Note: I'm kinda thinking of this article as a work-in-progress draft rather than a definitive statement of where I stand. I'd be interested in feedback on it and might make further changes.
No matter how noble its intentions, any political movement that seeks to win power through electioneering in a system of representative democracy is gradually going to be co-opted and corrupted by the process. Earnest young anarchists lecture me about this regularly, and while I find their presumption that I haven’t already reflected on this challenge annoyingly patronising, I can’t deny the truth of the general critique.
Engaging ‘effectively’ with the mainstream political system seems to necessitate a high degree of centralisation of power. When power is heavily concentrated, the power-holders are inevitably corrupted by it in one way or another (usually without even realising).
I’ve written previously about how across the Australian Greens as a national organisation, power is very heavily centralised in the hands of the federal leader, and about the broader tendency for electoral politics to change people who get deeply involved in it.
With the Queensland Greens now (gradually) winning more seats and increasing our influence at the state government level, I thought I’d describe and reflect upon a couple examples of creeping centralisation within the Queensland party, in the hope of strengthening party processes and helping us stay true to our core value of grassroots participatory democracy.
This kind of self-reflection is important for deepening our critique of the political system as a whole.
When we’re talking to people about why they should support the Greens, it’s easy to distinguish ourselves from the major parties and explain what’s going wrong with politics by pointing to cash-for-access meetings and corporate donations. But while such phenomena are good illustrations of the system’s flaws, they become serious problems mainly because power is heavily centralised.
These conversations also matter because even in more radical political spaces, there’s a general dearth of deep thinking about how really large populations and groups can collectively make democratic decisions.
The absence of theorising on how to avoid excessive centralisation in practice makes it more likely that unaccountable, self-appointed ‘leaders’ and informal hierarchies will emerge, potentially co-opting or derailing community struggles and movements.
So what can we learn from a large, volunteer-driven network like the Greens?
For this piece, I’m restricting my focus to three case studies that highlight how power comes to be centralised within different parts of the Queensland party, both within and outside of an election campaign context:
- My office and role as a city councillor
- The Queensland Campaign Committee (QCC) during the 2020 state campaign
- the South Brisbane branch and 2020 state election key seat campaign
The choice of these case studies isn’t intended to imply that there’s been any kind of wrongdoing within any of these spaces, or as a criticism of any past or present office-bearers These aren’t the only spaces where power is centralised with relatively little oversight, but they all serve as useful examples of how power becomes more concentrated over time, and what I think of as a ‘general inertia towards hierarchy.’
The patterns here will no doubt be familiar to many other activists, political formations and community organisations, so hopefully some of my insights are more broadly relevant beyond the Greens too.
Basic structure of the Queensland Greens
The Queensland Greens party structure was designed to disperse power and facilitate grassroots participatory democracy through consensus-based decision-making, and is generally much more democratic than the larger, older political parties.
Local branches are (on paper at least) the engine room of grassroots decision-making, and we currently have almost 30 Greens branches throughout Queensland. I’m a member of the South Brisbane Greens, which usually has between 150 and 180 current members. The smallest branches might only have around 15-25 paying members.
The party’s overarching decision-making spaces are the Annual General Meeting, which is open to all Greens members from across the state, and the State Council, which is comprised of delegates from each local branch, and currently meets quarterly.
State Council assigns different responsibilities to various committees such as the Campaign Committee, Policy Committee, Management Committee etc. Key positions (all unpaid roles) on these various committees are elected through the AGM or by branch delegates at State Council.
Although State Council ultimately makes a lot of important decisions, the branch delegates at State Council are meant to represent the views of their local branches (not their own personal views). So through participation in their local branch, every member theoretically gets a say on what’s decided at State Council (assuming the branch delegates can actually find time to consult meaningfully with the rest of their branch). You can read more about how the party works and is structured via this link.
Crucially, State Council is ultimately responsible for deciding the party’s policy positions. Policy changes can be proposed through a range of channels (including branches, various committees etc.) but can’t become part of the party’s platform until they’re adopted by a State Council motion.
Agreeing on detailed policy positions is time-consuming and resource-intensive. And detailed policies can go out of date quickly, so most policies are necessarily short and general in nature. Greens politicians are supposed to be guided by these policies when voting on legislation or otherwise exercising power, but the deliberately broad wording leaves a lot of room for interpretation.
