The Greens call in the ‘experts’ – but where have the politics gone?

by · August 22, 2012

This week the Australian Greens MPs in Canberra told people to “Give a Gonski” on schools funding, joining the call by education unions to see UNSW chancellor’s report implemented in full. The promise of new money for public schools is a welcome part of the report, yet Gonski’s recommendations do nothing to seriously address the funding imbalances that have led to a growing disparity between state schools and the growing private sector. You can already see how quickly the Greens MPs are moving away from their party’s policy which calls for a shift away from public subsidy of private schools with Adam Bandt’s reply to questions about that policy during the recent Melbourne state by-election campaign.

Later this week I will post on the much bigger shift to the Right on education policy the Australian Greens party room wants to convince the party of at its upcoming national conference in November, but for now we’re reposting a recent piece I wrote for Overland Journal’s blog on the Greens’ increasing reliance on “experts”. The strategy of subcontracting politics to technocrats and experts comes through in an interview with Christine Milne earlier this year about how she works within parliament:

Her experience has been important in shaping her approach to achieving outcomes. In a long interview with The Power Index, she told us one of her preferred mechanisms for reaching compromise is through cross-party committees like the multi-party committee on climate change that last year yielded the carbon pricing package.

They work, she says, because they bring in outside, apolitical experts to contribute to the process. Independent input creates a space absent from head-to-head negotiations that allows politicians to adjust their positions and change their minds on issues without losing face or feeling they’ve undermined their own authority.

 

Far from ‘extreme’: The Greens’ worrying technocratic turn

It seems unlikely that recent dummy spits by ALP hardheads will either dent the Greens’ appeal or scare the minor party into dropping those policies that are to the Left of Labor’s (and therefore ‘loony’ or ‘extreme’). As Lee Rhiannon has pointed out, and as this week’s Nielsen poll confirms, left-leaning voters see a lot of sense in the two parties of the Left getting together.

The bigger problem, which Rhiannon evades with talk of her party’s ‘progressive’ character, is that the Greens have been pursuing a long-term process of moderating their policies and approach – of moving to the right on a series of issues and playing a more ‘constructive’ role. This process includes the watering down of policies perceived to be controversial vote-losers (e.g. drug decriminalisation or, more recently, death duties). It has also taken the form of public attacks on the party’s ‘watermelon’ Left in NSW, most prominently over the BDS. Finally, it has also meant adapting to their role in government – most sickeningly in Tasmania by being the party for school closures, but even federally limiting their ambit and integrating themselves with the political establishment.

One particularly disturbing way this adaptation has manifested is in the party’s increasing resort to a technocratic, anti-political approach to politics. Now, at one level anti-political rhetoric can be a cute debating trick, with politicians accusing other politicians of ‘playing politics’ – as if politicians are meant to do something else!

This kind of rhetoric tries to connect with the not unreasonable idea that politicians too often represent narrow, party political interests rather than the social good. You could see it in action last week in the tussle over the National Disability Insurance Scheme, an impeccably neoliberal policy all the parties actually agree on. NSW Upper House MP Jan Barham – part of that state’s right-wing Troika of Greens politicians – was quick to accuse Barry O’Farrell of ‘playing politics’ in stalling on the scheme, which he undoubtedly was. But wasn’t she doing the same when she claimed the NDIS is ‘a ground breaking process for people with disabilities that will provide self-determination and dignity for those people and their families’ even though the evidence for such claims is negative?

The technocratic argument also taps into a more profound crisis of the political class: its increasing inability to govern through usual democratic processes. This process has been magnified by the political and numerical weakness of the minority ALP government. The argument treats the rule of experts as preferable to the (limited) rule of the people through democratic processes. This is the idea that what one needs is not ‘politics’ but ‘policy’ in order to get good outcomes. It comes tied up with all kinds of baggage – that all ‘ideology’ is bad, that when particular social interests affect governance they necessarily distort good outcomes, and that what is needed is deference to ‘experts’ who can design policy based on a value-free ‘evidence base’. This is a dangerous game to play, because it accepts the supersession of politics as something that is based in real social interests and antagonisms. The Greens were able to build a serious voter base largely because they took clearly left-wing political stands against the increasing convergence of the major parties around a rightward shifting ‘centre’, one where technocratic governance had apparently eclipsed ideology.

