Viewpoint: Squabbling over seats

February 7, 1996

Sarah Stephen

Squabbling over seats

In recent weeks, Australian Democrat leader Senator Cheryl Kernot has launched a public attack on the Australian Greens and their leader, Bob Brown, for daring to run a Senate election campaign in Tasmania. Specifically, Kernot accused Brown of "lying" when he said that both he and Democrat Senator Robert Bell stood a fair chance of being elected in Tasmania. Since the formation of the Australian Greens, Kernot has accused them of splitting the "progressive vote", arguing that the size of that vote in Australia "is not big enough to sustain both of us." From the point of view of the Democrats, the Greens' decision to run for the Senate half-election when Bell is up for re-election is unnecessary and bloody-minded. If the Greens were to wait for three years, they wouldn't be running against a sitting Democrat. But from the point of view of the Greens, why shouldn't they run, and let the best "progressive" candidate win. After all, the Democrats have been suffering declining electoral support, they have been quite willing to run against the Greens in the past, and three years is a long time in politics. To support her argument that choosing between the Democrats and the Greens will be a necessity for progressive voters, Kernot charges that the Greens "may have some similar policy outcomes, but they approach parliament very differently". In response, Brown has tried turning the other cheek, stating that "the Democrats have excellent policies" and calling for a closer working relationship between the two parties. This dispute reveals much about the agenda of both parties. Kernot is way out of line to argue that, because the Democrats "have put 18 years of emotional investment into protecting the environment", they deserve a monopoly on the pro-environment alternative vote. Political parties should be judged on their political objectives, platform, structures, methods and performance, not their "emotions". And on all criteria, the Democrats have nothing to offer progressives. But if Brown really does endorse the Democrats' policies, then the question Kernot asks — why are the Greens standing against and not for the Democrats? — is a valid one. If, indeed, their politics are so similar, why all the animosity and infighting? The reason that these two parties are squabbling like two kids who both want the front seat of the car is that they both have an approach which is purely parliamentary. For both the Greens and the Democrats, getting seats in parliament is the strategy for social change. That's why they are so territorial about their seats. If the Democrats and the Greens saw parliamentary representation as part of a wider struggle rather than as the centre of their universe, there would be far more scope for them to work together. It wouldn't matter so much who won what seat because electoral work and parliamentary seats would simply be a means, rather than the end, of a broader collective struggle by the social movements. All of history shows that real social change is propelled by masses of people who are actively mobilised to realise their collective strength (the "parliament of the streets"), not by voting for the "right" people. Getting one or two more or less Democrat or Green senators elected is not the decisive issue for any of us — other than, perhaps, those candidates themselves and their parliamentary caucus leaders.
Sarah Stephen is the Democratic Socialist candidate for the federal seat of Denison.

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