In the eyes of Richard King, the Greens leader got off to a rocky start. So how’s he travelling now?
When Richard Di Natale became the leader of the Greens in 2015, he set about painting himself as a pragmatist, as someone in politics to Get Things Done.
Perhaps sensing that the Greens are often viewed as unworldly, as political naïfs, he set out a new vision of the party as the voice of principled compromise. “I am not an ideologue,” he declared in a press conference, shortly after assuming his new post.
Later in the day, he criticised the Abbott government on the grounds that it was ‘deeply ideological’. Clearly ‘deeply ideological’ was a bad thing to be, in Di Natale’s view.
Such rhetoric was both unsurprising and discouraging. Dissing ideology is a favourite sport among politicians, and a sign either that they haven’t understood what an ideology is, or that they have understood what it is but have decided for reasons of political expediency to paint themselves as its antidote, as ‘reality’ and ‘common sense’ incarnate.
In Di Natale’s case, I took it as an indication that he was preparing to move his party to ‘the centre’, which is (I won’t need to tell NM readers) no less ‘ideological’ than a head-kicker for the CFMEU with a hammer-and-sickle tattoo on his arse. More so, in fact, since at least the head-kicker knows that politics involves a battle for resources and that the dominant ideology will tend to reflect the priorities of the people who find themselves on top of the pile.
So, not the greatest start, for mine. Nor did the sight of Di Natale going into bat for capitalism in the face of the challenge from Left Renewal (who say they don’t much care for it) do much to disrupt my view of the Greens as a party of knowledge-class liberals more interested in social engineering than in radical, material redistribution.
Yes, they’ve been solid on immigration detention, and they’ve kept the focus of renewables. But on the central question of the 21st century – the terminal decline of capitalism – they’ve offered very little of note.
But then came Di Natale’s speech, last Wednesday, to the National Press Club – a speech that, while not exactly Marxist, did contain a genuine acknowledgment that we are entering new socioeconomic territory – a long interregnum, if you like, in which questions of how, and how much, we work, and how we (re-)distribute wealth will have to come to the fore. Though couched in the usual fluffy guff about the importance of ‘love and compassion’ etc, it was an intervention of unusual candour.
Much of the speech was unsurprising. There was anxiety about the ‘democratic deficit’ and the corrupting influence of big donations; an attack on the conservative media and its concentration in a few, well-manicured hands; and some solid social democratic proposals for increased taxes on the uberwealthy, a people’s bank, and other sundries. But there was also this:
We rightly talk about the 16 per cent of people who want to work more hours, but we never hear about the more than one in four Australians who want to work less. A four-day work week or a six-hour day might actually make us happier and create more opportunities for others, not to mention reducing the costs of full-time childcare. Some companies have even implemented three day working weeks. As part of that discussion, let’s also talk about guaranteed adequate income. Many other countries are trialling models of a social safety net designed to look after everyone in a 21st century economy where work has changed radically.
Now this is all a bit vague and general, and the question of who or what could enforce a four-day week or six-hour day in the current economy is studiously avoided. Nor will conservative commentators waste much time in rejecting Di Natale’s thoughts as evidence that the Greens were insufficiently ‘pragmatic’.
But even to raise the question of work, and working less, in the current political climate is, well, courageous minister. This is not the kind of pabulum one expects from party leaders, especially in Australia.
In order to make ‘ideological’ sense Di Natale’s musings on work and basic income would have to be couched in an acknowledgment that the kind of capitalism we’ve had for four decades has simply ceased delivery – that it no longer works, even on its own terms. And, remarkably, they were so couched. True, Di Natale didn’t use the c-word; but he did appear more than usually alive to the moral and economic disaster currently engulfing the globe. On ‘neoliberalism’ he was unequivocal:
For decades we’ve been in the grip of neoliberalism, an ideology based on the singular assumption that humans are selfish individuals, always in violent competition. An ideology defined by the sale of any public asset that isn’t nailed down, that sees taxation, regulation and trade unions as the enemy. An ideology that believes if only we relinquish total control to the market, wealth will magically trickle down to everyone.
It’s why the Coalition wants to give $50 billion in tax cuts to their business mates rather than to those people who really need it. It is an ideology that is now so thoroughly discredited, the impacts so widely despised, that the people of America were prepared to elect a dangerous, unstable, narcissist as their president to overturn it.
The key sentence here is the final one. Here we have a Greens leader acknowledging the material basis of the right-populist insurgency. ‘It was the economy, stupid!’ is what he’s saying, in effect. Not racism, not misogyny – though those things had their parts to play. Not the deep stupidity of Americans (something of which, in my experience, many Greens voters are entirely convinced). No, it was the suite of policies adopted in the late 1970s, and the wage stagnation, bullshit jobs, precarity and general shittiness that flowed from them that did for Clinton.
Why do we not hear more of this from the Greens? Surely a party with environmentalism at its core can understand the urgency of calling into question a system based on the accumulation of profit and thus on perpetual economic growth. Inscribed within the concern for the planet and the management of its finite resources is a mandate for collectivism and solidarity – for socialism, more or less.
You can’t buy your kid a place in a school with better air (or you can, but you won’t be able to for long). Why don’t the Greens follow Naomi Klein’s lead and cheerfully cop the charge that they are ‘watermelons’ – green on the outside and red on the inside. How is it possible to be otherwise?
Well, I’ll leave the inquest to them. For now I’m just happy that Di Natale has invited his membership, and voters in general, to consider what kind of system we have and what kind of system might come to replace it. Yes, there were the usual bromides – ‘I genuinely believe in the decency of people to rise above hate’ etc etc – but there was also fresh conviction in his words. And a restoring dose of ‘ideology’.