The preferences row: what strategy for greens?

July 26, 1995

By Jim McIlroy

BRISBANE — Third party candidates, especially the Greens, had an unprecedented impact in the recent state election. Yet the bitter controversy over preferences threatens to split the environment movement in a very damaging way.

The row over preferences erupted when the Queensland Greens announced they would break with precedent and direct preferences to Coalition candidates in five seats, including three key marginal electorates. Labor lost these three seats — Mulgrave, Springwood and Mansfield. The last two are among the probable four seats the Coalition will pick up in the southern Queensland belt between Brisbane and the Gold Coast as a result of the massive backlash against the Goss government's South-East Tollway plan.

Local Green Party branches were under immense public pressure in the Tollway belt to direct preferences against Labor — such was the anger at the government's arrogant determination to ride roughshod over the overwhelming local opposition to the road, which will slice through one of the country's largest remaining koala habitats.

In the north Queensland seat of Mulgrave, defeated ALP minister Warren Pitt was one of the strongest supporters of rampant development and mining in coastal regions and national parks. Nevertheless, the Green's decision to direct preferences to the Coalition has caused a huge row in the wider conservation movement and among progressives generally.

On the other hand, there has been a sharp reaction by some environment groups to the push by a coalition of peak conservation organisations for the movement to fall in behind Labor. Dr Aila Keto, Rainforest Preservation Society president, caused a storm of protest when, two weeks before the election, she, on behalf of her group, the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the Wilderness Society and others, said that the Greens had "no alternative" but to give preferences to Labor.

This led to other smaller groups, such as the Surfrider Foundation, the anti-tollway group VETO, the organisation opposing the state government's Eastlink power line and Australians for Animals, to accuse the peak groups of being on the Labor "gravy train" over government grants.

Further fuel was added to the fire when the major conservation organisations linked up with the ACTU Queensland to distribute an alternative "green" how-to-vote card, urging preferences to the ALP. ACF executive director Trish Caswell is a former ACTU official and Labor Party activist.

In the post-election furore, the peak conservation groups have attacked "the Green menace" — Queensland Greens spokesperson Drew Hutton — with venom, describing him as "dangerous". According to Wilderness Society representative Greg Sargent, "a childish political strategy pushed by the Greens party power brokers has threatened the future of Cape York, dealt Aboriginal land justice a punishing blow and will entrench the woodchipping of Queensland's diminishing native forests".

Meanwhile, a small breakaway Green Party group based in northern NSW has vowed to run against the Queensland Greens in the upcoming federal election and "finish off Drew Hutton's political career".

Neither side in this debate have grasped the central issue facing the environmental and progressive movements in Australia: how to build a genuine, mass-based third force, independent of both sides of mainstream politics, which can break open the two-party stranglehold and advance the struggle for a radical transformation of society.

Only an independent force can fight effectively to protect the environment and defend people's rights, without being beholden to corporate interests. Hutton's view that the National Party has been "greened" is absurd given the current disastrous record of Coalition state governments in Victoria, WA and SA on the environment and other social justice issues.

The Greens completely ignore, for example, the Queensland Coalition's anti-union industrial policy which will enforce secret ballots before strikes, outlaw compulsory unionism and ban preference to unionists clauses.

On the other hand, to give unqualified support to Labor, considering the rotten policies of the Goss government on the tollway, urban pollution and toxic waste and mining and development in national parks is also unacceptable. In the final instance, given that one or the other will rule, a Labor government is preferable to the Coalition, purely as a lesser evil, and because being in government further exposes Labor as a traitor to working people.

The main problem with the current debate is that it presupposes a parliamentary solution to the problems of the environment and other people's issues. The Greens now see themselves as a parliamentary pressure group, dedicated to keeping the main parties closer to the mark on the environment. This is also the Democrats' view of their role in the parliament and is one of the reasons they are losing support.

Meanwhile, the ACF and Wilderness Society increasingly promote themselves as lobby groups to put pressure on the ALP primarily and separate from the mass, popular struggle in the streets and forests for environmental and social justice.

With a federal election looming, it is crucial that this debate is widened to include the key question of what is the best strategy for the green and progressive movements to win long-lasting changes.

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