Greens must not surrender their values

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Recent moves by the Greens leadership to moderate some of their policies have opened up an important debate within the party regarding its future. Below is one contribution to the debate from a group of Greens members which points to "a worrying trend" emerging from within the Greens leadership. They argue “now is the time for members and sympathisers to confront these issues head on".

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The former parliamentary leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, used to distinguish the Greens from the Democrats by saying that it was not the objective of the party he led to keep the bastards honest, but rather to replace the bastards.

This approach to political life should imply an unwavering commitment to the principled positions and policies of the Greens, an approach that is important to the ongoing effort to be a genuine alternative to the business-as-usual Labor-Coalition monopoly of the Australian political landscape.

The public perception that the Greens represent an alternative is the basis of their appeal to the hundreds of thousands of Greens voters nationally and the thousands of Greens members who have built the party up, participated in its struggles and developed its policies.

They have trusted the leadership to remain strong and principled in the face of the temptations of short-term vote-pandering and the superficial lure of the media image and public relations carousel. There are signs that this trust is being weakened at a critical time for both the party and the planet.

In recent state elections, particularly Queensland and the ACT, as well as the NSW council elections, the Greens vote plateaued. This can be attributed to the perception amongst voters that the Greens have grown too close to the Gillard government.

In this context the party is presented with two possibilities: either remain true to its core principles and devise more effective strategies to sell its policies, or weakly conform to the norms and expectations of the mainstream political system and corporate media by gradually ceding certain elements of its platform and policies in the hope that this may lead to greater electoral success and an increased parliamentary presence.

History shows us that left-wing parties that reach a certain level of electoral success and then seek to water down their principles and policies in the hope of gaining further acceptance or wider mainstream “respectability” only serve to damage their own integrity and siphon off the energy of the social movements which underpin them.

The Greens recently scrapped their long-held policy of an inheritance tax, which was, in essence, a tax aimed at the unearned wealth of the richest 1%.

This policy targeted the same social class that manufactures wars, controls and manipulates the media landscape and owns and profits from the industries which are polluting the planet so disastrously — all things that the Greens centrally oppose.

The contradictory message that emerges from abandoning the policy of inheritance tax is that the Greens will leave undisturbed the class structure of society which is responsible for the very problems they fight against.

Compromise and capitulation on values issues that lie at the very heart of the Greens’ agenda will inevitably lead to further compromises in the future. Concurrently, it will only serve to build an image within the community that the Greens are a party that is fundamentally indistinguishable from the others and its leaders are part and parcel of a political class that has been largely responsible for the cynicism, disillusionment and disappointment prevalent in the Australian electorate today.

One of the primary factors contributing to the Greens current crossroads is the tendency towards an undemocratic concentration of decision-making at the top of the party.

While the party is formally committed to democratic internal processes, in practice MPs carry a disproportionate degree of sway in influencing the party in the direction they prefer. In other words, not enough is being done to ensure that MPs remain accountable to the party base.

Recently, the party’s policy platform was watered down so that it no longer offers definite policies on a number of issues, instead merely positing vague core “aims” and “principles” that are open to interpretation and potential manipulation.

This is intended to give MPs “flexibility” when negotiating legislation, something we have all grown accustomed to as a typical ploy of the major parties.

What some in the partyroom and their staffers fail to realise is that this tendency is precisely what is leading to a reaction from the membership with the serious potential for the gradual collapse of the integrity of the party structure.

The centralisation of power and decision-making at the top of the party diminishes the capacity for internal reform and wide-reaching member participation which will undoubtedly lead to the party becoming inflexible and stunted as transparency declines and the capacity for self-reform diminishes.

By encouraging these tendencies, the partyroom and its staffers are in fact playing right into the hands of the right-wing media that wants to destroy the Greens and all movements for social change which challenge their conservative hegemony.

A symptom of the problem of hierarchism within the Greens can be observed in recent media appearances by Bob Brown. On the ABC’s 7.30 program on September 19 last year he said “the inner-city Greens need to take a good look at themselves”.

Clearly Brown is here abusing his status as a party elder by trying to ensure that the party reflects his own image, an inappropriate input into public debate on his part that offends the Greens’ paramount principle of grassroots democracy.

This attempt to divide the party is an example of old-style politics at its worst. His comments show a lack of judgement and discipline and come across as being unhelpful and negative.

The Greens will not increase in strength and popularity by individual members engaging in public displays of division that seek to broadcast their personal opinions as though speaking unilaterally for the party as a whole.

This is not to say dissent or disagreement should be muzzled; the party must stay true to its principles and maintain vigorous democratic internal processes if they are to be successful into the future. Party unity and democracy are not opposites; rather the former is strengthened to the degree that the latter is strengthened — within the proper internal party mechanisms.

The response of the party to the Gonski education reforms offers us a valuable illustration of the technocratic managerialism that has infected the party’s upper ranks.

In spite of the banner of grassroots democracy enshrined in the Greens’ four pillars, it seems that in this matter the partyroom has taken it upon itself to disregard the wishes and interests of the grassroots — which were responsible for the formation of its education policies — and instead chosen to uncritically kowtow to the limited perspective of a government-appointed bureaucratic “expert”.

While there is much to be said in favour of the Gonski education reforms, the Greens federal partyroom has opted to endorse the whole package unquestioningly rather than dissecting it and calling for increased public funding for those aspects of Gonski which are in accord with Greens policy.

Whether intentional or not, by doing this the partyroom sends the message that they are in control and the membership must trust them to deliver outcomes as they see fit. Such crass hierarchism suggests a misunderstanding of democratic leadership.

To arrest this worrying trend of the widening disconnect between the partyroom and its grassroots membership, now is the time for members and sympathisers to confront these issues head on.

The Greens should continue to strive to “replace the bastards”, but this must happen in parallel with progressive social campaigns that help to create genuine transformation towards a more equal and green society and economy.

Success for the Greens can only be founded on a basis of integrity and consistency within the framework of its established policies and principles.

Trying to retreat from or reinterpret these in the name of electoral “pragmatism” in the mistaken belief that such a strategy will result in a long-term improvement in the party’s share of the overall vote or an increase in the number of Greens parliamentarians does not do justice to the high ideals of the Australian Greens, and nor does it do justice to the trust which many Australians place in them.

From GLW issue 950

Comments

So let's have the debate

I would encourage the authors of this anonymous article not to confuse a change of policy with a change of principles or an effort to pander to voters. I witnessed much of the discussions within the party about the Education Policy changes and in my view it was a fantastic example of grassroots and participatory democracy in action that took months to achieve. There has been no breach of trust and if all of our members, voters and supporters witnessed those days of debate, discussion and compromise I am confident their trust in the Greens would have only been strengthened.

The fact is that there are avenues available within the Greens for these discussions to be had, for people to be listened to and for their views - if supported by the membership - to become integrated into the Party's platform and vision for a better, greener, more just and more sustainable Australia. That makes the Greens very different from the other major parties and is something many members are immensely proud of.

Similarly the other issues raised in this article can also be discussed within the party and it is a debate I would like to see occur. I would encourage the anonymous contributors to this article to raise it internally for discussion. As best I can tell it hasn't been yet. I have no problem with having these debates in the public space but to talk about declining transparency and member participation and the need to maintain grassroots democracy while writing anonymous public contributions without raising them inside the party seems just a little hypocritical.

Justin Field, NSW Greens member