Australian politics, society & culture

A Green Balance?

Guy Pearse

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The 2010 federal election approaches. it’s certainly no coincidence that, with climate change sitting in the too-hard basket and both major parties wanting Australia to double its coal production, opinion polls suggest 2 million people plan to vote for the Greens – twice as many as in 2007. The unwillingness of both major parties to reduce Australia’s spiralling contribution to climate change is part of the explanation, as is a more open political playing field. The National Party continues to decline, the Democrats are gone and Pauline Hanson has bid Australia farewell. Even so, there’s arguably more to this than good timing and less competition. It’s hard not to wonder whether the Greens are filling a deeper vacuum in Australian political life, one created by a sense that the major parties no longer stand for much and that their leaders lack integrity and ignore vital questions about sustainability.

Cover: July 2010
July 2010
Bret Easton Ellis’ 'Imperial Bedrooms'
Delia Falconer
Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz
Victoria Laurie
Malcolm Knox
Gail Bell
Alice Pung

Having moved so far to the Right, both major parties are perceived by many to have lost touch with their political roots. On one side, the Liberal Party is unrecognisable to those who once led it. Doyens of the party’s right-wing in their day, Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson are now constant critics: of its foreign policy, its climate change response, its treatment of asylum seekers and its transformation into a conservative rather than ‘liberal’ party. On the Labor side, there is despair at the Rudd government’s insipidness. There’s none of the clear policy ambition or determination of fthe Whitlam era, let alone the rhetorical flair; none of Hawke’s economic reform agenda, let alone his “love affair with the Australian people”; none of Paul Keating’s forward thinking, let alone his “downhill, one ski, no poles” courage and fiery repartee. Instead, the party is led by an automaton advancing a complex agenda in vague managerial lanfguage seemingly intended to patronise and anaesthetise. And questions are being raised about Rudd’s own integrity, given his tendency to sanctimoniously blame others for his growing list of backflips.

More and more, politics resembles a battle between two big-brand retail giants, permanently in ‘sale’ mode. Back in the early 1970s when Gough Whitlam went on his big spending spree, the top tax rate was close to 70 cents in the dollar and government had big, bold goals that anyone could understand: free university education, free health care. Today, the top tax rate is a third lower, and governments don’t do much of anything. They’re into cutting taxes and subsidising consumption: a cash bonus to build a house, a rebate to buy child care, cash back when you visit a doctor. So, when Kevin Rudd went on his 2008–09 spending spree in the face of the Global Financial Crisis, the goals were quite different – a cheque for a new classroom here, free insulation there, and most voters were sent $900 and told to get out there and spend. It spoke volumes about the emptiness of Australian politics today.

Of course, it makes political sense to send cheques to an electorate that nowadays derives more meaning from the products, services and brands it consumes than from its political associations. The issues that once galvanised political support have waned. Now the Cold War has been won, communist China has embraced capitalism and Labor has eschewed socialism, conservatives can’t play their favourite card without evoking canned laughter. Those who once advanced political freedom from the red peril now defend ‘economic freedom’ with twice the vigour. Labor has moved in the same direction as its blue-collar bedrock has been replaced by entrepreneurial fluoro-collared contractors to whom unions and their political wings are less relevant. The class struggle and the battle against poverty and deprivation have become peripheral to most voters; the rights movements that once drew support for the centre-left (i.e. those campaigning for women’s rights, opposition to gay and racial discrimination etc.) have achieved many of their goals. As Clive Hamilton noted in What’s Left?, much of the social-democrat agenda was ticked off in the Whitlam era, and Labor became a neo-liberal party during the Hawke–Keating era. So, try as Labor might to rebrand its ‘lite’ version of market fundamentalism as “social democracy”, Australia’s growing number of political orphans remain unpersuaded.

To more Australians, it looks as though we no longer have a real Liberal Party or a real Labor Party – just two big ‘McParties’ selling similar junk that’s getting ever harder to trust. The Greens are benefiting as a result but it’s not as simple as a protest vote. Firstly, few question the integrity and gravitas of Bob Brown: a man who risked bankruptcy – along with his Senate seat – to save a Tasmanian forest and protect its wedge-tailed eagles and other endangered species from loggers; a man courageous enough to exit the closet at the very outset of his political career, nearly three decades ago; a man who spent 19 days in prison having run a blockade to save the Franklin River. Can anyone imagine Kevin Rudd spending time in prison over an issue he could backflip his way out of or Tony Abbott opting for jail over some-thing he could swim, cycle or run his way around?

