21 Feb 2013

When The Greens Fell Out Of Love With Labor

By Ben Eltham
Julia Gillard has stuck to the letter of the contract she made with the Greens in 2010 - if not the spirit. The romance might have died but a break up will be bad for both parties, writes Ben Eltham
Watching Christine Milne's speech at the National Press Club this week, your humble correspondent suddenly heard the lilting strains of Jeff Buckley's Gen-X break up anthem "Last Goodbye" drifting through his brain. "Well, maybe it's just because I didn't know you at all" runs one of the more pointed lines.

The Greens-Labor romance is over, at least for the time being. Like many break ups, the initial shock has been followed by bitter recriminations and some over-sharing on social media. ALP types and Greens seem to be relishing the opportunity to finally speak their minds, laying into each other over who's at fault, and who is the better protector of the environment. So far, no-one has asked for their toothbrush back. But it can only be a matter of time.

In her speech, Greens leader Christine Milne argued that the Government's decision to open up the Tarkine forest for mining and the mess made of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax were the triggers for the break up. She also mentioned coal seam gas drilling, subsidies to the fossil fuel sector and the reduction of benefits payments to sole parents.

"By choosing the big miners, the Labor Government is making it clear to all that it no longer has the courage or the will to work with the Greens on a shared agenda in the national interest," she said in her speech on Tuesday.

For her part, Prime Minister Julia Gillard has greeted the separation with equanimity, even glee. "At the end of the day, the Greens party is fundamentally a party of protest rather than a party of government," she told a media conference yesterday. "The Greens party is fundamentally a party that would prefer to complain about things than get solutions."

The original Greens-Labor agreement, reached in the heady weeks after the August 2010 election, was one of the key instruments delivering power to Julia Gillard for a second term. It's worth revisiting at this juncture, if only because the later mythology about the Greens as some kind of radical fifth column dictating the actions of the Gillard government has proved so resonant.

For all the later rhetoric from Andrew Bolt and his kin, the agreement was quite modest. It was mainly framed around improving parliamentary process, including election funding reform, better consideration of private members' bills and the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office. The policy section of the agreement is right at the end, and lists only four issues: a carbon price, dental care, a feasibility study on high speed rail, and a full parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan.

Nowhere in the agreement is the mining tax mentioned. Neither is federal regulation of coal seam gas drilling, or welfare policy.

Did Labor deliver on the agreement?

Yes, actually. As we know, a carbon price came into effect in July last year, after the Clean Energy Bill was passed. The debate on Afghanistan was held in 2010 and a report into high speed rail was released in 2011. The Parliamentary Budget Office was established. And last year, the Government poured $4 billion into dental care for children and low income earners.

In other words, the Greens got everything Julia Gillard agreed to back in September 2010. If relations have soured with Labor since then, it is not because Labor walked away from the agreement. It is because the Greens have fallen out of love.

So is the break up justified? It does rather seem like a divorce of convenience. After all, the Greens will continue to vote with Labor on supply and confidence motions on the floor of Parliament, in effect keeping the ALP in government. While both parties are attacking each other publicly, the reality is that the Greens will continue to vote with Labor on the majority of issues for the foreseeable future.

The Greens are keen to attack Labor from the left in the upcoming election, a tactic made more difficult when the two parties are in a form of government coalition. For its part, Labor is delighted to be free of the minor party, and its troubling tendency to extract policy concessions from a government that would prefer the flexibility to pivot to the right.

By way of illustration, AWU boss Paul Howes was enjoying himself on Lateline last night as he made the pragmatic point that the Greens were as much Labor's opponents as the Liberals. "In the cut and thrust of Australian politics I believe the Australian Labor Party should act to beat their political opponents," he told Tony Jones.

Political analysts — including many on the conservative side of politics — have suggested that the break up is all for show, in order to differentiate the two parties in the run up to the September election.

