The Greens' fund-raisers have kept the party afloat, often by dipping into their own pockets. But now that the party coffers are full, their money is their own.
Ian Munro reports on a party cashed up and confident.
HEADQUARTERS is a cramped, sub-standard office space above a shop on Little Bourke Street. The past is a hand-to-mouth existence where survival depends on turning members into lenders of last resort. The future looks a whole lot better.
Check the public record for electoral donations to the Victorian Greens and the same individual members appear having given five-figure, interest-free loans. Stephen Luntz - who describes himself as ''asset rich and income poor'' - remembers the sense of trepidation when he first wrote a personal cheque for $10,000 to keep the operation afloat. He has since written at least two more five-figure cheques to the party.
Between them, Luntz and former parliamentary candidate, now local councillor, John Middleton have loaned the Greens a total of $115,000 over three years. Another member, Julie Bain, tipped in a $30,000 interest-free loan in 2007, a year when disclosed supporter loans to the party totalled $160,000.
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For the better part of two decades the Victorian Greens have continued to exist by relying on the financial indulgence of its cashed-up members. Following a strong federal vote in August, it has received about $2 million in public funding and is likely to qualify for a further $1.3 million if its vote holds up as expected in the state poll. As a comparison, public funding to the Greens after the 2006 state election totalled $788,000.
It will be no comfort to the established political parties, but the Greens are about to become a self-sufficient, on-going political machine. Indeed, the Greens have a growth trajectory unmatched by any minor party in Australian politics. The party will remain a machine dependent on public funding and an army of volunteers, but the days of tapping individuals for bridging finance appear to be over.
The effectiveness of the Greens as a money-generating operation is unprecedented among minor parties. Of the 88 lower house seats the Greens contested in the 2006 state poll, the party qualified for public funding in 85 seats. The threshold for public funding is 4 per cent of primary votes cast in an electorate. This means that of the 297,931 Legislative Assembly votes cast for the Greens in 2006, all but 2886 votes cast in three rural electorates qualified for public funding. Every vote cast for the party in the Legislative Council also qualified for funding.
''With public funding … you have to spend money before you get it back,'' says Luntz, a member of the Greens state campaign committee and the party's in-house electoral analyst.
''A lot of that $2 million [from the federal poll] was already spent. A little bit of that will go to the state campaign. The bulk [of the remainder] will go to keeping the party going over the next two or three years, employing staff, quite possibly moving to better offices.
''Because the state election is so soon after the federal election we will not have to borrow this time.''
Monash University politics lecturer Narelle Miragliotta says that while the Greens are seen as inspired by a desire to preserve wilderness areas, this is strictly only true of the Tasmania and Queensland branches.
''The thing about Tasmania and Queensland, they did mobilise around charismatic individuals [Bob Brown and Drew Hutton],'' she says. The Greens in Victoria and New South Wales came from a broader social justice movement, creating a sort of pan-left party.
There is a hint of that broad left character in the limited financial support the Victorian Greens receive from various organisations. Several blue-collar unions, including the Electrical Trades Union, the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union have supported the Greens nationally, with the ETU also listed as a Victorian donor. The ETU contributed more than $88,000 to the state Greens from 2005 to 2008.
It is a limited pool, however, and ETU state secretary Dean Mighell has ruled out supporting the Greens in the present state campaign.
The ETU's support in the recent federal campaign - $125,000 to Adam Bandt's successful push for the seat of Melbourne and $100,000 to Richard Di Natale's Senate tilt (also successful) - was founded on the Greens' industrial policy, which is not relevant to the state scene, says Mighell.
''Since Labor shifted to basically embrace and maintain John Howard's workplace laws, some of them have had a dramatic effect for the worse for our members,'' he says.
''Supporting the Greens when they support policies like the abolition of the Australian Building and Construction Commission … that's been the basis primarily of our support for the Greens.''
This time the union will support the re-election of a Brumby government. ''It's really calling the distinction between a federal government and a state government. The federal policies of the Greens and the state policies of the Greens, they are different in some aspects.