The Greens now look more liberal than the Liberals, more labour than Labor and – unsurprisingly – far greener than both. The community is concerned about how the world will house, feed and water an extra few billion people living increasingly affluent, resource- and energy-intensive lifestyles over the next four decades. Australians keep looking in vain to the government to respond to the challenges of climate change, population increase, congestion and water scarcity in ways that improve their quality of life. In advocating large-scale investment in cleaner and more efficient transport, energy and water infrastructure, the Greens are emphasising the enormous and affordable possibilities available to us and highlighting the potential economic and employment opportunities. This strikes a chord with the community and leaves ‘green’ looking anything but ‘single-issue’.

Meanwhile, both major parties are focused on infrastructure that eliminates bottlenecks, raises productivity and maintains international economic competitiveness in industries that look less and less sustainable. Rather than questioning whether inexorable growth in industries such as coal is in the national interest, they debate how much tax these industries can afford to pay. As public transport networks age, the price of the same old dirty electricity soars and traffic congestion worsens, urban disenchantment grows. In regional Australia, the resources boom is turning towns into economic one-trick ponies and leaving lifelong political loyalties broken in its wake. Farmers, winemakers, horse-stud owners, tourism operators and small business people are wondering, to their own surprise, whether the Greens are the only political party now representing their interests. With more than one in seven Australians saying they intend to vote Green in 2010, there’s a growing sense of anticipation around the election. The odds are now on a half-Senate election, from which the Greens can expect to emerge with at least two more seats and, most probably, the balance of power in the Senate. Their task is infinitely harder in the House of Representatives, where preferential voting for single-member electorates delivers victory to one of the two major parties in all but the rarest circumstances. While the Greens have won some famous by-elections (the federal seat of Cunningham in 2002, the WA state seat of Fremantle in 2009), on each occasion the Liberals ran no candidate on the grounds that, if they couldn’t win, a Greens victory would maximise damage to Labor.

In general elections where both major parties usually run candidates, the Greens must beat one major party in seats where the other major party performs weakly enough to give them a chance to win on preferences. In some traditionally safe Labor seats, such as Melbourne, Sydney, Grayndler and Brisbane, the correct electoral dynamic exists to give the Greens a chance. However, a sober assessment of the specific contests (which involve some of Labor’s most prominent ministers, such as Lindsay Tanner in Melbourne, and Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese in inner-city Sydney) suggests that the Greens won’t storm the House of Representatives in 2010. If the Greens win a couple of lower house seats in 2010, it will be an important milestone but unless these seats break the deadlock in an otherwise hung parliament, they will have no immediate impact.

The same is true of the Greens holding the balance of power in the Senate. This would provide more opportunities for political horsetrading, but these only really come into play when the two major parties disagree. When this occurs, there are opportunities. In response to the Resource Super Profits Tax proposal, for example, the Greens might question whether there is a more sustainable way to fund company tax cuts and superannuation increases than relying on a doubling of coal exports. However, with government and Opposition agreeing on the vast majority of legislation, the next federal government won’t need Green support to pass most of its legislative agenda. So, our economy won’t magically shift onto a more sustainable path, nor is a more urgent and effective climate-change response guaranteed.

When climate change does eventually come out of the too-hard basket, the major parties will look to concoct another escape route, given the bipartisan desire to be seen to act without actually doing much to curb Australia’s addiction to fossil fuels. Most likely, they’ll seize on the prevailing naivety that a carbon tax is simpler and more reliable than an emissions trading scheme. Where the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) defeated its stated purpose by giving the biggest polluters the vast majority of their permits free and allowing the unlimited use of cheap imported carbon credits, a similarly conceived carbon tax would also defeat its main purpose. As the neo-liberal think-tank the Centre for Independent Studies has recognised, a carbon tax provides the perfect cover to abolish other fuel taxes resulting in, they say, a 30-cents-per-litre reduction in the petrol price – which would hardly give an incentive to shift to lower-carbon-emitting vehicles. As with the CPRS, it’s not hard to imagine carbon-tax rebates for emission-intensive trade-exposed industries or unlimited access to imported carbon credits or soil carbon credits generated domestically. A Greens balance of power cannot stop bipartisan agreement on such a scheme – or a resurrected CPRS or continued inaction – but a strong Greens voice in the Senate can help to expose the ineffectiveness of these approaches, just as it helped to expose the CPRS.

