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How Did We Get Here? A Brief History of the Green Party around the world


How Did We Get Here? A Brief History of the Green Party around the world
by Deyva Arthur, Green Party of New York State, with contributions by Mike Feinstein of the Global Greens

In one of the most remote parts of the world the Green Party had its birth. The Green ideology of grassroots democracy began when a small community tried to protect their environment. Starting on the shores of Lake Pedder in Tasmania, Australia, 35 years ago, the Green Party now has representation on six continents and in approximately 90 countries.

Greens germinate in Tasmania

A poster from the 1980ís of the New Zealand Values Party, considered one of the original Green Parties.

A poster from the 1980’s of the New Zealand Values Party, considered one of the original Green Parties.

Photo courtesy of The Green Party of Aoteraora New Zealand

In early 1972 when the mainland government proposed a massive hydropower dam, which would destroy Lake Pedder, the Green Party was first conceived. Nearby residents rallied against the project set in a national park, but could not gain the attention of local or national politicians. When an unexpected general election was called, protesters saw a new opportunity to get the word out. From this campaign, a party was born.

Dr. Richard Jones, who led the newly formed United Tasmania Group (UTG), wrote the New Ethic, putting forth the principle of social and political change through community building, political integrity and environmental protection.

Despite its status as an “instant” party, the UTG received 3.9 percent of the overall vote in the state, and seven percent in Franklin and Denison districts near Lake Pedder where they focused efforts. Though their campaign for parliamentary seats and surprising electoral success brought them only marginal media attention, it created a strong organizational structure and increased participation.

Despite all the efforts of the UTG, the dam was approved and building commenced. However, the way was paved for rallies against two other sister projects in Tasmania that were both successfully stopped. Christine Milne, current Green Party senator representing Tasmania said Lake Pedder was the sacrifice for the success of other environmental causes in the country.

The Green Party’s first tragedy occurred at this time. Brenda Hean was among the first organizers to try to save Lake Pedder and co-founder of the UTG. Months after establishing UTG in 1972, Hean planned to fly over the Australian capital, skywriting “Save Lake Pedder” to get the attention of government officials. The night before her flight, she received a telephone call threatening her not to go to Canberra The next day, neither Hean, pilot Max Price, nor the plane were ever seen again. Despite the threat and evidence of possible tampering in the plane hanger, police refused to treat the case as a crime. It wasn’t until 18 years later that police made the case files public. Greens still suspect foul play.

Over the next five years of UTG’s existence, the party continued to protest the dams. In 1979 more than 1,200 people including former UTG leader Bob Brown were arrested at a protest. UTG activists, based in remote Hobart, were not only getting national attention, but interest worldwide.

In 1983 Brown, a co-founder of UTG, became the first Green member of Tasmania’s state parliament. In 1996, he was elected to the Australian Senate, becoming the first openly gay member to serve in that body. Re-elected in 2001, he interrupted US President George Bush during a 2003 address by Bush to the Australian legislature to challenge him on the Iraq War and the Guantanamo Bay prison camp.

Today there are four Australian Green senators at the federal level and 15 Green members of state parliaments.

Organizationally, Australian Greens began as a set of independent state parties, then formed into a national party in 1993. In 2001, they played host to the first Global Green Congress, held in the Australian Capital Territory city of Canberra.

The Values Party sprouts in New Zealand

A few months after its development in Tasmania, neighboring New Zealand created the Values Party (VP). Following the UTG’s example, the VP wrote what is considered the world’s first Green election policy, which they would later call Beyond Tomorrow: The 1975 Values Party Manifesto. This document was distributed globally and contributed to the growth of the Green Party worldwide.

1975 was an important year for the VP. They won 5.3 percent of the vote and would have won a number of election seats if the country was using the current mixed member proportional system instead of the “first past the post” constituency-based system.

Three years later, the VP dropped to 2 percent of the overall vote. In part, this was believed due to voters trying to oust a conservative prime minister. But also, Christine Dann of the New Zealand Greens said the VP “suffered internal strife in trying to define what Green politics should be.”

For the next decade, the VP would not succeed in elections, but made significant contributions to the peace movement, women’s movement and anti-nuclear efforts. It wasn’t until 1989 that the VP, now calling themselves Greens, made several electoral gains and the following year gained seven percent of the total vote though still no seats.

