The Danger of the mantra of ‘Grass Roots’ Democracy

There are many definitions of “mantra”. Among these are the following: “an often repeated word, formula, or phrase, often a truism”; “a word or formula, as from the Veda, chanted or sung as an incantation or prayer”; “a word or phrase that is repeated often or that expresses someone’s basic beliefs” and “a mystical formula of invocation or incantation”. The basic premise is that a mantra is based on a belief system. In its present usage it is often little more than “a proposition that states nothing beyond what is implied by any of its terms”.

All political parties, cultures and organisations have mantras. Examples are “the greatest democracy in the world”, “the American Dream”, “we stopped the boats” and “a great big tax on everything”. All of these phrases tell you something about a belief system. But they don’t tell you that American democracy is broken, tainted by big money, a voter participation rate below 50% and booming inequality. Or that the American Dream died long ago and the US no longer provides equal opportunity for all.

Similarly “we stopped the boats” tells us little. Aside from the fact that we need to add the words “arriving in Australia, but we didn’t stop them leaving and we don’t know how many people are still drowning”, it also says nothing about the breaches of international law, domestic opposition to the policy or the horrors of the Nauru and Manus concentration camps.

These are sayings that are designed to reveal little and hide a lot. The same could be argued for an oft-repeated Greens mantra. Whenever critical political debate around Greens policies, or comparisons to other parties occurs, one often hears people saying, in effect, “well you may not like it but (unlike other political parties) it’s ok because we have grass roots democracy”

The problem with this mantra is that it hides many issues in the Greens. These include the lack of proportional representation in many areas of Green politics, the hidden power elites, decisions taken by MPs that ignore either policy or elected committees decisions (or both), the lack of effective participation at the so-called grass roots, the sectionalism and sectarianism (and the inherent disorganisation that comes with that), among other things.

None of this is surprising, of course, since no organisation is perfect (and the Greens are better than many) but it does tend to lead to a defensiveness in the face of criticism and a lack of critical self-analysis. We’re all right Jack, because we have grass roots democracy.

There is no doubt that many people, in the Greens, genuinely believe in the concept and believe that it is operating effectively. But it’s an ill defined concept with many different views about what it means – assuming people have even thought about it. Does it mean that all members can participate in all decisions? Does it mean local democracy? Does it mean local group independence? And even if it does mean one or all of those things, do any of them, in fact, exist?

In the absence of an agreed definition, it’s worth examining some of the possible assumptions about what is meant by ‘grass roots’.

One definition is that Local Groups (LGs) control their own resources, make their own decisions and, effectively, control the party via SDC. This is not very special, however. By this definition, towns and shires are also grass roots. They control their own rate base, make their own decisions and control their local area via decisions of an elected council.

But we know the reality, as with local groups, is that there is, often, control by a small elite (Auburn, Liverpool, Walgett etc;, and that in many cases local groups are substantially or wholly dependent on state office for resources. Like councils the level of member/elector participation varies enormously with some LGs being little more than a shell controlled by a small group of individuals.

SDC, itself, is a far from perfect institution. To start with it is not based on proportional representation, a fact which makes it inherently open to a factional control which is undemocratic. The reality that some LGs with only a handful of members have similar SDC representation to far larger groups is ignored (or at least minimally addressed); and why address this issue when the current arrangement suits those that control the largest share of the SDC vote? Nor is there any real control or check on how many real branch members there might be in any given branch. The Greens are just as open to branch stacking as any other political party.

If one means, by ‘grass roots’ that all members can participate in all decisions, that is a flawed understanding of how human nature and politics works. Many decisions are made in secret, behind closed doors (Party Room being an obvious example) or, if not in secret, then in fora that few members can influence and many don’t even know exist (ECC for example). Being on staff, being an elected member of parliament, being an office bearer, not working full-time; all of these situations allow one either the time or the access to information that allow one to influence decisions and participate with more power than any ‘ordinary’ member can hope for.

The reality of how society operates and of human nature and the political process dictates that individuals who operate for years at the highest levels of a political party have more influence and power than any ordinary member. Some members are more equal than others – it’s an inevitable logic of the system within which the Greens operate. The nature of the system dictates that those who stand for public office are invariably more ambitious and ego-driven than others (however well motivated they may be in many other ways). People with these personality types will rarely give up power once they have it.

