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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 2

Progressive Voting, Party Organisation, and Political Reform: A Historical View

Sean Scalmer

The pioneers of the Australian Labor Party understood their actions as a contribution to progress: an expression of the ‘increasing intelligence of the age’, read one 1890 statement;1 a means of uniting electors in pursuit of ‘democratic and progressive legislation’, read another.2 Over more than a century, the Party’s leaders have persistently described themselves as modernisers: ‘generators of change’, ‘breaking new ground’,3 bearers of the ‘demands and opportunities of the future’.4 Labor is the party of ‘initiative’, many political scientists have agreed.5 The current Labor platform declares a continuity of purpose: ‘For us, the true reward of politics is progress’.6

But what might it mean to be a party of ‘progress’? The term implies forward movement or advancement. In consequence, the label has been embraced by a diversity of political actors; it lacks a stable referent. For those Labor candidates elected to the first Commonwealth Parliament, ‘progressive’ legislation included racial exclusion, a citizen army and compulsory arbitration; all three would now more commonly be seen as regressive.7 Likewise, the advocates of state ownership in the early twentieth century claimed to be bearers of progress, while the privatisers and free-marketeers of the 1980s and ’90s deployed a similar rhetoric. And if Laborites have aspired to represent ‘progressive’ politics, then this is equally true of Liberals of various kinds. Robert Menzies famously embraced the middle class as the basis of a ‘dynamic democracy’: ‘the strivers, the planners, the ambitious ones’.8 National progress, he argued, came through policies that rewarded ‘the efforts of the individual’.9

In this context, it is difficult to establish a definition of ‘progressive policy’, much more to identify it with a single party. Historically, however, Labor’s claim to embody ‘progress’ has rested not just on the Party’s sponsorship of particular policies. Rather, it has emphasised perhaps more strongly the Party’s claim to represent a political organisation of a new and superior kind.

Formed in the aftermath of devastating strike defeats at the beginning of the 1890s, the new institution was established by trade unionists: conscious of the power of state repression, anxious to use government to defend their interests. Its then novel structure reflected such a collective mission. The Labor representative in parliament was to be a delegate of the movement, pledged to implement Party policy; that policy was to be formed at a Labor conference, made up of representatives from affiliated trade unions and from local Labor leagues.

Traditionally, Westminster parliaments emphasised the duty of the representative to serve constituency rather than party and to follow the dictates of individual conscience over collective discipline. The rise of Labor therefore reshaped the practice of democracy. This was a political organisation of a new kind. Through the procedures of Labor conference, the policies to be submitted to the election might be determined by Labor members and affiliates. By the imposition of new controls on politicians, the activity of representatives could be directed and constrained. With the rapid growth of the new institution, working people might now successfully contest elections against the wealthy and well connected.

Labor’s distinctive version of democracy won precocious success. The party stormed into colonial parliaments, generating an enormous sense of belonging and commitment. It seemed to some a kind of political religion. The Party’s opponents recognised that Labor in government formed but one part of a broader movement; it campaigned without end. Labor leaders even spoke of a ‘light on the hill’ – a ‘great objective’ that transcended the quest for improved conditions, extending, almost mystically, to the ‘betterment of mankind… anywhere we might give a helping hand’.10

And yet, when Vere Gordon Childe – a socialist, prehistorian and a former secretary to a Labor Premier – analysed How Labour Governs in 1923, he wrote with a sense of controlled disappointment. Labor’s vaunted theory of democratic collectivism had been thwarted in practice. A great progressive promise had not been fulfilled.

Propelled into Parliament and thence into the Ministry, members of Labor Governments, Childe observed, were apt to lose touch with the movement’s animating spirit. The need to win the votes of those outside the union movement weighed heavily. The decisions of Labor Conference were often ignored; its delegates powerless to enforce their will upon the politicians they had helped to elect. At the gatherings to determine party policy, genuine collective discussion was frequently trumped by factional manoeuvring. The numbers spoke loudest; the battle for control rested mostly on covert intrigue and wire pulling. Solidarity could not be preserved when serious political conflicts emerged; the party split over conscription, economic emergency, and communism.11

If these weaknesses have long been evident, then the events of the last few decades have raised further and more fundamental problems for Labor’s democratic mission. The Party that brought miners and engine drivers into national leadership is now dominated by professional politicians: former staffers, union functionaries, party officials, with little direct experience of work or business. Trade union membership has declined precipitously, particularly in the private sector. The most dynamic and successful unions of recent years – the nurses and teachers – are not affiliated to the ALP. In fact, more than 90 percent of Australian workers do not belong to unions affiliated to the putative ‘party of labour’.12 Local labour leagues have reduced in number and importance; more than 100 ALP branches folded in New South Wales in the decade leading up to 2009, alone.13 In consequence, Labor’s internal processes can no longer be considered anything but the most indirect expression of the views of working people. The Labor machine works commendably as a ladder of opportunity for the ambitious. It is not an effective means of bending the parliament to the people’s will.

