After the divorce: Contradictions of Greens strategy

by · February 23, 2013

With a sense of crisis swirling around the government, last Friday’s post on how the ALP’s problems run much deeper than a faulty “narrative” was republished at ABC’s The Drum. Then Christine Milne announced the end of the Greens-ALP agreement, and The Drum commissioned the piece below on the Greens. Now that comments are closed at the ABC website, we’re reposting it here.

Greens in 2013: Between a rock & a hard place

By Tad Tietze

Karl Marx once wrote, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” In the case of the Australian Greens one might say that the party’s now-dead alliance with the Gillard Government weighs like a nightmare on their current political options.

To get a sense of the strategic paradox the Greens face in 2013 we need only look at Christine Milne’s performance on the day of her National Press Club address, in which she announced the end of the Greens-Gillard agreement. Well, kind of announced, because it was hard to know whether the agreement was actually finished, let alone who had ended it or the motivations behind the divorce.

Milne said that Labor’s “embrace” of the mining billionaires, in particular by delivering the ineffectual MRRT, had broken the parties’ September 2010 written agreement. Labor had contravened three of four principles in the agreement and, in doing this, was allowing the miners to subvert democracy. She declared:

The Tarkine decision, the attacks on single parents and the unwillingness to act on the mining tax, coal-seam gas and fossil fuel subsidies send a clear message that Labor’s priorities lie with powerful interests and not with the people and the Greens…. What has become manifestly clear is that Labor by its actions has walked away from its agreement with the Greens and into the arms of the big miners.

But if the MRRT was such a problem, why didn’t the Greens demand that its amendment be included in the 2010 agreement? Labor (ineptly) negotiated the tax with the miners before the last election, and yet the agreement includes not one word about it, so it’s not evident why it represents a broken deal. And if the Greens objected so much to the MRRT, why did they then vote for it, even after their amendments were rejected?

If the closeness of the government to the mining industry is so destructive, why are there no real consequences for the government in the Greens’ pulling out of their deal? On Tuesday Milne repeatedly reaffirmed that she would keep propping up a Labor government that is apparently allowing democracy to wither, destabilising the country, and making it easy for Abbott to win the next election — a funny kind of “stability” to be guaranteeing. Later on, Milne claimed it was actually Labor that had sought the divorce — an odd notion given she had to ring the PM to tell her.

Explaining the incoherence

Some commentators have asserted this is all a cynical grab for votes; that Milne was pretending to break with Labor simply for the sake of product differentiation. In fact Milne’s tortuous justifications point to the very difficult position the Greens find themselves in as a result of their strategy of governmental alliance. The strategy has left them being part of a deeply unpopular minority administration, with polls showing a significant decline in their primary vote, and internal polling suggesting most people think their key wins, like the climate package, are Labor’s doing.

The problems arise from a tension built into the Greens project. The party rose to national prominence from the late 1990s by being able to cohere a base clearly to the Left of Labor at a time when voters became increasingly disconnected from the major parties. As I have written elsewhere, the Greens’ biggest successes came from taking principled positions (anti-corporate, anti-war, pro-refugee, climate action) that Labor had deserted in its shift to the Right, and endorsing social movements that took these issues up. Yet the Greens project has always also been explicitly political — to build an electoral machine seeking participation in government.

Milne in her activist days

The Greens’ “outsider” status, which delivered success in the 2000s, was always destined to clash with their desire to be successful political “insiders”. Yet the deal with Gillard came at a time when popular disaffection with political insiders was reaching fever pitch.

In the process the Greens have been willing to mute criticisms of the ALP in the name of “responsible” participation. Not only did they adopt a minimally improved version of the emissions trading scheme (CPRS) they had rejected as inadequate in 2009, they also convinced independent climate activists to drop more radical policies for parliamentary realism. Indeed, it seems they bought the idea that rejecting the CPRS was an electoral liability, despite it being followed by their highest vote ever.

The party has become increasingly technocratic, and watered down its program to give MPs more control over policy-making, once the preserve of the rank-and-file. In some cases, like the NDIS and the Gonski education reforms, the party has simply cheered funding increases even when they are tied to unpleasant neoliberal measures. And as the government’s crisis of authority has rolled on, Greens MPs sacrificed political independence by lining up with Gillard on a partisan basis — even backing her against last year’s Rudd challenge.

The dominant tendency in the party happily joined with the mainstream media in attacking the left-wing NSW Greens because they had supported the pro-Palestinian BDS campaign. This is not to say the Greens dropped all their left-wing positions — their stand against Gillard’s Pacific Solution Mark II was courageous, and after initial disorientation they upset the parliamentary consensus in support of Israel’s attack on Gaza last year.

But the irony is that their adaptation to the official political game has not delivered electorally. Not only have they failed to win always-elusive centre-ground votes, the unpopular carbon tax and their overall association with the government has probably further alienated them from such voters. They have also been unable to attract those (left-leaning) Labor voters that research showed were “next most likely” to swing to the Greens. Indeed, as an Abbott victory looks more certain they will probably lose more votes to the ALP, as they did in the recent ACT election. The ACT result is just one of a series where the Greens have gone backwards electorally. A key reason for this is that they have given away of their strongest cards — the ability to be a clear progressive alternative to Labor.

Trapped in an embrace with Labor

Can this new turn win votes in the same way that similar rhetoric helped the Greens reach their 2010 heights? A big difference this time is that they have spent most of the last three years identified with a deeply disliked government. Their partisan connection has led them to join Labor in overplaying the horror that will occur if Abbott becomes PM (when in fact his administration is likely to be nasty, but at least as weak and incoherent as Gillard’s). Thus, they have been reluctant to end the alliance not just because of inflated beliefs over what it could deliver, but because they are scared of being blamed for Abbott.

