Journalist Paddy Manning’s new book Inside the Greens investigates the personalities, policies and turning points that formed the party. Our long-term honorary archivist Colin Smith reviews the book, commenting on more than 25 years of triumphs, tribulations – and what comes next.
By Colin Smith
If you simply want to know what Paddy Manning really thinks of the Australian Greens, just read the last paragraph of the last chapter of his book, Inside the Greens, and the last paragraph of his acknowledgements. Both passages inspire, as does his dedication of the work to Milo Dunphy and Jack Mundey: “two Sydney heroes who were there at the start.”
But if you want a deep education about our movement – perhaps to better know thyself as a part of it – you will have to read the whole book. Which will take a while, but should be no hardship as it is a good read – and by far the most substantial and substantiated account of us ever published.
From little things big things grow
Manning begins at the beginning – or rather, the beginnings – some fifty years ago. This account of the party’s formative years covers Tasmania, NSW and WA, and not only with dams and forests and pulp mills but also with ‘basket-weavers’ arguing with ‘true believers’ over social justice, anti-nuclear campaigns and rainbow alliances.
Manning traces how these strands all eventually came together into an uneasy confederation, and sums us up – having told our story right through to 2019 – as “always over-reaching, always close to splitting, always at a crossroads”, but “far from over”. Indeed, Manning positions us as “The Real Opposition”.
Manning is an indefatigable interviewer, a voracious reader of source material, and an acute and astute listener and observer. He quotes extensively from protagonists on all sides of every issue – and takes sides implicitly rather than explicitly. It is heartening to see most of the book comes straight out of our own mouths and documents, with a modicum from our critics and opponents.
Yet the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts. The story is broken into phases, and returns repeatedly to certain themes. Little things in our year-in-year-out grind of meetings, campaigns, elections and results appear, in context, as turning points, and one realises how much we have achieved.
While Manning has plenty to say about our obvious failures and errors and self-inflicted wounds, what comes through in the end is our staying power and our uneven but perceptible progress in growing the party and building our vote – that is, what makes the “difference between a true political party and a personality-driven electoral vehicle”.
One is reminded repeatedly of how many of our ‘kooky’ and ‘extreme’ ideas have eventually become the conventional wisdom, and of the sheer courage and commitment of our parliamentarians who have persisted in promoting those issues – often despite mockery and derision.
The four final chapters are devoted to reflecting, in turn, on how well or ill we have promoted each of our Charter principles against a political culture that is substantially hostile to all four of them. This is where, more than ever, one realises that it is indeed not easy being Green; that we are often damned if we do and damned if we don’t; and that coping with dilemmas is an inescapeable challenge faced by all conviction politicians.
The main lesson is perhaps that – like all political parties – we are often our own worst enemies. We are passionate political animals with a lot of differences – between sub-cultures; between generations; over particular policies; over what success will look like if we ever get there; and over how to get there. But we must not succumb to the current political fashion of bitter, mutually destructive abuse.
And we won’t, if we can keep focused on those huge areas of consensus upon which we all came together. Therein lies the basis of that mutual respect and care for each other that we implicitly profess when we claim to be Green.
Critiques and comments
Manning might have paid more attention, in my view, to one salient matter: the significance of electoral systems as determinants of success. He might have reflected upon how we have been less successful than European green parties with fully proportional representation, but vastly more successful than green parties in Anglo countries with no proportional representation at all, nor preferential voting.
However, it seems to have landed with a thud rather than a bang. It deserves far more attention, and will richly reward it. Green readers will realise that our cup – if not ‘running over’ – is at least half-full as well as half-empty.
Other readers will perhaps realise that they ought to give us more help to fill it. And all readers to the left of Genghis Khan will enjoy such gems as this one from Bob Brown’s account of his press conference after he heckled George W. Bush in 2003:
… there was ‘this young member of parliament from Queensland jumping up and down, shouting, “You are outrageous, you are disgusting,” and I said to the media, “Just hold on a moment … would the puppy please sit down?” And he did. He went quiet. That was Peter Dutton, fresh from the constabulary …
Despite everything, this is a monumental piece of work and highly recommended to any reader seeking a comprehensive historical catalogue of the party.
Inside the Greens: The origins and future of the party, the people and the politics is published by Black Inc Books and is available at most good bookstores.
Colin Smith is the Australian Greens’ honorary archivist.