cent

Mean score environmental scale





Postgraduate degree or postgraduate diploma






Bachelor degree (including Honours)






Undergraduate diploma






Associate diploma






Trade qualification






Non-trade qualification






No qualification since leaving school











Table 1: Educational attainment by party group, per cent and mean environmental consciousness score for each educational attainment category.

Calculating for significant differences I found that a significantly higher proportion of Greens voters than Labor voters have bachelor or higher degrees, and a significantly higher proportion of Labor voters compared with Greens voters have trade qualifications, non-trade qualifications or no post-school qualifications.

In general, Greens voters are more highly educated and are less likely to be engaged in skilled or unskilled blue-collar labour than Labor voters. Also from Table 1 environmental consciousness appears strongly related to educational attainment. It might appear then, considering Table 1 and Figure 3 together, that the educational level of Greens voters explains their high environmental consciousness. However, it should be noted that Liberal voters have a very similar educational profile to Labor voters but have a considerably lower average environmental consciousness, and generally higher educational attainment than National voters but a similar average environmental consciousness. It seems educational interacts with political outlook generally in relationship to environmental consciousness.


I have found that in relation to two sets of issues — trade, globalisation and the AUSFTA, and the Iraq and Afghan wars and national security — discourse emanating from Greens branch members and leaders seems mainly framed by a left nationalism (and to a lesser extent traditional internationalism), recognisable as quite similar to that of traditional modes of social democracy.

I also found that in social composition Greens voters are considerably closer to Labor voters than to Coalition supporters in terms of economic ownership and power, in which non-upper managerial employees are dominant, although they are generally better educated than Labor voters and a higher proportion of them are business owners.

A considerably higher proportion of Greens voters than Coalition voters are union members although this proportion is slightly lower than that of Labor voters. In terms of attitudes, Greens voters, apart from their high environmental consciousness, score slightly lower on average than Labor voters on a pro-union scale, while scoring slightly higher on an anti-capitalist scale, a result that probably relates to the finding that Greens voters generally self-identify as more leftist than Labor voters do.

It should be noted that while Greens voters seem more likely to be middle class than Labor voters (in the precise sense of business ownership or considerable power at work), the preponderance of non-upper managerial employees, the extent of union membership and the generally pro-union and ant-capitalist attitudes among them casts considerable doubt on those critics who see the Greens’ base as overwhelmingly middle class in nature (which for example is part of the highly negative assessment from a far-left perspective of Hillier 2010 that the Greens are “do not in any sense represent an alternative to the ALP” for the left).

This all suggests that while the “newness” of Green parties may well be a real phenomenon to some extent, the argument that these parties and their supporters are “post-materialist” and somehow beyond class structures and left-right divisions is refuted by a whole range of evidence. Further we can see that the politics of these parties have historical roots in social democracy, and the voters of these parties can be seen as a more leftist, more anti-capitalist, slightly less labour movement-oriented and somewhat more middle-class segment of a broadly social-democratic bloc.

Why has this particular combination of historically formed politics, social composition and attitudes coalesced in parties with, at least originally, an ecological focus? I would argue that the results suggest that the Greens are an expression of an interaction between a rising consciousness about the ecological crisis and class-structural change of recent decades. The social change in question, I would further argue, fundamentally lies not so much a rise of a “new middle class” but in the way longstanding divisions within the working class have been recast. The working class has always had wide variations in skills, education and income, that have always had contradictory political effects. That is, “upper strata” of the working class have often been better organised and more advanced politically in some respects, but also can be elitist and a brake on radicalism. Consider the sketch of the young Tom Mann (an important radical figure in both the UK and Australia between the 1880s and 1920s) in the late 19th century presented by Mason:

As a teenager he spends three nights a week at college, one night at Bible class, one night at a temperance meeting and Sunday night at church… He became an agitator against alcohol and the eating of meat. Armed with these principles he moves to London as a skilled engineer, adding astronomy to his hobbies after getting the job of dissecting a meteorite for the British museum.

The atmosphere of the engineering factory then is like the atmosphere of a software company or design studio now – a world of relaxed innovation and the techie obsessions of meticulous men. Mann works personally alongside George Westinghouse, the inventor of the hydraulic brake, and Peter Brotherhood, the inventor of the torpedo engine…

He becomes a minor figure in the socialist pulpits of the time and graduates to organising marches for the unemployed. After he recites Shelley’s Rise Like Lions at a demonstration in Trafalgar Square a riot breaks out. By this time he owns a “fairly good collection of books, a violin and a telescope.”