This is debatable. Whatever the right wing perspective, we should not underestimate the very real hostility between the two parties, particularly at the local level in places where the Greens genuinely compete for Labor votes, such inner-city Sydney and Melbourne. There is no love lost between Anthony Albanese and Lee Rhiannon, for instance, who regularly face off at polling stations in the progressive belt of Sydney's inner west.

The same can be said for the Greens sole lower house MP, Adam Bandt, and his many ALP enemies in his seat of Melbourne. In fact, demographic change and the slow hollowing out of tribal party loyalties means that in certain enclaves of the big cities, the Greens and Labor are natural opponents.

The real motive for the breach may be about the Greens' position in the new Parliament at the end of this year. After all, given Labor is likely to lose the election, the minor party may soon find itself back on the cross benches while an Abbott government sets about dismantling Australia's carbon policies. Breaking with Labor now allows the Greens to set themselves up as a more principled and effective opposition than Labor, which is likely to descend into internecine warfare for some time in the wake of what may well be a devastating defeat. On current polling, the Greens will likely lose Adam Bandt's lower house seat, but retain between eight and eleven Senators. They will remain a significant force in the upper house.

As Tad Tietze writes today, there is a natural tension in the political position of the Greens on the left of Labor. Julia Gillard is of course partly correct when she points to the Greens' roots in environmental protest; the party's base remains passionately committed to anti-market policies that are profoundly alienating to a large proportion of the electorate. But the Greens as a parliamentary party can achieve few policy outcomes without the help of the bigger and older progressive party to their right.

And so it has proved over the last two and half years. Acting in partnership with Labor, Christine Milne was able to drive Labor towards a carbon policy that is significantly to the left of the original Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme proposed under Kevin Rudd. She also won agreement on a $10 billion clean energy investment fund, which would almost certainly not exist without the Greens' influence. The Greens can also point to their wins on the PBO and on dental care. These are all policies that both Greens and Labor voters broadly support. Logic and recent history therefore suggests that the best outcome for voters interested in more left-leaning policies is a Greens-Labor coalition, not a Greens-Labor break up.

As an independent third party sitting on the far left of an Australian political landscape that is tilting right, the Greens face some difficult decisions. By returning to the comfortable status of principled protest, the party can protect its base and continue to demonstrate its independence. But the move also risks accusations of irrelevance.

Nor is the split necessarily a good outcome for Labor. Shorn of the need to keep the Greens happy, the ALP is likely to slowly drift back towards the centre and centre-right. This offers opportunities to tailor policies that can combat the Coalition in key marginal seats in the outer suburbs. But it also accentuates Labor's own dilemmas of retaining its educated, progressive inner-city support.

It's not easy keeping Greens and Laborites happily married. But, like most relationships, the long term gains of sticking together are likely to outweigh the irritations and frictions of a shared life.

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Phil S
Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 13:37

This all begs the question; why get into bed with the Greens in the first place? Gillard and Co should have known then what they are saying now, that the Greens are an impossible band of dreamers who would never have supported Abbott anyway. She could have had their support for free, but instead she paid the price of going back on her pledge not to introduce a carbon tax. More bad judgement, and we all pay.

Bring on a Federal Election now, not in September!

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 14:47

And if they'd been more reasonable on the arrival-by-sea-refugee front we'd have a much better policy there too. In fact, it was their policy stance on this issue that left me most flabbergasted; how is it that they failed to see that a marginalised ALP would jump dramatically to the right for the simple reason that being seen to do NOTHING was electoral death?

So my question to the Greens is: are you truly happy at 11%? Seeings as the ALP is so firmly committed to being the party of "jobs and growth" with accompanying lessening regard for equality and sustainability, there's a spot open in the centre-left for you.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 15:27

I think it is better for both parties to 'split' it allows them to differentiate themselves to the electorate. Having a close connection with the Greens at election time will turn some voters away from Labor I believe. Also by guaranteeing supply the Greens are doing the honorable thing, good on them, I couldn't image Gillard and Co doing that. Of course Labor and the Greens will disagree but rather than berating the Greens, Labor should be thanking them.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 15:30

There is nothing wrong at all in working with your enemy to achieve a shared goal. It could be argued that this capacity is at the heart of an effective democratic system. But for such a relationship to deliver wins for each over time there needs to be compromise on both sides. The ALP compromised - at massive cost to its credibility - on the introduction of the carbon tax. It is hard to see too many significant issues where the Greens have compromised.

