After Bob Brown, can The Greens move left?

As accolades flow in at the end of Bob Brown’s parliamentary career, serious questions hang over the future of The Greens under Christine Milne.

On the one hand, Milne’s appeals to “progressive business” and “country voters” signify she wants to follow a rightward path, on the other, the elevation of Adam Bandt to Deputy Leader may bolster the confidence of the party’s left.

Brown built The Greens into Australia’s most electorally successful left of Labor Party ever. They stood out as the voice of principle over refugees and the Iraq War and attracted many former Labor voters as Labor embraced pro-market policies and deserted its working class base.

However, holding the balance of power in the Senate since the 2010 election has increased pressure on them to shift to the right. Bob Brown led the effort to make The Greens “responsible” holders of parliamentary power, hoping to use their numbers to extract concessions.

Serious questions hang over the future of The Greens after Bob Brown

Replacing the bastards?
Their agreement with Labor over the course of the last 18 months has shown the problems with this approach. The carbon tax that The Greens regard as a success is useless for reducing carbon emissions and deeply unpopular.

Distancing his party from the strategy of the Democrats, Brown has often repeated that The Greens’ aim is not to “keep the bastards honest, but replace the bastards”. But this is seen in purely electoral terms, to be achieved by appealing to conservative voters.

While Brown and Milne have said they will oppose tax cuts for big business, they have made a point recently in the mining tax debate of supporting tax cuts for small business. Brown has used his personal authority in The Greens to attack the more left wing NSW branch and even aided the Murdoch press’ witch hunt against their support for boycotting Israel.

Christine Milne may be seen as a tough negotiator, but signs suggest she will continue down this path. She spent her first days as leader promoting her past involvement in minority governments in Tasmania as proof of her responsible record—although this includes support for the Liberals, budget cuts and school closures!

As for her comments regarding “progressive business”, it doesn’t exist. Which bit of business is not demanding an end to penalty rates and changes to FairWork to allow easier dismissals? And the Queensland election shows that while “country voters” might oppose coal seam gas, that opposition does not translate into electoral support for The Greens.

New left?
The Greens’ electoral success has been a product of winning support from left-wing Labor voters. In the 2010 election, five out six of their votes came from disaffected Labor voters. Looking for votes amongst farmers and business will take The Greens away from the policies that won them that support.

Already, their agreement with Labor and reliance on parliamentary horse-trading has seen The Greens’ rise stall. Their support has been stuck at 12 per cent consistently since 2010 and for the first time since 2001, their vote decreased, in the recent Queensland election.

Instead of lowering their sights to tinkering in parliament, The Greens could be a megaphone for all the discontent associated with Labor’s crisis and the horrifying possibility of an Abbott government. Such a presence could help shift politics left and fan the flames of the struggles for refugee rights, to stop the NT Intervention, to legislate for same-sex marriage, and to restore workers’ rights.

In his resignation speech, Brown pointed to Greens policies like public funding for “Denticare”, high-speed rail, and higher taxes for the mining companies. But they will not be achieved in negotiations with a rightward moving Labor government, hell-bent on achieving a budget surplus. They require building a fighting movement for change outside parliament.

Many will remember Bob Brown for his best moments: getting arrested at protests in support of the environment, or alongside Kerry Nettle, standing up to heckle George W Bush when he visited parliament. He was Australia’s first openly gay parliamentarian. But Brown’s role in undermining the left inside the party and establishing it as a respectable parliamentary player may mean that those looking to take The Greens in a more positive direction are feeling relieved.

The change of leadership could present an opening for the left, as Milne does not have the same authority as Brown to pursue a conservative agenda.

The NSW branch could fight for more of a hearing and fight for the party to build formal links with Labor’s disenchanted union base. Bandt could use the House of Representatives to challenge Labor more sharply and take a big stick to Abbott.

A hopeful future belongs with The Greens if they recognise the significance of the disintegration of Labor’s support base. But if they don’t, without a party that does fill that gap, Australia will see more results like the Queensland election.

