Election 2004: Where do the Greens fit in Election 2004?

Nick Turnbull, University of New South Wales
Ariadne Vromen, University of Sydney

Commentators have speculated about the extent of the Greens’ electoral appeal and how the party might influence policy should they win more Senate seats at the 2004 Federal election. Some background on the Greens can help inform political debate about where the party fits into Australian politics. To this end, we examine the Greens’ parliamentary experience and party structure, their electorate, and their experience holding the balance of power.

Social justice is as important as ecological sustainability in Green policy and practice.

The Greens’ identity lies with their social movement base: the party developed from a range of social movements, most importantly the environmental movement. These movements, and the values they encapsulate, are reflected in the Charter of the Australian Greens and in the party’s four pillars: economic justice and social equality, grassroots democracy, peace and non-violence, and ecological sustainability. ‘Green’ or ecologically based ideology is certainly crucial to the values underpinning the party, but the Greens are not primarily an ecological party. Their recent high profile in campaigns against war and in support of the rights of asylum seekers suggest that principles of peace and social justice are as important as ecological sustainability in Green policy and practice. The Australian Greens share this broad progressive ideology with Green parties elsewhere. Building on their social movement foundations the Greens institutionalise a model of party organisation that supports participatory democracy in the form of local decision making structures, consensus decision making, and an active membership.


Australian Greens parties have held 25 seats in Australian parliaments, and there are currently seventeen sitting Green MPs, five more than the Australian Democrats. Greens candidates have successfully contested elections 44 times; and they currently hold seats in four States (New South Wales, Western Australia, Tasmania, and South Australia), one Territory (the ACT), and both houses of federal parliament. Their longest serving member is Senator Bob Brown, who has held a seat in either the Tasmanian lower house or the Australian Senate for 20 years. Only one MP, Michael Organ, has been elected as a Green to a single member electorate in the federal House of Representatives, in the Cunningham by-election of October, 2002. Kris Hanna is also an MP for a single member electorate in South Australia but he changed party from the ALP to the Greens in early 2003.

To understand the Greens we need to examine their electoral experience as a whole, and not just look at their history in the Senate. Clearly the Greens have had most electoral success, so far, at State level. The Greens party has a federal structure, with the States signing up to a federal constitution but still retaining considerable policy-making and organisational autonomy from the centre. As in Europe, federalism has proved important for the Greens, who have often organised first at the regional level and then built upon this success in federal level politics (Müller-Rommel 1998, p. 149).

The Greens have had most electoral success, so far, at State level.

However, federalism also presents problems for political parties, and the Greens are no exception. In Germany, for example, some Greens members criticised their internal organisation as disorganised and unprepared to hold federal government (Rüdig 2002, pp. 102). Their federal structure lacked sufficient resources, and they were faced with a conflict between their grassroots decision making ethic and increased power at the top (Rüdig 2002, pp. 102–3). However, the party modified its organisation in response to this challenge, and it continues today in coalition government with the Social Democrats (SPD).

The Greens will not hold government in Australia. At most, they will win more Senate seats and share the balance of power with the Democrats. Their challenge, then, will not be to rule but rather to ensure a workable relationship between the federal organisation and the state wings. Over the last few years the Greens have restructured their organisation partly with this possibility in mind, and also to accommodate a rapidly expanding membership. In interviews sitting Green MPs told us that the party is trying to strengthen its federal structures and its ability to make quick decisions when the parliament demands without restricting the autonomy and active involvement of the grassroots. This is likely to be the defining question for the Greens should they find further electoral success at the election.


When new parties arrive on the stage of Australian politics, a key question is whether they merely represent a protest vote against the major parties or whether their electoral support is more sustainable. Greg Barns from the Australian Democrats, for example, argues that the Greens electorate is mainly a protest vote (in Walker 2003). We can really only answer the ‘protest vote’ question over the long term and several elections. In the meantime, the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes (AuSSA) (Gibson et al. 2003) enables us to look more closely at the Greens’ supporters than regular opinion polls. Looking at just a few key variables AuSSA bears out the popular view that Greens supporters are mainly young, professional, and live in the inner cities. But the Greens attract more widespread support. Table 1 shows the distribution by age, place of residence, and occupation of respondents to AuSSA who described themselves as Green party identifiers.