Political mobilisations evident especially since the 1970s have drawn attention to the limits of Labor’s progressive vision, in any case. In waves of connected protests, liberationists have claimed greater freedom and equality for women, gay men, and lesbians; concerned citizens have demanded enhanced protection of animals and the environment; Indigenous people have asserted the right to land, self-government, and recognition; migrant communities have sought to maintain their own ways of living, and their equal status in a new land. Bearers of hopes that transcended class identities, these groups have aimed to create their own political spaces, where they might share distinctive experiences, clarify particular concerns, and articulate independent demands. The Labor party has not always been able to recognise the importance of these new aspirations. Its organisational rituals, and its culture, have often failed to accommodate the ways and priorities of quite different political campaigns.

Perhaps the most vigorous challenge has been launched by the environmental movement. Though celebration of the natural world has a venerable history, political campaigns in defence of the environment emerged most powerfully only a few decades ago. In opposition to the damming of wild rivers in Tasmania, a new electoral organisation, the United Tasmania Group, was formed in the early 1970s. It has since been claimed as the world’s first green party.14 Its failure to halt government’s plans provoked more militant tactics. When a further dam menaced the Franklin river system on the island’s south-west coast, a major movement emerged in its defence. The campaign to save the Franklin encompassed mass civil disobedience on land and water; rallies in major centres of population; legal challenge; and political lobbying. Its success helped to establish an abiding movement and an enduring repertoire of contention.15 It was succeeded by many similar campaigns to protect Australia’s native forests.

Labor acted to incorporate or tame the new movement, with at least some success while it held office.16 But the more devoted and impatient protectors of the environment also began to enter parliaments as independent and Green candidates of various kinds. In 1992 they formed their own national party, ‘The Greens’.17 Without question, it now constitutes a third force in Australian politics. In Tasmania, the ACT, and nationally, Greens parliamentarians have supported minority Labor governments, extracting major concessions and wielding genuine influence; they have also been prepared to negotiate deals with non-Labor parties. The Greens holds seats in lower and in upper houses in Commonwealth and state parliaments.

If the Labor Party’s roots in industrial battles bequeathed a culture of collective solidarity and disciplined number-crunching, then the character of campaigning to defend the environment has also shaped the political culture of the Greens. The party claims to have been ‘founded on the principle of grassroots democracy’.18 Like Labor, the Greens privilege a National Conference: the ‘supreme governing body’ of the party.19 Unlike Labor, the Constitution of the Greens affirms that: ‘Serious attempt will be made to make decisions by consensus at all meetings’.20 The decision to move to a vote (technically a ‘procedural motion’) is made only after persistent disagreement; it requires a two-thirds majority. Any vote subsequently taken to change the status quo also needs two-thirds support.21 Likewise, individual attendance and participation of party members in ‘All meetings of the Greens’ is explicitly welcomed.22 Collective deliberation is therefore much more strongly emphasised than internal vote-winning.

These principles of design are matched by a looser and less tightly policed political culture. The Charter of the Greens formally accepts that electoral politics ‘is by no means the only step’ towards a better society. It pledges support for ‘grassroots movements and community initiatives’ that share the party’s overriding goals.23 Green representatives elected to Parliament tend to define themselves as activists rather than politicians,24 and to work to promote heightened community involvement in law making.25 Questioned by political scientists, the majority of Green parliamentarians continue to emphasise the import of participatory democracy.26 The concept of ‘grassroots participatory democracy’ constitutes one of the party’s ‘four pillars’, or most prized objectives.27 And there is no distinct career path to becoming a Greens MP.28

This is a political institution that much more closely resembles the ways and assumptions of contemporary campaigning than the bureaucratised procedures of the venerable Labor machine. Animated by the looming horizon of environmental emergency, broadened by an increasing engagement with economic and social equality, elevated by the principled advocacy of its MPs, the Greens have enjoyed rapid growth. Like the Labor Party of the late nineteenth century, its propaganda claims a special capacity to meet contemporary challenges (‘you cannot solve problems with the same mind-set that created them’).29 In the eyes of increasing numbers, it is the home of progressive politics.