The relatively unrestrained power of a Greens city councillor (i.e. me)
While State Council theoretically decides on state policy, whenever the policy platform is silent on a particular local government issue, the default practice (which isn’t really codified anywhere) has been that an elected local councillor (like me) can take whatever position they feel aligns with core Greens principles, as long as they have the tacit support of their local branch.
In practice though, the South Brisbane branch only meets once per month, and there’s never enough time for me to go into detail about all the decisions I’ve made, or to conduct formal informed votes to guide what I do.
As a councillor, I personally decide how I’ll vote on the dozens of various items that come before the weekly Brisbane City Council meeting. Sometimes I abstain if I feel I don’t have enough information or haven’t had enough time to consult my community. Even within the Greens, most branch members don’t especially care how I vote in these council meetings anyway because the LNP hold 19 out of 26 council seats, and my vote doesn’t impact the immediate outcome.
But I also exercise power in other ways, making a range of decisions that materially impact people’s lives and wider political discourse.
For starters, my Gabba Ward office controls a local grants budget that distributes grants ranging from $250 to $10 000 to local community groups and projects. We also exercise substantial control (with some limits) over the allocation of a $500 000/year public space upgrades budget for my ward. This means I have a lot of direct power over where new basketball courts, dog off-leash areas and playgrounds etc. are installed, which can have a significant impact on residents – particularly those who live near those public spaces.
I choose to hold broader public consultation on how this budget is allocated, but I’m not under any obligation to do so. (For more on our experiments with participatory democracy, you can check out my article in the 2021 edition of Pandora’s Box)
On a daily basis, my ward office provides feedback to the council on a wide range of projects and applications, from footpath dining permits to park bookings, where my view carries meaningful weight.
For example, recently a property developer applied to the council to use part of a public park in Kangaroo Point as a short-term carpark for construction workers. I opposed this, and it didn’t happen. But if I’d supported it, the approval probably would have gone ahead, and the developer would’ve received free access to hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of inner-city real estate.
Perhaps even more significantly, whenever I make a public statement about an issue – whether in council or on social media or directly to a journalist – that’s interpreted by many people as a statement on behalf of the party. What I say (or don’t say) impacts how the Greens are perceived statewide, and sometimes nationally.
It’s a heavy responsibility that I don’t take lightly. It’s also a huge amount of power that I exercise virtually unilaterally.
So basically, as far as the Greens are concerned, I can say pretty much whatever I want, and decide what my policy position is on a wide range of local government issues, and the party membership doesn’t have any formal, direct mechanisms in place to hold that power accountable.
Queensland Campaign Committee as de facto policymakers
The Queensland Campaign Committee (QCC) is one of the more powerful bodies within the state party. While its members are democratically elected, its meetings are confidential, and other party members can’t ordinarily access the minutes (this is primarily to guard against leaks to opposing parties).
QCC decides on key election campaign messages, approves wide-reaching campaign materials, conducts background checks on candidates (and can refuse to ratify a candidate if they’re seen as ‘high-risk’), and in practice, makes substantive decisions about which seats and campaign activities are allocated party funding.
While most of the committee’s decisions are theoretically subject to approval by State Council, there’s not enough time (and it would be wildly inefficient) for the dozens of State Council delegates to micro-manage all the decisions QCC makes.
Crucially, QCC decides what campaign initiatives we lead with at a state or council election (federal campaign initiatives are formulated at the Australian Greens level). At the time of writing, the campaign initiatives from the 2020 state election are still available online at this link. To the average voter, the campaign initiatives look a lot like policy positions. They are in fact much more detailed and specific than the Queensland Greens policies as decided by State Council, and are crafted in the lead-up to an election with the primary purpose of winning votes.
Campaign initiatives must not directly conflict with party policy (but like I explained earlier, most policies leave a lot of room for interpretation). During election campaigns, these initiatives get much more media coverage than the actual policies; we put the initiatives on our printed flyers and our social media advertising, and we train volunteers who go doorknocking or make voter phone calls to talk about them. Because of how strongly election candidates and campaign teams promote them, these campaign initiatives can materially influence wider public opinion and discourse, thereby even affecting decisions made by major party politicians and governments.
In practice, it’s the members of the Queensland Campaign Committee, rather than all the branch delegates at Queensland Greens State Council, who decide what initiatives we will focus on and what the detailed content of those initiatives will be. This is important because when our candidates win seats and become MPs, the initiatives are essentially the platform they’ve campaigned on, and they feel a responsibility to the electorate to allocate time and resources towards advocating for those initiatives. State Council might retroactively endorse parts of the platform a few months or even years later, but the actual decision has arguably already been made.