Amy Thomas

Correction: Christine Milne did not support school closures in Tasmania during the Labor-Greens Accord years and introduced legislation which helped to save schools that were slated for closure. This is not to be confused by the debate over school closures in Tasmania in 2011-12, where a Labor-Greens coalition proposed 20 school closures (which have now been deferred until 2015).


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  1. You should correct the record here – Christine Milne fought AGAINST school closures tooth and nail and won. She saved 28 schools from being closed in Tasmania.

    • Tim, this is incorrect, and I actually think Solidarity where wrong to add the correction based on your comment.

      Milne supported the more recent school closures. She said: “The Labor government in 1989 told schools they were being closed because they weren’t offering good enough educational experiences. That was insulting and offensive to those schools, teachers, and communities. This time around I think people understand this is being done for fiscal reasons.”

      • Hi David, Tim was referring to an initial comment that said school closures had happened during the period where The Greens in Tasmania weres supporting the Labor government. In this period Milne belatedly moved a bill to save some of the schools from closure, but The Greens did not try to bring down the government over the damage being done to the schools system. They did later withdraw their support for the Labor government over forests policy.

        But as you point out, although she was a federal not a state MP at the time, Milne was not critical of the school closures in 2011. In fact Nick McKim who was then Education Minister, commented that, “Just as the Greens supported previous Labor and Liberal minority governments when tough remedial budget action was required, we have rolled up our sleeves to take on a similar responsible role once again”.

        • The Tasmanian school closures issue was a tremendous debacle, and ultimately not closing any significant number of redundant schools was one of McKim’s chief failures. He just didn’t have the fortitude to push against the department or parochialism. He did have the fortitude for firing many hundreds of teachers, cutting careers off at the knees, as that was the alternative to the vastly more sensible approach of closing schools. As a result Tasmanian schools are run and staffed in the main by administrators and educators who qualified in basic CAE courses and never had to endure any benchmarking or meet performance standards to reach the top rung of the pay scales and who have unassailable job security completely regardless of student outcomes. The most challenging schools are staffed with a rotating roster of inexperienced teachers on fixed term contracts (often for term time only, vis a vis at best 40 weeks of the year) and base level pay.

          Closing schools is still one of the best policy measures which a pragmatic education minister could make in this state; but none will ante up and do it. The smaller schools get, the worse the academic outcomes, the less they can offer and the more they cost. The state has massively inflated fixed costs and three times the non-teaching staff of other states chiefly because of this inefficient resourcing.

  2. I was quite interested to read your article and another perspective on Bob Brown. The far left cant be too harsh on Senator Brown here. Would I like him to have been more left wing-sure? The issue wwith that is that it might narrow the Greens support base. The Greens have decided that because there is a void of cohesivness on the far left they have to work with the system we have which is a government system. The sooner the far left realises that there is not going to be a revolution in Australia the better things will be.

  3. We do not want a Centre Left or an extreme left ..we want a Green Left who can also walk away from any association with the Zionist, and Americanised Labour Party. we as Australians should never go and humiliate ourselves and stoop so low infront of the Americans like Julia and Johnny, or the Apartheid regime of Israel, where Bob Hawke shed his crocodile tears while planting a tree in Israel!!! We need a leader of the Paul Keating stature ..capable to make us Proud to be who we are!!

  4. Although i don’t like the rightward trajectory of the greens, I can’t really see an issue with them trying to get country votes

    they are, after all, an electoral party…

    With your logic, perhaps they should also try not to get, say, eastern suburbs votes??

  5. Lorry, the issue is what kind of policies will win the support of farmers? Certainly some will support the Greens over coal seam gas. They will be less sympathetic to defending union rights and opposing racism against refugees. So trying to win votes from farmers creates pressure on The Greens to water down or spend less time talking about some of their other policies. The policies that will appeal to working class voters are different to those that will appear to farmers let alone business interests.

    The places where The Greens should focus to get votes from has always been an important issue–for instance should The Greens focus in Sydney on winning north shore votes (as they poll quite well in some places there like Vaucluse) or on working class votes in areas like Marrickville or Western Sydney. Whether you have a working class or a wealthy voting base has important implications for what kind of policies you advocate–this has always been the source of differences between Liberal and Labor.


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