''We have had a good working relationship with Labor ministers and Labor MPs who have been really good at supporting us on some important issues for our members. Last year we had probably 120 apprentices who were staring down the barrel of losing their jobs. It was thanks to the intervention of [Industry Minister] Jacinta Allan to intervene with some funding to help keep those apprentices in training rather than be made redundant. It's a matter of rewarding good government.''AMWU national secretary Dave Oliver says past support for the Greens rewarded the party's industrial policy, and its support for manufacturing in the renewable energy sector. The union's position in this state election has not been finalised but would be weighted between Labor and the Greens.
Business backing for the Greens is still limited and the party does not seek it, says Gurm Sekhon, a former Greens councillor in the City of Yarra who for 15 years has been responsible for the party's financing disclosure statements.
''Occasionally, there has been an organisation that's given us money,'' says Sekhon. ''The blue-collar unions, they have been our big supporters. We don't seek corporate money and we tend not to be offered it. Sometimes it's an individual who is running a business [who offers support]. We rely heavily on individuals.''
However, the outdoor equipment company Mountain Design allowed the Greens use of office space, forgoing several thousand dollars in rent, while postcard advertising company Avant Card has been a singularly generous business backer.
According to the Greens 2005 national disclosure report, Avant Card, founded by businesswoman Pat Mackle, donated $70,690 and a further $19,448 in 2006. Mackle, who describes herself as an avid supporter of green politics - ''finally a party with a more passionate caring agenda'', she says - personally contributed $26,614 to the Victorian Greens in 2007. There was two-way traffic, as the national Greens admitted to owing Avant Card $43,395 in 2007.
John Middleton, a Port Phillip councillor and Greens lender of last resort, says he comes from a traditional English working-class, Labor background. His conversion to Green politics began with a reading of Rachel Carson's seminal environmental lament Silent Spring. Stephen Luntz, a student activist who found his niche in electoral analysis, began political life as a Democrat.
Narelle Miragliotta describes the party's support as coming from ''post-materialist voters'' - young, urban, likely to be tertiary educated, slightly more likely to be female, generally unconcerned with bread-and-butter issues.
''They are beginning to build a core of partisan supporters who seem to be committed to the party from one election to the next,'' she says.
Part of the Greens' appeal appears to be founded on an image of being anti-politics and unlike conventional political parties, but Miragliotta says the Greens have always played politics well.
Her interest in the party was piqued by the realisation that the WA Greens did much better than other minor parties with equivalent primary vote support. The Greens' secret, she learned, lay in strategically superior preference deals.
It is precisely the sort of issue that led Victorian Liberal senator Helen Kroger to warn off her state counterparts from dealing with the Greens. Kroger said the Liberals risked helping the Greens to entrench a radical agenda in Victoria.
Says Miragliotta: ''The Liberals now have to think about whether they want to be trading off a short-term gain and risk creating a long-term problem. If you really want to be a credible party and you are staking a claim to be a vital part of government, you must be in the lower house.
''If you start doing deals that result in Greens being elected [to the lower house] it could prove difficult to dislodge them. Although they appear to be anti-political, they do politics very well.''
Just how much growth is left in the Greens' base is uncertain. Miragliotta says the Greens' life-cycle so far is unique among post-war minor parties. ''The thing that fascinates me is that there is no volatility in their vote,'' she says.
The history of minor parties from the Democratic Labor Party to the Australian Democrats to One Nation shows them declining after an initial surge. The Democrats held on longer but met a similar fate to the other two. The Greens, by contrast, have built momentum over time.
Miragliotta says one difference is that the party grew from a series of local issues, and its ''bottom-up'' growth may explain its unique trajectory. Gurm Sekhon says the Greens maximise public funding by confining their campaign budget to the sorts of sums they expect to generate in voting entitlements.
Despite the left-of-Labor, inner-urban, young, tertiary-educated typecasting of Greens supporters, Sekhon says the origins of the party's support are more diverse. ''There's no city-country, older-younger, male-female divide. We are getting a lot of what you might call left-wing voters who would be choosing between Greens and Labor.
''We're polling over 20 per cent in inner northern suburbs and still getting 10 per cent in regional areas.''
The party may qualify for $1.3 million later this month, but it will not necessarily receive it all since it may not spend that much, Sekhon says. Regardless, the party will be wholly reimbursed for what it does spend, and it will gain a clear sense of its capacity to wage future campaigns.