Ginger Group or Political Party?


Sunday, 29 April should be tagged ‘Nuclear Sunday’ the day the big Parties handed the Greens a large, glowing political gift with a half-life that will last up to and beyond the looming Federal election. The events of Nuclear Sunday are likely to ensure that, whoever wins the Howard versus Rudd contest in the Lower House, the Senate is Bob Brown’s to lose.

To summarise last Sunday week’s events: as Labor’s National Conference voted to dig up and export more yellowcake, John Howard promised to use it to build a nuclear reactor in an electorate near you.

The Greens, of course, are ‘outraged’ at this grand political fusion cooked up by the Big Two a nuclear convergence that makes the Greens’ job so much easier as they sell themselves as the one safe place to park your vote if you’re opposed to a radioactive future.

Bob Brown immediately declared Labor appalling on the nuclear issue and the Coalition worse warning that Australia ‘could be hit with our own uranium,’ as if that couldn’t happen already with the existing three mines policy.

Disingenuous or not, the Greens are busy mining the moral high ground. But a re they really different? Or are they just another political Party posing as a grassroots democracy?

Last November, Victorians gave the Greens three seats in the State’s Upper House, and the opportunity to control the balance of power in that chamber. This, despite dire warnings from the Liberal Party and Murdoch press that the Greens and Labor were ‘natural allies’ and that Labor would be forced to enact some of the Greens’ ‘radical illogical and inconsistent’ social policies in order to get their support.

These policies were helpfully outlined in a ‘background paper’ put out during the campaign by the Liberals. Entitled ‘Environmentalists or Just Radical Social Engineers?’ it set out to explain what a ‘Labor-Greens Alliance could mean for Victoria’ and underscored the message sent out in pamphlets to southeast suburban Liberal electorates:

remember that Labor has done a deal with the Greens and will have to do some of the things the Greens want if they win the election.

That propaganda didn’t get into marginal inner-city seats, where Labor was facing a strong challenge from the Greens. And funnily enough, despite churning out their old-school, Tory hyperbole designed to keep doctors’ wives in blue-ribbon Liberal seats from falling for the dangerous Greens, the Liberals actually preferenced the Greens in four key seats Melbourne, Brunswick, Richmond and Northcote. And in return, the Greens put out an open ticket in some outer-suburban electorates.

So in the contests that actually mattered, it was the Liberals who formed an alliance with the Party promoting ‘illogical and inconsistent policies that would change Victoria for ever.’

The Greens were naturally sensitive to suggestions they were putting crude political expediency before their stated policy aims of environmental and social equity threatening to sue Labor over election ads that had Howard’s head inside the Greens’ triangle logo.

So, how have the Greens used their three vital swing seats in the Victorian Upper House?

It turns out that, since the election, the Greens have voted with the Liberals 30 times out of 36. Two weeks ago, the Greens voted against a Bill that would have legislated for a plebiscite before nuclear power could be introduced in Victoria when they voted with the Coalition and the DLP. This must have been disturbing for Green voters.

The Liberals placed in the awkward position of having to form an intelligent position on a radioactive topic placed on the agenda by their own Federal leader claimed the bill was a stunt. Perhaps they think Victorian voters are a clan of slack-jawed troglodytes, given what Matthew Guy (Liberal member for Northern Metropolitan) said during the debate:

When someone says to me that they vote Labor I get this image in my mind of some mad nutter who is reaching out for you, and you have to go and put the kids to bed and get a glass of orange juice or something to relax because these people are so bizarre.

So the Liberals don’t want a plebiscite, because they don’t trust Victorians to vote sensibly. But why on earth wouldn’t the Greens want Victorians to have a voice in whether nuclear reactors are built in their backyards?

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Greens de facto State leader, Greg Barber, labelled the Bill a ‘bait and switch’ stunt and spat the dummy when Labor refused his two proposed amendments one of which would have given both Houses of Parliament the power to set the terms of the plebiscite, not the Minister.

Perhaps the Greens voted against a nuclear plebiscite because they fear the voters would say yes! Not such an outlandish notion with the prospect of an overwhelming well-funded ‘Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish’ campaign by nuclear protagonists.

As the steady rise in support for nuclear power indicates, voters have shown they will take an easy option and a quick fix over any harder one. The difficulty is always that the big money is not behind renewables and will never be. So maybe, for Parties like the Greens, political guerrilla tactics are the only way to go.

But will this betrayal of the people who voted for them come back to haunt the Greens? And how might this translate Federally, where the Greens brand is held in the strong national profile of Bob Brown?

A policy of obstruction in the Upper House may make sense for an opposition Party keen to frustrate a Government that, for example, introduces draconian workplace legislation it hadn’t flagged during an election campaign. But do such tactics make sense for a Party that constantly promises a fresh approach and carps about the machinations of the entrenched Parties?

Voters may give the Greens control the Senate after the 2008 election, but the power of a minority Party in an upper house is often overrated. For instance, when the Senate was not controlled by the Government during the Hawke/Keating and Howard Governments, it overturned just 3 per cent of Bills and many were re-worked and later passed.

The Democrats (who held the balance of power at the time) originated from old-style ‘liberal’ Libs, and acted accordingly negotiating changes to Bills, rather than blocking them. However, if the Greens win control of the Senate, they’ll have to decide whether they are a ginger group or a political Party with all the compromises and bloody-minded strategic moves that come with it and they will be forced to choose between being an environmental Party or a Leftist, socially progressive Party.

In Victori
a, it seems that decision has been made to throw the switch to Machiavelli, but Federally, surely they’ll have to focus on getting environmental outcomes as their greater priority rather than other ‘Lefty’ social ones (which can traded off in the argy bargy).

Difficult as the fight against nuclear may be, dealing with the coal industry will be a harder and longer struggle. (Just look at how successful it’s already been in getting the phrase ‘clean coal’ into the vernacular).

If Australians vote for the Greens in this year’s Federal election, it will be because they reject Howard’s ‘out with the old, in with the nucleus’ approach to climate change, and see Labor as compromised by their traditional links with the coal industry. But politicians like voters to forget that minority Parties only win when they vote with one or other of the major Parties so any of their really loony ideas never get up.

The Greens only ever have to please around 10 per cent of the population and will never have to govern, so they can be as radical as they like rhetorically. But they will have to learn about the art of compromise from 1 July 2008 in the Senate. And if they want to represent the people who voted for them, they’ll need to do it by negotiating for environmental outcomes.

Can we trust them? Experience in Victoria suggests not.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.