Why write a history of the Greens WA?


In recognition of its 30-year anniversary last year, the Greens (WA) recently undertook a comprehensive history project to catalogue its journey as a party to date. What did they find out?

By Chilla Bulbeck

“I’m really pleased that we’re having these sorts of conversations, because we as an organisation, as an institution, as a structure, we need to be able to kind of metacognate about our process. What is our ideology, what is our philosophy, what does that mean on the ground in terms of being competitive or disrespectful or not able to listen to other points of view?” Marilyn Palmer

The Greens (WA) were created on 1 January 1990 from the marriage of groups active in the environmental, peace and anti-nuclear and social justice arenas which had also taken action in the electoral space. They worked successfully together to elect Jo Vallentine as the first Greens senator in Australia. Since then, 420 Greens (WA) members have contested a seat in eight state and 12 federal elections. The successful candidates have become six senators, 11 MLCs and one Lower House MPWe’ve always had at least one MP in Parliament. In September 2021, Dorinda Cox will be our first Indigenous senator, replacing Rachel Siewert who is stepping down after nearly 17 years.

In recognition of our historic milestone, a group of volunteers led by David Worth have undertaken 63 interviews of some of our long-standing members and all of our politicians who agreed to be interviewed. The interviews will be lodged in the Battye Library later this year. This article introduces the rich ruminations of an initial nine of those interviewees.

We would like your feedback on where to next for the history project. Please visit our website here and check out the interviews, including introductory biographies of the participants. And then spare a few minutes to complete a short survey on how best to publicise our interview material more widely

Marilyn Palmer, the interviewee quoted above, identifies the value of reflection on our history, the chance to ‘metacognate’ about who we are and want to be. As Harvard philosopher George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. A recorded and thus shareable history builds our esprit de corps, strengthens our collective consciousness, or sense that together we have created this weird unique creature, the Greens (WA). We can honour and thank our forebears. We can see more clearly opportunities for change, pitfalls that impede our movement, things that might have once been easier, purer, better and which we might aspire to invoke in our activities once more.

A history of the Greens (WA) will, we hope, make our values and practices more transparent to new members, inspire us all with stories of the founding days and early excitements of magic tape (Alison Xamon), telephone trees (Trish Cowcher) and, not so long ago, pioneering doorknocking campaigns mapped on a whiteboard in a garage in a share house using Google maps (Tim Clifford). 

We will be privy to a political insider’s view of senators who got themselves arrested (Trish Cowcher), stood up to Labor Party bullies to fight for a better native title act (Christabel Chamarette), worked effectively to build consensus across the political parties (Giz Watson, Trish Cowcher), fail to understand why other members of parliament will not believe the evidence of their own eyes (Diane Evers), refuse the blandishments of a safe Labor seat so they can stay true to their values (Alison Xamon). We will find out how an electorate officer is not a social worker (Trish Cowcher).

These 63 interviews with our founders and shakers are the building blocks of any written history. We have undertaken them in the nick of time in some cases, and missed the chance in, thankfully, only a handful of instances, their memories already fading, or their lives fully lived. Most of those we interviewed shared vibrant memories, anecdotes that flesh out the bones of history recorded in our meeting minutes and Green Issues.

A ‘real’ political party will have a written history, ideally more than one!  While there are two books about the Australian Greens, by Paddy Manning and Stewart Jackson, the Western Australian branch is not much mentioned by Paddy Manning whose focus is on the politicians more than the members. Our interviewees put names to those who kept the party machinery oiled and functional. We include the extraordinary ‘ordinary’ members who have given a lifetime to the party, like Margo Beilby, one of our first honorary life members, with her husband Mike. Mike said to Margo in the early 1990s, “they're starting this Green Party. Do you think we should join?” They imagined they would be “just members and not doing anything … and then I let it take over my life”, laughs Margo. For many years, she and Mike worked at least one day a week keeping the Greens office functioning as part of a small army of volunteers. 

