Tuesday, 23 November 2010

It's not easy being Greened.

One of the most important rivalries in modern Australian politics is between the ALP and the Greens.  It is a tussle for the socially progressive values of inner-city and well-educated voters, the mindset of those suburban and regional voters who wish to do an unspecified 'more' about the environment, and the protest vote contingent who previously embraced the Australian Democrats or Independents due to disgust at the two major parties.

Certainly it is a rivalry that has come into the spotlight following the collapse of the ALP primary vote federally and the disaffection of many of those progressive voters as they have swung firmly, and possibly permanently, behind the Greens.  With the election campaign for the Victorian State Election almost done, Gillard's embrace of the Greens federally left sticky questions for both the state ALP and LNP to resolve - which the LNP did by backing its base in choosing to preference the Greens last.

The unabashed vitriol by many on the ALP towards the Greens, and vice versa, often takes the uninitiated by surprise.  After all, we're all dodgy intellectual touchy-feely inner-suburban Lefties, and we both hate the LNP - why can't we just get along.  Certainly as a relatively new ALP member (Disclosure: I'm a member of the Left faction), I was astounded to hear the ways in which ALP members and Greens members talked about each other.  In addition, as a gay bloke and yet an ALP Left member, my Greens friends often saw me as deluded, self-harming, or abjectly pathetic - the gay who supports the homophobes.

Issues of same-sex marriage aside, my discussions with friends from both parties have made me think a lot about this breach in the Left vote, the future implications, and what it says about the state of politics in Australia.

Short answer: It's a breach that can't be healed.  The ALP will continue to slowly lose voters to the Greens, with the Greens vote solidifying around the 15-20% mark.

Longer answer: As an ALP member, I'm very used to critiques of the Greens.  "It's just a protest vote," used to be the catch-cry, or "It's a one-issue party."  "No-one there is serious about government,"is the current trope, with the Greens tendency towards big sky, uncosted, world-changing thinking an indication that they're not ready to be serious about governance and compromise like the rest of the Left. Certainly both the ALP Left and Right views the ideological purity and conviction of the Greens with a certain faint distaste, the way we look at relatives who've gotten all evangelical and ask if we've brought Jesus Christ into our life as our personal lord and saviour.

The initial belief was that the progressive voters who voted Greens will eventually wake up, realise you can't remake the capitalist world in an election, recognise that the choices the Greens demand of the electorate are impossible, and go back to supporting the responsible adults (ALP) in the Leftist room.  Now as the Green vote seems to be not only surging, but solidifying at a low water mark of 15% and thereby dangerously fracturing the Left vote, ALP criticisms have become more shrill.  There's accusations of delusions, wilful and deliberate, of an active fantasy on the Greens behalf, of a disengagement from the real world and the necessity of forming government in a country where 40% of the electorate is probably bolted on LNP.

There's some value to those criticisms - the Greens are more ideologically devoted than the ALP, less willing to compromise on core issues and therefore 'get less wins on the board.'  At both a federal and state level (as seen most recently in the Victorian campaign), the Greens prefer to map out end points and political directions, but aren't as concerned with the nitty gritty of implementation and funding as say, the ALP and LNP.

But those tendencies are exactly why they appeal to a core of progressive voters looking for inspiration and principled politics.  The Greens might not spell out the funding needed to transition to a green economy, or to properly support public education, but who really cares?  A century ago the emerging Labour movement was accused of reckless economic vandalism because it wanted to support jobs, education and organised workers, and eventually provide universal healthcare - all of which would come at a cost, frequently a cost that couldn't be calculated in the terms of the day.  Because the Labour movement was talking about changing the world in which the worker lived; and that's hard to put a realistic price on.

In a similar way, the Greens' appeal is because that put principle above pragmatism, and their adherence to key issues demonstrates to their supporters a convinction, values-imbued politics.  The ETS may not have gotten up, but to Greens supporters it shouldn't have.  To Greens voters, the fossil fuel industries are essentially long-term serial killers, from a practical and moral viewpoint.  After all, they know they are slowly destroying the environment and seem to be pretty much continuing to do so.  Sure, there's improvements in fossil fuel tech, but they are still polluting - killing say, one species a decade isn't really an improvement on killing five.  The Government's ETS from a moral viewpoint then was equivalent to having a tradeoff with a murderer, paying them to kill less people.  As such, it couldn't be countenanced morally or ethically.  That the ALp tried to do a deal with the dodgy fossil fuel industry is to a more committed environmental voter an indication of the ALP's complicity, that the ALP's hands are dirty and they don't deserve primary votes due to their abandonment of ethics.

Of course, the ALP would say it's getting the job done as best it can - and certainly it is.  But muddying through and winning a victory at almost any cost to get runs on the board isn't what inspires people.  That's probably what over time has cut the 'wet' faction in the LNP down - the more conservative members could be counted on to get out the vote and support an increasingly conservative parliamentary party, because an unwillingness to compromise is seen as principled and strong.

So by that benchmark, Julia Gillard is trying to be Malcolm Turnbull - and Bob Brown is the left's equivalent to Tony Abbott (although a lot more principled and actually knows his shit.)  But the centre doesn't hold when there's an appealing movement for values voters to go to, as the bolstering of the LNP under 'unelectable far right Catholic monk dude' Tony.

