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Issue #1536      22 February 2012

Why the Greens are winning

(Photo: Anna Pha)

When the dark side of Australian politics fulminates and fumes and foams against them; when the likes of Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Paul Sheehan wax rabid about their “crazy” policies; when the Pells and Fred Niles blather about their “godlessness”; when the number 1 priority for Murdoch’s media is to sling mud and vilify them, day in, day out; when the mining barons and captains of industry bemoan their “socialistic” tendencies; when all the major parties combine to put their preferences last, then…

…then you know for sure the Greens are doing something right!

By “right”, of course, is meant “correct”. Since their establishment in 1992, arising out of the inspiring Franklin River protests in Tasmania and running parallel with similar radically inclined movements in Europe and the Americas, the Australian Greens have not only survived, but prospered.

Green growth

With the calm, earnest, dignified and apparently incorruptible Dr Bob Brown at the helm the Greens Party has steadily grown to become a major force in Australian politics – they simply cannot be dismissed or brushed aside, as many have sought to do.

Nationally, the Greens vote has grown spectacularly from 2.4 percent in 1996 to 13.1% in 2010, the last election—an improvement of more than 400% overall. After the 2010 triumph, Brown was able to quantify the Greens vote at an aggregate of 1.6 million Australians.

Interest in, and membership of, the Greens spiked during the Tampa crisis of 2001 and continued rising fast, leading up to the joint invasion of Iraq. Since then, growth in membership has been slower, but the current level of 10,000 is admirable, given that the “old” parties’ numbers have been in constant decline over the past 30 years. Nowadays the major parties seem more interested in the whole question of donations (as in the US), preferring to rely on money and mass advertising as their political lifeblood.

Apart from federal success, the Greens now have significant representation in every State and Territory of the Commonwealth. As well, they have over 100 local government Councillors in Australia including 75 across NSW.

What is most notable about this growth in support, however, is that it has “rusted on”. The Greens do not appear to suffer the fluctuations of voting loyalty, the ups and downs of poll-driven populist politics afflicting other parties. Their growth is steady, conscious, loyal, and having a very real impact. What’s their secret?

Principled policies

Greens environmental policies have been around for decades and are finally being addressed, because they have to be. They had understood the science of Global Warming long before Rudd discovered it as “the most pressing issue of our time” (and then, when it got difficult, promptly dumped it).

The Greens have consistently argued for a tax on polluters, and showed “Realpolitik” maturity in negotiating Carbon Tax levels with Gillard. While the other parties have flip-flopped, dithered and smoke-screened, they have never wavered. Their intent has been clear, honest and consistent.

The Greens have avoided the many scandals of business bribery and corruption because they persistently support the efficient provision of Public Services: Public Education, Public Transport, Public Health and Public Welfare – all of which are subject to public scrutiny via the ballot box. Not so the privatising favours doled out by the major parties, with their odour of cronyism, corruption, elitism, taxpayer rorts, and with the constant aim of avoiding the responsibility of governance.

Who would pay for the “exorbitant costs” of Public Service delivery? It’s not complicated: the rich, those that can afford to pay more tax such as mining companies, banks, and big polluters. Most Australians agree: a fair redistribution of the nation’s wealth. No wonder Gina Rinehart wants to smother this eminently obvious truth.

Peace with national independence is a readily identifiable Greens policy which both major parties have proved incapable of providing. Their craven adherence to the sacred cow of the “US Alliance” means we will continue to be mired in various theatres of perpetual war, to preserve the sanctity of the global American Empire. Unsurprisingly, increasing numbers of Australians are getting sick and tired of this arrangement.

What a xenophobic notion is “border security”! The Greens have not had to justify the tortuous inhumanity of “turning boats back” or detention centres because they have never agreed with them. They have consistently argued that Australia is a wealthy country that can afford to absorb large numbers of refugees, the vast bulk of whom are genuine. Simple observation of our immigration outcomes since WWII is surely proof that the sky will not fall in with such a policy – rather the nation and the world both benefit.

Please share the memory of the “Tampa Crisis” of 2001, when this nation seemed to be going mad. The sole reported public figure standing fast and pointing to the barbarity of government policy was Bob Brown.

Linkages with issues

The outstanding characteristic of modern liberal democracies is their rank opportunism, their lack of vision and substance. Political leaders cannot take the populace with them. This is because they are divorced from the people, shielded by bodyguards, experts, image marketers and the status of their hallowed position.

