Australia’s ‘Left’ in government. Part 2: Greens trapped in a prison of their own making

by · September 15, 2011

Since when did building a climate movement mean cheerleading neoliberal government policies?

In the last post I argued that the deep crisis of the Gillard government is also a crisis of the Greens and the Left more generally. By effectively entering a “Left” government the Greens have replicated the disastrous strategy of Italy’s main party of the Left, Rifondazione Comunista, in joining a centre-Left coalition in the late 2000s.

In 2010 I wrote the following:

To understand the role of the Greens, one must consider how the party has both inspired and frustrated the Left in the last decade. But it is also important to understand what its disappearance or rapid shift to the Right would mean in today’s circumstances. For all their weaknesses, the Greens have served as a generalised political focus on the Left. In the absence of a serious, more radical alternative, that remains preferable than either a return to the major parties or a fragmentation of progressive aspirations among many smaller formations or individuals. Nevertheless, it is also true that simply waiting for something external to push the Greens to the Left gives too much ground to the conservative limitations of the Greens project.

This has been proven correct. 

The Greens have shifted dramatically since when Bob Brown came down to reinspire picket lines that had been attacked by police at the S11 protests in 2000, or when Kerry Nettle’s Senate office was the virtual nerve centre of massive anti-war protests in 2002-3.

Not in government but responsible for it

The Greens have not only pledged to support the ALP on supply and confidence, they have striven to be seen as part of the government. The agreement between the parties commits the Greens to very little politically; it is not until the sixth of seven sections that policy matters (rather than issues of process) are raised — mainly around the creation of the carbon price committee, with lesser demands over dental care, a parliamentary debate over the war in Afghanistan and a study into high-speed rail.

Yet there is a widespread view, not just on the hysterical Right but among many Greens voters, activists and MPs, that the party actually is in government and responsible for its future, even when this is not technically the case. In particular the main campaign the party has mobilised its activist base around in recent months has been promotion of the government’s most unpopular policy — the carbon tax.

That otherwise sensible left-wing politicians like John Kaye have felt the need to publicly butt heads with the Liberals over competing sets of economic modelling about the impact of the tax suggests a major disconnect from reality. As if such modelling — invariably done by the same people who once assured us the GFC could never happen — has ever been worth the paper it’s written on.

The Greens have also tempered their attacks on the ALP in other areas. Left Flank has previously pointed out the Greens MPs have effectively acceded to the arguments for an age of austerity, budget surpluses and public sector cutbacks. It doesn’t matter that the Greens propose worthwhile alternatives (e.g. a higher mining tax, cuts to corporate welfare). Bob Brown has made clear that he will only push new spending within the constraints of the government’s fiscal approach; that it would be irresponsible to demand “unfunded” policies be implemented. In his Budget reply speech he argued:

This is not a Greens budget; it is a Labor budget. The Greens will deal responsibly with all budget legislation on its merits. We will not block the budget or supply, but we will look to improve it where we can in a fiscally responsible manner. However, in order to ensure stability in government, the Greens will not be supporting any opposition move which aims to wreck the budget.

On the issue of Australia’s continued involvement in wars against Muslim nations, the Greens have muted criticisms of the US-Australia Alliance, been largely uncritical of Obama’s foreign policy, and most disturbingly been enthusiasts for the NATO intervention in Libya.

And even though they have been critical of Gillard’s obscene Malaysian Solution, they’ve modified their language in terms of trying to politely provide workable progressive alternatives. The longer the alliance has persisted the less outraged has been the tone employed by Sarah Hanson-Young, despite her proven record in moral shrillness. Such niceties finally crumbled last week as Bob Brown complained “I’ve bitten my tongue for quite a while on this.” He added in frustration, “But here we have Julia Gillard moving herself to the right of Philip Ruddock and John Howard in a repressive attitude towards the rights of asylum seekers to be processed on-shore in Australia.”

But why has it taken so long for Brown to talk tough? Why have the Greens acted in this way? Their strategy was summed up by Hanson-Young in a recent Fairfax column:

With this new position in the political landscape and our new seats on the Senate benches comes even greater responsibility to deliver achievements for the community and stability for the Parliament. We will work hard to improve legislation and to keep presenting innovative ideas to be adopted by government and opposition. But, just as importantly, we must make sure we deliver more constructive than destructive solutions to the topics that land on our desks. Working to secure our nation’s future prosperity requires more leadership than just saying “No”.

