The Greens: between parliament and principles

Amy Thomas analyses the The Greens’ role in left politics since the federal election

The only bright side to the federal election one year ago was the breakthrough of The Greens, who scored 1.6 million votes and won their first lower house MP, Adam Bandt, and the “balance of power” in the Senate. It was an expression of dissatisfaction with Labor and a small antidote to Abbott’s rise. There were very high hopes The Greens’ influence would help shift politics to the left.

But a year on, The Greens’ impact has not been what it could. Their support has hovered around 12-13 per cent. While Labor has sunk to a seriously low low of 26 per cent, the Liberals have grown an election winning lead. Labor is not bleeding to the left—they are haemorrhaging to the right.

Despite speaking out on various issues, The Greens’ focus on parliamentary politics means they have missed opportunities and been pulled into compromises with the Labor government.

There is an unresolved contradiction at the heart of The Greens. Are they are a parliamentary party of the centre left, as some comments from Bob Brown would indicate, or are they to become a fighting left alternative to Labor as many of its members and voters are hoping for?

Left votes, but not yet a left party

Since the economic crisis of the 1970s, social democratic parties across the world have increasingly given up on the idea of redistributing capitalism’s wealth for social good. In Australia, Labor’s support drained away during the Hawke-Keating era as they embraced labour market deregulation, privatisation and economic rationalism.

When Labor capitulated to Howard over refugees in 2001 and the Iraq war in 2003, The Greens stood proudly against them and reaped the electoral rewards.

Statistics show a majority of The Greens’ votes in 2007 came from people who had voted Labor in 2004, and that trend intensified in 2010. Greens member and academic Ben Spies-Butcher’s research shows that Greens’ voters political attitudes are on average the most left of any major party and that Greens’ voters are most likely to identify as left of centre, including on “economic” issues like privatisation and union rights.

The Greens came out of the Tasmanian campaign against damming the Franklin River in the 1980s, aiming to take a conservationist voice into parliament. In terms of parliamentary representation and membership The Greens have come a long way since then, but there are contradictions between their radical origins in fighting the establishment and the parliamentary ambitions that pull them to make peace with it.

There are forces that want The Greens to become more mainstream. Bob Brown has even expressed an aspiration for The Greens to become the “major party of reform” in the “next fifty years”. But that pull to respectability and the mainstream in practice has meant filling the void left by the Democrats.

Bob Brown has declared that economically, The Greens are “mainstream and highly economically responsible”. He often talks up The Greens’ support for Labor’s 2009 stimulus package as evidence that The Greens can be relied on to accept the limits imposed by the system and not to rock the boat.

Guy Pearse, a prominent Greens member and commentator argues that The Greens should “seek to govern … beyond Right and Left.”

Labor’s crisis has provided The Greens with many opportunities to make stronger connections with organised labour in the trade unions. A few trade unions have both disaffiliated from Labor and donated to Greens candidates.

However, The Greens officially regard unions in the same way they regard corporations, as “special interest groups”, and so far will not allow unions to affiliate to the party. But if they are going to make inroads into the Labor vote and present a left alternative, an orientation to the working class will have to become a strategic priority.

Voting for change?

This is in contrast to building a party that “seeks to govern”, which ends up as part of the establishment.

In Tasmania, The Greens entered a coalition with the Liberals in 1989 and joined them in vicious public sector cuts and school closures. Now, The Greens-Labor coalition in Tasmania are implementing spending cuts of 10 per cent over the next four years, meaning the loss of 1700 public sector jobs, increasing water costs and public housing rent and cutting $190 million from public education. They have backed down on the closure of 20 public schools temporarily only after a union and community backlash. Tasmania reveals graphically where being “economicly responsible” for capitalism actually leads. Instead of being on the side of those fighting the priorities of the system, The Greens are on the side of those implementing them.

The focus on getting votes and getting elected means relying on Liberal preferences and being willing to seek Liberal votes, such as in the 2010 Victorian election. Bob Brown has declared the party, “more liberal than Liberals”.

