From 2014 until 2016, I was a member of the Australian Greens. I campaigned for them, made phone calls for them, and gave them my money. I even had a Greens sticker on my car at one point. Until one day, when I suddenly ‘woke up’, got sick of it, resigned my membership, and cut ties with everyone and everything I knew in the party.
And here’s the story of how it all collapsed!
But first, a standard and boring legal disclaimer: I know my story is not the experience of all Greens members, but it’s merely my observations of my time spent there, in what I thought was that calming, feel-good bubble of progressivism. Like any organisation, some people are happy, and some are not. There are winners and losers. I simply decided to cut my losses and leave, and I am content with that decision.
My experience with the Greens began when I first joined them as a paid member in the aftermath of the federal election in 2013, which delivered Tony Abbott as PM. The fact that such an obviously bad conservative leader could so easily win a national election snapped something in me, and I decided that getting pissed off at the TV wasn’t enough. I needed to get ‘politically active’ and to actually get out there and change minds, to ensure such political disasters could be prevented into the future. While I later realised Abbott’s victory was probably a reaction to the unstable fiasco that was the Rudd-Gillard government, at the time, I was more repelled by the fact a grossly unpopular arch-conservative dud could seize office, and wreak his particular form of havoc. The Abbott years were indeed marked by their own kind of confusion and chaos, but that’s not the focus here – despite my conflicting views with him, I think Abbott-bashing has become rather passé, and excessively venomous. Many on the Left have seemed to forget he’s a human being with feelings, rather than a Nazi war-criminal.
Nonetheless, after Abbott took office, the Greens drew me in because I’ve always counted myself as somebody on the centre-left, through my support of public education, public healthcare, and my opposing of the privatisation of state services, policies which form the core of my political beliefs (though ironically and hypocritically, I have since worked as a teacher in a private school… life is complex and we have to take the opportunities that come to us). Nonetheless, in the simplest terms, I believed that strong public institutions, devoted to the cause of a general social welfare and the ‘greater good’, are the foundation of a just society. At the time, the Labor Party was (and still is) ridden with dirty factionalism, and I didn’t feel like stepping into that world. I thought the Greens were a clean and ethical slate, like a morally-pure NGO which always stands for the common utilitarian good, though I later realised, like the communitarian cults of the 1960s, appearances can be deceiving. I joined the party more for its social and ideological positions, rather than its explicit environmental credentials, though they were an appealing bonus. I did (and do) see the transition away from fossil fuels, by whatever means, as an important public priority in order to prepare for peak oil and to mitigate carbon emissions. How could I go wrong?
Overall, the party platform read like a recipe for a social utopia. Green politics is based on the ‘Four Pillars’ – grassroots democracy, social justice, non-violence, and ‘ecological wisdom’. Quasi-Buddhist in its outlook, it was a movement for alleviating the social ills of the world, aiming to heal it through a general ethic of peace and justice. However, as time went on, like a member of a 1960s cult, I began to have doubts. This wonderful vision of a social paradise began to form cracks, and over time, I wasn’t sure what I was supporting was reasonable, or even feasible. There was a lot of idealism, but things never seemed costed or tested in the real world. One of the areas they seemed to get it wrong was energy. As an admin on my local Greens branch’s Facebook page, I’d often repost infographics saying ‘Germany ran on renewable energy for an entire day!’ At the time, it didn’t occur to me to think about what powered Germany the other 364 days of the year (turns out, a lot of coal, after Merkel panicked and shut down the nuclear plants after the Fukushima crisis). I later realised I was basically posting misleading propaganda. They wanted to decarbonise Australia’s electricity grid (no small feat), but magically, they wanted to do it without any nuclear power – only pure wind and solar was good in their eyes. To this day, I am not confident that this is possible. A low-carbon economy is a desirable goal, but it would be achievable if only it were not stymied by an opposition to nuclear power, an important component in feeding Australia’s energy mix. Once I investigated nuclear through online research, I was shocked to find how much scaremongering there was about it, and that Australia has roughly a third of the world’s uranium, but we don’t use it, instead exporting it to other countries who do. It struck me as madness that nuclear would be off-the-table, when it has so much potential. When I saw the NSW Greens promise to close all coal-power stations within five years, my first reaction was ‘yeah, right’.