Still, the long history of Labor’s achievements and disappointments here provides some pause. When Labor members first entered parliament, they also seemed more idealistic and committed than their established forbears. When plunged into the maelstrom of parliament, however, they found it difficult to retain a dual commitment to electoral success and radical purpose. Until recently, the Greens have mostly been protected from these tensions by their relative marginality. As they emerge as a genuine ‘third force’, so they also face increased scrutiny and pressure. If the Labor Party’s elaborate organisation has not preserved democratic vitality, then the danger also threatens that Green decision-making will not be able to cope with significant involvement in legislature and executive, either.

The structure and culture of the party presents some possible dangers. Consensus decision-making has long been criticised for its openness to manipulation: a so-called ‘tyranny of structurelessness’, in which elites mask their direction of group decisions, and informal networks wield a covert power.30 Reflecting a reluctance to assert organisational control, a substantial minority (around three in ten) of surveyed Green activists do not believe that their elected representatives should be bound by party policy.31 Green parliamentarians themselves appear to have widely divergent views on the matter.32 Under these conditions, adherence to progressive reform cannot simply be assumed.

Tendencies toward increased centralisation and profession-alisation of the institution have also recently been observed.33 And the positional authority of the Party leader has recently been described as a ‘highly contentious’ issue among Green MPs.34 The 2015 resignation of one Federal party leader, Christine Milne, and the rapid appointment of a successor, Richard Di Natale, seemed to resemble the internal machinations of Labor and Liberal apparatchiks much more than the transparent quest for collective agreement. Comparison with Green parties elsewhere also suggests that grassroots democracy may not survive heightened participation in national government.

Controversies over party organisation and culture extend also to legislative bargaining; the deals Greens politicians have variously struck and refused over the past few years have also been the subject of some contention. Under the Rudd Government, the Greens voted down a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, arguing that it lacked sufficient ambition, flexibility, or encouragement of renewable energy.35 Some environmental organisations disagreed (among them the Australian Conservation Foundation and the World Wildlife Fund).36 Some progressive critics have suggested that this was an opportunity lost.37 Australia currently lacks a sure procedure for the pricing of carbon.

In 2015, the Greens agreed to support a Liberal Party proposal to reduce pension entitlements for those retired Australians with substantial assets (more than $500,000, for an individual), held in addition to the family home. In exchange, the Liberal Government agreed to a small increase in the full pension ($15 per week) and a fuller review of retirement incomes policy, as part of a white paper tax review. These changes are strictly progressive – favouring poorer pensioners by taking from the richer. But they also further entrench the notion that the pension is a safety net payment for the improvident or needy, not an entitlement for the citizen. The ACTU opposes; the Australian Council of Social Services supports the deal.38

At the end of 2015, the Greens also came to an agreement with the Liberal–National Coalition Government on laws governing multinational tax avoidance. Labor and the Greens had originally opposed Government proposals, insisting that multinational companies with turnover greater than $100 million be forced to disclose their tax arrangements. While Labor held firm, the Greens ultimately relented, agreeing to lift the threshold to $200 million per annum. ‘The choice is a simple one’, argued Richard di Natale, ‘we either get nothing or we get significant strides forward’.39

Many progressive voters will doubtless applaud these parliamentary decisions. But some will question their principle and their wisdom. If most progressives will have a great deal of sympathy with Greens values and aims, then the precise actions of Greens parliamentarians are likely to be much more contested and uncertain. And it is not clear that the party’s structures necessarily provide the mechanisms to deal with conflicts of these kinds.

Does the Greens political organisation then offer no greater opportunities for promoting progressive reform than the party of labour? Are both institutions cursed by structural and cultural weaknesses? How is progressive change best promoted? These questions are most reliably answered historically, by a consideration of the long span of Australian political reform. Such an historical survey reminds us that progressive change has been possible at several moments in Australia’s past. It also suggests that it is the vitality and breadth of political campaigning, not the precise make-up of the parliament, that most influences the prospects of positive change.

* * *

Whatever the foibles and disappointments of particular parties and individuals, Australian democracy has been punctuated by several periods of major progressive reform. In the middle of the nineteenth century, propertyless men won the vote and a secret ballot (what came to be known as ‘the Australian ballot’ elsewhere). Striking workers, supported by a broader movement, won the eight-hour day.

