The Greens at the crossroads: ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ matter more than you’d think

by · February 6, 2012

‘Factional rifts, personal animosities and turf wars’

My latest article on ABC’s The Drum, looking at the politics and ideology behind the growing tensions in the Australian Greens, and why these debates matter.

In the last decade there has been a dramatic reconfiguration on the Left of Australian politics. The ALP’s support has dropped to levels not witnessed since the dark years of the Great Depression. Labor has also experienced an excruciating crisis of identity in full public view. In the meantime, the Australian Greens have grown from strength to strength, culminating in winning the balance of power in a hung Parliament in 2010. The party is currently enjoying its peak — so far — of popularity and influence, and this has led The Monthly to commission a lengthy feature by Sally Neighbour, focusing almost exclusively on tensions between Bob Brown and his supporters in NSW on the one hand, and the rest of the NSW Greens on the other.

“Divided We Fall” is a disappointment, a thinly disguised intervention on the side of the Brown camp. It is hard to miss the partisan slant when half as much space is given to the arguments of those who defend what she calls the “recalcitrance of the NSW branch” as to the party leader and his allies. While not engaging in the kind of demonisation of the party’s “watermelon” Left that The Australian does so well (its confected “Lee Rhiannon met with KGB spies” scandal just the latest such attack), the essay sides firmly with the “pragmatists”, the misnamed “new guard”, and others wanting the party to move Right.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising given The Monthly editor Ben Naparstek’s views of NSW Greens position on the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians:

I think that it’s outrageous that Bob Brown hasn’t taken a stronger stance against Lee Rhiannon for calling for a boycott. Bob Brown, you know, if he’s serious about leading a genuinely progressive party, should not allow those kinds of extremist elements to fester within it. And the fact that, you know, Bob Brown might not be the leader in five years and that, heaven help us, Lee Rhiannon could be, is I think a very terrifying thought.

Neighbour also continues the depressing journalistic trend to describe “factional rifts, personal animosities and turf wars” without analysing the deeper structural and political dynamics behind them. In particular, the Greens’ success is simply taken for granted, left unexplained. This allows Neighbour to treat the internal debates in a decontextualised void where electoral saleability and parliamentary manoeuvres are all that matter.

Problems of growth

As I argued in an Overland Journal essay in 2010, the rise of the Greens cannot be understood apart from the crisis of social democratic politics, as Labor-style parties abandoned their traditional supporters by shifting rightward and embracing neoliberalism. As a result, the ALP has become increasingly difficult to differentiate from its conservative opponents. But the last decade also saw the emergence of new social movements opposing corporate globalisation, racist refugee policies, the US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and climate change.

The Greens took positions clearly to the Left of the ALP on each of these issues. In every case the Greens started out by being in the minority, at times a very unpopular one, but were able to win support and change the terms of the national debate. Yet when Neighbour writes of the Greens that “most issues they champion [are] now firmly mainstream” she elides all this, implying that the Greens’ success has come from appealing to some imaginary middle ground.

Further, the Greens have made these electoral gains while having the kind of decentralised grassroots structures — and very high levels of accountability to the members of both policy and MP behaviour — that Brown claims are holding them back. Behind Brown’s seemingly innocuous desire to “centralise” and “professionalise” is a philosophy that MPs should be given almost unlimited scope to reshape policy and drive strategy, with the membership’s role largely reduced to passive grunt work like raising money and handing out how-to-vote cards. Just such a disempowerment of the ALP’s membership has been identified as a key factor in that party’s crisis.

One of the reasons Brown has been able to win support for his strategy is that the Greens’ success has led a new layer of activists to join — some formerly from other parties — who are more interested in parliament than social movements (although this has been uneven). Views have also been shaped by the decline of mass protest activity since the election of the Rudd government in late 2007, thus limiting the attractiveness of extra-parliamentary tactics and lending more weight to the activities of elected representatives.

Neighbour accepts as given the idea that when parties gain influence they must adapt to the logic of the parliamentary bubble. Yet this is at a time when trust in politicians is at all time lows. Brown is fond of saying, contradicting the Australian Democrats’ old strategy, that he wants the Greens to “replace the bastards”. Yet there is every sign that the corridors of power are doing more to shape the Greens than the Greens are doing to shape official politics, so that may end up simply “joining the bastards”. Federally, the Greens have seen their role as using their newfound influence “responsibly”, even if that has meant softening criticism of the government.