So while the party tells itself a story that party policy is created democratically by all interested members, it is in fact a much smaller group – the Queensland Campaign Committee – that controls the actual policy priorities we take to an election.
Crucially, QCC’s primary goal and focus on this front is to come up with simple-to-communicate campaign initiatives that are likely to appeal to swing voters and motivate volunteers. With some exceptions, the initiatives are reasonably detailed, but that doesn’t diminish the concern that only a relatively small number of people whose primary concern is winning votes are responsible for choosing them.
One of the main reasons QCC has ended up wielding so much power in this respect is simply that the grassroots processes for amending and updating the actual party policies (via branches and committees pushing motions through State Council) are arguably too slow and unwieldy to meet the demands of an election cycle.
State Council policy debates often involve 90+ State Council delegates from different branches suggesting amendments, shunting draft policies off to working groups, taking reworded proposals back to their branches for further discussion and returning to follow-up State Council meetings several months later for further debates and eventual voting. Such processes are too easily sidetracked and stymied by unresolved ideological divergences or misplaced perfectionism.
It’s hardly surprising that the party has evolved a much faster parallel process where a committee with 9 voting members decides the election platform.
(I should note that as of late 2021, the party has reformed some of its policy-making processes so more discussions can happen through Policy Committee channels. This will allow more debates and disagreements to be hashed out in advance, and State Council meetings to play a simpler role of ratifying proposals that the various branches have already expressed support for. But the QCC processes will likely still be much quicker.)
The fact that bodies like QCC are inadvertently side-stepping more inclusive democratic processes could thus perhaps be seen as a challenge to entities like State Council to become faster and more efficient at reaching consensus.
If we as Greens members are unable to make time-sensitive decisions quickly enough through State Council and associated processes, someone else will make those decisions for us.
A secondary consequence of this state of affairs is that some ‘rank-and-file’ Greens members can start to resent bodies like QCC, not necessarily because the committee might have made a bad decision, but because of a difficult-to-resolve mismatch between expectations and practical processes. Many members want to have more say over campaign messaging and strategy, but there aren’t practical, time-efficient mechanisms for this to happen. This frustration arising from centralisation can become a big source of conflict, even if some party members aren’t necessarily cognisant of the root cause.
South Brisbane 2020 election campaign
I observed a similar phenomenon of centralised decision-making within the 2020 state election campaign for the key seat of South Brisbane, which Amy MacMahon won for the Greens.
To facilitate efficient decision-making, and preserve confidentiality so that sensitive campaign tactics weren’t leaked to opposing campaigns, the South Brisbane Greens branch of 180-odd members delegated a lot of power to a Local Election Campaign Committee (LECC) with a handful of voting members (I was tacked on as a non-voting member).
The members of the LECC were appointed by an in-person South Brisbane branch meeting that was attended by about 20 members (quorum for meetings is 10% of branch membership). This committee was required to report back to the monthly branch meetings, but just like the decisions I make as a councillor, the branch members never had enough time or detailed knowledge to meaningfully hold the election campaign committee accountable.
Within the LECC structure, power was further centralised, with the paid campaign manager, the candidate and a couple other key people (such as myself in some instances), making crucial time-sensitive decisions that were later taken back to campaign committee meetings for retroactive approval.
So while it might not have appeared to be the case on paper, in practice a range of important decisions were made by only three or four people who were under no strict obligation to closely consider the views of the wider Greens membership. This ranged from decisions about how much money to spend on billboard advertising or hiring staff, to whether Amy’s campaign letter should express support for particular local infrastructure projects, to how the campaign responded to controversial news stories that potentially affected Greens candidates across the state.
Some of these decisions were difficult and contentious. It’s possible that if you’d brought together a different random group of 5 to 10 South Brisbane Greens branch members, they would have come to different conclusions, and perhaps announced quite different local priorities as part of the campaign, or responded differently to media ‘scandals.’
For example, Amy announced strong support for a Toowong-West End pedestrian and cycling bridge during her election campaign. This idea had been flagged during previous Greens election campaigns at both the local and state level, and a bridge to Toowong had also been proposed in one or two government transport plans over the years.
Based on the various forms of outreach we’d already undertaken, those of us involved in this discussion on the campaign committee felt reasonably confident that the majority of residents supported this initiative, and that it was popular enough for Amy to publicly support. But we didn’t actually undertake an inclusive and consultative decision-making process involving all members of the South Brisbane Greens branch before announcing that position.
