The Democrats may be dead but they continue to haunt national politics, with many commentators warning the Greens are doomed to the same fate without the charismatic leadership of Bob Brown.
Much of this is based on the assumption that Christine Milne will fail to unify her party or appeal to the public.
However, commentators are overlooking significant differences between the Democrats and the Greens and the ability of the latter to better manage this leadership transition, along with Milne’s own leadership credentials.
Brown is a giant of the environmental movement and Green politics – his remarkable contribution to public life has been rightly celebrated in recent days.
While Christine Milne may not have Brown’s public profile, she does possess many similar qualities. Like Brown, Milne was at the forefront of environmental activism in the 1980s. She also has considerable experience in balance of power politics and in 1993 she assumed the leadership of the Greens after Brown in Tasmania.
Like Brown, Milne is held in high regard within the party; she is someone of conviction who is well positioned to continue the stability and unity of purpose enjoyed under his leadership.
Some have already branded Milne “hard-line” and “extreme.” Here she is in good company and Brown was also regularly painted as “extreme” by his opponents in the parliament (and often the media) during his 16 years in the senate.
Those arguing that the Greens will follow the Democrats and decline in the absence of their founding leader are forgetting that the Democrats survived 9 leadership changes after Chipp’s retirement in 1986 and went on to achieve their best ever election result under the leadership of his successor, Janine Haines.
Rather than Chipp’s retirement precipitating a crisis, it was the lethal combination of disunity and policy confusion that ultimately saw the Democrats come undone. In their final days they were a house divided – split across all sections of the party. By contrast, the Greens have shown great discipline in maintaining a consistent and unified message.
There is no reason to assume this will change. Further, the ability of party members to spill and elect the Democrats’ leadership and the tensions between the membership and the parliamentary party this exposed, did potentially have a destabilising effect on that party. By contrast, the Green MPs are able to elect their own parliamentary leader and the transition from Brown to Milne was seamless.
Further, without the benefit of a strong electoral base, the Democrats were always susceptible to big shifts in support from election to election and in this context, leadership proved pivotal in holding up the vote. By contrast, the Greens have experienced a long-term upward trajectory and their vote has proved much more durable.
The only party to achieve swings in their favour at every federal election of the last decade, the party continues to enjoy the support of 10-12 per cent of the electorate in published polls. It is in a much stronger position to withstand the retirement of a popular leader.
The leadership change does also present the Greens with an opportunity the Democrats never had – a leader in both houses of parliament.
As deputy leader, Adam Bandt is uniquely positioned to continue the Greens’ assault on Labor-held inner-city electorates. His own campaign will also surely be given a boost by the enhanced profile and additional resources he will enjoy as deputy. Further, the leadership team of Milne and Bandt represents an opportunity to better reflect the diversity of the Greens’; with Milne’s regional focus and Bandt’s emphasis on the inner city.
History does have a habit of repeating itself, but the Greens will shake-off the ghost of the Australian Democrats and continue to enjoy electoral success under their new leader.
This piece was first published on FlindersNews on April the 27th 2012.