Table 1: Greens Party Identifiers, AuSSA 2003 (n=202)

Age Per cent
18–34 30
35–49 38
50–64 22
65 & over 10
Place of Residence  
Rural area or village 10
Small country town 12
Larger country town 4
Large town 9
Outer metropolitan 27
Inner metropolitan 40
Managers & administrators 8
Professionals 32
Associate professionals 14
Tradespersons & related 8
Advanced clerical & service workers 5
Intermediate clerical workers 18
Intermediate production & transport workers 4
Elementary clerical, sales & service workers 8
Labourers & related 4

Question: ‘Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as Labor, Liberal, National, or what?’ ‘Australian Greens’ was offered as one response option. Totals vary due to rounding. Of the 80 per cent of respondents who registered a party identification, just over 6 per cent identified with the Australian Greens.

Question: ‘Generally speaking, do you usually think of yourself as Labor, Liberal, National, or what?’ ‘Australian Greens’ was offered as one response option. Totals vary due to rounding. Of the 80 per cent of respondents who registered a party identification, just over 6 per cent identified with the Australian Greens.

Age: Table 1 shows that young people are a very significant proportion of Green identifiers among AuSSA respondents, with people aged between 18 and 34 making up nearly 30 per cent. The Greens had a much younger support base than any other party, especially compared with Labor, the Liberals, and Nationals, all of which drew only thirteen per cent of their support from 18–34 year olds. An AC Nielson poll backs up this result, estimating that seventeen per cent of 18 to 24 year olds intend to vote Greens at the next election (Todd 2004). However, young people are not the largest group of Greens identifiers: 35–49 year olds make up 38 per cent of AuSSA respondents who identified as Green, and around one third of Greens identifiers were aged 50 and over. So, while the Greens’ electorate is likely to be younger than the electorates of other parties, the Greens are not just a youth party.

The Greens are not just a youth party.

Place of residence: we know that the Greens are strong in the inner cities of Australia’s capitals. The AuSSA results confirm this view, with 40 per cent of Greens identifiers living in inner metropolitan areas. This compares with the Democrats, which has the highest proportion of inner city identifiers among all parties at 43 per cent. This concentrated support is what makes the Greens a threat to Labor in single member electorates in the inner cities. But the Greens also attract considerable support in rural areas—among AuSSA respondents, ten per cent of Greens identifiers came from rural areas or villages, and twelve per cent from small country towns. Both of these figures are a little higher than the proportion for the survey’s sample as a whole (eight per cent from rural areas and villages and ten per cent small country towns), and Greens identifiers were actually more likely to come from rural areas than’ vote than were Labor and Liberal identifiers. This is not surprising if we remember the strong Greens support base in rural Tasmania, the south coast of Western Australia, and the north coast of New South Wales. And, although Greens identifiers were a smaller proportion of respondents in the outer metropolitan suburbs than were respondents who identified with the larger parties, more than one quarter of Greens identifiers lived in these areas. This does not mean that the Greens earn a lot of votes in the suburbs, but it does show that the structure of the Greens electoral support is more dispersed than is commonly supposed.

Occupation: professionals are strongly represented in the Greens’ support base. Around one third of respondents to AuSSA who identified with the Greens worked in professional occupations and another fourteen per cent were associate professionals. However, eighteen per cent of Greens identifiers held intermediate clerical jobs, less only than Labor (nineteen per cent), and even eight per cent of Greens identifiers in the survey sample worked as tradespersons. The overall pattern across occupational groups is very similar to the Democrats. They are weakest among intermediate production and transport workers and labourers.

Overall, youth, the inner cities, and professionals are important for the Greens’ support base, but their support base is not limited to these groups.


We sometimes hear that the Greens are not made for government, or even for holding the balance of power. But their parliamentary history shows that they are not unused to holding office, and that they have spent time developing their party organisation. What does the historical record suggest about their capacities?

The Greens' time holding the balance of power in Tasmania was marked by controversy.

The most notable case of the Greens holding parliamentary power, and the case cited as evidence for their inability to govern, is their experience in the Tasmanian parliament in the 1990s. The Tasmanian Greens held the balance of power in a Labor minority government from 1989 to 1992, and in a Liberal minority government from 1996 to 1998 (Crowley 1999). Both the Labor and Liberal governments resented their dependence upon the Greens and pursued electoral reform to eliminate the possibility of sharing power with them in the future (Bennett 1998).