Yet this is a government in deep crisis, unable to deliver on “stability” precisely because it is trying to implement a legislative agenda it believes will “constructively” deliver for the needs of Australia’s elite, while abandoning any commitment to progressive reform. The central planks of Gillard’s approach have been an intensification of austerity measures, capitulation to the mining billionaires, the further marketisation of Australia’s public health system, a punitive agenda for Australia’s unemployed and disabled, continuation of the NT intervention, possibly the most reactionary asylum seeker policy of any rich country, continued military intervention in Afghanistan, and of course a neoliberal climate policy that is likely to be not just regressive but make little impact on emissions.

In the above-quoted press conference last week, Brown explained the constraints the Greens have decided to operate within:

I get asked on this immigration question, as with others, well, why aren’t we bringing this government down? Because you get Tony Abbott. And I am not going to take the Andrew Wilkie course of threatening instability in government because we’re not getting our own way. … We are committed to stability in government and three-year term elections. So responsibility requires that you have some probity and some forbearance and you keep working until you get what you think are good policies through. Threatening to bring down the government on any issue where you get stuck is not something the Greens will be doing.

This is self-imposed political impotence, because on asylum seekers Brown’s strategy is to “fight this right the way through the parliamentary process,” yet he is unwilling to use the only serious parliamentary leverage he has — threatening the government’s “stability”.

This also helps explain why the Greens have been unable to win over left-leaning Labor voters disenchanted with the government. On Labor’s left flank there is simply no reason to break to the Greens when they have been unwilling to use their numbers to actually challenge government policy. In the one area, climate change, where the Greens have won some of their agenda, the policy reeks of economic rationalism that is widely reviled in the electorate. It is the commitment to such reforms, and their lack of a clear break with the neoliberal economic agenda more generally, that has meant the Greens are unattractive to working class voters as an alternative to the ALP.*

What about the movements?

The other parallel with the Italian experience is the Greens’ claim to be the expression of social movements within the parliamentary arena. In an interview soon after he was elected, Melbourne MP Adam Bandt said, “One of the things that [the Greens] place a priority on is giving a voice to social movements and to that undercurrent of progressive public opinion that is not being represented.” In her maiden speech as a Senator, Lee Rhiannon, argued that, “History demonstrates that while parliaments make the laws, people are the driving force for social change.”

Yet Rhiannon added, “I believe one of the great strengths of the Greens is our constructive parliamentary work, combined with our commitment to amplify in this place the voice of progressive people’s movements.” Here she was implying that struggles from below stand in relation to parliament in an uncontradictory “both/and” kind of way. While this may be a useful counterpoint to those on the radical Left who reject any participation in official politics on principle, the relationship between the narrow politics allowed in Canberra and the politics of mass struggle is not simply one of synergy. Rather, they can pull sharply against each other.

Over the last few years the Greens have played more of a role in amplifying the conservative logic of official politics within the “progressive people’s movements” than they have in bringing the logic of those movements to Canberra. With their greater commitment to parliamentary process since gaining official party status in 2007, they have increasingly shaped their policies and program around what is possible within the narrow constraints set by the vicissitudes of parliamentary politics.

I raise one significant example for now. After rejecting the CPRS in late 2009, the Greens waged an argument inside the climate movement to get it to adopt their plan for an interim carbon price. They won this argument at the 2010 Climate Action Summit, which voted to accept their proposal as the way forward in an election year. Christine Milne won the ear of leading radical climate campaigners to convince the disparate movement to focus on getting what was at best a very limited measure.

It is worthwhile examining the public trajectory of Damien Lawson, a key Melbourne-based climate campaigner, a leading figure in the anti-capitalist, refugee and anti-war movements of the early 2000s and a former staffer with Kerry Nettle. In 2009 he wrote a strategic perspectives document for grassroots climate campaigners that, quite reasonably, argued,

[W]e will need a public mobilisation that dwarfs any that Australia or the world has seen. This means far more than a change in government.