So on asylum seekers, Sarah Hanson-Young attacks Tony Abbott for being ‘all politics with no responsibility’. She supports ‘the comments made by Former Chief of the Australian Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie, who has condemned the Coalition’s policy as dangerous and irresponsible’ and claims that ‘no experts support the Coalition’s policy’. For her, Greens policy involves ‘sensible and practical steps for savings the lives of refugees’ rather than being tarnished with politics. Now, I support the Greens’ demand for onshore processing but how is this not politics itself? Indeed, how have debates over immigration ever been about anything other than politics? The Greens have rightly been wary of Gillard’s appointment of an elite expert committee, yet this wariness is undermined by their desire to appear to defer to such expertise on the issue.

On education funding, the Greens have joined the calls for the Gonski report to be implemented. So Penny Wright argues: ‘Gonski gives us a clear way forward to achieving a system of fair, needs-based funding for our schools and the Greens are keen to work constructively with the government to bring on these practical and visionary reforms.’ Now why would any self-respecting progressive politician defer to the findings of UNSW’s chancellor David Gonski who – with vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer – has spearheaded the aggressive corporatisation of the university, not to mention a hardline industrial relations agenda that provoked extended and bitter industrial action by staff? This is not to mention presiding over (and denying the existence of) a culture of bullying at UNSW, recently outlined in a survey carried out by the NTEU. While Gonski’s proposed reforms point to the underfunding of public schools, they are far from unbiased and will lock in public subsidy of rich private schools. This is in contravention of Greens policy which rightly calls for a significant cut in public money being given to private schools (here)see points 18 & 65 – a policy that the Right in the party have been trying to get rid of, and which they will have a fifth attempt at in the current policy revision process*. Again, behind the veneer of the expert report is an intensely political deferral to elite opinion and neoliberal orthodoxy.

And then there was the Melbourne by-election, where the Greens did well to win on primaries but did little to arrest high levels of disinterest, which saw one-third of the electorate not turn out, with informal votes coming in third place at over 8 per cent. The Greens’ vote dropped by some 1800 compared with the last state election, suggesting an inability to enthuse the electorate in this apparently crucial by-election. So what inspiring politics did they articulate? Well, actually, they told voters that ‘The Greens are about policy not politics’, and that they have:

A scientific approach to policy and politics. [Candidate] Cathy [Oke]’s scientific background means a voice based on sound reasoning and positive and deliverable outcomes. Her pragmatic approach ensures that far from being extremists the Greens are a grounded future driven party.

But why should the technocratic form of these arguments be so worrying? Because, rather than addressing the substance of the crisis of democratic politics, they seek to get around it by creating an apolitical veneer around issues that are (and should be) political. The failure of the political class to be able to govern with a mandate doesn’t come from lack of consultation with experts or failure to study the evidence. It comes from the political system’s increasing divorce from its social base in the neoliberal era, a process most evident in the ALP’s secular decline. If democratically elected politicians cannot govern with popular (or even parliamentary) consent, deferring to unelected technocrats inside and outside the state bureaucracy further delegitimises the idea of popular will determining government action. It is one thing to criticise actually existing democracy (which is already on the nose if opinion polls are to be believed), quite another to then suggest that what we need is even less democracy. Just look at Greece and Italy, where the inability of politicians to maintain consent for brutal austerity led to them stepping down in favour of technocratic administrations willing to do the Troika’s work.

The Greens have long prided themselves on ‘doing politics differently’ to the major parties. But the more they have been drawn into the mainstream, into taking responsibility for the running of the state, the more they have started to play politics in exactly the way that has led the major parties into crisis. Now so tied in to this dynamic, the ‘anti-politics’ they articulate is no longer of outsiders wanting to engender a truly ‘grassroots’ approach. Nor is it even of wanting to save existing democracy (however limited) from itself. Increasingly they accept their place in a hollowed out political system and the remaining vestiges of democratic influence it still describes.

Clearly this is a trend and not a completed process. Obviously the Greens still relate to the desire by many voters for a left-wing alternative to the major parties. But it is reasonable to ask, I think, whether being inside the tent has made them ever less able to articulate politics and policies that speak to and for the vast majority of ordinary people who reject the neoliberal consensus of the last three decades. And if they don’t, who can?

*Apparently also among the Right’s proposals are an end to support for the principle of free tertiary education, as well as dropping opposition to school league tables and TAFE privatisation. But that’s a story for another post!

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