Using their new parliaments to enact substantial reform, colonial citizens designed land laws to aid the settlement of farmers on small properties, and, especially, in Victoria, a system of industrial protection to nurture new businesses and thereby support mass employment. At the turn of the nineteenth century, women won the right to vote. New institutions were also established to limit the clash of labour and capital; in practice, they came to provide a floor of wages and conditions under which white men would not work. This industrial system has been called the ‘wage-earners’ welfare state’, and it helped to define Australia (and its sister-state of NZ), as a kind of social laboratory for state experiments.

In following decades governments responded to pressures to augment social protection. Old age and invalid pensions were legislated; child endowment and widows’ pensions followed; then a more substantial welfare state, in the process of wartime government and postwar planning in the 1940s. Next, under the Whitlam Government (1972–75), then later, new efforts were also made to address gender inequality; to recognise Aboriginal land rights; to register the contribution of migrants to Australian culture; and to protect animals and the environment.

While there remains much to be done, there is a clear and persistent tradition of political reform to address social need. Moreover, this has not been the work of a single institution. No party has traversed the long history of Australian political change.

Democratic reform, land legislation and industrial protection were all enacted by parliaments mostly grouped according to personal factions or only transitory forms of political organisation.40 Driven by fear of class conflict, middle-class liberals mostly designed and enacted Australia’s pioneering labour legislation.41 Women’s organisations campaigned for the extension of a wage-earners’ welfare state to cover their own, neglected needs.42 Reformist intellectuals provided much of the agenda for postwar reform,43 as they did for a great deal of the new program that the Whitlam government so assiduously implemented.44 More recently, action to protect animals and the environment owes at least as much to independent campaigning, and to the Australian Democrats and the Greens, as it does to any party of government.

This does not imply that the work of party politics is irrelevant, and that popular campaigning automatically translates into progressive reform. On the contrary, the transfer of collective mobilisation into law and procedure is a work of great complexity. It requires a capacity for coalition-building and bargaining, a commitment to principle and an eye for the necessary compromise.

A historical understanding clearly demonstrates that no political institution has monopolised these capacities. It further demonstrates that an elaborate party machine is an insufficient condition for positive change. In the context of strong and progressive movements, politicians of many kinds have sought to remake law and institutions. In the absence of popular pressure, the election of nominally progressive politicians has rarely proved enough.

Of course, the lessons of history are not crafted on great stone tablets; they are open to competing interpretations. Still, if external pressures do play a key role in shaping progressive government, then this suggests that the presence of a more radical and uncompromising flank, to the left of the Labor Party, is likely to help more than hinder the broader prospects of reform. Moreover, if that party explicitly recognises the value of grassroots movements, and if its parliamentarians work to aid independent campaigns, then its ability to exert pressure for good should be further enhanced.

To the extent that the Greens play this role, they can advance progressive change. It is in their greater attachment to principle and to activism that they can help drag the polity further leftwards. Tension with the Labor Party, and an apparent unwillingness to register the ‘realities’ of the major parties, are a constitutive part of this political position. It is precisely by being apparently ‘impractical’ and ‘unreasonable’ that the Greens might perform their most valuable political function. Progressives who remain committed to Labor might be wise to recognise this fact, even if it is through gritted teeth.

Green parliamentarians, for their part, might recall the fate of the Australian Democrats or, more recently, the Liberal Democrats of the United Kingdom. Deals struck with conservative governments have neither advanced party nor people. Attempts to demonstrate Greens flexibility by reaching accommodation with conservatives will likely alienate Australian progressives looking for an alternative to the Labor machine. Adoption of a more ‘professionalised’ political form will undermine the party’s distinctiveness, even as it reassures the more established or wary.

The Greens party’s devotion to the principles of grassroots democracy and individual participation separates it from the older party of labour. This is the wellspring of its political energy. The more creatively and persistently the party can find continuing ways of including members and supporters in meaningful decision-making, the more strongly will it preserve its singularity and its radical power. To the extent that it does so, the party and polity will be in its debt.


1    Report of the First Annual Session of the General Council, A.L.F., Brisbane, 1 August 1890, in The Australian Labor Movement 18501907, ed. R.N. Ebbels, Australasian Book Society, Sydney, 1960, 205.

2    Labor Electoral League’s objects, cited in George Black, History of the N.S.W. Labor Party, Sydney, 1910, reprinted in Ebbels, Australian Labor Movement, 210.

3    Terms used by Bob Hawke (1991) and Andrew Fisher (1911), reproduced in Labor National Platform: A Smart, Modern, Fair Australia, 2015,, 10.

