October 2010


The rise of the Greens

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Politics is indeed a strange business. We have recently experienced the most dismal election campaign in memory, where the argument between the major parties turned on a series of confected panics about cynically selected non-problems – the reincarnation of WorkChoices; a terrifying national debt of 6% of GDP; the horror of a mining tax that even the relevant multinational corporations accept as just; the threat to national security posed by the arrival of a small number of asylum seeker boats. We have also just experienced an election that seemed to confirm the fundamental conservatism of the electorate, where the country was only spared from an even more right-wing government than John Howard’s by the grace and favour of two country independents. Yet despite all this – because of the most significant development of the election, the breakthrough performance of the Greens – with the return of the Gillard government the centre of gravity of Australian politics has now shifted perceptibly and unexpectedly to the Left.

It is not often recognised how well suited the Australian electoral system is for the emergence of significant ‘third force’ parties like the Greens. In the Senate, proportional representation gives such parties a reasonable chance of winning seats. In the House of Representatives, preferential voting gives them the capacity to influence or even determine the outcome of the central electoral battle between Labor and the Coalition. Since the great Labor Party Split of the mid ’50s, there have been four serious third-force parties – the Democratic Labor Party, the Democrats, One Nation and the Greens. Each was an expression of shifts in social consciousness or unresolved tensions in the political culture. The DLP was founded upon the ferocious Cold War struggle between the pro-communist and anti-communist tendencies coexisting inside Labor; the Democrats on the dissatisfaction with old class-based politics of a section of the prosperous, post-materialist, professional middle class; One Nation on the protectionist economic nostalgia and the anti-Asian and anti-Aboriginal xenophobia of ‘the losers’ in the age of economic globalisation and cultural cosmopolitanism; the Greens on a deepening awareness of the impending disasters that the Earth and its inhabitants face as a consequence of the never-ending pursuit of material wealth and economic growth. All these parties were Australia-wide but most deeply rooted in one particular state – the DLP in Victoria; the Democrats in South Australia; One Nation in Queensland; the Greens in Tasmania. All were shaped and coloured by a vivid founding figure – the DLP by the apocalyptic and cerebral anti-communist, anti-modernist, social justice Roman Catholic BA Santamaria; the Democrats by the passionate, warm-hearted, muddle-headed, small-‘l’ liberal Don Chipp; One Nation by the charismatic, messianic, tearful, provincial Pauline Hanson; and the Greens by the implacable, unflappable, incorruptible, good-natured ascetic Bob Brown.

The Greens party formed in 1992 around the time of the Democrats’ greatest influence and five years before the foundation of One Nation. Although it is manifestly left wing, unlike many such parties it has never been ambivalent about participation in the parliamentary process. Its parliamentary participation has indeed been marked by unusual tactical flexibility. The Greens have signed accords in Tasmania with both the Labor and the Liberal parties; this year they accepted ministerial positions in the Labor-led government. The party has gradually built a formidable mass membership now numbering around 10,000. Even though the party has been strongly opposed to the principle of top-down leadership and upholds the principle of consensual and local branch decision-making, throughout its history it has been held together by the moral authority exercised by Bob Brown, its first successful senator. The party has retained the flavour of its diverse origins – environmentalism, of course, but also anti-war activism, social democracy and social libertarianism. Many voters probably now recognise that it has a distinctive position on Australia’s military involvement in Afghanistan, the public funding of dental care or the recognition of gay marriage.

In the federal election of 2010, the Greens polled better than any of the other third-force parties since the emergence of the phenomenon in 1955. In the election for the House of Representatives, the Greens won 11.7% of the vote. Previously the highest-ever third-force party performance was the Democrats’ 11.1% in 1990. In Tasmania, the Greens received more than 20% of the vote for the Senate. No other third-force party has done that before. When Adam Bandt took the seat of Melbourne with a primary vote of 36% he be-came the first member of a third-force party to win a seat in the House of Representatives at a federal election. In 2010, the Greens won six Senate seats. This is the highest number of Senate seats ever won by a third-force party at a half-Senate election. When the new Senate assembles after 1 July next year, there will be nine Greens. If they manage to poll only as well as they did in 2010 at the next federal election, scheduled for 2013, in a house of 80, 12 senators will be Greens. By then the party will not merely hold the balance of power in the Senate. It will have become a formidable political force. Bob Brown has been fighting for a quarter century for this moment. If he has been smiling since 21 August, this is why.

In the decade and a half between the foundation of the party in 1992 and the Rudd election of 2007, the Greens’ vote in the House of Representatives grew gradually from 1.9% to 7.8%. In the 2010 election it rose to 11.7%. The most obvious explanation for this rather dramatic increase is the Rudd government’s climate change timidity and then paralysis. While Rudd sought bipartisan agreement with the Coalition on the basis of major concessions to the polluting industries, the Greens’ vote, as measured by Newspoll, hovered around 10%. When, in late April this year, Rudd postponed any action on climate change until 2013, the Greens’ vote lifted instantly to 16%. With the arrival of Julia Gillard, some Greens sentiment drifted back to Labor. Gillard did not, however, move on climate change. From the rise of Gillard to the 21 August election, the Greens’ vote remained steady at 12%.