The Greens make much of their ability to work well in a balance of power but their record during this current government makes me wonder.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 15:58

The ALP is in fundamental conflict with the Greens because of heavy industry unions and corporate influence. Its something they can't culturally get over and if there is an agreement in the future the Greens have to challenge Labor unions to re invent themselves for the 21st century. Green voters need to stop preferencing Labor and the party should be aggressively instructing voters not to preference them (put them second last just above the libs where they belong), this will increase their longterm political influence and get ALP to look at itself and its relationship with the Greens. 11%? moving to the centre left is effectively indulging in climate change denial (no one including EU is dealing with the fundamentals of climate change). More reasonable on refugees - running camps and swapping people - not even when Hell freezes over, especially when the impasse is result of two egos using the issue as a political football when they both have the same policy. Message for ALP - your a hollowed out brand that is rotten to the core and you are going down big time and no amount of Arbib like machinations you dream up is going to be a substitute for substance and grass roots involvement. 11%? even when the Greens are marginalised and ridiculed by the media, under represented by a pro Labor ABC, the reality of climate change and science will continue to be the factors that drive up support.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 16:00

La Gilartines support within the Labor Party is on the Far Right, the Paul Howes Far Right, the Bill Shorten Far Right, the ones that got her into the job as PM and the ones that will keep her there, so long as she performs to their dictates.
They were never happy with her agreement with the Greens, and have made this known ad nauseum ever since, although they accepted that it was necessary to retain power. The Andrew Bolts and their fellow travellers absolutely HATE the Greens, or anything progressive, and saw this as a wonderful way to vent their spleen against both the Greens and the ALP. This has made life more than a little difficult for JG, as the whole of the MSM (including the ABC which has now made it crystal clear that it is backing the Coalition 100%), and including Fairfax, which has also nailed it's Conservative colours to the mast, and is backing the Opposition all the way. She has been reacting to this now for a long time, and edging further and further away from the Greens (and the Independents) in a desperate effort to grovel to the Far Right, seeing this as the only way to retain her job. She has absolutely NO concern for the good of the Country.
In truth, all the so-called bits of the Greening Agenda that Labor adopted, have been grudging, and half-hearted. No more than is absolutely necessary to keep the Greens in the agreement. This has left the Greens clutching at very thin straws at times, trying to claim a benefit for Australia out of the Labor moves. Not altogether convincing to this member of the Greens, and a voter.
I was always worried by the 'agreement' with the Labor Party, or with JG in particular. The Democrats were destroyed by their getting into bed with John Howard on the GST. The Liberal Democrats in Britain are going to just about disappear in the next election after partnering with the Tories, always a very stupid move to my reckoning. I see the Greens in Australia being decimated (except in the Senate at this time) at the next election also, as a result of the Greens/JG agreement. I get the distinct impression that Christine Milne was never happy about being wedged so close to Labor, or particularly JG, having to accept so much of the blame for bad Labor policies, bad Labor actions, utterly stupid decisions. The odure rubbed off, as it always does.
Maybe by this part-split between the Greens and Labor will allow both parties freedom of speech, freedom to explain their own policies, which will differ to a great extent, as Labor pursues the Red Neck vote, and The Greens try to lead progressive voters back to them. I see no hope for Labor not suffering a cataclysmic disaster at the polls in September, reduced to a rump in Parliament, which will allow The Mad Monk free reign to destroy the social and economic fabric of Australia, unless Gillard steps aside, and all those kRudd haters in the Party, who have done their very best to destroy his name and very existence within the ALP, go begging on bended knees to him to return and save the necks of a few of them, who otherwise will be looking for new employment come the election. Of course, a few are already making provision for this, getting very cosy with the Miners and Big Business. Which is one very good reason why Christine Milne HAD to pull the pin, for good or for bad.
kRudd, of course, may well see the writing on the wall, and not want to be the leader of a Party that is destroyed, being left in the wilderness for up to three electoral cycles, unless he or someone has absolute authority to re-make the whole Labor Party as has been suggested by so many of the Labor progressives who have mostly been forced out of the Party. Otherwise, no reform, I doubt that the ALP will survive as a Political Party much beyond the next few years.
What will rise from the ashes may be good, but I doubt that there will be much of Australia left by that time to Govern. Tony Baby will see to that. He is Master of the Visigoths. He rides with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Poor Fellow, My Country!
Poor Fellow, My World!

