The concerted offensive launched by Labor heavyweights at the Greens this week centres on the supposed gulf between the ideas of the Greens and those of ordinary Australians. The Greens will never "represent mainstream working Australian values", says NSW Labor General Secretary Sam Dastyari.
As a strategy, Labor’s campaign seems bizarrely self-destructive, consisting as it does of trumpeting a longstanding talking point of the Right. Already we’ve seen senior Liberals delightedly discussing how Julia Gillard remains in government only through the support of those Dastyari calls "extremists not unlike One Nation".
It’s another spectacular own goal in the making, one more lemming-like plunge by the same crew who thought Labor’s electoral fortunes would improve if they explained how the leader they’d taken to the election was a dysfunctional egoist who they all hated.
But let’s look at the charge on its merits. Are the Green somehow innately distant from the mainstream values of working Australians?
The most prominent "values debate" currently in public life pertains to same-sex marriage. Polling data suggest that, in fact, the majority of both blue and white collar workers support the rights of gays to marry.
In other words, on the key "moral" issue, it’s not the Greens who spurn the values of working Australians. On the contrary, it’s Julia Gillard who is miles from the mainstream.
But maybe that’s not a fair test. What about refugees? For years we’ve heard how Labor’s embrace of Howard-style border policing was driven by the need to appeal to ordinary Australians, all of whom supposedly bubbling over with barely suppressed hatred for queue jumpers and boat people.
Indeed, the question of asylum seekers seems to have spurred the ALP’s attack on the Greens, with Labor heavyweights denouncing their refusal to compromise over offshore processing as yet more evidence of their wild-eyed extremism.
Yet a poll last year showed that an extraordinary 62 per cent of Labor voters supported onshore processing, with only one in five sharing Gillard’s enthusiasm for offshore alternatives. Once again, the Greens are not scorning mainstream values. They’re representing them, against a Labor-Liberal consensus indifferent to what ordinary people think.
But the way Bob Carr joined the anti-Greens pile-on was perhaps most revealing.
Labor could, he said, maintain a co-operative working relationship with the Greens on some questions, particularly on environmental and social issues. However, the Greens could not, he said, "be trusted on questions of economic management or national security".
You could not come up with two better examples of how the Greens quite strikingly reflect a majority sentiment.
Take the war in Afghanistan, the most important debate in the national security portfolio. Even as the deaths mount, Labor and the Coalition remain steadfastly committed to "staying the course". Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Australians take a quite different view. They want the troops home — as do the Greens.
To put it another way, when Carr argues that the Greens are suspect on national security, he’s not saying that they don’t represent "mainstream values". He’s saying that they do — and that’s the problem.
What about the economy?
In the same interview, Carr says that, as premier of NSW, he made a point of holding the line against the Greens when it came to "sound economic management". What does that mean? The key economic debate in NSW pertained to the sale of the electricity industry, a policy that successive Labor leaders championed in the face of consistent public hostility. The Greens opposed energy privatisation — as did the vast majority of mainstream working Australians.
So again, Carr’s insistence that the Greens "can’t be trusted" with the economy has nothing to do with whether their policies might accord with the values of ordinary people. What he’s really arguing is that they can’t be relied upon to stick to the neoliberal script that, in Carr’s view, all right-thinking people should uphold. Again, it’s a quite a different point.
We’re living through a time of political rupture, in which, around the world, many of the old certainties are starting to fray. Ideas that were once on the very fringe of political life have moved, disconcertingly, to the centre. Gay marriage is an obvious example — but the process goes the other way, too.
Who would have thought, for instance, that in the twenty-first century we’d have an Australian opposition leader advocating the return of floating prison hulks to house asylum seekers and a US President claiming the right to secretly assassinate American citizens?
Labor’s attack on the Greens represents an attempt to police the boundaries of Australian public life, to ensure that certain ideas (invariably those on the Left) remain beyond the pale, even as memes from the far Right creep increasingly into common usage. That’s why it matters, irrespective of what you think of the Greens themselves.