Over time, the Greens should break through an electoral system stacked against them. In 2007, with a primary vote that was half what recent polls now suggest they have, the Greens received between 15% and 23% of the vote in about a dozen seats spread across four states. These are mostly gentrified inner-city seats that were safe for Labor until tertiary-educated, relatively affluent and environmentally aware voters displaced a reliable working-class bloc. Here, the Greens vote is challenging the Liberal vote, putting it within striking distance of Labor on preferences. There are also some traditionally safe Liberal seats that are losing their ‘blue-ribbon’ status, with a rising Greens vote and low Labor vote presenting a similar opportunity. Further afield, the Greens should eventually challenge for seats in rural and regional Australia. With around 30% of the primary vote in communities such as Lismore and Byron Bay, and with the continued decline in the National Party vote, the Greens have been able to extend their appeal into country electorates as they establish more common ground with farmers – over the expansion of coal and gas mines on prime farming land, for example, and over the stranglehold of supermarkets on the prices received by farmers.

If the Greens can win, and hold, half-a-dozen lower house seats over the next decade, they’ll be one close election away from changing Australian politics forever. In the event of a hung parliament, and particularly if the Greens held the balance of power in the Senate, they could grant government, in exchange for ministerial appointments, major policy reforms and make permanent changes to an electoral system designed to exclude minor parties. Already governing at the local level – and now at the state level in Tasmania – the Greens can eventually emulate the role now being played by the Liberal Democrats in the UK.

In this mission, the Greens are better prepared than many people realise. They have five senators and 22 members of state parliaments, the ACT government speakership and two cabinet positions in the Tasmanian government. Because there’s currently no such thing as a Greens backbencher, each Greens member of parliament carries relatively more portfolio responsibilities and gains legislative, policy development and media experience faster than their major party counterparts. With more than 100 councillors, including several mayors and deputy mayors, the party is drawing on a growing pool of political credentials and talent. With each electoral advance, the Greens gain capacity in campaigning, legislating and governing, as well as access to public and private electoral funding, and more advisory staff. Unlike the Democrats, the Liberal Movement, the Democratic Labor Party and other minor parties in recent history, the Greens are not a political ‘cutting’ from a major party. They don’t depend on the pulling power of an individual such as Brian Harradine or Pauline Hanson. Unlike Family First, their parliamentary presence isn’t the result of a preference deal gone wrong. The party has grown on its own over the past four decades, largely through a global awakening about the need to protect the environment that sustains economic development.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle facing the Greens is internal. Ultimately, this minor party can’t threaten the dominance of the major parties without becoming a major party itself. The path to achieving its 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. Some Greens cherish a place on the fringe, see the party as left-wing and think that keeping the ‘Tories’ out of office is paramount. They view the ALP much as New Zealand views Australia: a spirited rival but your trench-mate during wartime. Within the ranks of the Greens there’s tension between those who see economic growth as the enemy and those who believe in sustainable economic growth. Some are reluctant to consider going into government, knowing the only realistic medium-term scenario involves forming a coalition with one of the two major parties. They dread the compromise involved. Yet, with each passing day, these tensions are being resolved organically; most people walking through the door of the fastest growing political party in the country are political orphans from one or other major party, and they’re uninterested in a place on the fringe. The real question is whether the Greens can hold together the increasingly broad church into which they are attracting grassroots support.

Between now and election day, the green barbarians at the political gate will have everything thrown at them. The Coalition will claim that a vote for the Greens is a vote for Labor, who’ll say in turn that a vote for the Greens will hand government to the Coalition. Both parties will warn of a hung parliament and of gridlock in the Senate; they may well preference each other in order to keep the Greens out. The Greens will be painted as left-wing “wolves in koala out-fits” hell-bent on destroying jobs and sending us back to the caves – and paving the way for everything from gay marriage to legalised heroin. If, on election night, the Greens do win the balance of power in the Senate and gain a toehold in the House of Representatives, the sun will still shine the following day. The major parties will still run the show and vote together on most issues, and they will still fail to put Australia’s economy on a more sustainable footing. But we may have taken an important step towards ensuring this country stops avoiding its hardest policy challenges. By providing the political duopoly with some competition, we will have given our democracy a timely impetus for renewal.

A member of the Liberal Party for 19 years, Guy Pearse joined the Australian Greens in late 2008.

Guy Pearse

Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, a former political adviser, lobbyist and speechwriter, and the author of High & Dry and Quarterly Essay 33, ‘Quarry Vision’.

Coalminers' world tour
Phillip Adams and Guy Pearse in conversation on Late Night Live

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