There is, however, more to the electoral breakthrough of the Greens than Labor’s dismal climate change performance. We live in a political era created by the Howard government’s absorption of the wave of populist conservatism unleashed by the rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation. Despite all the hopes invested in it, the deepest failure of the Rudd government was its unwillingness to fight against the mean-spirited and provincial atmosphere that settled over the political culture following Howard’s repudiation of the Keating government’s cosmopolitan cultural agenda. Most Australians accept this new dispensation. A significant minority do not. Such people form a kind of permanent oppositional moral–political community. They recall or intuit the ways in which the country has changed since 1996. They are appalled by the way asylum seekers have been treated. They believe strongly in the reconciliation movement and are opposed to the Northern Territory intervention. They once regarded Australia’s participation in the invasion of Iraq as unlawful and immoral. They now oppose our participation in the military action in Afghanistan. These people are in favour of gay marriage and opposed to internet censorship. They support the extension of the welfare state to decent mental health and dental care. They support a more progressive taxation system, including a mining tax. They are, at least in theory, opposed to upper-middle-class welfare, such as public funding for private schools. They would like Australia to become a republic. Above all else, they regard the catastrophic threat of climate change as the overwhelmingly most important challenge of our era. The members of this virtual community live mainly in the affluent inner suburbs of the major cities although some of them now live along the New South Wales or Victorian coasts. Most are university educated. Most have professional employment or are aspiring professionals. Most are under 50; many are young; many are students. Under Keating, many of these people supported Labor. They now no longer believe that Labor represents their point of view. In very large numbers they now vote for the Greens.

It is notorious that the government of Kevin Rudd refused to deal with the Greens. On 1 September the impasse was ended with the signature of an ‘agreement’ between Julia Gillard and Bob Brown. The agreement included many of the reforms to parliamentary process that were simultaneously being negotiated with the independents. But it went much further. The prime minister agreed to meet with Bob Brown and Adam Bandt once a week while parliament is sitting. The Greens were accorded the right to formal briefings before legislation and the budget and to submit their own legislative proposals to the prime minister’s office for analysis and to the Treasury for costing. The government promised a debates commission, a parliamentary budgets office, an integrity commissioner, a parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan and the commissioning of a study of high-speed rail. Most importantly, the government agreed to the creation of a properly financed and serviced committee of parliamentarians and experts to investigate the best means by which a price on carbon could be introduced. The reason that Labor signed formal agreements with Andrew Wilkie and the two country independents is obvious. If the Gillard government was to survive it needed their votes. As Adam Bandt told us even before the election that he would never support an Abbott government, the reason the government decided to strike this formal agreement with the Greens is far less certain.

Clearly the agreement was a recognition that if the first real Gillard government is not to be a do-nothing administration it will have to rely on co-operation with the Greens, especially after 1 July next year when they will hold the balance of power in the Senate. But there was probably more to Labor’s decision than this. If the 2010 election proved anything, it was that if Labor wishes to continue to govern Australia beyond the present parliament it will have to be able to depend on the goodwill of the Greens. Because of preferential voting, at the present level of their support, the Greens are absolutely critical to Labor’s prospects. If Labor had not won something like 80% of the preferences of the Greens in the recent election, it would have been swept from office in an embarrassing landslide. From one angle the political arithmetic of the current situation is reminiscent of the one that determined the close relations between the Coalition and the Democratic Labor Party in the ’50s and ’60s where, as a result of the receipt of DLP preferences, the Coalition was returned to power in 1958, 1961, 1963, 1966 and 1969. From another, it is entirely different. The DLP took voters from Labor and passed their preferences to the Coalition. The Greens take voters from the ALP but then pass their preferences back to Labor. As a consequence of the peculiar political logic of the situation, Labor is simultaneously both a fierce opponent of the Greens in the battle for the left-leaning voter and a self-interested political friend, ultimately reliant for its survival on its opponent’s willingness to favour it with the overwhelming number of its preferences. Presumably the Greens expect something substantial from the 1 September agreement. Even a decision for an open ticket at the next election might sink Labor.

