Greens balance of power not enough to bring change

Gillard’s pitch to the right on refugees and her failure to offer anything on climate change have seen The Greens vote rebound again.

A vote for The Greens is a clear vote to the left of Labor. Since 2001 The Greens have won a growing left-wing constituency because their policies over key issues like IR, climate, refugees and the NT Intervention are far better than Labor’s. There are perhaps a million people who will vote Green because they are disgusted with Labor and want more radical change.

There is an outside chance that the Greens could breakthrough in a House of Representatives seat, but expectations are focussed on the likelihood of The Greens winning two extra seats in the Senate and holding the balance of power. But the balance of power is no guarantee of political influence. As we saw with the shenanigans over the CPRS, if Labor is determined to deal with the Coalition, then the balance of power is essentially meaningless.

Worse, Guy Pearse writing in July’s Monthly outlines an extraordinarily unambitious gradual version of parliamentary gradualism. Pearse envisages the possibility of The Greens winning a few lower house seats “over the next decade”. Then in the event of a hung parliament, The Greens “…could grant government, in exchange for ministerial appointments, major policy reforms, and make permanent changes to [the] electoral system.”

This goes along with an extremely conservative view of The Greens: “The path to achieving [The Greens’] mission lies not in being a left-wing party of protest but in being a progressive party that aspires to govern and is beyond Right and Left”.

He says The Greens could eventually emulate the role being played by the Liberal Democrats in the UK—whoare propping up a Tory government on a program of savage cuts!?The worry is that The Greens’ leadership think this way too. Bob Brown is proposing that, “The Greens, if in the balance of power in the Senate in coming years, will propose occasional informal meetings between ourselves and the Cabinet”.

“John Howard knew this does wonders in opening the way to better understanding and therefore better outcomes.” John Howard? What better outcomes could Brown possibly be referring to?

He told the Sunday Age that, “his party would use the balance of power with a great deal of responsibility”. He rejected the Democrats’ approach of “keeping the bastards honest”, implying that The Greens have higher ambitions as “the progressive party for Australian voters.”

But there are ambiguous signals from Brown—on the one hand there is a welcome deal for Labor and The Greens to swap preferences (although for only 50 lower house seats). On the other, he has gone out of his way to essentially repudiate the deal saying, “My advice to voters remains to ignore preference deals and put their preferences where they decide for themselves.” Instead of aking it clear that The Greens want to stop Abbott at all costs, Brown is seeking to cultivate Coalition voters.

The Greens have adopted an exclusively parliamentary strategy that says the only way to bring change is through horsetrading on their parliamentary numbers. It is an approach that will guarantee timid, “responsible” concessions acceptable to the government.

We’ve already seen the consequences of this approach. Horsetrading over Rudd’s stimulus package won funding for some extra bike paths and council heritage buildings. Over the CPRS, their approach was primarily to plead for negotiations, in the hope of tinkering with Labor’s targets and permits rather than push for a proposal that would have really cut emissions.

A re-elected Gillard government is likely to follow Rudd’s approach of looking to the Liberals in the Senate to pass legislation rather than dealing with The Greens, since, as Guy Pearse points out, “the government and Opposition [agree] on the vast majority of legislation”.

Greens Senators would then be powerless to stop regressive government policies—the Northern Territory Intervention will relentlessly trample on Aboriginal rights, refugees will remain in limbo on Christmas Island, the climate polluters will continue to set the agenda. The only way to push back the government will be to mobilise outside parliament.

We do not have a decade to twiddle our thumbs waiting for a parliamentary breakthrough. To just hold the balance of power is to set our political sights way too low. A million people will vote Greens because they want real change. That’s a million unionists, climate activists and refugee supporters who could be mobilised into social movements.

Despite having 7000 members, The Greens have little organised presence within social movements. Greens MPs don’t use their parliamentary positions to build grassroots campaigns.

Thousands of people will be mobilised over the next few weeks to get Greens MPs elected. Maintaining that mobilisation in the parliament of the streets after the election would be a formidable force for real change.

By Ian Rintoul


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