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 16:15

Two comments:

1. "anti-market policies that are profoundly alienating to a large proportion of the electorate" are they? Sad, if true, seeing that as free-market policies are effectively killing the planet, people should be so in love with suicide by economic growth.

2. Question for JG, what is mining in the Tarkine the solution to?

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 16:22

Yes, "anti-market policies" is a strange term. As far as I can tell it's code for "anti-big business". But support for big business is one of the most anti-market policies you can imagine, being inimcal to competition. And then there's advertising - a billion dollar industry tasked to undermine markets by creating uninformed, irrational consumers making decisions on anything but rational, well-informed preferences. Although that's not a policy as such, it bears mentioning in this context.

I expect better than that, Ben. That looks like very sloppy thinking.

This user is a New Matilda supporter. outrider
Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 16:27

Really it is only about differentiation in the election. Had to be done by the Greens, otherwise why do they exist? A branch of the ALP? They are promising to support Supply and vote against no confidence motions until the elections.
What more do you expect?

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 16:39

In considering the alternatives, Labor run by Shorten and Howes against the "Liberals" run by Abbott and Hocking the Greens become a very attraction "Balance of Power" or Opposition.

If the Greens would promise a Constitutional Bill of Rights they can have my vote tomorrow. They must be able to give the Urban fence-sitters a reason to support them, such as a commitment to advance the Nation's social progress.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 17:15

Phil S posted Thursday, 21 February 13 at 1:37PM
"She paid the price of going back on her pledge not to introduce a carbon tax".
Please Phil keep up. Don't believe what the MSM/ABC LNP tells you!
Gillard said she would not introduce a carbon TAX but would put a PRICE on carbon! See the vital difference? That is what we currently have. A fixed price ETS. Sorry it is NOT a tax as the tea party will have you believe.

In regards to this article. Yes, it would be highly desirable to maintain a productive, cordial relationship between progressive forces in the ALP, the Greens and Independents.
It is undesirable and simply unimaginable that disunity could allow regressive extreme conservatism succeed again after its dismal performance and spectacular failure in the recent past.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 18:58

All this talk of romance is distorting the reality. The ALP is facing a massive loss because of the backlash against their behaviour. Notably this is also fed by the presentation of news where every soundbite from the ALP is followed by a "but" some right wing pundit says this. It wears you down in the end.

The Greens should do well to distance themselves. Without that distance the protest vote will all go to Tony Abbott. He will be way too powerful after the next election anyway, just look at the mess after the NSW and QLD state elections.

Some good points made about the ALP far right being in bed with mining companies anyway.

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 20:49

Well, what a lot of odd opinions!
Jeez Dazza, do you really think krudd is some sort of a solution? It looks to me that he WAS a big part of the problem. I was there in 2007, all the way with Kev. As time went by he became bogged down in his inner circle, less and less relevant to the outside world. No wonder they dumped him. He is so not a solution to Labor's problems!

All this left and right wing Labor party stuff is mostly crap as far as I can see. Bleating on about the capitalist system as if there were options to it. Get real - we are stuck with it and unless we can make it work properly (and that means fairer, more scrutable, less corrupt), we (the planet) are stuffed.