The prioritisation of elections is not confined to the more conservative elements of The Greens. In a major speech on the future of The Greens last year, a leading member of the NSW left, Sylvia Hale, argued that The Greens could only hope to influence politics through taking part in minority governments and pushing for electoral reform, in particular to get proportional representation.

Such a focus on elections inevitably stifles the ability of the party to mobilise its membership and supporters beyond elections themselves.

The BDS test

One of the ramifications of this approach was exposed in the furore that surrounded the support of The Greens local councillors for a successful resolution in Marrickville Council for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Although BDS is The NSW Greens policy, in the face of a tirade from The Australian and Zionist lobby groups, Bob Brown caved in and distanced himself and The Greens from the Marrickville councillors.

A hundred or so pro-Palestinian supporters crammed into the council chambers when the motion was recommitted. But in a humiliating back down, two of The Greens councillors reversed their position, voting against Mayor Fiona Byrne to rescind the council’s support for BDS.

Rather than seize the opportunity to take the arguments about Palestine onto the front pages, The Greens took the route of other parliamentary parties willing to bend to conservative pressure on “unpopular” positions.

Carbon tax debacle

The carbon tax is an even more obvious example where The Greens have shot themselves in the foot by putting a pragmatic outcome with Labor before a principled position.

The Greens did not let their agreement with Labor stop them from opposing Labor’s Malaysia solution. But over the carbon tax, they have pinned their colours to Labor’s mast.

The Greens have even mobilised to back up the climate NGOs “Say Yes!” campaign promoting the tax. Bob Brown has parroted Julia Gillard’s sales pitch, calling the tax, “the most important economic reform in decades”.

But this is a market reform that will raise prices while doing very little about emissions. While a majority still favour climate action, the carbon tax’s impact on the cost of living has made it unpopular.

The Greens correctly opposed Kevin Rudd’s CPRS, but from the beginning of their agreement to support the minority Gillard Labor government, The Greens attached themselves to a parliamentary committee on climate policy. Yet the limits of such a committee were obvious; it would only discuss a carbon tax and was only ever going to adopt something acceptable to Labor and big business.

The Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young explained this approach in an article on The Greens and the balance of power written in July: “With this new position in the political landscape and our new seats on the Senate benches comes even greater responsibility to deliver achievements for the community and stability for the Parliament. We will work hard to improve legislation and to keep presenting innovative ideas to be adopted by government and opposition. But, just as importantly, we must make sure we deliver more constructive than destructive solutions to the topics that land on our desks. Working to secure our nation’s future prosperity requires more leadership than just saying ‘No’.”

But even as the carbon tax was launched, Greens deputy leader Christine Milne admitted that the $23 a tonne carbon price “isn’t high enough to drive the revolution in renewables that we need”.

Adam Bandt’s statement that “We are now going to see dirty power stations like Hazelwood [in Victoria] close and we will not see any more commercial coal-fired power stations built in this country,” is at best wishful thinking, at worst deceptive apologetics. In the case of the carbon tax, The Greens are pulled to a false solution by the mirage of a market solution to climate change and the prospect of a compromise with Labor.

Rather than setting the political agenda, The Greens have found themselves tailing Labor’s.

What kind of party?

Gillard’s shift to the right over refugees will no doubt have cemented more Labor voters to the Greens. But the future does not belong to holding the balance of power or displacing Labor to become a mainstream reformist party.

The power to change society doesn’t lie in parliament. It is the power in the streets and workplaces that can change the world.

A voice in parliament can help build the movements—it could fan the flames of resistance of the Occupy movement, stand up to O’Farrell and the Baillieu and their police thugs who cleared the protests in Sydney and Melbourne in October, condemn the Qantas bosses, champion the rights of the Palestinians and the need for renewable energy.

Parliamentary democracy tries to separate politics and economics and limit democracy to a tick or cross on a ballot paper every three or four years. Socialists fight to overcome that division.

With BDS, the carbon tax, refugees and everything else, there is a constant contradiction between parliamentary pressure and the principles that won them votes in the first place.

The future of the Greens is going to be determined by which side wins out—stronger movements and stronger unions to fight for real change or the dead hand of parliamentary politics.


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