Milne’s attack on Labor for making Abbott’s job easier sounded disingenuous because the Greens had not just supported the government’s numbers in parliament, but taken political responsibility for its record. Further, for all of Milne’s predictions of an Abbott-led apocalypse, she also told the 7.30 Report, “If indeed the people returned a minority parliament, we’d work with whoever.” And she refused to rule out preference deals with the Liberals. Perhaps most disappointingly for left-wing voters, her attacks on the big miners sit alongside awkward calls for “progressive” big business to ally with the Greens, as if the rest of the corporate sector is unhappy with rabidly pro-business major party policies.

All this illuminates the Greens’ dilemma. They refuse to admit the alliance with Gillard was a mistake, despite it having cost them support with little to show in return, and so they’ve made a pragmatic shift to a superficially more independent position. Their desire to be “responsible” has not delivered votes or recognition, because as a party of the Left such an image is less important than taking principled stands. And association with the failed “new paradigm” of minority government has tainted them.

In a real sense, the Greens have had their first real taste of the crisis afflicting the political establishment, one they had previously benefited from. Many frustrated Greens supporters will understandably feel relieved that a circuit breaker has been found. Like the cartoonist First Dog On The Moon, they may also look at the litany of Labor betrayals the Greens were willing to overlook to maintain the alliance and ask, “What took them so long?”

And they will be hoping that, if progressive politics is to advance in 2013, the end of the alliance has not been “too little too late”.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. […] Tad Tietze: After the divorce – Contradictions of Greens strategy […]

  2. MikeH says:

    What this article misses is the increasing frustration of climate change activists with the ALP stance on climate change and the pressure that puts on the Greens.

    It is pretty clear that Labor believe that they have ticked the box when it comes to climate change.

    Author and climate blogger Dave Spratt has run a series on Labor’s “brightsiding” of climate change in which the environment NGOs have been complicit.
    (“brightsiding” – a happy clappy look at the shiny new wind turbines and solar panels – no talk of the science or shutting down coal mines or power stations which is too scary)

    Spratt’s articles obviously struck a chord with other climate activists – the great debate at last month’s Melbourne sustainability festival was essentially on “brightsiding” with speakers including Spratt, Guy Pearse (author of Green Wash) and Bob Brown.

    And as Milne said in her speech
    “Labor cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue that they take the climate science seriously and at the same time subsidise massive mining and export of fossil fuels to the tune of $10 billion knowing that they are condemning our children and their grandchildren to a world of conflict, scarcity and climate disaster. ”

    Who can forget ALP buffoon and current Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson’s claim last year that “THE Latrobe Valley could be transformed into a mining export hub on the scale of the Pilbara or the Hunter Valley to new brown-coal technology”

    Here is another reaction to Milne’s speech from ANU climate scientist Andrew Glickson.

    The Conversation which has over 600,000 readers a month (and likely a high proportion are Greens voters) has run numerous articles from climate scientists pointing out the severity of the climate crisis and the gap between required and proposed action.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks for your comment. I was indeed focusing on the politics of Milne’s announcement, because I think that the Greens themselves have been complicit in constraining climate activism (for details see some of the links in the post above).

      The issue with the NGOs I have no disagreement with. My Left Flank collaborator Elizabeth Humphrys and I have a chapter in the Loewenstein/Sparrow edited book Left Turn that looks at the timidity of the NGOs.

  3. MikeH says:

    Hi Tad.

    Just finished reading a few of your articles on climate change.

    This article which you wrote 18 months ago is a critique of the carbon tax.

    I may be late to the party in pointing this out but a large part of your argument is based on a paper from Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute.
    The Breakthrough Institute are “luke-warmers” who counterpose investment in energy R&D to pricing carbon.

    Here is Clive Hamilton’s scathing assessment.

    This is their message – let us not do anything now – because at some time in the future a technical breakthrough will gives us a new source of energy which will solve climate change. See any BP “Beyond Petroleum” ad – that will give you the general idea.

    Alternatively look at the other more well known members of BI.

    Bjorn Lomborg – liar extraordinaire, neo-liberal spruiker and author of the “scientifically dishonest” The Skeptical Environmentalist.

    Rojer Pielke Jr – another liar of whom environmental writer David Roberts said Dr. Pielke has “been playing footsie with denialists and right-wing ideologues for years; they’re his biggest fans.” Pielke’s father Roger Pielke Sr helped climate denier Anthony Watts of WUWT get his start.
    Roger Jr is a visiting fellow at the insurance industry funded Risk Frontiers institute at Macquarie University who are responsible for a number of articles in the Australian press downplaying the climate implications of this years bushfires and floods.

    Barry Brook – nuclear advocate from Adelaide University. Brook’s “special pleading” argument fits perfectly the Breakthrough Institutes schtick – i.e. Gen 4 thorium reactors will solve all existing problems with nuclear and will save us.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I’m aware of the Breakthrough Institute’s problematic politics. But I think that (from what is really a right-wing Keynesian perspective) they are correct to argue that use of “market mechanisms” such as emissions trading schemes cannot effect the necessary change to avert catastrophic climate change. For that some kind of massive and rapid direct state intervention in the economy will be necessary.

      The Greens, at least since Milne’s 2007 prospectus on the issue, have had a position that places massive faith in markets, even if they recognise that other things must happen also. I think this has been politically disastrous because it has taken the heat off governments to actually do something — rather than just legislate an indirect market mechanism that the neoclassical economists tell them should work, but in fact has never achieved anywhere near such a fundamental restructuring of society as is necessary in this case.

  4. Yours and Mined says:

    Greens policies are superior but they are politically stupid. As the article points out Labor has shifted to the right. Not for the fun of it but because that’s where the votes are.
    Milne and Guillard will destroy the left vote if their hostilities continue much longer.