It's Not Easy Being Green — But That's No Excuse


Last week’s proposal from the Greens for an interim $20 a tonne carbon tax is a tacit acknowledgement that the party had dealt itself out of the ETS debate.

They desperately need to re-engage.

The Greens’ decision to oppose Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme last year because of its weak targets and generous handouts to big polluters was ideologically sound. After all, few Greens voters want to see government money paid straight to big mining companies and other major greenhouse polluters.

But it was also a tactical error. By adopting a hardline stance against the CPRS, the Greens allowed themselves to be sidelined from the debate for months, playing into Labor’s hands. While Penny Wong negotiated with Ian Macfarlane over the fine print of the ETS and Malcolm Turnbull fought a civil war with the sceptics in his own party, the Greens were essentially locked out of the debate. As a consequence — and almost unbelievably — the biggest environmental issue in federal politics came to be dominated by conservatives.

Even worse, the failure of the CPRS made it look as though the Greens had refused to negotiate with the Government over the legislation. In reality, it was the Government that refused to deal with the Greens — but unless you follow federal politics closely, you wouldn’t have realised this. The Greens did a poor job of getting their message across, and indeed of selling their CPRS amendments at all (which, as I wrote at the time, were both sensible and realistic). Casual observers saw only that the Greens voted against a bill to cut Australia’s emissions — twice.

The Greens’ media strategy has also been patchy of late. There are a number of reasons for this, including a lack of resources and the tendency of the mainstream media to ignore smaller parties, but the Greens have also missed important opportunities. The CPRS, and indeed the entire issue of climate change, is home turf for the Greens and should have been their time to shine. The barnstorming success of Barnaby Joyce in reframing the debate shows what can be achieved by a single politician from a small party, yet despite possessing a surprisingly effective media performer in Christine Milne, the Greens have been unable to cut through.

The reasons for this are undoubtedly complex, and not all of them are of the Greens’ making. Partly, the increasing polarisation of the debate has acted to squeeze the minor party out, but the Greens have also been unable to link together the many disparate sections of the environmental movement in a solid bloc behind their policies which reflects the notoriously faction-ridden and conflict-prone nature of activist politics. Renewable energy companies, green pressure groups, scientists and public intellectuals, even left-wing unions — all of these represent a natural base for the party that it has so far been unable to unite and mobilise.

It doesn’t help that the ALP sees the Greens as an enemy, rather than a friend. The two parties compete viciously at state and local government levels for many of the same voters and the ALP has not been afraid to do deals with conservative opponents to lock the Greens out of various seats in Melbourne local councils — not to mention the regrettable 2004 Senate preferences deal which led directly to the election of Family First’s Steve Fielding.

For their part, the Greens make no secret of their ambition to defeat inner-city Labor parliamentarians like Melbourne’s Lindsay Tanner and Sydney’s Tanya Plibersek. The problem for the Greens is that Labor can still muster a tough and experienced political machine with resources and organisational capacity vastly superior to the smaller, younger party.

There’s no doubt that the party needs to expand and improve its media operations. The relentless discipline of the Rudd Government is probably something the Greens will never be able to match, but the party could certainly achieve more, simply by getting its best media performers into public view. Milne should continue to take the lead on the issue, but both Sarah Hanson-Young and Scott Ludlam are young, attractive and good media performers. They should be put in front of a camera as often as possible and given a disciplined message to repeat.

All of which underlines the importance of the Greens’ carbon tax announcement: it should be the start of a renewed push by the party to influence the climate debate. The alternative is irrelevance, which in politics is death. Just ask the Democrats.

It’s never easy being a minor party in Australian politics. Australia’s single-member system of representative government makes it almost impossible for small parties to win lower house seats (rightly so, in the view of the major parties). Over a century of representative democracy, the voting patterns of the Australian electorate have been remarkably stable. Minor parties have won Senate seats and independents have won seats in the House of Representatives, but that’s about it. Even at the height of their popularity, the Australian Democrats were unable to win a lower house seat.

With five Senators and significant representation at local government level around the country, the Greens are an influential and steadily growing small party. But if they can’t manage to cut through on the biggest environmental issue of our time, they never will.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.