The Greens won't go into this space. They truly are an impractical political party, standing on the idealistic high ground as they do. Don't get me wrong - much of what they say is laudable, and even important. But it just won't happen in this system the way they see it, and they certainly are best in a minority government as the goad. And as Ben says, they have had a good effect on things over the last few years.

And finally, I believe Abbott and his mates is probably the worse thing that could happen to Australia (and the world). Negative, secretly corrupt, intrinsically unfair, insecure, religious, boy's clubby, backward looking and yes, I think it's true, a typical Aussie misogynist.

So it isn't a balanced debate with two sides (or 2 & 1/2 sides) - it's a fight for the future of this country. Get those cudgels ready!

Posted Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 21:34

No, Jeremiahwuzza, I do not see kRudd as the answer to Labor woes, but there are increasing numbers in the Labor Caucus who think he may just save enough of THEM that there will be perhaps a few more than 30 members of the Labor Caucus post-election. It is really getting to a lot of the Right that their heroine is a failure, and will only lead them to oblivion. Seems one kRudd is very popular in places like Western and SW Sydney, and in Queensland, in very marginal seats, at least much more than one JG, and that popularity may just save THEIR bacon. I doubt that any of them can really believe that kRudd can save the Labor party from a drubbing by the forces of Darkness, there is just so much against them.
Where ALL MSMedia is so thoroughly totally siding with the Mad Monk and his thugs, backed by the billions of dollars of the mining industry and major International corporations.
I read in The Guardian Weekly that in America, the really big money is being focused on defeating any effort by Obama to work against Global Warming, and other reading tells me that quite a bit of this money is being channelled through to a couple of Global Warming denialist organisations here in Australia, from the Heartland Institute. Money from these local organisations will be used to defeat the only real anti-Denialist Political Party in Australia, the Greens, with some left over to annoy the Labor Party.
There is NO commensurate finances available to either the Greens or the ALP to fight the Forces of Darkness, and even if the money was there, would our MSM take it to give some balance. I doubt it. They have never really shown any indication of 'balance' on anything. That very much includes the ABC, since J.Howard stacked the Board and Management with his mates and fellow travellers.

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 00:37

Too much is being made by the Greens moving away from Labor as they position to fight the next election. I watched Christine Milnes address to the National Press Club and recall her saying she rang the Prime Minister before her address to relate her intentions out of respect and their good working relationship. I'm someone who believes our current government is more representative than one party takes all. A combination of Labor, Green and Independents which combine to push through good policy is good, effective government. Its a complex balancing act and I have no confidence Abbotts LNP is capable to negotiate or compromise with their 'all or nothing attitude' and general thuggishness.

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 10:25

Well thought out article, thanks.

Posted Friday, February 22, 2013 - 14:36

So many people getting so excited about the break up between Labor and the Greens!! But what if they need each other again after the next election,for another minority government? I think that would be far preferable to the madness an Abbott Government would bring to this country. Or Labor and the Greens could need each other in the Senate. If the choice came up to go with the Coalition, are the Greens going to do that? Really? With so many stark differences between them? I think the Greens would find themselves in a very bad place in Coalition or Alliance with the LNP Coalition.

Being in an alliance is just that , an alliance. The Greens are a party with their policies. Labor is a party with its policies. The alliance means they work together on their commonalities and negotiate the rest. The Greens need to stop worrying that they lose their identity in this relationship. I know compromise upsets some Greens but that is the cost of being in Alliance. Maybe one day the Greens will be the Opposition to the LNP Coalition...then they will know about compromise!!

Posted Sunday, February 24, 2013 - 09:15

Julia Gillard may have enough rat cunning to do those backroom deals for her own interest- and boy, have they come back to bite her- but she does not have the intellect to know that there are many, many Australians who want a "protest" party. The Greens are the only alternative to 2 "major" parties who have sold themselves to the rich lobby groups. What a fool was Gillard to think that she could con people by letting the mining magnates have free rein to dictate to her so she could get the PM job...aided and abetted by the Israeli lobby group. She is way to weak to stand up on any principle and just sells herself to the highest bidder- and what an embarrassment on the world stage! Christine Milne's speech was a ripper- just what we needed to hear.

