The Greens – Will They Miss Their Own Wave?
There are some lessons that are as applicable to politics, as to surfing. Sometimes you only get one moment to catch a wave before the last swell fades. For the Greens that moment is now. But they need to organise better and differently or they miss the moment entirely, because they are failing to capitalise effectively on their own strengths which is the ability to organise with and for local communities.
Among the hundreds of column inches that have been written about Australian politics and the recent wins in lower house seats in Victoria and New South Wales by the Greens, not one column has explored the societal and industrial changes that will rapidly erode conventional politics as a result of the changes to centralised institutions that have controlled every aspect of society for decades and how this decentralisation will effect politics.
In looking at those wins the assumption has been that the Greens are a rising force (unless you are part of the Murdoch Press), but the reality is that the ongoing success of the Greens is far from assured – mainly as a result of the failure of the party to capitalise on its own potential strengths.
The focus has been on the community campaigns in inner city Melbourne and Sydney that have overcome the resistance of the Labor and Liberal parties, and on the votes in Ballina and Lismore that took one seat from the Nationals and so nearly took a second. The analysis has largely focused on protest votes and demographic change. This analysis misses entirely the structural changes to our society and political and community frameworks that will affect all societies and political systems.
Those community campaigns and wins are symptoms of a far wider societal change that is as applicable to political parties as it is to industry and Government, generally.
The revived utilisation of community organising models, based around sophisticated demographic targeting and integrated with key local campaigns such as CSG, but more broadly focused on community issues will break the traditional political campaign that based on mass media charismatic leaders and money. This is what led to the success in Ballina and the almost victory in Lismore.
Those organising models are operating on the political systems in the same way as decentralised energy, communications and transport are on the conventional industrial structures. That is they threaten to destroy them entirely or, at the very least, will fundamentally change them. If the Greens can organise more effectively and capitalise on the growing local activism and issues they can build on the inner city successes.
Expressed in its simplest form, we are seeing changes so dynamic that in ten years, or a little more, the society we know today will be unrecognisable, overwhelmed by movements so fundamental that everything we understand about how society works today will no longer be true.
If people doubt that, they need only go back ten to fifteen years and look at how different society is today to then. Thes changes include the internet, mobile phones, electric cars, solar, wind, de-industrialisation, building technologies, 3D printing. These changes are accelerating to the degree that we are faced with disruptive technological and environmental changes that those that control the conventional power structures in society are unable to see or comprehend.
The assumptions and associated techniques on which political parties have built their centralised power models and the organising models based on command and control systems from state offices are rapidly being eroded in favour of a model of decentralised politics, community campaigns and local control.
For two hundred years we have built societies and systems built on centralised means of production and distribution. The disruptive forces of climate change (floods, drought, disease, water shortages, fires, migrations), distributed energy and communication, transport and manufacturing will change all of that faster than almost anyone believes possible.
Within five years the cost of thermal coal will likely be less than $40 per tonne and the black coal industry will be effectively dead and buried and with it much of the electricity industry as we know it. The International Energy Agency assumptions in coal growth, assume continued growth in China, whereas, in fact, it is declining.
The community owned generating systems that already exist around the world including in many parts of Germany, Britain, as well as existing and planned off-grid and community projects in Australia, such as those in Uralla, Byron Bay, Shoalhaven and Denmark (WA),
Soon after the death of coal, certainly within fifteen years much industry that relies on central manufacturing and distribution will be on its knees. Local energy generation, distributed energy systems, electric vehicles, 3D printing, farmers markets and the regeneration of local community will see to that.
The advent of computer controlled, driverless electric cars will allow communities to develop their own community controlled transport systems, funded by a user-pays system which will effectively remove the private car from our society.
What does that mean for politics? It means that only those parties that can adapt to that decentralised, community based means of organising and campaigning will grow and thrive. In Australia, the Labor, Liberal and National Parties are dinosaurs that only really understand centralised organising and campaigning and the people that run those parties will cling on to the power of the centre. We can see this in the reaction of Labor and Coalition to renewable technologies, transport systems (e.g. Uber) and farming systems, where they universally continue to support centralised models.
In Australia, of the larger parties only the Greens have the ability to adapt and thrive. Within the Greens of all the state parties the NSW Greens, often seen as the most dysfunctional of the state Green parties, is possibly best placed of all the state parties to grow rapidly. But that growth depends on the ability of the party to reform itself to take advantage of its own strengths: its decentralised model.