If we accept this, we have to accept that ‘grass roots’ decision making is a nice concept in theory but in practice is simply a coat of paint over the same cracks that exist in all political parties.

It is all very well to be critical of what exists but criticism without practical (or some might say impractical) suggestions for change is simply pissing in the wind. Neither helpful nor sensible.

So what could the Greens, nationally, and in NSW, do to create some greater semblance of grass roots democracy and to reduce the hold the power elites have on the party. Some or all of the following may go some way to doing this:

  • create proportional representation in all aspects of the party operations: this would include representation on SDC and on all party committees and bodies. Branches (or regional organising groups) with less than minimum ‘participation quota’ would be required to merge with others if they couldn’t meet that minimum participation quota.
  • Start to move towards participatory democracy, via online voting with all supporters being allowed to vote on-line on key motions put to SDC, on pre-selection, on preferences and on party leadership (where relevant).
  • Create a revolving or shared formal Parliamentary party leadership, to prevent the current informal leadership structures.
  • Abolish the concept of membership entirely: membership by definition is a concept designed to exclude. All supporters would be allowed to participate in meetings providing they met set criteria including signing a pledge committing to a basic set of principles and minimum participation guidelines.
  • Abolish local groups and set up regional organising groups: these groups would work collectively to win seats across the region, allowing for more effective allocation or resources, increased effectiveness where there were limited resources in regional areas and reducing competition for scarce resources. All organising groups would be required to set minimum targets for fundraising, supporter participation and electoral success.
  • Create a resource sharing formula: where more successful regional groups were required to contribute 20% of their income and other resources to assisting adjacent regions with fewer resources.
  • set much stricter term limits for both office bearers and MPs: this would be based on number of years served rather than terms, because terms vary. An upper limit of eight years would be an absolute maximum. Where this meant that the term limit fell within a second term the member would resign and give another person an opportunity. For office bearers similar limits would apply although after an absence of one or more terms an individual could serve again.
  • Much stricter conflict of interest rules: these would prevent candidates, MPs or their nominated representative speaking on or participating in any discussion in which they had a financial (e.g election funding) or other interest. They would still be able to make written submissions. They could not be voting members of any election committee.
  • Create more effective training and representation roles: Each region would participate in ongoing state run training programs – with the priorities for that region determined by the region (not by state office) and where individuals would be selected to be portfolio spokespeople for that region working with the portfolio holder at state level. People in these positions would also be term-limited. This spreads knowledge and skills.
  • Absolute requirements that MPs and party leaders must follow the decisions of relevant elected bodies or of supporter ballots.
  • Appropriate independent arbitration bodies within the party: with membership of the bodies being required to be from outside the body arbitrating the decision (in other words decisions on complaints within the Greens NSW would need to be heard by a body without any representation from Greens supporters within NSW)
  • An expanded charter of principles: against which all decisions would be measured. This would prevent votes by supporters, decisions by MPs, actions by supporters or policies which breached this charter. It would expand on the current four pillars to define more specifics around these four pillars – for example that any tax policy voted on by the party or MPs must be redistributive or that the primary purpose of any law affecting the individuals must firstly consider the health and welfare of the individual.
  • Restructure the internal organisation of the party: to remove conflict between existing bodies (e.g. COM and ECC) and to give greater clarity about who is making decisions and when.
  • Ensure that final decisions on election strategy are entirely within the ambit of the election committee and not MPs: this would include communications strategies and spokespeople roles during election campaigns.
  • Strengthen rules on representation: for example to ensure that regional groups had equal representation to metropolitan groups on key election committees (noting that quotas sometimes conflict with proportional representation this conflict would need to be addressed).

These are only a small number of possible changes that might go some distance to addressing the current elitism in the Greens NSW. I’m not suggesting that all of them are new. I’m sure many will suggest that they are impracticable – I haven’t attempted to analyse or discuss the practicality of each. I’m sure many have been discussed before. They are suggestions made on the basis that one or two individuals have noted that if I’m critical of current practice then I need to suggest alternatives.

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