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand joined a five-party alliance and in 1996, they were then able to celebrate the first Green members of parliament: Jeanette Fitzsimons, Rod Donald and Phillida Bunkle. In addition, New Zealanders elected 20 Greens to local government offices.

Setting out on their own, Greens left the alliance in 1999 and won seven seats in national parliament. New Zealand Greens now have six MP’s, including Fitzsimons, who has also served as co-leader to the party for more than 12 years.

Greens grow in Germany


Poster of Joschka Fischer of the German Greens, who served as German Vice Chancellor from 1998 to 2005.

Photo courtesy of The Culturally Authentic Pictorial Lexicon

Although it was not first established there, it was in Western Europe where the Green Party became widely popularized. And while the first European Green party began in Great Britain in 1973, and the first European Green elected to a national parliament was Daniel Brelaz in Switzerland in 1979, it was the West German Die Gr¸nen (the Greens) that is the most well known.

Though Die Gr¸nen is often mistaken to be the first Green Party, they are considered the “mother of all Green Parties” and arguably the most successful in the world. Originally established as the “anti-party party,” their significance comes from a strong presence in a prominent government.

Die Gr¸nen began as a series of local electoral efforts in 1978-79 and formed officially into a national party in January 1980. In its first few years, the party took a strong stance against militarism, atomic weapons and nuclear power; and restrictions on immigration, abortion and marijuana use.

With the country uneasy about the presence of U.S. nuclear warheads stationed on German soil and pointed at the Soviet Union, and the escalation of the cold war, 1983 was a pivotal year to the German Greens. The party’s outspoken stance against nuclear weapons and its active role in the peace movement led to the Greens winning 5.6 percent of the vote – 28 seats for the first time in the lower house of parliament, the Bundestag. After the Chernobyl disaster, Die Gr¸nen’s consistent position against nuclear power gained them 8.3 percent and 49 seats in the 1987 national election.

Then came the reunification of Germany. Die Gr¸nen merged first with the small nascent East German Green Party, and then with B¸ndnis ’90 (Alliance ’90), the larger alliance of East German social movement groups that had helped bring about the end of the old German Democratic Republic. However, with the Greens focused on climate change and global warming, and with the rest of the country in rapture over patriotism and reunification, the Greens almost fell out of parliament completely, winning only a handful of seats. A few years later however, Die Gr¸nen/B¸ndnis ’90 (as the party became known) made a comeback, winning 7.3 percent and 49 seats in 1994.

During this time, another suspicious death occurred to a prominent Green, when German Green co-founder Petra Kelly was found dead in her apartment in 1992. Kelly was first elected to the Bundestag in 1983 and during the 1980s was the best known Green around the world, helping to spread Green values globally. Police said her boyfriend killed her and then himself. People close to Kelly however, feel the case was suspect and not conclusive.

German Greens would continue to gain power during the decade through what has been called a Red-Green Alliance with the Social Democratic Party. (Each party in Germany has a color associated with it.) In 1998, after winning 6.7 percent and 47 seats, the German Greens would form a coalition government with the Social Democrats to end 16 years of conservative rule in Germany on the federal level. Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schrˆder then named Green leader Joschka Fischer vice chancellor and foreign minister, the highest position of power for any Green in any country ever; and J¸rgen Trittin as Minister for the Environment and Renate K¸nast as Minister for Consumer Protection, Nutrition and Agriculture.

Fischer’s sneakers are now displayed in a German museum for the stir they caused when he wore them to his inauguration. Holding his position until 2005, Fischer was considered the most popular politician during that administration.

Also during this time and earlier in the 1980s a debate would arise within Die Gr¸nen that would also reoccur in Green parties throughout the world. A faction within the party felt it essential Greens remain decentralized or community-based and not form coalitions with other parties. To these Greens, termed “fundi’ for fundamentalist, Die Gr¸nen was co-opting when it formed the Red-Green Alliance with the Social Democrats. To the “realos” or realists, change would not come by remaining on the fringe or staying out of federal government. They believed the Greens could form alliances without compromising their principles. During the last two decades, German Greens have not only formed such alliances on the federal level, but have done so on numerous state and municipal levels as well. During the 1990s and the early 2000s, they also began experimenting with coalitions on the municipal level with the Christian Democrats, the center-right party in Germany that is less right-wing on the municipal level around policies of transport and land use, than it is on the federal level on issues of immigration and foreign relations.