Like most of the local commitments that ended up in Amy’s campaign materials, that decision to publicly support a new bridge was ultimately made by only a small, closed group of people.
After the election, and in light of the LNP committing to fund the bridge, Amy and I conducted more public consultation about the specific question of new bridges, including an online community poll. This wider, (slightly) better-resourced consultation has confirmed our initial assessment that the bridge has strong public support. But it doesn’t change the fact that the original campaign commitments were not decided through a democratic process open to all Greens branch members.
[I should add that the decision-making processes behind local campaign announcements from the major party candidates don’t appear to be very different.
In fact, it seems to be accepted wisdom within the Labor and Liberal Parties that such decisions cannot feasibly be made by larger groups in a time-efficient manner, and major party campaign organisers I’ve talked to are entirely unapologetic about the centralisation of power within campaign teams and ministerial offices.
Most Labor and LNP rank-and-file members appear to have no meaningful control whatsoever over the local campaign promises their candidates make, and the same is likely true of most other Australian political parties. So the Greens are arguably still doing better than any of the others on this front.]
The hidden power of staffers
Within all three case studies mentioned above, there’s another layer of concentrated power which is rarely made explicit, but is pretty obvious to anyone who thinks about it for a while…
If some members of a committee are employed in Greens-related paid roles, such as a paid campaign manager for a particular target electorate, or perhaps as a staffer in an MP’s office, they’ll likely have more time to be immersed in strategic discussions about campaigning, or to write the copy for public statements, than those Greens members who are volunteering on the committee, but who have a full-time job in some other field.
In branch and committee debates about what messages a campaign should prioritise or what tactics should be used, I’ve noticed that a committee will often defer to the judgement and insight of those committee members who are also working as staffers. This is understandable, because those staffers are thinking about such questions full-time and are immersed in various kinds of campaigning to an extent that’s not possible for most volunteers.
In this way, a campaign’s strategic plan often ends up being developed and written by just one or two people (usually a candidate and a paid staffer or two) and signed off by either the Local Election Campaign Committee or the Queensland Campaign Committee (depending on the context) with relatively minor alterations. The staffers are often steering the ship.
Being paid to do political work of one kind or another means you have more time to build relationships within the party and greater access to other key decision-makers.
For example, my ward office staff have more influence over my decisions and policy positions than almost anyone else. As a councillor, I simply don’t have time to meaningfully reflect upon and make all the small local decisions I’m technically responsible for. I rely heavily on the advice of my staff, and delegate some tasks and decisions to them entirely. We are in close contact for much of the working day, bouncing ideas off each other and chatting about what issues I should be raising as an elected rep.
The same is often true for a paid campaigner’s access to an election candidate, whether they’re paid directly to work on that candidate’s campaign like a campaign manager or media advisor, or whether they’re employed centrally by the Queensland Greens as a state-wide strategist or volunteer coordinator.
The busier a candidate or elected representative becomes, the more influence their most trusted paid staffers may be able to exert.
Most of us have heard the stories of how certain ‘faceless’ political staffers in the Labor and Liberal parties have become major factional power-brokers, using the time and access afforded by their paid roles to influence ministers, shape agendas of key committees and greatly influence a government’s approach without being directly accountable to voters or even to their own party’s members. Despite some checks and balances, these major party staffers can sometimes even be captured by corporate sector interests through lobbying and bribery.
While I don’t think this is currently an issue within the Queensland Greens, we need to be very alert to the possibility of it happening in future as we win more institutional power, because the centralisation of power within the hands of unaccountable political staffers creates fertile ground for corruption.
Hierarchy and centralisation are not inevitable
Even within many progressive spaces, I often encounter a deeply entrenched narrative that while egalitarianism is nice for small groups, it’s simply not practical or scaleable for larger organisations or communities.
Without going into a long tangent, it’s worth noting that there are many contradictory examples throughout human history of both large non-urbanised societies and densely populated early cities that resisted hierarchical centralisation of power. David Wengrow and the late David Graeber make this point compellingly in their new book The Dawn of Everything.
It’s an important reminder that just because centralisation of power is common in our current society, doesn’t mean it’s inevitable, or the only way of arranging our world.
Some decisions are made centrally by small groups of people – so what?
Some of you reading this probably won’t be too concerned about the patterns and tendencies towards centralised decision-making described above.
