The Greens face a choice between taking the Australian Democrats road of balance-of-power politics or becoming a more influential left-wing party, Sylvia Hale, Greens member of the NSW upper house, said in the 10th annual Juanita Neilsen memorial lecture on March 23.
Labor and Liberal have already effectively colonised the centre and it's the left where the Greens stand to make the greatest advances, she said.
Hale's lecture, "The Greens: mainstream party or minor irritant?", came on the heels of the Greens scoring a record high vote (21%), and winning five out of 25 seats in the Tasmanian state elections. The result raised the prospect of the Greens taking part in a coalition government. On April 17, Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim rejected an offer by Labor Premier David Bartlett to take on a Cabinet ministry position in the new minority government.
Hale argued the Greens should not go the Democrats road and broker bad deals, as the Democrats did with the GST, with the mainstream parties. Instead, she said they should focus on building a more engaged left-wing party that firmly rejects neoliberalism.
Commenting on the increasing alienation from politics, Hale said: "More than ever, political engagement has become the preserve of a minority. One of the challenges for the Greens is to evolve alternative institutions that would give meaning to politics in a broader sense."
She attributed people's growing disillusionment with politics to the Labor Party's abandonment of any meaningful commitment to regulating capital, a process that began in the 1970s, following the first and second oil shocks, and continued under the Hawke and Keating Labor governments.
In addition, Hale said the impact of revelations about life in the Soviet Union and its satellites contributed to an erosion of confidence in political alternatives. This loss of confidence led to an unwillingness on parts of the left to counter claims that government intervention to promote a more just or more equal society was counter-productive.
However, she said, the global financial crisis had challenged claims that market forces should be left to regulate themselves or that the role of government, as Kevin Rudd put it, "is simply to enforce contracts and protect the allocation of property rights" .
The neoliberal view of the world, Hale said, leads political parties to abandon principles and philosophical positions and to instead fashion strategies to appeal to the preferences of targeted voters.
It becomes a question of tinkering with the status quo: of not whether the Medicare rebate is inconsistent with the provision of universal health care, but where the rebate should cut in.
"Policies that require a commitment to established and recognised principles and the sidelining of perceived or immediate self-interest are dismissed as old-fashioned irrelevancies. This leads to elections being fought on an increasingly narrow range of issues.
"Once policy issues are eliminated from debate, elections and media coverage become simply a matter of which party is the better manager of the status quo or which leader projects a more engaging image."
What does all this mean for the Greens as the rising third force in politics?
Hale cited statistics indicating that voters do distinguish between the major parties at the ballot box, and that overwhelmingly they locate themselves in the centre and right portion of the left-right spectrum.
She then quoted from a May-June 2009 Australian Quarterly article by Professor Geoffrey Hawker in which he warned that while the Greens are largely locked up in the upper houses of parliament (largely due to the undemocratic voting system in most lower houses), there is great pressure on the Greens to play a balancing role, which could produce unwanted compromises that antagonise its members and supporter base.
Hale argued that the Greens will do best if the party acknowledges that its supporters, voters, members, and candidates, as well as the public at large, place the Greens on the left of the political spectrum.
"The challenge for the Greens", she said, "is to embrace this reality and devise campaigns whose purpose is to increase and solidify support for the party among left-wing voters with whom the Greens already have so much in common."
But as Green parties increasingly hold balance-of-power positions in parliaments around the world, Hale warned that coalition government is not without its perils. Minor parties' ability to exercise the balance of power evaporates when the major parties agree with each other.
"Extending support to conservative parties seems destined not only to alienate post-materialist [the more youthful, female, urban, educated and humanitarian values of a younger generation] Greens voters but also Labor voters who vote Greens in the upper house elections but decline to do so in lower house elections.
"If the zeal with which Labor luminaries such as Lindsay Tanner attack the Greens is any indication, the ALP left certainly knows where the threat to its support base is coming from", she said.
[Pip Hinman is Socialist Alliance federal candidate for Grayndler. Sylvia Hale's lecture can be found at her website.]