Bloody Bob Brown. I have a relatively quiet weekend planned and he goes and retires. Here’s the other article I was asked to write on the subject, for yesterday’s The Drum Opinion, looking at things in terms of the prospects for the party itself. I reproduce it below for your commenting pleasure away from the, er, conservative tenor of the ABC threads.
What is the future for the Australian Greens in the wake of Bob Brown’s retirement? Can Christine Milne and Adam Bandt take the party forward after the loss of such an iconic leader? Will the party be “torn apart” by factional tensions? Will it veer Left or Right? What of the party’s alliance with a Labor government facing a historic landslide defeat? These are some of the questions emerging in mainstream commentary after the Greens’ surprise leadership change last Friday.
Unfortunately, with a few exceptions, media coverage continues to be marked by incomprehension at a party that has repeatedly disappointed predictions of its imminent demise. Here I will look at some reasons for the weakness of media analysis and its relationship to the long, drawn-out crisis of Australian politics. It is only by situating the Greens as a specific element in this crisis that we can tease out the challenges the Greens face in the coming period.
The first main problem in mainstream analysis is that journalists still have very little understanding of the internal workings of the Greens, so they make pronouncements about party processes, factional alignments and voter bases based on false assumptions. For example, there is a tendency well summed up by blogger Greg Jericho in a stinging tweet on Saturday: “Today’s newspapers demonstrate that when it comes to The Greens, the media knows a lot about the Democrats.” In reality there are few useful comparisons to be drawn between that defunct party of the centre and the Greens’ Left of Labor organisation and constituency.
Then there’s the Greens’ general reluctance to use the press to run its internal affairs. One needs only look at Annabel Crabb’s sneering reference to North Korea last Friday for a taste of this:
There’s more than a whiff of Pyongyang about the suddenness of the move; the Greens are a famously closed party, and not much given to gossiping with journalists (in fact, for all the party’s enthusiasm for openness and accountability, they remain the only party to ban all coverage of their conferences) so leadership speculation in the Greens is rare.
Journalists seem to treat a party wanting to come to common positions without the pressure of hostile cameras being pointed at its members as some kind of affront to democracy, when in fact it is exactly the opposite.
Such reactions expose the media’s second problem — it simply hasn’t come to grips with the relationship of the Greens to wider socio-political developments. This reflects how the media has been complicit in the growing detachment of the political class from any serious base in society. Rather than analysing this detachment as a crisis of political representation, journalists assume this is how politics is supposed to operate. Even when the ALP experiences defeats of unprecedented proportions, the scale of the crisis fails to get an explanation, with hollow talk of “political cycles” and the like dredged up instead.
One symptom of this is the idea that rather than political representation emerging from social groups, politicians must go in search of a base to represent. In a particularly banal example, one Fairfax journalist argued:
If the party is to hold and expand it’s electoral support, the new team will have to maintain a posture where it can, potentially, appeal to the political centre, and harvest willing support from its left-wing base.
That requires Milne, and whoever replaces her in the fullness of time, to strike a functional balance between political pragmatism and idealism – much easier said than done.
This kind of meaningless “advice” is also tied up with a presumption that anything outside the pro-business, economic rationalist view of government that dominates official politics is beyond the pale. Hence the fulmination by some right-wing commentators that Brown’s departure could allow a quasi-communist takeover of the party. Or, put slightly less hysterically, they attack any party that exhibits a “deep suspicion of growth, industrial progress and free-market economics”.
The rise and rise of the Greens
In reality the Greens’ rise is mainly the product of the crisis of the political establishment, most importantly a collapse in the ALP’s traditional support. As I’ve previously argued on The Drum, the ALP’s base has been dramatically eroded in terms of primary votes, membership, trade union density, and the ossification of factional structures and ideology. Central to causing this was the collaboration of the union leadership with the Hawke and Keating governments to drive down the wages and living standards of their members in the interests of increasing the profitability of Australian business. This represented a massive redistribution of wealth upwards, spelled out in detail (and celebrated) by George Megalogenis in his recent book, The Australian Moment.
The bitterness created by repeated rounds of such “reform” at the expense of working people not only kept federal Labor in the wilderness for 11 years after 1996, it destabilised the two-party system. This first erupted on the Right with Hansonism, but later on the Left with the Greens’ draining of support from Labor. By relating to a series of social movements in the early 2000s — opposing corporate globalisation, against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in defence of asylum seekers — the Greens also built a political constituency among those who felt abandoned by the ALP on these matters. In short, the Greens stood their ground on a series of minority issues and were thus able to win votes, members and activists, shifting the political terrain in the process.
However, after the mid-2000s the decline in social movement activity alongside continued electoral success at Labor’s expense strengthened tendencies within the party to “professionalise” and seek the political centre ground in order to further grow its vote. This in part explains the factional tensions that bubbled over between Brown supporters and the Left leadership of the NSW Greens, because the latter resisted modernisation and had taken up policies that undermined the new “moderate” image.
Contradictions of success
It also explains the increasing attraction of being “constructive” players within the political establishment as a route to success. After signing a deal to support minority ALP government, the party softened its public criticisms of the ALP on a range of issues and negotiated a climate policy only a little better than the one it voted against in 2009, involving a centrepiece neoliberal “market mechanism” and massive compensation for polluters. There has been internal disquiet at Brown’s commitment to supporting Labor’s ineffectual mining tax no matter how bad it was because Abbott would be worse.
In recent years Brown increasingly resorted to using the media to manage both the party’s image and its internal affairs. From backgrounding journalists to attack the NSW Greens’ Palestine policy to ramping up calls for regulation of the media in response to a hostile Murdoch press, Brown’s modernisation project came to resemble the kinds of games the rest of the political class play as their grip on any stable social constituency grows more tenuous.
While the carbon tax has been a disaster for Gillard, the fact that action on climate is so central to Greens appeal means it has so far not significantly undermined the party’s poll standing. However, the alliance with the ALP does seem to have put a ceiling on the Greens’ ability to win further sections of Labor’s base. In the recent Queensland state election the Greens even went backwards, unable to benefit from the massive anti-Labor swing.
Brown’s authority within the party meant he could keep such problems at bay, but his departure presents Milne with a very different balance of forces. Bandt, apparently elected overwhelmingly by the party room, was a radical Left student politician and later a prominent industrial lawyer. He has considerable union links and ran a very effective lower house campaign along the lines one would have expected of the ALP when it still had serious local roots. Already Milne has signalled that she wants to develop a more inclusive approach than that of Brown, who was often autocratic within the party, throwing tantrums when he didn’t get his way.
But if things are more fluid now, Milne also displays the symptoms of the Greens’ assimilation into the political class. At her first press conference she made appeals to the bush and “progressive” business, as if these groups were likely to support a party identified clearly to the Left of Labor. But she has also attacked Gillard’s surplus fetish, arguing that social needs must not be subordinated to economics, a pitch to a quite different constituency. Such statements, however, remain empty when compared with the more serious work the Greens did in building a base among an active minority in the first half of last decade. The Greens’ current weakness on that score means that its electoral fortunes are likely to be unstable.
Bob Brown loved to contrast his party with the Australian Democrats, saying the Greens’ job was not to “keep the bastards honest” but to replace them. Yet by seeking entry to an exhausted and reviled political establishment, his strategy has risked making the Greens just another pack of bastards for voters to turn against. Any hope the Greens may have of becoming a serious alternative to the major parties rests on coming to grips with the nature and scale of these problems sooner, rather than later.