First They Ignore You…

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"First they ignore you," Gandhi supposedly said, "Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win."

In the wake of the federal election, and on the eve of the Victorian one, the Australian Greens simultaneously occupy stages one, two, three and four of that particular program.

The Greenslide was the real story from the national poll, and the Greens seem poised for equal or greater success in inner-city Melbourne seats in the Victorian election. Yet the media still struggles to accept the Greens as a legitimate political force, as the recent leaders debate in Victoria neatly illustrated. The Greens were the real stars of the evening: Liberal leader Ted Baillieu discussed them, as did Labor leader John Brumby and the journalists on the panel repeatedly raised the Green surge in their questions.

Yes, we heard plenty of folks talking about the Greens. But there was a complete absence of people speaking for them.

The exclusion of third party candidates from election events is usually justified by their political irrelevance. Why should broadcasters give equal time for a party for which most viewers won’t vote?

Of course, that’s wonderfully circular. Without publicity, a third party remains unknown — and the unknown third party is accordingly deemed unworthy of publicity.

While the allocation of air time in rough proportion to popularity might seem, at first, a reasonable compromise — if every potential candidate appeared on such debates, they’d become unworkable — a moment’s thought dissolves its apparent logic. The Greens might be a minority party but in certain constituencies and in particular demographics they outpoll the Liberals. Should we have separate leaders’ debates for old people and for the young? Should the debate in Benalla be different from the one in Brunswick?

More importantly, on certain issues, it’s the Greens — and only the Greens — who are in line with majority sentiment. The most recent Galaxy poll on gay marriage showed 62 per cent support — and 78 per cent backing for a conscience vote on the topic. But you won’t find that reflected by either Labor or Liberal candidates.

Likewise, the major parties are rock solid about fighting the forever war Afghanistan, in the face of solid opposition from the majority of Australians. A debate without the Greens means, in other words, that the position on the Afghan war held by the bulk of the populace simply does not get heard.

Increasingly, it’s no longer possible for the media to ignore the Greens: they are, quite simply, too big a story not to cover. That’s why we’ve also moved to phase two and three: ridicule and attacks.

In Victoria, sections of the media have been happy to run with whatever desperate material the ALP’s dirt unit can toss out, most notably the disgraceful attacks on Brian Walters as a supposed anti-Semite.

It’s no mystery as to why Labor peddles this stuff. But why does the press go along with it so readily?

"Greens leader Bob Brown has accused The Australian of trying to wreck the alliance between the Greens and Labor," the Oz editorialised in September. "We wear Senator Brown’s criticism with pride. We believe he and his Green colleagues are hypocrites; that they are bad for the nation; and that they should be destroyed at the ballot box."

Last week, we learned some context for this extraordinary declaration.

"This country is sailing forth," Rupert Murdoch explained to a business audience last month, "It is a wonderful land of opportunity, with the right leadership, the right government, the right bureaucrats and so on. […] Whatever you do, don’t let the bloody Greens mess it up."

Any serious theory about the media must take into account the fairly obvious point that the big players in TV, radio and newspapers are themselves giant corporations, and that this has consequences for the way they behave. Big businesses that depend on advertising revenue from other big businesses have an in-built predisposition to stability, certainty and the status quo, particularly on economic policy.

Does Rupert get on the phone to whistle up another investigation into Brian Walters?

No, probably not — though, of course, one should never underestimate his willingness to intervene directly: you’ll recall that, somehow, all 175 of his editors managed to arrive independently at the same conclusion about the Iraq war.

It’s more that the structure of the media inculcates a particular set of political attitudes that make a Murdoch-like hostility to the Greens much more likely. Throughout the upper echelons of journalism the default position is a kind of insider cynicism, in which politics consists – and should consist – of constant power-plays between small numbers of people who all believe the same thing (pro-market, pro-US alliance, etc) and any attempt to challenge that elite consensus is either inherently irrelevant, vaguely amusing or, if it’s serious, tremendously threatening, a case of the dreadlocked barbarians massing at the gate.

What then should the Greens do?

Firstly, they should hold their nerve. The biggest threat to a party establishing itself as a progressive alternative to the status quo is the temptation to start playing the game. For instance, in traditional electoral politics, negotiating a high price for your preference distributions makes sense. But for a party surfing a wave of progressive discontent about the political system, pussyfooting around with Liberal preferences is suicidal. In Britain, for instance, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats used their new popularity to negotiate a coalition with the Conservatives — a decision that’s transformed a supposedly kinder, gentler party into enforcers of Tory cuts.

Secondly, the Greens should make a fuss about bias and misrepresentation. Public cynicism about the media is at an all-time high: the general disillusionment about how the ALP and Liberals campaigned during the federal election also manifested itself as a general disillusionment of the coverage during that election. There would be widespread support for a sustained Green pushback against the more egregious smears.

Thirdly, they should exploit new and alternative media. No, you can’t simply ignore the mainstream, since far more people still get their news from TV and the papers than anywhere else. Nonetheless, these are no longer the only shows in town. The Greens — as a party with disproportionate support from young people — have a tremendous advantage when it comes to social networking and new media. They should exploit it.

Fourthly, they need to develop an ongoing and deep relationship with their supporters, a relationship that insulates those supporters from whatever scandals or distractions the media whips up. That was, of course, the traditional Labor strategy (back in the days when the papers still saw the ALP as a threat): the party branches and conferences, the trade unions and the Labor press allowed members to participate, and thus forged a cadre capable of standing up against establishment hostility. In the Greens’ case, that would mean a transition from a largely electoral party, into something much more like a mass campaign.

Of course, there’s no guarantee. Gandhi’s victory meant that he also ended up dead. But the Greens currently have a chance not only to win but to transform the way that the whole game is played.

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