There were numerous other things too numerous to go into here, but overall, the platform was overwhelmingly self-destructive and inimical to economic development. They wanted to severely curtail the primary and secondary sectors of the economy, while generously expanding the welfare state – all without admitting that you cannot have one without the other. It was (and still is) a recipe for economic armageddon. Just today, I read that Adam Bandt wants to allow natural disaster victims to sue coal and gas corporations – a truly stupid idea, which reveals the irrationality of much contemporary climate change activism, and an ignorance of the the basic principles of science – correlation does not imply causation. In effect, all this points to a movement that has lost its mind, as extreme claims and opinions, coming from a small number of thinkers, without any questioning, opposition or dissent, becomes steadily normalised. Is the world actually doomed, or will we just adapt? When I look at Extinction Rebellion protests now, I shake my head. They are not reasonable movements – they are fanatics who are seeking meaning. Everything is spoken about in melodramatic doomsday terms, without any kind of calm and logical response on how to solve these complex issues.
Apart from the party platform and the deeply irresponsible views on economics and electricity (and other things that are too expansive to go into here), there were more prosaic matters that sucked my enthusiasm for the agenda. The party, over time, wanted more and more of my focus and energy, asking for more money, more time, more volunteer hours. I wouldn’t go so far to call it a cult – that might be stretching it – but it did have some cult-like tendencies. I think a more accurate term would be ‘missionary organisation’, a kind of movement which demanded the increasingly focussed devotion and stamina of its recruits towards political evangelism.
While at first I was quite happy to help out, staffing market stalls (where no one talked to us) and trying to cold-call constituents (who didn’t want to talk to us), over time, I found that I wasn’t actually ‘making my voice heard’ or ‘making a difference.’ These were things that the Greens website extolled as a privilege of party membership, but as is common in politics, you will inevitably end up doing drudge work, in the service of fulfilling someone else’s political ambitions. As a rank-and-file member, you have no real power. At first, political volunteering was exciting. I was fresh on the scene, ready to change minds, and change the world, riding on the bandwagon of something new and bold. But as the months passed, I began to question the value of what I was doing. I began to ask myself what the results of my actions were, and felt that answer looked something like ‘hardly anything at all’.
We were never going to win elections, at least not in outer-suburban Lower House seats, whether state or federal. The real prize were the Upper House Senate seats, where a Greens politician could be realistically elected, though this was more due to good preference deals than hard campaigning. What made matters even more questionable were the quality of some of the candidates. During the Victorian state election in 2014, the first election I ever worked on, our lead candidate for the state Upper House region was simply obnoxious, and seemed to have no idea how to appeal to mainstream suburban and country voters. Everything she posted on social media was about trees, and she acted foolishly in public – one die-hard fellow party member (a dyed-in-the-wool left-wing feminist) once even conceded to me, with a pained expression on her face, ‘she’s not very good’. Unsurprisingly, and to our private relief, she didn’t get elected. Still, it troubled me how someone so obnoxious and silly could be selected to represent an established and growing political party in Parliament. Evidently, there were flaws in the system, and it was frequently due to a collective sense of poor judgment, and bad ideas. Even worse, during the same 2014 election, our regional branch of the Greens hired a campaign organiser (which wasn’t necessary), while being severely short of money. I began to question the decision-making of the people at head-office, who seemed to be the same people who threw ridiculous amounts of money on certain vanity projects, like the Jason Ball campaign in the blue-ribbon seat of Higgins at the 2016 election, which didn’t pay off (they claimed he would win it from the Liberals – he didn’t). There was electoral blunder after electoral blunder, and they just kept screwing it up, without learning any lessons along the way.