Yet the strategy of most environment NGOs in 2006–08 seemed to be one of mobilising the community to elect a Labor government, and then talking softly to the new government behind closed doors, rather than continue the mobilisation.

He added that campaigners must remember that “we are activists not policy advisers”. Yet by the 2010 Summit he had shifted to arguing that activists must not have “an aversion to elections” and that the movement needed “common goals”. But this was not about opening out the debate, rather:

The carbon tax debate kicked off by The Greens is an opportunity to develop a strand of that common agenda. We should use this opportunity to form a common goal across the whole climate movement of supporting a good carbon tax plan

By the 2011 Summit he was a policy adviser to Bandt, who was himself prosecuting the case for the tax, making the unlikely argument that activists should get “tens of thousands of people marching down the street” to demand a high carbon price of $70 a ton.

Whatever independence and vitality the grassroots climate movement once had, it is now effectively moribund, reduced to attending GetUp! rallies cheering the carbon tax. As Guy Pearse has made clear in his scathing assessment of the mainstream environmental NGOs, the movement and the Greens have largely collapsed into ensuring “that the only carbon price Australia will adopt is one that largely defeats the purpose of a carbon price.” Those activists and organisations still holding out against this pragmatic “incrementalism” — for example Friends of the Earth — have been marginalised. GetUp! organisers even felt confident enough to try to get climate activists opposed to market measures to take down their placards at various rallies earlier this year. Such crushing unanimity is exactly what Lawson warned against in 2009, but of which he is a part in 2011.

Some senior Greens, like Milne and her long-time staffer Tim Hollo, have argued that it was the weakness of the environment NGOs and climate movement that left the party with little room to win more ambitious gains. Such an argument is disingenuous because the Greens’ strategy was to win more radical and independent climate campaigners to the party’s narrow carbon price policy; one designed for pragmatic negotiations in Canberra and not the building of a mass movement to pressure government from without. But it is also an abrogation of political responsibility because it pretends that the conveyor belt of political ideas and action runs only in one direction — from movements to parliamentarians, as if the latter cannot argue for greater ambition for the purpose of building movements. Yet the Greens did lead within the grassroots climate movement: They led it to conservatise and narrow its priorities, to “unite” around a parliamentary logic rather than its own needs (let alone the needs of the planet).

Where to for the Left now?

This all brings to mind the words of Polish Marxist Rosa Luxemburg on the participation of socialists within capitalist governments:

The government of the modern state is essentially an organization of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.

The Greens have not formally entered government and so retain somewhat more political independence than if they had. This is in contrast to their rotten role in the Tasmanian ministry. But the cost of the Greens’ strategy has nevertheless been great, and its full effects haven’t yet played out. This is especially worrisome because Liberal hardheads and sections of big business are eyeing their opportunity to push through a radical right-wing agenda on the basis of Labor’s unpopularity.

Bob Brown may want to save us from Abbott, but the longer he politically defends a Labor government carrying out a right-wing agenda little different from that of the Liberals, the bigger the mandate Abbott will be able to claim — much as Berlusconi did in Italy.

The disarray of the political Left, however, is not the same as the death of all resistance to the Right. Last week’s magnificent strike and 35,000-strong rally against O’Farrell’s attacks on NSW public sector workers demonstrated that growing anger against austerity cannot be kept in check indefinitely, despite the weakness of the traditional institutional structures of the working class and the Left. But the question of official politics is not one that can be ignored by such movements forever (even if union leaders dodged ALP sectarianism towards the Greens by not allowing any politicians to speak from the stage on Thursday). The Left needs an alternative, positive approach to political questions — but one that starts from rejecting the notion that participation in “constructive” parliamentarism of the sort the Greens have championed is the way forward.

There will be a great temptation for activists to simply argue that we should build the movements and not worry about politics. The kernel of truth in this is that one strike of the sort we saw last week is worth much more than any election in politicising and cohering politics-from-below. But the other kind of politics will inevitably reassert itself in debates activists face. How to address it without repeating the current mess should be at the forefront of our minds.

* Some recent polls (one federal and one in Queensland) show that around two-thirds of voters believe that the party has too much influence over the government.