Posted Sunday, February 24, 2013 - 18:36

Pathina. Great. Hating Gillard is your prerogative.Tell us what you think of the frightening prospect of an Abbott led "tea party" inspired government. Any wider interest in the fate of the nation at all? Cheers.

Posted Sunday, February 24, 2013 - 19:46

If you think allowing the Gillard cabal free rein to take the ALP even more to the right will help, you are wrong. The ALP deserves to be given a lesson. And, yes, Abbott is worse, but he will not last for ever. If you allow this Gillard crew another term they will only get worse. It is essential that the Greens have the balance of power and why would any decent person vote for either "major" party? They are both beneath contempt. We cannot improve the nation by keeping this Giilard cabal in power- there needs to be a whole shift in the ALP- better yet, though it is only in the stuff of dreams, those ALP worth their salt should change alliances and move to the Greens.

Posted Monday, February 25, 2013 - 07:18

That's the problem. You acknowledge that "Abbott is worse, but he will not last for ever". True. What about the damage and havoc they'll cause until they are deposed again. The nation still hasn't recovered from the consequences of the last regressive regime. Unfortunately self centred "short termism" seems to be the name of the game.
"Those ALP worth their salt should change alliances and move to the Greens".
Wishful thinking. It just doesn't work that way!
What makes it so difficult is that the MSM/ABC are peddling daily misinformation. No wonder the public is utterly confused.
Realistic alternatives. Progressives (ALP,Greens,Independents) versus Regressive Extremism (LNP). When voting choose wisely.

Posted Wednesday, February 27, 2013 - 18:56

A sensible article as usual from Ben Eltham but one must respond to the assertion (MY EMPHASIS) : "As an independent third party sitting on the FAR LEFT of an Australian political landscape that is tilting right, the Greens face some difficult decisions".

The inner City Yuppies who elected Adam Bandt with their (to stereotype) superannuation, renovations, negative gearing, chardonnay, solar panels etc are just, by and large I suppose, ordinary, educated, pro-humanity and pro-environment Australian professionals and hardly "on the far left".

The split between Labor and the Greens goes much further than mere political strategy. The pro-peace, pro-equity, pro-environment, pro-education, science-informed Greens were always reluctant and inappropriate bedfellows for pro-war, pro-Zionist, pro-coal, pro-gas, pro-iron ore, anti-environment, anti-education, anti-science, anti-equity, US lackey, neoliberal Labor.

The genuinely pro-environment Greens only went for pro-coal pro-gas neoliberal Labor's Carbon Tax and Mining Tax as first "baby steps" in the right direction. In harsh reality the Greens and Australia were conned by endlessly lying Labor - the Carbon Tax doesn't tax coal gas or iron ore and has made fugitive emissions effectively tax-free (see "Australia's Carbon Tax scandal": http://mwcnews.net/focus/analysis/23026-gideonpolya-carbon-tax.html ), Australia's Domestic plus Exported Greenhouse Gas (GHG) pollution is rising hugely under Labor and is set to increase enormously under the Carbon Tax-ETS (see "2011 climate change course": https://sites.google.com/site/300orgsite/2011-climate-change-course ) , and far right Gillard Labor after the pro-Zionist Coup against elected PM Kevin Rudd allowed the biggest foreign-owned mining corporations to re-write the Mining Tax with, surprise, surprise, minimal receipts.

Indeed one supposes that a large slab of the "New Greens" are decent traditional Labor voters who are dead opposed to the war, racism, genocide (e.g. the Palestinian Genocide, the Iraqi Genocide, the Afghan Genocide), Educational Apartheid, environmental destruction, lying, spin, and maltreatment of refugees, Aborigines, single mothers etc in which far right, Neocon American and Zionist Imperialist-perverted and subverted neoliberal "New Labor" is involved.

Peace is the only way but Silence kills and Silence is complicity.