The Greens’ time holding the balance of power in Tasmania was marked by controversy—so much so that some concluded that the party was fundamentally unsuited to the role (see, for example, Antony Green’s comments in Background Briefing 2003). Former Tasmanian premier, Michael Field, believed that the Greens could not negotiate and destabilised politics by continually threatening to bring down the government (quoted in Background Briefing 2003; Walker 2003). Putting a contrary view was Peter Hay, a Green policy adviser, who argued that Labor saw the initial negotiations with the Greens as a preliminary bargain that would then guarantee them sole governance without really establishing any ongoing ruling coalition with the Greens (Hay, in Crowley 1999, p.190). In our interviews with Tasmanian Greens MPs, they told us that Labor found it most difficult to work with another party because they believed their hold on executive power ultimately overruled all differences of opinion with the Greens, whom they only barely tolerated.

Whatever the nature of the fractured relationship between the Greens and Labor, if we look at the consequences of the Tasmanian Greens’ experience in power, we see that the Tasmanian public did not desert the Greens in the long term. The Greens’ support did fall immediately after the experiment with Labor, from 17.1 per cent in 1989 to 13.2 per cent in 1992, with a further fall to 11.1 per cent in 1996 (Crowley 1999, p. 187). However, at the 2001 Federal election Bob Brown was re-elected to the Senate with almost a quota in his own right, and at the 2002 State election the Tasmanian Greens’ vote jumped to the record level of 18.1 per cent (Bennett 2002). Despite the electoral reforms, four Greens were elected to the Tasmanian parliament and they even out-polled the Liberals in the seat of Denison (Bennett 2002).

It is far from clear that Tasmanian voters believe the Greens are irresponsible or unable to govern. Rather, their support for the Greens ebbs and flows as it does for all parties. Looking to Green parties overseas, the evidence also goes against the argument that Greens in government cannot govern nor sustain electoral support. Green parties have been in coalition governments in Germany, Belgium, Finland, France, Italy, and recently Latvia. While governing has not been easy for European Green parties, Poguntke (2002, p. 142) concludes that those who predicted Green parties in government would necessarily disappoint their supporters, precipitating a collapse in their electoral support, have been proven wrong. Even in Germany today, where the Greens are in coalition with the very unpopular SPD, this has not necessarily meant falling support. In the Hamburg elections earlier this year, for example, the SPD vote collapsed from 47.2 per cent to 30.5 per cent, while the Greens vote increased from 8.6 per cent to 12.3 per cent (CNN 2004).


Should the Greens win more Senate seats at the coming election the established parties may well find it difficult to work with a party committed to a progressive ideology. However, the Greens’ options in the next parliament will be circumscribed by who wins government and by the composition of the Senate cross-bench, where the Australian Democrats will continue to be well-represented. The Greens’ performance will be closely watched, but the idea that the Greens are somehow unsuited to the balance of power role does not seem to hold in practice or in the minds of voters. More Senators will present an organisational challenge for the Greens, but it is a challenge for which they have been preparing. How they deal with it will shape the long term sustainability of their democratic party organisation.


Gibson, R., Wilson, S. Denemark, D. Meagher, G. & Western, M. 2003, Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, Australian Social Science Data Archive, Australian National University, [computer file].

Background Briefing 2003, ‘The Australian Greens: Getting real’, ABC Radio National, 1 June [Online], Available: http://www.abc.net.au/rn/talks/bbing/stories/s871120.htm [2003, Sep. 8].

Bennett, S. 1998, ‘The reduction in the size of the Tasmanian parliament’, Parliamentary Research Note no. 2, 1998–99, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Parliament of Australia, Canberra.

Bennett, S. 2002, ‘Tasmanian election 2002’, Parliamentary Research Note no. 7, 2002–03, Department of the Parliamentary Library, Parliament of Australia, Canberra.

CNN 2004, ‘Schroeder suffers Hamburg defeat’, 29 February [Online], http://www.cnn.com/2004/WORLD/europe/02/29/germany.election.reut/ [2004, Mar. 3].

Crowley, K. 1999,‘A failed greening? The electoral routing of the Tasmanian Greens’, Environmental Politics, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 186–193.

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Walker, J. 2003, ‘The Greens machine’, The Australian, 27 December.

Nick Turnbull is a postgraduate candidate in Social Science and Policy at the University of New South Wales. His PhD research examines the philosophical bases of policy theory. He is a member of Greens (NSW). Dr Ariadne Vromen is Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and a member of the international Comparative Green Parties Research Group. They have been researching the Australian Greens for the past year.