The problem the NSW party has is that it fails to properly understand that no organism thrives without both a strong core and a strong periphery. At this point the most important thing the party can do is to strengthen its regions and local groups but to also set clear goals and establish an accountability process. In addition they need to re-structure so that campaigning takes precedence over administrative functions and campaigns operate over the entire four year cycle rather than just over a four month period prior to each election. None of those steps is currently occurring.
In order to do this the NSW Greens need a better organised, stronger and more efficient centre that can support those local groups. For many in the party it is a centre vs. local groups debate based on a view that the two are in conflict. In fact this is a false dichotomy as they are two sides of the same coin and both are required in order to succeed.
The community organising model used by the Greens that started with Adam Bandt and was used by the Ludlum campaign in WA and then in both the Victorian and NSW elections is labour and resource intensive. It reflects the community desire for more autonomy and a greater emphasis on local action and campaigning. This is the wave that the Greens have been catching but they will only thrive if they can better capitalise on it. That requires a massive effort to build their local groups and regions, something that the urban base that controls the NSW Greens is not doing sufficiently.
In order to improve their ability to capitalise on the community organising model the NSW Greens need to strengthen the centre (at both state and national levels) that is currently weak and has no strong strategic campaign focus. It is lacking both clear electoral targets and the supporting infrastructure, such as effective fundraising. The party has no communications employees (though it is currently advertising), no fundraiser and no effective campaign structure of any type. It has been winning despite this. Nor does it have any strategy that effectively outlines what it needs to do to win future seats, such as clear “win” numbers in each seat.
The success in Newtown, Balmain and Ballina cannot continue to be replicated unless the party consciously commits to strengthening the local groups so that they are more effective and can built their own finances, resources and campaign capacity. The state party is not currently strong enough to put the massive level of state resources, that it put into Newtown and Balmain, into the many others seats that require similar resources.
Strategically growing its local groups and strengthening their independence, resources and accountability is essential because in many regions there are either no effective local groups or they are not sufficiently strong or well resourced. In strengthening the groups and increasing their effectiveness and ability to be semi-autonomous the Greens also need to increase the accountability of those groups, which is almost completely absent; again two sides of the same coin. One can’t have power without accountability.
One would think having seen the outcome of the NSW election these would be obvious steps to take. In reality, however, the party remains urban, even inner-urban based. Almost everyone from the city missed entirely what was happening in Ballina and Lismore because you could only understand this if you lived in the region or had spend long periods of time there over the previous twelve months. Had this not been the case the party would have won Lismore, too, but the seat was starved of resources relative to both city and, to some degree, Ballina.
In this context there are major opportunities to build on the success in Ballina and the near win in Lismore in areas such as Newcastle, the Illawarra, Central Coast and Tweed, among others. But it requires an entirely new attitude and more strategic response from a party that has failed to grow organisationally and remains metro centred.
Underlying much of this are the apparent factional struggles that are often painted as a struggle between the centre and the periphery or between Sydney and the regions. But this factional war, painted as it is by the Murdoch press as a struggle between left (the Eastern Bloc) and right is, too, is largely a fiction.
The political, ethical and policy differences within the NSW Greens are so small (certainly smaller than in the Labor and Liberal parties) as to be almost irrelevant and the struggle is largely around resources and personalities. In essence its like two groups of children struggling over the few morsels on the plate rather than either sharing them or increasing the food supply. The party is not sufficiently mature to understand this and there are insufficient members prepared to stand up and demand an end to the personality driven infighting.
The so-called “eastern bloc” faction does exist but dominates only because those in it are effective and respected for their values and work. They get (but do not necessarily control) most of votes on council because of this and the fact that there is no formal leadership mechanism through which to challenge that control. This informal leadership is fundamentally undemocratic. The election of a formal leader(s) who are accountable and have limited tenure will create a more democratic, less centralised, party; in essence the direct opposite of what many believe – and will assist in making the party more professional.
The Greens both nationally and in NSW are at a cross roads, where they have the techniques to break out of the limits of being a minor party but remain mired in old-fashioned ideas and structures that are inhibiting their growth. Only major changes will allow them to capitalise on the wave of changes occurring.