I soon learned that ‘grassroots democracy’, while advertised as a party strength, was often applied unevenly, and could often turn out to be a liability. While members had a vote about which candidate to preselect for a seat, or to elect to a particular party office, I found that more often than not you only got one choice of candidate, thus making any ‘election’ redundant – an election in name only. I don’t know if it was by accident or design, but in many cases, I began to suspect the latter. During the transfer of federal leadership from Christine Milne to Richard Di Natale, the ABC perceptively picked up on this trend. I loved and was delighted by this article by Annabel Crabb, and I think her incisive description of the ‘smiles’ and ‘whiff of Moscow’ so accurately captures the grey-area machinations and sharp elbows that persist under the party’s clean and green surface. I myself found that if I questioned any aspect of policy or electoral strategy during my local branch meetings, any smiles and cordiality would quickly and unnervingly go away. However, I think towards the end of the article, Crabb hits too positive a note – it’s not necessarily about putting the party first, but about suppressing internal dissent. In the long-run, it festers and turns to poison, which is why two former Victorian Upper House members, Samantha Dunn (who I once met personally and think is wonderful) and Nina Springle, both resigned from the party after losing their seats after the 2018 state election, alleging a ‘toxic culture’. I fully agree with their grievances, which I believe are legitimate. Once the old guard walk away, you need to start asking hard questions. It’s Nuremberg time.
During my two years, I began to see that the party was populated by more than a few wingnuts, and also an increasing number of phony careerists, who were more interested in their own political careers than effecting authentic change. With this fact in mind, I began to see how ‘grassroots democracy’ could backfire, by allowing precisely the wrong people to rise very quickly in the party, and to get to the top without any real checks and balances. If you wanted, by getting involved in the right events and by showing up to higher-level meetings, you could begin to dictate policy, without being an expert in your field. This in turn led to specious and absurd claims about renewable energy that I discussed before, or a hijacking of the party to serve increasingly narrow identity-politics agendas, such as trans-activism, or the Palestine cause. In NSW, an internal group of ‘red’ Greens (associated with former senator Lee Rhiannon) led to internal self-destructive disruption and bitter factionalism, and veered the party away from its ability to appeal to the mainstream – Greens candidate Jim Casey, who wished to ‘abolish capitalism’, is a perfect case in point. People don’t necessarily vote Green because they want a Revolution – they want progressive and gradual reform.
At other times, the policies were often contradictory, misguided, or downright nonsensical. The party takes a firm anti-smoking stance, wanting to put severe restrictions on tobacco out of both a ‘harm-minimisation’ and generalised anti-corporate feeling, but at the same time, they wished to remove sniffer-dogs from music festivals. So, in one way, it’s unacceptable to smoke a pack of Marlboros, but at the same time, you would be free to overdose on whatever mystery pills you’ve popped, thus necessitating a mass-ambulance callout? I didn’t see any consistent logic there. Personally, I now take a libertarian stance – bring in pill-testing, and stop policing the festivals, but if people die, then that’s their responsibility. Make them pay privately for their ambulance transport and hospital treatment. This kind of government coddling and interference into people’s lives, through the guise of anti-smoking campaigns and ‘public health’, struck me as anti-progressive and anti-democratic – over time, I found myself, an avowed leftist, privately agreeing with the then libertarian NSW senator David Leyonhjelm about a number of key issues.
Over time, in addition to my ideological doubts, I began to tire of the banality of participating in branch meetings, and of dealing with the maddening internal bureaucracy that was ‘head office’. Towards the end, I volunteered as a branch secretary for 2-3 months, which was the final straw before I quit the party. When I started this role, I was e-mailed a manual on how to do my job. While looking for explicit instructions on what exactly the head-office wanted to see, and how to take effective notes during meetings, I was shocked at the vagueness and downright stupidity of what was said. ‘Note-taking is more art than science’ it told me, but it didn’t elaborate on specific examples of what a typical report might look like. As a result, I had no real idea how to do my job. Not that it mattered, anyway; I doubt anyone actually read most of what I e-mailed back in, though I did get told off once for doing my reports incorrectly (go figure… idiots). Additionally, when working on campaigns, I could barely get approval for key election materials I made – one incident resulted in me being bounced around different party honchos, and another resulted in me having a late-night email exchange with the Victorian Greens Greg Barber, which lasted until 1 o’clock in the morning, with him dragging me over the coals about the contents of a press release that I wanted to send to a local newspaper. It was all a bit ridiculous. Meanwhile, my former friend, a serial Greens candidate with connections to head office, was often able to get approval for things straight away. Something seemed uneven to me about the way things were run.