Most days and years, we have been engrossed with the urgencies of election campaigning, communicating with the membership, electing office bearers. We have been fortunate to have this chance to sit back and catch our breath with a skilled team who have undertaken the first, large, step of writing our history, recording members’ biographies.

What might interest you?

David Worth, who convened the project and has interviewed most of the participants, sought early influences on becoming a Green in experiences in the natural environment, family discussions of politics, a religious background or travelling overseas. Interestingly, these experiences in themselves are often insufficient. A cognitive shift is required for the ‘light bulb’ moment (Tim Clifford) or for the ‘penny to drop’ (Marilyn Palmer). When Marilyn met people from different countries as an American Field Service participant, she felt “that they were really lovely people all around the world and we didn’t need to be frightened of people from other countries or from different religions”. But it took the documentary Four Minutes to Midnight before “the dots joined that all of these issues are interconnected”. 

As a journalist and a political staffer, Trish Cowcher’s parents had highly informed discussions of politics. But “there was no strong sort of social justice” analysis, and so Trish could not unravel her feelings that a lot of things were unfair. By contrast, Alison Xamon stresses “the significance of growing up in the church and my faith” with “a very values driven family and a values driven dialogue”.  Giz Watson’s parents always talked politics too, but they also modelled community participation and the obligation to question authority and act on it when things were not right:

“Helping people to make the connection between something is under threat and I can do something about it is a huge leap in a culture that doesn’t in any way actively encourage people to think that they can do anything. So many people fall back on, ‘Oh, I recycle.’“ Marilyn Palmer

The birth of the Greens (WA) occurred in optimistic exciting times: “it was the early 1980s. Neoliberalism hadn’t hit” (Marilyn Palmer). The story of welding disparate groups into firstly a coalition of electoral campaigners and then a single political party is told by early members Jan Jermaliniski, Christabel Chamarette and Trish Cowcher.  After electing Jo Vallentine:

“We were celebrating. Then there was trying to work together. It was extremely long Reps Council meetings. It’s like the divisions were all still there. You had this tension between those that came through that bottom-up process and those that went through the top-down. And the Constitution, which Chris Williams devised, gave a lot of power to the Regional Groups. You couldn’t just impose things on them. They didn’t have to follow any preference agreement. They could do what they wanted to do.” Jan Jermalinksi

Almost every interviewee discusses the challenges and rewards of consensus decision-making, walking the talk of our grassroots democracy pillar. Giz Watson outlines the party characteristics required to encourage passionate people, including those zealous about a single issue, to listen respectfully to one another.

What are the challenges we face? Will we always be stuck on a 10 per cent vote? Will going higher mean compromising our radical values (Jan Jermalinksi), or can we successfully bring the community with us (Trish Cowcher)? How do we escape the conundrum that some people will only vote for us if we win, but we can’t win unless they vote for us (Diane Evers)? How do we communicate more effectively with voters, including people struggling to put food on the table, given a majority of Australians actually support the values of our four pillars (Giz Watson, Marilyn Palmer, Tim Clifford)?

And looking to the future, what challenges does the party face? How many of society’s unquestioned assumptions have the Greens really disrupted:

“Why as a community do we have this obsession with law and order. … We haven’t yet, as a community, figured out how we live on the planet without destroying it or consuming it faster than it can recover … anger and disempowerment in the community is coming to a crescendo, not just in Australia but internationally … In effect, what we’re potentially seeing is a resurgence of fascism, and that is very scary, very scary … And some of that anger is quite legitimate, but some of it’s misplaced too ... I’m actually moving some of my energy into working with the Greens internationally and growing the strength and capacity of Greens parties internationally.” Giz Watson

And there’s another lovely thing about the Greens. We are the only global party on the planet:

”It’s pretty powerful, to be perfectly honest. Like I can meet with MPs from the Greens parties in other countries and already know that I’m meeting with a kindred spirit. Yeah, that’s extraordinary.“ Alison Xamon

Find out more about these amazing members and our inspiring history here.

Chilla Bulbeck is a member of  the Greens (WA) History group.

Hero image: Nancy Miles-Tweedie

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