Why The Greens Are Not Just Greenies

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While I don’t agree with all his subsequent prescriptions, Geoff Gallop is right to call for parties on the democratic left to review their strategies. The minutiae of election campaigns always need to be examined immediately afterwards, but so do longer-term issues of broader strategic positioning and practice.

I don’t really accept Gallop’s characterisation of the Greens’ asylum seeker policy as "ultra-libertarian" or their economic policies as "ultra-interventionist", but I won’t argue the toss on that here. People also have a habit of arguing about what is or isn’t left-wing or radical. These debates are not completely without value, but it can be easy to get hung up on labels. If you spend all your time trying to pin down the precise location of the mythical political "centre" — which scurries wildly from one place to another depending on the issue and how it’s framed — you’ll never stop chasing.

Most voters care about issues rather than ideological labels, and while virtually every party will say it wants to broaden its base, to try to do so by jettisoning or watering down a core part of your existing base is very risky. And while a party needs to be careful not to take on too many issues that might be seen as appealing to different voter bases, you usually don’t broaden your base by narrowing your focus.

Gallop spotlights the Greens’ actions in taking up a wide-ranging program of reform well beyond what is still usually seen as their "core" business of the environment. He is right to suggest that any party which drifts from its core values or issues runs the risk of losing support.

However, I expect in 50 years time the Greens will still be countering assertions that they are just a party about the environment, while also dealing with calls from outsiders complaining that they’re not and insisting they should only deal with the environment and nothing else. It’s not that dissimilar to the Democrats, who spent years insisting they were about a lot more than keeping the bastards honest, while continually battling demands from outsiders that that was all they should constrain themselves to.

This isn’t the place for an extended history lesson, but while the Greens in Tasmania grew very much out of the environment movement, the first Greens MP in federal Parliament came out of the peace movement in WA. Other elements that ended up coming together under the Australian Greens banner in the early 1990s were also focused on social and economic justice.

In any case, the Greens public embrace and advocacy on a wider range issues is something that has occurred over many years and has coincided with the gradual growth of the party’s voter base and parliamentary representation. One thing the Greens have done better than the Democrats is build a more stable base of voter support, and having seen this happen up close it is clear that key parts of it relate to the party’s strong support for social and economic justice issues, along with environmentalism. There will always be valid discussions over what issues to prioritise and how to frame specific issues, as well as how "extreme" a position to take on it, but that does not justify walking away from issues altogether

However, it is true the Greens have seen a decline in their primary vote in recent times, and they would be very foolish to ignore this. But it has also been a long way short of a Democrats-style disintegration; at a minimum the Greens have maintained their numbers in the federal Parliament including the very important achievement of successfully defending the House of Representatives seat of Melbourne in the face of increased attacks.

The environment will always be a core part of the Greens focus, and the record of the last Parliament demonstrates that. But the party also gave strong and successful focus to some important issues which might not be seen as "traditional" Greens issues. However, they were and remain credible left-wing/progressive issues, and as that is where the Greens are positioned, there is no reason for the party not to take them on.

Those suggesting the Greens should alter their strategy to be more focused on a few core issues could point to issues such as Denticare, or even the party’s insistence on having all their policies costed and balanced in a very traditional economic way, as being time wasted on things the public won’t notice and will never give them credit for. I suspect very few in the voting public would think of the Greens when Denticare is mentioned, but the party played an important role in getting progress in this area. It took a lot of work, but in my view just because it didn’t win many votes doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have been done, even though a pure pragmatist would argue any energy spent that doesn’t win votes is energy that could have been spent on other things which do.

One of the unavoidable consequences of working with other parties, particularly larger ones, on major policy initiatives is that it is often very hard to get much credit when those policies are adopted. Some would argue the pragmatic approach is to ignore such issues and leave them to the larger parties, but my view is that progressive parties have an obligation to work to achieve positive outcomes even when the likely short-term political gains might be few.

I’d say the same with policy costings. Looking at Clive Palmer’s electoral success despite pushing policies with a totally untenable mix of massive tax cuts and massive spending increases, or even the Coalition getting away with their fiscal flim-flam, it would be easy to say it’s not worth bothering with such things. I think this is one area where the Greens definitely need to persevere. It will take a long time, but the party needs to consistently demonstrate over many electoral cycles that it gives importance to having their policies costed and implementable.

Gallop is right to say that it was a tragedy for the nation — indeed for the planet — that Labor, the Greens and moderate Liberals couldn’t lock in a carbon trading system in the first term of the Labor government. However, few Greens will accept his characterisation that this was just due to their refusing to work with Labor and moderate Liberals – instead seeing it as a combination of Kevin Rudd actively shunning the Greens and choosing to work only with the Liberals on legislation, as well as him putting forward a scheme which simply could not have delivered even minimum necessary reductions.

This isn’t a matter of one side needing to have its version of history agreed to by the other. It is about each party accepting that the other has a different view. Otherwise, it just becomes a rhetorical club each side uses for the rest of eternity to justify why there is no point trying to work with the other.

While it will never be an "either/or" question for the Greens when it comes to environment and social justice, there is a valid debate to be had about degrees of emphasis and priority, as well as the age-old tension between ideological purity versus political pragmatism when it comes to policy details. Ideally, a party can keep this tension creative rather than destructive, but it has to be engaged with rather than pretending it doesn’t exist.

For the foreseeable future, it is unavoidable that Labor and the Greens will be competing for progressive voters and at times for seats in parliament. In such circumstances, attitudes can develop which can lead people to forget that the bigger ideological and political enemies lie on the other side of the political spectrum.

But this is hardly a unique circumstance, and it doesn’t preclude the parties from seeking to work together on individual campaigns or issues – such as workers’ rights or carbon pricing – or in more formal ways should parliamentary numbers require it, such as currently applies in Tasmania or has applied in the past in New Zealand.

It is true, and for progressive people unacceptable, that “right-wingers who want to hold up the march towards a freer, fairer and more sustainable Australia hold the whip hand at the moment.” While every party has to spend some time looking at their own priorities and strategies, one thing which all political parties of the left need to do is to be clear on who the bigger enemy is. Winning votes is obviously an important thing for a political party but the bigger picture also requires looking at how to strengthen support for progressive policies and attitudes in the community.

The Greens and Labor demonstrated in the last Parliament that they can work together to produce some ground-breaking economic, social and environmental policies (which also suggests Gallop’s portrayal of the Greens as being “too used to saying no all the time” is at best dated). The parties need to review why their overall vote declined, but I haven’t seen any evidence in the post-election research to suggest that these policy achievements were the reason why.

Tony Abbott will undo some of it, most obviously targeting carbon pricing, but he will find it a lot harder to dismantle much of the rest if the progressive left defends this positive legacy rather than runs away from it.

New Matilda national affairs correspondant Ben Eltham is on leave. NM has invited a range of former politicians and commentators to write in his absence.

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