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A new niche

By Nick Casmirri - posted Tuesday, 26 November 2013


With Labor and the Greens struggling, and the rise to prominence over recent years of more right-wing political parties, is it time for a new progressive party in Australia, to offer more options for voters and provide more progressive voices in Australian political discourse?

New South Wales in particular could be the right place for the start of a new party. Progressive politics in NSW is at a low point with the Coalition's dominance at state level, and this year's Senate results in NSW seeing conservative parties winning 4 out of the 6 seats up for election for the first time in the state since the current Senate composition came into being.

Labor is incapable of being a genuinely progressive party as part of its base holds significant conservative attitudes. Its handling of the climate change debate, and acting as though it was embarrassed by the Gillard government's deal with the cross-bench on the clean energy package, is a good example of the reluctance of the ALP to be a progressive party. Despite attempts at democratic reform, the ALP also still faces many organisational challenges and barriers to cultural change. In NSW, despite some promising by-election results, the ALP shows no sign of a significant broader recovery in the next state election as it remains dogged by the fallout from its troubled last period of government.

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The Greens meanwhile have slumped nationally and are feeling increasing tensions between pressures to be more pragmatic or more principled, and underlying tension between differing ideological tendencies. Nowhere are the underlying tensions more apparent than in NSW, where the party is dominated by a more hard-line socialist tendency. They trace the party's origins to Jack Mundey and the 'Green Bans' movement of the 1970s, whereas nationally the Greens more generally trace their origins to the environment movement in Tasmania.

The NSW Greens are also at odds with Greens in other states in not allowing their MPs a conscience vote, and having a more decentralised structure which places much more administrative autonomy in the hands of often small and poorly-functioning local branches. Membership participation in the party is based around meeting attendance and hierarchies of appointed delegates. The structure is increasingly being seen as outdated and unsuited to modern campaigning techniques and communication preferences.

Alongside a series of poor election results, including widespread losses in last year's local government elections, the deepening divisions within the NSW Greens have gained some public attention, although they have largely remained under wraps.

Sally Neighbour's 2012 article in The Monthly (http://www.themonthly.com.au/issue/2012/february/1330563315/sally-neighbour/divided-we-fall ) examined the divisions. Since then, occasional leaks and backgrounding have hinted at the escalating tensions, such as in this speech (http://www.parliament.nsw.gov.au/prod/parlment/hansart.nsf/V3Key/LC20120911046?open&refNavID=undefined ) by Liberal MP Peter Phelps referring to leaked documents he'd obtained, and this Crikey article (http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/10/21/the-new-normal-rhiannon-forces-triumph-in-nsw-greens/ ) reporting on the party's recent AGM. Privately Greens insiders speak of 'trench warfare' and 'irreconcilable differences'.

An increasing number of members, including myself, some with extensive histories in the party, have left the party or are close to leaving because of their disillusionment with the organisational culture and frustrations with the party's strategic direction. Many active and informed members have told me they agree with the concerns and call for radical reform I recently expressed elsewhere. (http://www.facebook.com/notes/nick-casmirri/whats-wrong-with-the-nsw-greens-and-how-it-could-be-changed/10151900726109328 )

In terms of other progressive parties, the Pirate Party hasn't gained much of a foothold in Australia and would generally be seen as a niche party. Other small parties which have emerged have been generally single-issue focused or similarly with niche appeal.

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It seems the time is right, and the opening is there, for a new, broad-based, but distinctively progressive force in the Australian political landscape, particularly in NSW. A new party could offer another progressive option for voters who aren't impressed with Labor or the Greens, and might be able to better appeal to more segments of the electorate, such as regional communities and soft Liberal voters. The success of independents like Andrew Wilkie and Alex Greenwich, whose positions are almost identical to the Greens, shows that there's more support out there for a genuinely progressive platform that isn't being attracted to the current voting options.

The web and social media offer exciting opportunities to establish a new kind of political party, and attract and engage members and supporters in more effective ways. A new party might seek to be more like a hybrid between a traditional party and an organisation like Getup!, offering flexibility for members and supporters to engage in the issues and campaigns that interest them, but also developing participatory processes where all members can vote online on major decisions and electing office-holders.

It should have a structure that's focused on community activism and minimises administrative burden. Instead of formal meetings, formal decision-making should take place through online processes. Organising structures at the local level should be campaigning and networking oriented, free of administration and decision-making roles, with members forming groups that could be based on common interests or backgrounds as well as geography. This would offer a diversity of options for members to build networks and participate in the ways that suit them.

Unlike the Greens, whose membership is skewed towards the baby-boomer generation, a new party should seek to be more relevant and engaging with progressively-minded younger generations. It should speak to younger people who are comfortable with the market economy, but have a social and ecological conscience and want a society and economy where everybody gets a fair go and which is environmentally sustainable, including supporting the need for action on the climate crisis. It should appeal to people who respect individuality and cultural diversity, but also believe in co-operation and helping others in their communities. People who are technologically savy, scientifically aware, and equally wary of the excesses of any traditional power structures, be they large corporations, the state, or other institutions, and expect an open society where all people are more directly empowered. It should be a party that recognises that it is the world wide web that promises the real revolution that will, and is, transforming traditional power structures.

It should be a party that's more open to the community. It shouldn't be afraid of mature and respectful disagreements on policy and should allow MPs a conscience vote, recognising that many voters want to feel that elected representatives are responsive to the community above party machines. It should seek to endorse candidates who are respected community figures who support the party's principles, not just party insiders. It should be a party that operates within a clear framework of principles, but will work and campaign pragmatically for the best achievable outcomes, being open to negotiating with anyone to achieve good results, and strategically co-operating with other progressive parties, organisations, and community groups.

That's the kind of party I'd like to join.

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About the Author

Nick Casmirri is a psephologist and recently-resigned Greens member who had experience as a local branch Secretary, member of state committees, and in several election campaign organising roles.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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