My time in the Greens also coincided with the end of a personal friendship – the former friend I just mentioned, who I helped get elected to local government, turned out he wasn’t all he was cracked up to be. I won’t give away too much information about him, but he was the convenor of my local branch. When I joined, we soon formed what I thought was a genuine friendship. I was happy to help him out with his political ambitions, but over time, I began to see that he was less interested in me as a person, and more interested in what kinds of labour I could do for his political ambitions. If we did have a coffee date, he seemed impatient and ready to leave, not wanting to have a friendly discussion – to top it all off, if I disagreed with him about some key issue, he’d get hostile. Needless to say, I began to feel embittered and used. I tried to persist with the friendship, but over time, I couldn’t deny my feelings. I was angry, so one day, after he didn’t show up to an event on time, I made a phone call, ending a relatively short but intense friendship. Sitting in my car after the phone call ended that day, I felt nothing but relief. Finally, it was over. No more demands, no more resentment, just me free to live life on my own terms. And it was the best feeling ever.
In retrospect, my disillusionment with the party was not due to one specific reason, but crept up on me over time, like an unhappy marriage. I had grown sick of volunteering and branch meetings, began to doubt party policies, got frustrated with what I saw as stupid decisions and strategic electoral blunders, and at the end of it, shedded a long and shitty friendship. Overall, I just got tired of devoting myself to a cause that didn’t pay off, and which had no fixed end-point in sight. I sometimes read about people who got involved with cults, and who later woke up and escaped, wondering how they got there in the first place. I see some of myself in these stories – at the time, I was energised and determined to change the world as an idealistic millennial, but I was also lonely and, perhaps unconsciously, looking for meaning. Looking back, this can be a dangerous mix, and lead to psychological blindness. I understand now how Communist revolutions end up in murder – at the time, I literally thought by eliminating conservatism, and following a green development agenda, the world would be reborn into a Rousseauist paradise. But how wrong I was. I’m glad I have always had a spirit of curiosity and scepticism within myself, and I have always valued free and independent thought, possibly as a result of my previous experience as a teenaged and closeted-gay Richard Dawkins-loving atheist, who had tremendous doubts while attending a fundamentalist Christian school.
The contradictions and nonsense I could see back then in conservative Christianity perhaps enabled me to have doubts about the gay-vegan-leftie-Greenie agenda I later espoused in my twenties, and to see the commonalities that it shared with fundamentalist religion. The woke identity politics and social-justice newspeak we see today are fundamentally articles of faith – climate change is a but one fanatical movement, while intersectional feminism and queer theory are merely the reinventions of exhausted social movements which have lost relevance in the face of important legislative victories. Before I left the Greens, I began to see an unhealthy shift – the party focus came to fall on ‘trendier’ social justice issues that interested inner-city progressives, like refugee rights or climate change, rather than realistic bread-and-butter issues which affect working people, like health-care, education, or taxes. Essentially, the widespread claim from dissident leftist voices about the split between bourgeois metropolitan liberals and blue-collar working-class families is correct, and the Greens are largely catering to the preoccupations of the former rather than the latter. Thus, they can never grow electorally beyond what has already been achieved.
Being a gay-vegan-Leftie-Greenie was an identity that seemed to suit myself, and I found that part of myself projected into Greens policy. There isn’t anything wrong with being alternative or a bit hippy, in fact I am the first to spruik the benefits of composting and home vegetable-gardening, but it can be taken too far. When that identity rules your life, it’s time to step back and take stock. If more people did this, perhaps the world would be a more sane and rational place. Looking back, I was under-confident, unsure, confused, young, ignorant, and realised I didn’t have all the answers to the world’s problems. Above all, I was actually severely depressed, and was in psychiatric treatment for years, trying to find some stability by trying different medications. Eventually I climbed out of it, and managed to finish a university degree, but looking back, I probably made some decisions that I wouldn’t make now. I was mentally and emotionally lost. Going to the Greens was perhaps one way of filling that void – it certainly helped me test my boundaries, and simply to get out of the house and talk to people, but eventually, it simply outgrew its usefulness. I don’t regret my time in the Greens – it actually helped me to discover who I really am, and what I actually believe. We often can only define ourselves in opposition to things – perhaps my time in the Greens, with all its weird and wacky people (and fake careerists) was a way of working things out and finding my way out of the jungle. Now, I feel comfortable with the fact that I don’t have all the answers, and that some things take more research, or that I simply ‘don’t know’.