They understand issues through a filter: usually the mass media. They project into the media with “publicity grabs”: 30 second visuals of Tony Abbott in a hard hat, and a one-line sound bite.

Have you ever noticed how often (sometimes, irritatingly so!) the Greens are correct both in their understanding of an issue and their position on it? This is simply because they have people either directly involved in the struggle in question, or they have thoroughly communicated and shared with the people actually involved.

In short, they are an “activist party” and their politicians are activists too. They are not afraid to join a protest demonstration or speak to groups of people, regardless of their past political stripe. Dr John Kaye, NSW Greens Upper House MLC, is the perfect example of an “activist politician”. He can speak with authority on almost any political topic with complete first-hand confidence because he has made himself utterly familiar with the issues.

Problems and challenges

Yet the Greens are by no means perfect. They are not a Marxist party in that they do not see the working class, that is to say, those people who actually produce our goods and services, as the core agency of power and change in society.

Instead they have an idealist perspective that places humanism generally on an equal plane with the natural environment. There are “good” capitalists, notably those who engage in “sustainable” industry, while “bad” capitalists damage the global ecology. Such a position can create dilemmas, like the one surrounding the ethanol-producing Manildra company on the south coast of NSW – on that particular matter, apparently, “… we are still awaiting the science …”

There is still a widespread perception that the Greens are “anti jobs” – that they destroy employment for the sake of the environment. Of course, that is not their intent but if they are to win over the vast bulk of the working class in Australia they must develop a credible economic policy that shows they have progressed beyond “tree-hugging” towards a broad vision of a future, harmonious society, complete with fair wealth distribution and varied, engaging employment opportunities.

Green policy makers have, in fact, been making real progress in this direction in recent elections. The problem, if there is one (and remember, no other Australian party can match their rate of growth over the past two decades!), would appear to be the medium rather than the message itself. Too often the Greens appear to be young, well-educated smarty-pantsers telling the rest of society how to suck eggs. Feasibly this stereotype needs to be reviewed.

When the Zionist blowtorch was applied to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) policy of Marrickville Council last year, cracks appeared in the Greens’ resolve to support the Palestinian cause, especially since the NSW elections were looming and the stance may have damaged fellow Greens’ electoral chances. Clearly uncomfortable with the situation, pressure emanated from the leadership in Canberra and some Green Councillors did a back-flip, leaving the Green mayor, Fiona Byrne, hung out to dry.

The result was an embarrassing backdown from international solidarity under the hue and cry of “getting back to Council basics”: garbage collection and library dues. Under the circumstances, the Greens could have sustained greater party discipline to at least present a united front to their constituency.

Like any party, the Greens inherently have factional differences. Each state “branch” is a party unto itself. There are those who would prefer to remain in the pristine wilderness of the environment, saving whales and promoting motherhood social issues, like putting cigarette-smokers on the torture-rack. There are others more prepared to engage in the rugged hurly-burly of social democratic struggle, ready to take on the mining companies and their exorbitant profits, as well as the privileges of private schools.

Indeed, the Greens, to their eternal credit, have done much to defend and promote Public Education in this country, while nonetheless there are still those members of the party having their children taught in “alternative” settings, or home-schooled. These are the kind of tensions that continue to exist.

The future

Maybe this is all being too critical: trying to fit the Greens into an old 20th century straight-jacket of “parties”. In many respects the Greens are an entirely different form of political organization. They are more fluid, less rigid, more informal and “approachable” than the institutional parties. When controversial “punch-ups” arise, supporters emerge from the woodwork. When elections arrive, an army of volunteer non-members materialise to letterbox, distribute leaflets and person the polling booths.

The Greens are wider than a specific national party – they are part of a youthful global movement, and that is what remains exciting about them. If the future is to countenance global cooperation, peace and sustainability, Greens across the world will be part of that equation.

One thing is for certain: the Australian political landscape has changed forever. The cosy locked-up cage of “Tweedledum-Tweedledee” electoral arrangements that continued to siphon wealth to the upper levels of society, no matter who is elected, is being rattled. The very unpredictability of Greens power has shaken the complacency of the Big End of Town, hence the unrelenting venom spat towards them. The Right is worried. They should be. The rise of the Greens is prising loose their grip over Australian society, leaving us all with wider possibilities.

The future is bright for even greater change.  

Next article – Culture & Life – Toying with a fancy

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