Greens growth brings hope, challenges

July 29, 2011
Greens federal parliamentarians. The Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate as well as one lower house sea

The shift to the right of the Labor Party has increasingly created a sense that there is little difference between the two major parties. Both are willing to implement the neoliberal policies pushed by corporate interests and differ only on the details.

On many issues, the shift to the right does not reflect public opinion. This is the context for the growth of support for the Australian Greens in recent years.

The Greens, with nine senators, now hold the balance of power in the Senate as well as one lower house seat.

Support for the Greens goes well beyond environmental concerns. On issues such as education and health spending, privatisation, war, workers’ rights and equal marriage rights, the Greens hold positions clearly to the left of Labor.

In a July 17 Sydney Morning Herald article, Andrew West pointed out: “On most issues, [the Greens’] values correlate with the views of a large minority of the public — well above their 15% vote — and on many issues they are in tune philosophically with a large majority.”

West singled out the Greens’ rejection of neoliberalism as a key issue. He concluded: “The Greens may be the most left-wing party in parliament but that is only because the other parties — but not the public — have veered so sharply to the right.”

For those who are sick of the two-party duopoly, which pushes corporate interests, the growth of the Greens is a sign of hope.

But to advance their progressive policies, the Greens face big challenges and decisions over their direction.

It is on the urgent need for serious action to tackle climate change that the Greens have faced one of their first big post-federal election tests.

The results are not very positive. In the carbon price deal negotiated with the Gillard government, the Greens have settled for something that falls well short of not just what the science tells us is needed, but the Greens own platform.

Despite the hype, the deal offers little in the way of serious action to tackle climate change. It is geared to become an emissions trading scheme of the sort the Greens rejected last year.

It may be argued the deal was the best that could be achieved given the relationship of forces. But the problem for the Greens is the political support they are giving the deal — providing “green” cover to a very brown, corporate-polluter friendly package.

There is a lesson to be drawn out from the best part of the deal — about $5 billion directed towards renewable energy (well short of what is needed and balanced by the billions in compensation to the big polluters).

This small gain was not just achieved through the Greens’ negotiations, but also a strong grassroots campaign spearheaded by groups such as Beyond Zero Emissions, which has developed a detailed plan to shift Australia to 100% renewable energy in 10 years.

Greens policies often enjoy wide public support, but powerful corporate interests have opposed them hysterically.

The corporate sector has made no secret of its hostility to the Greens. The Rupert Murdoch-owned media are running a sustained campaign against them. The Australian even declared its desire, in an editorial, to see the Greens destroyed.

The power of this sector can be seen in the dumping of Kevin Rudd as Labor leader amid a strong campaign by mining corporations against a very mild tax on the sector.

The problem for the Greens is that if they limit their vision and struggles to the parliamentary arena, they will find it increasingly difficult. They run the risk of being led into greater compromises that block their ability to win progressive change.

In “the game” of parliamentary politics, corporate interests have an inherent advantage. Corporate interests have the mainstream media onside and great economic and lobbying power.

Labor’s unwillingness to challenge these interests is the key cause of its rightward shift. To advance their progressive agenda, the Greens cannot avoid clashing with these powerful interests.

Such interests cannot be countered purely in senate committees or on the floor of the house — they require extra-parliamentary movements of ordinary people fighting for their rights.

The Greens are disadvantaged by the fact that there is an absence of strong social movements in Australia. The trade union movement has been badly weakened after decades of union leaders tying the movement to Labor’s fortunes.

However, the Greens are also in a position to use their political weight to try to change this situation. They can be a voice in parliament for the demands of social movements and use their resources, authority and voice to strengthen extra-parliamentary struggles.

The equal marriage campaign, for instance, is on the brink of victory because there is a strong movement in the community as well as Greens MPs pushing the issue inside parliament.

Having political power means more than seats in parliament or ministerial positions. It means the capacity to actually carry out the policies you stand for.

If a progressive party mistakes real power with its formal trappings, it can end up agreeing to policies that run counter to its platform.

The decision by the Greens in Tasmania to enter a coalition government with a state Labor Party — a party notorious for its links with big business, such as forestry giant Gunns — has been a bad mistake.

It would lead the Greens to disaster if this approach to politics is copied federally or in other states — at least a disaster for those who support progressive policies, if not for the Greens’ electoral results.

The latest Tasmanian government budget, supported by the Greens in government, is in stark contrast to the Greens’ anti-neoliberal platform. It involved savage public sector cuts, and a plan to close 20 schools was only scrapped due to public pressure.

There are examples from Greens parties overseas that show the folly of this approach — such as the case of the Irish Greens.

After the 2007 elections to the Dail (Irish parliament), the Greens formed a coalition with Fianna Fail (one of Ireland’s two major parties).

The result was the Irish Greens took political responsibility for the decisions of a government that carried anti-environmental policies and harsh anti-worker austerity.

In the Dail elections in February, the Greens were wiped out — losing every seat.

The “pragmatic road” proved not very pragmatic at all.

The German Greens are another example. The party, founded on principles of non-violence, found itself in a coalition government actively supporting German involvement in wars on Serbia and Afghanistan.

There are alternatives. In the ACT, for instance, the Greens refused to join a coalition with a minority Labor government in 2008, while still allowing Labor to form government. This allowed the Greens to remain politically independent of a government responsible for many policies the Greens oppose.

A more equal and sustainable society cannot be achieved without confronting corporate power. The Greens have policies that, while often far from radical, would begin to do this. But this is provided the Greens do not allow themselves to get sucked into focusing purely on the parliamentary game.

[Stuart Munckton is co-editor of Green Left Weekly. This article is a contribution to an July feature on the Greens.]

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