If the Greens don’t have the time and resources to facilitate larger, more inclusive democratic decision-making processes, and we also refuse to delegate decision-making power to a smaller, select group, the only viable alternative seems to be not picking a position at all, which is often a shortcut towards political irrelevance and redundancy.
I’ve seen this play out in many community groups and activist campaigns over the years. The reluctance to delegate, coupled with the desire to be hyper-inclusive, becomes paralysing… Large meetings drag on for hours without reaching agreement; either the decision still ends up being made by a smaller group of people without any democratic accountability, or perhaps no decision is made at all, and so nothing much gets done.
In the short-term, centralising decision-making among smaller select groups can seem more efficient. But it also has some obvious downsides.
As a pool of strategic decision-makers becomes smaller and less diverse, their judgement becomes poorer regarding what messages will appeal best to a wide range of voters, or what tactics will most effectively reach a particular target demographic, or how best to achieve tangible policy outcomes. You’re more likely to get trapped in echo chambers where the only people you make time to talk to are telling you you’re on the right track, and dissenting voices or alternative perspectives are marginalised and overlooked.
We see the end result of this trajectory in the modern Labor and Liberal parties...
Even when grassroots supporters and branch members can see that their party is advocating an unjust policy position, or using flawed messaging, the small group of powerful decision-makers at the top are so cut off from practical realities on the ground that they can’t even engage meaningfully with critiques from among their own members. They start to believe that they know better than the ‘less engaged’ or ‘less involved’ rank-and-file members (or even the backbench MPs), and become instinctively resistant to good-faith attempts to decentralise power, because they’ve convinced themselves that they will consistently make better decisions than a larger group.
When political power is centralised, the power-holders don’t have time to hear from everyone, so they only hear from well-connected individuals and organisations that can spend the time, resources and energy lobbying them relentlessly, or who can threaten their re-election prospects. Thus, centralisation becomes a key element of political corruption. It’s much easier for a self-interested corporation to bribe, blackmail or manipulate a single mayor or minister, or a small committee, than to hijack a much larger constituency.
Right now, it arguably doesn’t matter too much that power within the Queensland Greens is heavily centralised, because compared to senior power-holders within the major parties, the decisions we have direct control over usually don’t have a significant material impact on many people’s lives.
It’s easy to brush concerns about hierarchy aside by saying “oh we can worry about that down the track once we’ve won a few more seats.” But the more power a political party accrues, the more time-sensitive its decisions become.
If the Queensland Greens win the balance of power, or one day take on ministerial positions in a progressive coalition government, it seems unlikely that it’ll get easier for us to decentralise decision-making. The general inertia towards hierarchy will be even stronger. External pressure to make big decisions quickly will likely mean that senior Greens MPs won’t even have time to consult extensively with all the other elected Greens representatives, let alone meaningfully engage the wider Greens membership.
This is one of the core challenges our party will face as we grow.
The good news is that when you look at it another way, power is still reasonably dispersed among different parts of the party… Some power sits with elected representatives and their office staff, some power is in the hands of the Queensland Campaign Committee, the Policy Committees, the Management Committee etc., some power is still held by branches and State Council, some is held by the State Director and other party staffers who are employed on an ongoing basis, and some power is held for short periods by key candidates and local election campaign teams.
It’s not like the entire Queensland Greens organisation is exclusively controlled by 4 or 5 people. It’s more like 40 or 50 people, who remain loosely accountable to thousands of other members and supporters. But that’s still a long way from the ideals that grassroots participatory democracy aspires to.
Westminster parliamentary democracy systems are designed to facilitate the concentration of power. If we as a political party are seeking to influence such systems, we’re subjecting ourselves to that same pressure towards hierarchy and centralisation. Already, significant power has become heavily centralised within certain parts of the party organism, sidestepping slower, more democratic processes and bodies.
Perhaps this means those larger bodies like State Council need to get faster at making decisions. Or perhaps it means we need to refuse the deadlines and time constraints imposed upon us by parliamentary democracy, and insist on making important decisions through grassroots participatory processes, even if this comes at a cost electorally. Or maybe it’s a bit of both.
I’m still not sure what the answer is to this quandary. But we need to acknowledge and grapple with this tension if we are to successfully insulate against the inherently corrupting influence of the mainstream political system. Otherwise we’ll end up stuck on the same trajectory as the major parties, and one day members may wake up and realise to our horror that we have to organise public protests against the decisions of our own elected Greens MPs just to have our voices heard.