As an example, I am ill-equipped to judge what the ill-effects of climate change will be, and I don’t know if anyone else knows exactly either – it’s all quite overwhelming. But one thing I do know is that Greta Thunberg doesn’t have all the answers – her screeching doesn’t give me a lot of confidence. I look around today at the wave of wokeness enveloping the English-speaking world, and I feel like a dark outsider who has a special knowledge that many in my generation, the Millennials, do not – how all of this woke far-left ideology is harmful, and is filled with poisonous manipulation and lies. They don’t seem to have been wisened by experience, and seem stuck in the ‘young leftist’ phase of development that I was in five years ago. Perhaps I evolved and moved on to become a bit more of a crank conservative earlier than most. I don’t actually consider myself conservative (tradition can be questioned), but I no longer consider myself a leftist either – I am no longer comfortable sharing a platform with people who think that the police should be abolished, that biological sex doesn’t exist, or that Israel should be obliterated off the map. These positions to me are odious and wrong, and are largely an inversion of conventional Western morality and common sense. Overall, I found that I have walked in one direction, while the broader Left has walked in another. And it’s okay to say goodbye when your stomach and your moral compass is telling you to. Nowadays, I am not yet fully formed in my opinions, but I know where I stand in my values. I am still on a journey to the truth.
I feel I am more pragmatic these days, and that life is simply more complex than it is presented to be by left-wing activists, who view culture-war victory as a kind of path to glory and nirvana. It isn’t, and it never will be – it will only result in bitterness and endless recriminations. Life is there to be enjoyed, and there needs to be a world beyond politics. Sexuality, humour, television dramas, food, drink, a nice garden – we should be allowed to savour the pleasures of life without the interruption of negative social agendas which poison everything. Even my Diggers Club magazine, which advertise beautiful bulbs and trees to me, as filled with doomsaying articles about climate change. The cultural landscape we are living through today is profoundly sad, and I believe the West may be in decline. All our great art is in the past, and the future doesn’t look too promising.
The 2022 Australian federal election has recently passed delivering Anthony Albanese. The Greens and ‘teal’ independents did extremely well, but I feel out of step with the current zeitgeist. I ended up voting for the Liberal Democrats in the Lower House and the Legalise Cannabis Party in the Senate, while sending my preferences to Labor. I think Labor holds the middle-ground nowadays, in between religious conservative wingnuts and big business cronies who want lower corporate taxes, and insufferable progressive activists who want to ruin everything, and who hypocritically occupy plush jobs in universities and NGOs, finger-wagging about the environment and racism, while ignoring their glaring class privilege. I don’t expect huge miracles from Anthony Albanese, but I’m positive about his government. We needed a change. The Liberals are too dark and shadowy, and had fallen into stagnancy, and the Greens are incompetent at governance. So in the end, it falls to Labor, despite its ideological ennui and lack of federal vision, to be a safe bet. Politically a bit homeless, a mixture of bland centre-left politics mixed with some kooky libertarianism has become the appealing balance I seek.
In the end, I decided to become a teacher. One of the messages I always try to get across to my students is always be sceptical. Too often nowadays, on the Left, and in some regions of the Right, there is so much certitude and rejection of alternative perspectives. ‘Libtard’ and ‘bootlicker’ fly out of mouths in equal measure. It’s easier to censure than to research, and analyse data and statistics. It’s heavy work, and very few people have the time. Constructive discussion and civility in comment threads is rare. Perhaps if people studied history and philosophy, and read more widely, things might improve. But overall, we live in a very stunted culture. As one of my favourite thinkers, the former Guardian journalist Melanie Phillips has stated, ‘the idea is now held to be sacred above all else’, with dire consequences. If we cannot ask questions, we cannot have proper answers. Which is why I hope, in the future, we will be able to see beyond simple paradigms of left-wing and right-wing, and be able to formulate intelligent policy positions and solutions which will effectively solve complex national and global issues. If I can finish on that note, then perhaps that’s something we can all agree on.