The electoral relationship between Labor and the Greens is, however, even more complicated than this. Prior to the 2010 election, Labor and the Greens were more or less equally reliant on each other. On the one hand, there were many seats in the House of Representatives where Labor relied on Greens preferences. On the other, where the vote the Greens could gain in the Senate was less than 10%, Labor was potentially capable of blocking the election of one of their candidates, as it did in Victoria in 2004 where Labor’s preference decision was largely responsible for the defeat of the Greens’ Richard Di Natale, with almost 9% of the primary vote, and the victory of Family First’s Steve Fielding, with a primary vote of less than 2%. In 2010 the balance of dependence tilted markedly in the favour of the Greens. In every state the Greens received more than 10% of the primary vote in the Senate; Labor’s capacity to block Greens candidates was accordingly much reduced. In the House of Representatives there was a swing of 5.4% against Labor and of 4% towards the Greens; without Greens preferences, Labor would have been destroyed. No doubt Gillard signed the agreement of 1 September at least in part because she realised that for the foreseeable future Labor will be more reliant on the Greens’ goodwill than the Greens will be reliant on Labor’s.

Narrow electoral calculation may not, however, be the only reason for the Gillard government’s decision to formalise an agreement with the Greens. Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership was finished at the moment he announced that he was postponing the emissions trading scheme for the next three years. His reputation was shattered not because the majority of Australians strongly support an emissions trading scheme but because people thought that if Rudd believed in anything it was in the urgent need for action on climate change and, accordingly, that if that belief was phoney so was he. In arriving at that decision, Rudd, many believe, was following the focus-group-driven advice of the key machine men of the New South Wales Right faction, senator Mark Arbib and ALP Secretary Karl Bitar, men who seem not to understand that even the most hard-nosed politically realist strategy cannot succeed without intuition and political imagination. It is at least possible that the Labor–Greens agreement is a sign that Julia Gillard recognises that the era of focus-group- driven politics is over; that she now understands that the Labor Party is nothing if its politics are not driven at least in part by what Ben Chifley famously called “the light on the hill”, by the ambition to create a better world, and that the future of the kind of Labor Party she would like to lead is imperilled if it loses the sympathy of an entire generation of the idealistic, left-leaning young, as is now increasingly the case. Perhaps the prime minister realises that the future of Labor relies not on striking deals with the Coalition but on cautious collaboration with the Greens. Perhaps she will now try to nudge the country and the political culture towards something both realistic but also recognisably of the Left. Perhaps that is what she meant when she told us, at the midpoint of the election when she knew that she looked like a Sussex Street marionette, that we were now about to discover an unknown person she called “the real Julia”.

The Labor Party hardly needs reminding that because of the deep conservatism of the Australian electorate there are very real dangers in its collaboration with the Greens. The potential collaboration, however, does not only pose dangers for Labor. For the first time in their history the Greens have a realistic prospect of influencing the trajectory of national politics. From the point of view of the parliamentary leadership, the situation calls for careful calculation and for patience and restraint. Patience and restraint are not likely to be the political qualities that drew the party’s activist membership to the Greens. Sensing that they are on the threshold of the exercise of some real power, recognising that on the question of climate change time is short and that the stakes could not be higher, many members will be frustrated with the caution of the party’s leaders and may even come to feel betrayed. It is said that there is a rift between the more purely environmentalist branch of the party in Tasmania led by Bob Brown and Christine Milne and the more old-style democratic socialist branch in New South Wales led by people like senator-elect Lee Rhiannon. It is possible that the new political situation facing the Greens may deepen that rift and excite leadership tensions for the first time in the history of the party. If so, Bob Brown’s customary moral authority may no longer be enough to hold the party together. He may now have to discover in himself high order political skills of a kind that he has not yet needed to possess. The party will also have to become more professional. Following the election I read through the policy document of the Greens. It is a kind of wish-list for an imagined perfect world. To avoid much right-wing mischief-making, policies will need to become more focused. Careful costing of the Greens’ present program would do the party very considerable harm.

These questions are important because powerful enemies await a political future for Australia involving an even modest Labor–Greens collaboration. Under the Keating government a situation arose where a single corporation led by one of the wealthiest, most influential and politically determined cultural warriors of the contemporary Right was allowed to take ownership of some 70% of the Australian press. In an era of Labor–Greens co-operation, the Murdoch press – especially the Australian and the critical tabloids, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald Sun – will be unscrupulous and ruthless. Labor–Greens co-operation will eventually be tested on the question of climate change, on the question of how to create a price on carbon without punishing citizens by protecting the polluters. As the mining tax debacle showed, as soon as the outline of the new climate change legislation becomes clear, those whose financial interests are threatened, and especially the booming coal-based corporations, will oppose the government ferociously and try to marginalise the Greens. It goes without saying that in this fight the Murdoch press and the mining corporations will have the unambiguous support of the Abbott Coalition.

Change the government, Paul Keating once quipped, and you change the country. Even a modestly left-leaning reformist Gillard government relying on the support of the Greens in the Senate will face a formidable daily barrage. Even a single by-election defeat will place the future of the government in peril. If, however, the government somehow miraculously manages to survive, the country that emerges may very well be rather different and rather better.

–15 September  

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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