Before the dock strike, the British labour movement was dominated by men like Tom Mann – self-taught, proud of their skills, more at home with socialist painters and philosophers than with “labour of a humbler kind.” (Mason 2005, pp. 115-116)

As Mason goes to discuss, the 1889 London dock strike and the birth of mass industrial unionism led Mann on a path to revolutionary syndicalism and later to communism. Of course, as Mason also outlines, most of the “men like Tom Mann” became mainstays of reformism, with varying degrees of militancy and better or worse politics. The point being that the working class, while possessing a fundamental commonality among its members through a compulsion to sell their labour power and potentially politically united in a militant labour movement, is generally divided by income, skill, education, moral values and interest in “middle-class” pursuits like vegetarianism. The political involvements of the better-educated and skilled sections (often better organised and more politicised, but often moderate and elitist) have always had varied and generally contradictory effects.

Viewing the political involvements of educated white-collar labour as fundamentally “new”, “middle class” and/or “post-materialist” phenomena underestimate both the variation within the working class and the extent to which broad socioeconomic changes have entailed a restructure of this class. Connell and Irving argue that the proletarianisation of intellectual labour has reproduced old general patterns in new forms, when discussing the growth of white-collar unionism from the 1950s:

In some ways, what was happening here was a revision to a very old pattern, the use of industrial action by privileged groups in the workforce to maintain their distance and extend their privileges over other employees. The ‘labour aristocracy’ of the nineteenth century was reincarnated on a basis, not of traditional manual skill, but of professional knowledge certified by specialised higher education. (Connell and Irving 1992, p. 203)

While these authors put the industrial action of intellectual labour in perhaps a too negative way, the main point to be noted here, for both analysis and political strategy, is the need to understand both the fundamental unity of and specific divisions within the contemporary working class. Connell and Irving’s insight appear relevant to the high educational attainment levels of Greens members, combined with their generally working-class and pro-union nature.

Apart from the rise of educated labour, what is also “new” is of course consciousness of the ecological crisis. Trantor (1996) argues that the critical thinking allowed by extended post-school education is associated with higher ecological consciousness. My findings support this, but also that there is an interaction in this with general political outlook and in this with class positioning.

An understanding of the strongly social-democratic nature of the Greens is important because this will help us understand both how Green parties are likely to continue to respond in generally progressive and anti-capitalist ways to a range of social and economic questions, as well as to ecological questions, but also to understand how conflicts and contradictions within the Greens are likely to develop. This is not to deny that conflicts between ecosocialist and ecocentric tendencies may not occur but to contend that, as in the history of social democracy, conflicts between shades of leftism are increasingly likely, a contention supported by the nature of recent intra-party disputes.

Before the 2010 federal poll, disagreements were reported among Greens leaders as to the extent that local branches should decide preference distribution[14], as opposed to national deals, and to what extent the Greens should push a formal policy of reduced public funding for elite private schools (Bachelard 2010). The first contentious issue is relevant to Green claims about a “new” type of party uniquely concerned with participatory democracy. The second, with NSW upper-house member John Kaye reportedly advocating firm action to redistribute funding towards public schools in opposition to Bob Brown’s claims that income from Labor’s proposed mining rent tax could make this policy irrelevant, suggests, as in the Telstra privatisation issue, a tension between principled socialist and left social-democratic positions and a desire by the party’s top leadership for room to maneuvre.

In the foreign policy sphere, a decision by the New South Wales state branch of the Greens to drop its support for the campaign for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, while maintaining more general support for Palestinian self-determination, “after a year of ferocious debate”, might also be seen as an accommodation to more conservative forces (Hinman 2011).

It might be suggested that the Greens are a political force under construction, with some of the same historical and social determinants as the ALP but without as yet the same sort of established institutional constraints. Given the nature of the Greens as analysed here, those seeking to understand and relate to this still-rising political current could well keep in mind Raymond Williams’ description of environmentalism, as quoted by Eckersley (1992, p. 119), as the “strongest organised hesitation before socialism”.


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* A version of this paper was presented at the “Red, Green and In-Between” Conference sponsored by Labour History journal, February 10, 2010, Griffith University, Brisbane.

[1] To be precise the Greens have held this power since July 1, 2011, as there is a delay between a general election and the swearing in of a new Senate.

[2]First published in 1931.