An important change German Greens effected during the seven year federal Red-Green government was to initiate the phase out of the country’s nuclear power plants over a 20-year period. Other significant policy efforts were to institute carbon taxes on fossil fuel use to promote conservation and renewable energy, and changing outdated citizenship laws that allowed children of immigrants who were born in Germany to become citizens for the first time.

The German Greens were also to undergo controversy on two occasions: when Fischer supported NATO troops going to Kosovo, and German participation in the Afghan War. At the same, it was the presence of the German Greens in the Red-Green government that helped keep Germany out of the Gulf War. In 2005 the Greens got 8.1 percent of the vote and 55 seats, but with the Social Democrats falling in the polls, control of Germany went back to the conservative Christian Democratic Party.


U.S. Greens push through the cracks

Inspired by Green platforms and successes in Europe, the founding meeting of U.S. Greens was held in 1984, when 62 activists, educators and others came to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and agreed upon the Ten Key Values, which would become the philosophical underpinning of the organized Green movement in the United States. In 1987, the first large-scale US Green meeting was held in Amherst, Mass., with over 1,000 people attending.

In the early 1990s state Green parties began forming. Alaska was the first state to achieve ballot status in 1990, followed by Arizona, California, Hawaii, and New Mexico in 1992, and then Maine two years later.

In 1996, long-time consumer advocate Ralph Nader joined with activist and environmentalist Winona LaDuke to become the party’s first presidential ticket. They received more than 685,000 votes in 23 states (0.7 percent of the vote) on a self-imposed $5,000 spending limit. More importantly, however, they brought notoriety to the Green Party. After this campaign, there was a considerable jump in membership, as many local affiliates developed, and Americans started to recognize the Green Party name.

In 2000, Nader/LaDuke ran again and received an unprecedented three million votes (2.7 percent). In the years after 2000, the party continued to grow and by the end of 2003, it had more than 300,000 registered members in the 27 states that have party designation as part of their registration.

In 2001, the Green Party of the United States successful filed for National Committee Status recognition with the Federal Elections Commission. In 2002 John Eder won a seat in the Maine House of Representatives and kept that position for another term in the 2004 elections. Considered a champion of the underrepresented, Eder gained funding for bilingual programs and negotiated state government to adopt tax reforms promoting equity and justice for working people. During his terms he was voted “best politician” in Portland, Maine.

U.S. Greens have steadily improved in elections. The number of elected officials has continued to grow from 90 Greens holding seats after 2000, to approximately 225 today. In 2007 Greens won 70 seats in local elections, including 22 in California and 11 in Wisconsin. Gayle McLaughlin was elected mayor in Richmond, Calif. – the first to govern in a city with more than 100,000 residents. In Illinois, the Green Party achieved ballot status when Rich Whitney won 10.4 percent of the vote, an all time high for a Green running for governor.

Over the years the Green Party of the United States has struggled against the barriers inherent in the U.S. winner-take-all electoral system. Problems of ballot access, inclusion in debates, and court challenges from vindictive Democrats have all contributed to a slow success. Despite these challenges, U.S. Greens continue to grow.

Greens blossom globally

This history of the Greens is far from complete. In the 35 years of its existence, the Green Party has developed everywhere from Taiwan to Mexico, Nepal to Kenya. Greens have taken on serious environmental and social concerns with an honest and determined approach that is earning the recognition of an increasing number of people. Although the Green Party acts locally it is truly a global political party.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Feinstein August 11, 2007

    This well-written article shows that the Greens are truly a global phenomenon, in response to the unsustainability of our lifestyle as a species.

    The planet needs a strong Green Party in the United States. I hope blogs like this one give more Americans insight into the real challenges the Greens in this country face. Because often the media reports on the Greens only as a curiousity, without the rigor or analysis to understand the party’s platform, progress nor its potential role in U.S. politics.


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