4    Gough Whitlam, Australian Labor Party Policy Speech, 1972,, 1.

5    There are also notable dissenters. See Henry Mayer, ‘Some conceptions of the Australian party system 1910–1950’, Historical Studies: Australia and New Zealand 7(27) (1956): 253–270.

6    Labor National Platform, 10.

7    Stuart Macintyre, ‘The first Caucus’, in True Believers: The Story of the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, eds John Faulkner and Stuart Macintyre, Allen & Unwin, St. Leonards, 2001, 18.

8    Robert Menzies, ‘The forgotten people’,

9    Robert Menzies, ‘Election speech, 1946’,

10  J. B. Chifley, ‘For the betterment of mankind – anywhere’, in Things Worth Fighting For: Speeches by Joseph Benedict Chifley, ed. A. W. Stargardt, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1952, 65.

11  Vere Gordon Childe, How Labour Governs: A Study of Workers’ Representation in Australia, 2nd edn, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1964 [1st edn, 1923] lays out the arguments later used by many other critics.

12  Rodney Cavalier, Power Crisis: The Self-destruction of a State Labor Party, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2010, 32.

13  Cavalier, Power Crisis, 47.

14  Amanda Lohrey, Groundswell: The Rise of the Greens, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2002.

15  The Franklin Blockade, by the Blockaders, Wilderness Society, Hobart, 1983; James McQueen, The Franklin: Not Just a River, Penguin, Ringwood, 1983; Peter Thompson, Bob Brown of the Franklin River, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984.

16  Nicholas Economou, ‘Greening the Commonwealth the Australian Labor Party government’s management of national environmental politics, 1983– 1996’, PhD, University of Melbourne, 1998; Timothy Doyle, Green Power: The Environment Movement in Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000.

17  Bob Brown and Peter Singer, The Greens, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 1996.

18  Greens, Standing Up For What Matters: The Greens’ Plan for a Better Australia,, 51.

19  Greens, ‘The Charter and Constitution of the Australian Greens’,, 13.

20  Ibid., 16.

21  Ibid., 17.

22  Though in practice this may be tempered at the ‘discretion’ of the major ‘delegated meetings: Ibid., 17.

23  Ibid., 3.

24  Nick Turnbull and Ariadne Vromen, ‘The Australian Greens: Party organisation and political processes,’ Australian Journal of Politics and History, 52(3), 2006: 459.

25  Ariadne Vromen and Anika Guaja, ‘Protesters, parliamentarians, policymakers: The experiences of Australian Green MPs,’ Journal of Legislative Studies, 15(1), 2009: 101.

26  Vromen and Guaja, ‘Protesters,’ 107.

27  Greens, ‘Charter and Constitution,’ 7.

28  Vromen and Guaja, ‘Protesters,’ 91.

29  Greens, Standing Up for What Matters, 5.

30  Jo Freeman, ‘The tyranny of structurelessness,’ 1970,

31  Stewart Jackson, ‘Thinking activists: Australian Greens Party activists and their responses to leadership,’ Australian Journal of Political Science, 47(4), 2012: 602.

32  Vromen and Guaja, ‘Protesters,’ 103–104.

33  Narelle Miragliotta, ‘Minor organizational change in Green parties: An Australian case study,’ Party Politics, 21(5), 2015: 706–707, 709.

34  Christine Cunningham and Stewart Jackson, ‘Leadership and the Australian Greens,’ Leadership, 10(4), 2014: 507.

35  ‘The Greens and emissions trading – your questions answered,’ 14 January 2010,

36  Guy Pearse, ‘The climate movement: Australia’s patrons of climate change activism,’ The Monthly, September 2011,

37  For example, John Menadue, ‘Holier than thou… but with disastrous results,’

38  Van Badham, ‘Did the Greens turn into the “bastards” on pensions?,’ Labor Herald, 18 July 2015,


40  Peter Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament, Factions and Parties: The First Thirty Years of Responsible Government in New South Wales, 18561889, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, 1966.

41  Stuart Macintyre and Richard Mitchell, eds, Foundations of Arbitration: The Origins and Effects of State Compulsory Arbitration, 18901914, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1989.

42  Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal: The History of Australian Feminism, Allen & Unwin, St Leonards, 1999.

43  Stuart Macintyre, Australia’s Boldest Experiment: War and Reconstruction in the 1940s, NewSouth Books, Sydney, 2015.

44  Terry Irving and Sean Scalmer, ‘The public sphere and party change: Explaining the modernization of the Australian Labor Party in the 1960s,’ Labour History Review, 65(2), 2000: 227–247.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer