The success of the Greens in Queensland may be a tipping point for the party nationally, as its grassroots campaigners see voters ready to embrace its blend of politics and activism. By Paddy Manning.
Inside Queensland’s green wave
In 2014, Jonathan Sriranganathan stood half-naked outside Queensland state parliament, covered in body paint, and unleashed a lyrical tirade against the government of Campbell Newman: “Two-party system? Double the corruption!” Then, he was shooting a video for his hip-hop band, Rivermouth. But fast forward to 2022, and Jonno Sri, as he is commonly known, is perhaps as responsible as anyone for the “greenslide” that saw the Greens clinch three new inner-city seats in the house of representatives – Ryan, Griffith and Brisbane – at the May election.
Most analysis of the Greens’ success in Queensland has so far focused on the massive ground campaign, in which hundreds of well-trained volunteers knocked on thousands of doors, and the absence of “Climate 200” candidates. But it wasn’t just a one-off election campaign, or an opportunistic response to this year’s floods, or the lack of teals. The Greens have been making serious inroads in inner Brisbane for the past six years at least.
A Brisbane-born arts/law graduate of Tamil heritage, Jonno Sri stood for the Greens in the Gabba ward of Brisbane’s City Council in 2016. He placed second with a primary vote of 32 per cent – Labor preferences secured him the party’s first seat on the country’s most powerful local authority – its first single-member electorate in Queensland. He moved out of his West End sharehouse onto a houseboat, bought for $30,000, so he could donate half of his $160,000 annual salary to charity. He shot to national prominence wearing a rainbow scarf to his biggest press conference in 2017, standing alongside a tearful Senator Larissa Waters, who had become the state’s first elected Greens politician in 2010 but resigned after discovering she was a dual citizen. Sri would go on to win re-election in Gabba in 2020 with a 13 per cent swing to him, lifting his two-party margin above 62 per cent. Now Sri believes the lord mayoralty is winnable: “Every election, the major parties’ vote in Brisbane is dropping, and the Greens vote is rising, and we’re at the point now where the Greens vote is going to be high enough that we could conceivably win the mayoralty in March 2024, along with half a dozen wards.”
Sri’s success in the Gabba established a beachhead for the Greens in inner Brisbane. It was followed by another narrow win, for environmental lawyer Michael Berkman in the Liberal-held state seat of Maiwar in 2017. Like Sri, he squeaked into second place and Labor preferences helped make him the first Green elected to Queensland’s unicameral parliament – for decades an unassailable barrier for the minor party. A 12 per cent swing towards Berkman won him re-election in 2020, and Amy MacMahon took the neighbouring seat of South Brisbane, which closely matches the boundaries of the Gabba ward. Maiwar and South Brisbane fall within the federal electorates of Ryan and Griffith, respectively, and Sri has no doubt that the Greens’ local and state wins paved the way for the breakthrough in May.
“In Brisbane, people have had really positive experiences of Greens reps at the local and state level,” Sri says. “They see that we’re effective, they see that we’re responsive, and that makes it a lot easier to convince people to vote for us at the federal level too. Word of mouth does matter.”
Environmental activist and historian Drew Hutton, who co-founded the Brisbane Greens in 1984 and ran for lord mayor the following year, wholeheartedly agrees. Hutton stood for the Greens six times over the next 23 years, lifting the primary vote around the West End stronghold from nothing to a career-best 26 per cent in his 2008 campaign for the Gabba ward. Barnaby Joyce narrowly beat him for the last senate seat in 2004. Bob Brown, who co-founded the Australian Greens with Hutton 30 years ago, describes him as “the best senator Queensland never had”.
Now 75 and retired, Hutton has been critical of the Greens. In a controversial Facebook post at the end of last year, he said he feared the party had “locked themselves into a middle class, inner city, tertiary educated, identity politics-driven ghetto” and called for more spokespeople like Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie. But Hutton is a big fan of Sri, describing his win in Gabba as a “major breakthrough … I doubt if the business community likes Jonno too much, but young people love him”.
Hutton sees Sri as a fellow traveller – a campaigning Green. “I think there’s a bit of a tendency to overthink in the Greens, and to fall back on ideology and policy instead of realising that you’ve actually got to get out there and convert those ideas into the lived reality of people.”
Sri has never worn a suit into Brisbane City Hall and says he probably never will, but there’s much more to his brand of politics than his colourful outfits and his performances with Rivermouth or ska punk band the Mouldy Lovers. Sri believes strongly in grassroots democracy and one of his first moves as councillor was an exercise in participatory budgeting, giving Gabba residents discretionary control over a $400,000 budget for park upgrades.
Sri is routinely outvoted on the Liberal National Party-dominated council: in 2019 he failed to get up a climate emergency declaration, and last year he was the only Brisbane councillor to vote against the city’s successful bid for the 2032 Olympics, which he says will be unsustainable and will “turbocharge gentrification”.
But he was the first councillor to call for the conversion of golf courses to public green space. Three years later, the council announced the 18-hole Victoria Park golf course would close and make way for Brisbane’s biggest park in half a century.
Sri deliberately blurs the line between activism and politics. In 2018, when a mum with five children faced eviction from public housing, Sri jumped on Facebook to organise a blockade to meet the police. The woman kept her home. Two months ago Sri and Michael Berkman helped stop another eviction, this time of a disability pensioner. Sri went so far as to lock himself on to the front-door flyscreen. When the police came back a few days later, so did the blockaders and the Housing Department backed down.
The Greens were born out of civil disobedience and Sri is part of that tradition, acknowledging that “actually I’ve never been lawfully arrested, so in some ways probably my record is a little bit cleaner than someone like Bob Brown on that front.” In 2020, he was arrested while protesting against the relocation of asylum seekers at a Kangaroo Point hotel to high-security detention, and charged with failing to heed a police direction to leave. The charges were dropped days later due to lack of evidence. Sri believes some of the depiction of his forthright activism is racialised and cites the media treatment of Victorian Greens senator Lidia Thorpe, who described the Queen as a “coloniser” in her swearing-in ceremony this month. “I’ve seen some of the commentary about Lidia being too assertive or too forceful,” says Sri, “when actually she’s saying and doing the same sorts of things as a lot of other Greens representatives, but it’s just experienced differently by middle-class white people, because they feel attacked when a First Nations person or a person of colour is highlighting fundamental injustices of the system.”
Michael Berkman likes to think he’s replicated Sri’s approach in Maiwar. He has focused heavily on local issues, such as campaigning against a proposal to build six zip-lines down Mount Coot-tha, stopping 43 new poker machines at the local pub and pushing for a new primary school at Toowong.
“I’ve learned more from Jonno – about how to be an effective and useful local representative – than anyone else, just because he was the first in that local electorate-based representative role here in Queensland, and he’s done a phenomenal job of it,” he says.
He’s speaking after a week of estimates hearings he describes as “farcical”. In Queensland, where all seven portfolio committees are government-chaired and only hold one day of hearings each year, Berkman says opposition or crossbench MPs can barely ask a question.
“The chairs will very routinely just shut down lines of questioning whenever it gets uncomfortable, based on spurious points of order,” says Berkman, who sits on the community services committee. “It’s a joke … almost worse than nothing, because it creates this impression of accountability that just doesn’t exist.”
If the Greens’ wins at local and state level set the scene for the party’s federal victories, they were hardly assured. Political scientist Anne Tiernan, who is an adjunct professor at Griffith University’s business school, admits she is “a bit surprised” that the Greens have emerged as such a force in Queensland. Going into the election, she thought LNP voters might worry about Greens candidates in Brisbane “taking instructions from inner-city Melbourne, after the caravan debacle of 2019”.
Tiernan says many well-paid professionals in inner-city Brisbane derive income from the state’s huge coal and gas exports, and did not take well to the Bob Brown Foundation’s Stop Adani convoy from Hobart to north Queensland ahead of the 2019 election. After Scott Morrison’s upset victory, and as progressives joked about “Quexit”, Tiernan challenged stereotypes of the state’s voters as deeply conservative – the Newman government aside, they’ve elected Labor state governments since the Nationals wipeout in 1989.
In 2022, she says, the Queensland Greens took a less confrontational approach to the climate campaign. “I think that tells you something about the federated structure of the [Greens] party,” says Tiernan. “Obviously the state organisation was much more attuned to that risk, and able to assuage some of those concerns.”
Bob Brown rejects the criticism of the Adani convoy, saying it boosted the Greens vote, which jumped 3 percentage points to almost 10 per cent in the senate. That ensured Larissa Waters was re-elected, which was critical to the party’s success the next time around. He says it’s wrong to suggest that “outsiders mustn’t talk about coal and gas in Queensland – come on, it’s not very brave”.
Climate Action Network Australia co-ordinator Dr Barry Traill rejects the argument that Labor lost the 2019 Queensland election because of coal. That case was first made by then Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, he says, and parroted by the media, but is not borne out by the data. Climate concern was prevalent among voters, according to Traill, but not yet enough to swing seats, with the exception of Zali Steggall’s win in the Sydney seat of Warringah.
“Climate mattered last time,” he says, adding that voter concern increased through fires and floods. “This time, it just went to the next step.”
Dr Sarah Cameron, a chief investigator for the forthcoming Australian Election Study, says data shows three main reasons for the Greens’ success in Brisbane in 2022. First, young people are increasingly likely to vote for the Greens; second, growing disaffection nationally with the major parties and declining levels of political partisanship (the Greens are the only exception) and third, the impact of the Brisbane floods and the extra salience of climate change. Cameron, who is a senior lecturer at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations, says the youth vote was by far the most significant – Brisbane, Griffith and Ryan were three of the five federal electorates with the highest proportion of voters aged under 30, according to an ABC analysis.
“In the past young people have been further to the left of older people,” says Cameron. “What we have seen with this current generation of young people, is they are further to the left in comparison to previous generations when they were young.”
Research by academics Stewart Jackson and Josh Holloway suggests a cost-of-living emphasis was key to the party’s success in Queensland, where top billing was given to policies such as free childcare, free education and dental coverage in Medicare – paid for by increased taxes on billionaires. That’s not to downplay the party’s resonance on climate change and the environmental issues: in the aftermath of the floods in Brisbane, party volunteers delivered relief packages and worked on the clean-up. “It created a context in which the Greens’ messages on urgent climate action – but also a broader point, about the disconnect of the major parties from local communities – were likely much more compelling,” says Jackson, who is a senior lecturer in government at the University of Sydney.
A key question for the Queensland Greens is whether the youthful activist politics personified by Jonathan Sri and federal MP Max Chandler-Mather – who ran the party’s state campaigns in 2017 and 2020 – will get traction.
Tiernan sees the possibility of a reckoning: “If they are much more progressive than the constituents who shifted their votes to them this time, that will quickly translate to a loss of support next time. Voters in Brisbane, Griffith and Ryan are used to being represented by the parties of government. They are educated, they have high expectations, they’ll be [giving] feedback all the time. I think if it starts to look like the agenda is very ideological, or that they are not adopting [a] collaborative style … then that could present some risks.”
By contrast, Sri wrote in his own post-election analysis that “bold platforms based on taxing the mega-wealthy, discouraging property investment and redistributing wealth towards social services and public facilities are extremely popular with the majority of voters.”
Sri says the Greens were “talking openly and confidently about capping rents and scrapping negative gearing. This certainly put off a few property investors from voting for us, but it also helped us win over heaps of people who were on the fence between Greens and Labor, or indeed between Greens and the Liberals.”
Berkman agrees and points to recent state reforms to abortion law and voluntary assisted dying to argue politics is lagging behind public sentiment. “The political establishment, the two major parties, are so far behind the kind of progress that the community broadly wants to see.”
He believes there is an appetite for redistributive social justice policies, even in Liberal areas.
The new Greens member for Ryan, Elizabeth Watson-Brown, says voters are no longer swallowing what the conservative media says about the party. “A lot of the conservative voters in our electorate, the people I spoke to, were really interested in the very broad raft of things that the Greens have been talking about. There’s a lot of concern about affordable housing, real interest in getting dental and mental cover into Medicare, aged-care issues – a whole raft of social things that the teals are just not talking about.”
As a long-term local resident, senior professional and successful businesswoman, Watson-Brown had some of the same appeal as the female teals just elected to the crossbench, though she rejects this comparison. Now 65, she was arrested as a student activist in the bad old days of the corrupt Joh Bjelke-Petersen government.
“We were marching for the right to march,” says Watson-Brown.
She retired from her award-winning architectural practice in 2018 and joined the Greens with absolutely no plan to run for office. She was inspired by working on Berkman’s re-election campaign and did a lot of doorknocking. “The respect – and the love, I’d even say – for him, is very deep here,” she says. “It’s been pretty powerful in terms of our success in Ryan as well.”
Watson-Brown also rejects attempts to describe her as a “green-green” compared to “red-greens” such as Sri or Chandler-Mather. She doesn’t see any such schism in the Queensland branch and is fully signed-up for the party’s ambitious policy agenda, from climate to inequality.
The most senior Queensland Greens MP, Larissa Waters, describes her new parliamentary colleagues as a “beautiful blend”. The party’s success in May took southerners by surprise, but at the grassroots level it was obvious the party was on a roll, including in Liberal-held electorates. “People want a fair society,” says Waters. “They’ve got kids!”
Waters will be joined in the senate by former state party convenor Penny Allman-Payne, who is based out of Gladstone – the first time that the Greens have had two senators from Queensland. That’s partly a consequence of the senate voting reform deal the Greens did with the Turnbull government in 2016, abolishing the “preference whispering” that often saw the last senate seat go to a micro party with a minuscule primary vote.
Nobody is taking the Greens wins for granted, least of all the MPs themselves. Former Labor frontbencher Terri Butler, who lost Griffith to Max Chandler-Mather, bemoaned her opponent’s “left populism” and argued he was elected for making promises that he will find impossible to deliver, on issues such as airport noise. Nevertheless, the new MPs will want something to show their electors in Queensland – now dubbed “Greensland” – which has gone from being the party’s weakest state to its strongest, with five of a record 16 federal MPs.
Sri says Brisbane plays a unique, outsized role in the national political landscape, sitting on an imagined boundary between regional Australia and the southern capitals. “We’re not quite Sydney and Melbourne, but we’re certainly not regional Queensland,” he says. “It’s kind of this weird situation where Brisbane is sort of the tail wagging the Queensland dog, and then Queensland is the tail wagging the Australian dog.”
“I think if at some point there is a flip, where we go from having a really conservative, hard-right LNP-dominated Brisbane City Council to having a city council dominated by the Greens, that will be a fundamental shift, not just for the council, but for Australian politics more generally, because Brisbane is seen as this kind of pivot point for the entire country.”
After the May federal election, the Queensland Greens are starting to dream big and their optimism and ambition are inspiring branches around the country.
“We’ve cracked something open here,” says Watson-Brown in Ryan. She points to very similar constituencies in other Brisbane electorates, including Lilley, Bonner, and even that of federal opposition leader Peter Dutton in Dickson, which ranks among the Coalition’s most marginal seats and also rates as highly concerned about climate change.
Watson-Brown says the Queensland Greens are writing a new and different chapter in the history of the party – a new dawn.
“I think a lot of people have opened their hearts and minds to this, and that is why I think that there’s a great future for the movement.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2022 as "The Greens’ shifting centre of gravity".
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