[3]These consisted of a discussion with a branch located in a regional town in late 2006 and a discussion with a branch in an inner suburb of a capital city in early 2007, with a total of 18 participants. I do not claim such a small sample is formally representative of the views within the Greens, although I did select geographically and socially contrasting branch locations to enhance variation. Generally, qualitative methods such as focus groups do not aim for formal representativeness but can provide rich data on the subtleties and contradictions of the social construction of meanings much more than for example fixed response questionnaires can (Burnham et al. 2004, pp. 105-112). The names of those quoted subsequently have been changed.

[4] The development of economic nationalism in Australia and how it has framed debates around trade, globalisation and the Australia US Free Trade Agreement is covered in Fredman (2009, pp. 189-226). This includes evidence that the agreement was in the interests of and happily supported by Australian as well as US big capital.

[5] The school of thought being named after (Anstey 1921).

[6] For a detailed treatment see Love (1984). A recent echo in popular culture of the iniquities of foreign money power was the 2001 film, The Bank, in which a US chief executive led the transformation of a benevolent regional bank into an aggressive global corporation that ruined the lives of decent and productive Australian farmers and petty bourgeois.

[7] Where Australian oil interests might fit in is unclear however.

[8] It was decided to use the 2007 study, rather than the 2010 election study, which apart from being more recent has a higher proportion of Greens voters due to the importance of the former Coalition’s government’s anti-union, anti-worker WorkChoices campaign that had a prominent role in the 2007 campaign. This legislation restricted trade union rights such as visits to work sites and reduced minimum working conditions. Attitudes towards this issue, as discussed below, was asked about in the 2007 AES, and seem in combination with other questions to be a relatively direct way to assess attitudes to questions directly related to class.

[9] Cumming (2009) argues for the use of charts with confidence intervals, as opposed to more conventional statistical tests, as a straightforward way to summarise trends, differences and uncertainties. He also point out, as an alternative to standard statistical tests of difference, that the relevant math tells us that we can read off from such charts statistical differences between two sub-samples in regard to both the mean scores each sub-sample has of a numerical measure and the proportion (i.e. percentage) each sub-sample has of a category. We can tell a significant difference at the 95% level exists when the size of the overlap of the two mean or proportion confidence intervals is less than half of the average size of the two confidence intervals. I have used this procedure when I report below whether any two means or proportions are statistically different or not.

[10] One simplification was discounting those not in the workforce. A second was not differentiating between business owners, as unfortunately there are no questions on whether the business-owning respondents employ others and if so how many. Third, was a simplification involving the need to discount shades and graduations in power at work (part of an overall simplification of treating class as an individual category rather than a set of social relations within which some individuals will have contradictory positions) and the question of what point to define those employees with managerial power as part of a qualitatively separate class from the rest of the employed workforce. The AES uses a quite complex typology in this regard, asking respondents to state whether their work position is best described as non-supervisory or supervisory or lower, middle or upper-managerial. I choose to define only the upper managerial employees, 6.5% of the total workforce and 8% of the employed workforce, as a managerial middle class. Some might argue that this figure is too low, however including those self-defined as middle managers gave rise to a figure of 21% of the total workforce and 26% of the employed workforce, which seemed too large for a managerial class and suggested some inflated self-perception rather than reality. It also made little or no difference to the patterns discussed below. The main point in any case being that, as the analysis that follows shows, in terms of substantial difference in economic ownership and power Greens voters are quite similar to Labor voters and both are substantially different to conservative voters.

[11] It calculates such that we can be 95.05% confident that there is a significant difference.

[12] WorkChoices as noted being the former Coalition government’s anti-union, anti-worker legislation that played a prominent role in the 2007 election campaign.

[13] I originally had thought that the four class-related items would all correlate well together, and that a factor analysis would produce a single score that I could call “pro-working class consciousness”. A principal component analysis with Oblimin rotation was found to be the most effective form of factor analysis on the four responses. While this produced a single factor that explained a reasonable 50% of the variation in the responses to the four questions, taking the two factors as described explained a much more respectable 75% of this variation. As we can see from Figures 3 and 4 and following analyses there are some subtle and interesting differences in these factor scores for each party group. The environmental items were subjected to a principal component analysis and the factor produced explained a reasonable 55% of the variation of the variables.

[14] This, in a the preferential voting system used in Australia, being the advice given by parties to their supporters about how to direct preferences, which can be a major factor in deciding many seats.

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