NSW Upper House MP (and Brown ally) Jeremy Buckingham is more honest about the politics behind the recent conflicts in the NSW party when he tells Neighbour, “We want to get outcomes, not just be this force that drags politics to the left.” Such counterposition of ideology and outcomes is, however, unsustainable. For example, Buckingham’s “hard Left” Upper House colleague John Kaye was a major public face of the campaign against power privatisation in 2009, helped stop construction of the destructive Tillegra Dam, and won a ban on endosulphans. He and fellow “Rhiannon camp” MP David Shoebridge brought public attention to Barry O’Farrell’s anti-union laws with their record filibuster speeches.

Buckingham and fellow MLC Cate Faehrmann have also taken internal debates into a mainstream media eager to give them space to prosecute a case against the party’s Left. When they’ve failed to win support for their positions among party activists, or sometimes — as with Faehrmann over the BDS — when they’ve not even started a discussion inside the party, they have acted as if the members who got them elected barely mattered. They didn’t run for preselection on a platform of reforming MPs’ relationship with the party. Neither stood up and opposed the BDS policy until the major parties and the media started to campaign against it. And outspoken Buckingham staffer Max Phillips, who initially voted for a BDS on Marrickville Council, claims the issue was “tearing the party apart” when in fact he was spearheading the campaign to drop the policy under pressure from Bob Brown and a right-wing media assault. Little wonder that this group has faced anger from wide layers of party members and community activists, a fact that Neighbour obscures by implying they are battling a bureaucratic machine.

Some Greens MPs’ obsession with media respectability has also led them to avoid controversial issues like the plague. Senator Christine Milne hit a low water mark recently when she attacked the Australia Day Tent Embassy protest, repeating the claim that protesters were “violent” when no evidence had emerged of such behaviour (and still hasn’t). She also missed the irony of claiming that “violence is unacceptable and violence is never going to advance the cause in Australia” while praising the Tent Embassy’s historic achievements, which were driven by militant “black power” politics and featured pitched battles with police.

Narrowing the space for progressive politics

Not wanting to “drag politics to the Left” may seem harmless, but what it really means is further limiting left-wing political representation because the major parties have been working hard to move this country to the Right for decades. If the Greens abdicate this role, they will be further narrowing the space for independent progressive politics.

There is good reason to believe that Buckingham is actually one of those keen on moving the Greens to the Right. It is one thing to oppose a policy like the BDS within overall support for justice for the Palestinians, quite another to join the parliamentary friends of Israel. In The Monthly Buckingham says he opposes “classic old-left ideology about notions of class struggle and a more centralised control of economies” and has tweeted in favour of “free enterprise” as a solution to environmental problems, in sync with Bob Brown’s pro-market views. Brown’s allies have in recent years sought to water down Australian Greens policies that call for limits on government funding of rich private schools, and the federal Greens MPs have campaigned for big cuts to company tax for small business (and voted for an across-the-board corporate tax cut) when party policy explicitly calls for company tax to be raised.

Buckingham reveals how much parliament has, for him, become an end in itself when he argues, “We have to acknowledge we are in the tent, we are at the table. We’ve got to mature and stop hectoring people.” It is notable that Buckingham (along with Faehrmann and Jan Barham) took the elitist monarchist title “The Honourable” when he became an MP, in contrast to NSW Greens tradition.

So why does all this matter? Simply put, the Greens have been the focus for widespread hopes that a new progressive politics could emerge in opposition to the neoliberal consensus between the major parties. Yet the eagerness by some to adapt to and work with the same power structures that have alienated voters and turned them to supporting the Greens now threatens to undermine this achievement. In the end debates within the Greens are only important insofar as they lead the party to be part of implementing the progressive social change it claims to stand for, or standing in the way of such change.

The ALP’s rightward shift created a crisis of representation on the Left of Australian politics, with that party’s hard heads arguing that left-wing voters had nowhere else to go. The Greens proved them wrong but now, even if on a smaller scale, this new party of the Left risks recapitulating that mistake. That has significant implications for the future of the Australian Left. Unfortunately Sally Neighbour’s essay has failed to clarify what is really at stake.

Filed under: Bob Brown, Greens, Lee Rhiannon