The ALP knows this, deep down - and doesn't know what to do about it.  It can cry all it wants about pragmatism, but to a good third of its primary vote, pragmatism looks like giving up, and it also weakens the general message of what the ALP stands for.  The ALP, because of its history, can't lurch to the Left on environmental and social issues.  It's the bloody Labor party, not the Greens.  It was created to promote the cause of working labour, the sort that now is found in manufacturing, power generation, mining, logging and industry - the sorts of working lower class and middle class voters who are too consumed with short and medium-term concerns like 'living' and 'paying the mortgage' to worry about the planet in 50 years time.  The ALP's focus has to be on short and medium term outcomes, because its base and its principles (which it still has, trust you me) emerged out of concern for those sorts of workers who generally get screwed over by big business, globalisation - oh, and environmental concerns.

The Greens are right to take a longer view - if we have no planet in 75 years it doesn't matter if no-one has a job.  But the ALP has to take the shorter-term view, because that's what it's there for.  Even in the ALP Left, there's a lot of angst about the sort of environmental action and policy the Greens would like to put in practice, because it would decimate the working class suburban poor.  Those members of society who have lower educational attainment and can't easily 'transition' to some mythical low-carbon economy when those jobs magically spout out of nowhere with all that funding for training the Greens can't be bothered adding up.  ALP Left meetings on climate change are fraught with 'Yeah, but this motion on addressing climate change needs to emphasise that the working poor must be supported and not left out of pocket due to industrial change.'

So imagine the Right's response to the Greens, considering the strong industrial union power base of the ALP Right.

Labor's priority is workers; always has been.  If we give that up, we have nothing left.  Since the 1980s it's been problematic to articulate it, because largely the ALP bought into a centrist economic agenda under Hawke and Keating and now hasn't got Keating's nous or smarts in distinguishing itself.  The Greens sprang up in the 1990s as the ALP gave in during the Howard years on social issues (gays, indigenous disadvantage, multiculturalism, the environment) and as a result, the Greens have a broad appeal on such issues, whereas the ALP is terrified it might be accused of being an elitist bastard like Keating and fights all its arguments on the LNP's terms (and therefore loses.)

With the structural split between a socially progressive left that imbues gay marriage and environmental action with a moral impetus, and the ALP which has to continue to engage and protect industrial labour for its own moral reasons, it's tricky to see how the ALP can ever regain a broad hold over the Left vote. To agree with the Greens on environmental issues would be to damn its base to entrenched economic dislocation; to continue to forge pragmatic environmental policy which supports manufacturing/power production/mining/etc looks to the environmental left as a sell out, and a demonstration of why the ALP can't be trusted.  As well, due to economic and work stress, the core ALP voter wants the bloody party to help make sure they have a job and can afford the mortgage, not piss about voting for gay marriage.

As a gay bloke I'd rather they did, but I recognise that my social justice agenda might not square off with someone who's got four kids, a mortgage, a partner with gambling or health issues and the likelihood of being laid off because they make it cheaper in China or it pollutes too much.

The ALP and the Greens represent two entirely antithetical branches of the Left, for all their forced common cause.  The 'wet' Libs already met their match in John Howard, the Nationals got assimilated, and the Country Party only exists in Windsor, Oakeshott and Katter these days.

If Julia and Kevin are lucky, they might be remembered in the future as the more progressive ALP leaders, a la Malcolm Fraser is seen compared to Howard and Abbott these days.  For all the smoke and fury coming out of the Left these days about its ability to influence the new paradigm ALP, the core Greens voter won't trust the ALP even if it does agree to gay marriage.  That's the problem.  The moral, values-based politics of the Greens left means that they look at the ALP on refugees, on gay marriage and on the ETS and see the ALP as unprincipled, ethically defunct.  The ALP has blood on its hands, and why the hell would you return to the fold when you think that?  So the ALP Left will make noise, try some things, maybe score a few points on gay marriage - but the cynicism which Greens supporters view the ALP will not fade, and more on the progressive Left will come to realise that the ALP because it works through the current political paradigm is not able to free its from its assumptions and change the world.

Meanwhile, the ALP Right has given an indication of how it might address the Greens vote in the longer term - in Victoria, Fiona Richardson is facing down the Greens threat in her state electorate by bucking the tide.  In other Greens' targeted seats, the ALP is talking up its environmental cred and sending the members to Equal Love rallies.  But you can't beat the Greens on their own turf, in the same way you can't beat the LNP in arguements about the 'debt'.  You have to change the discourse.  So Fiona, very smart member of the Victorian Right, is campaigning on 'traditional Labour values' - the cost of living, support for industry and workers, and basic services like health and education, as well as local issues.  She is saying very loudly that the Greens agenda is irresponsible and will harm the working classes-

And if it works (and it probably will), you'll find the educated middle class squaring off against the organised working class, as one attempts to plan for an unknown future, and the other just wants security for today.

And long-term, the LNP will be very, very happy.


  1. Interesting read.

    On what basis do you assert the Greens vote is limited to "solidifying around the 15-20% mark"?

    Has it occured to you that Greens' policies are simply better and more practical than the ALP's, across a raft of subjects? (although there's plenty more policy development to be done) Additionally, the general calibre of Greens parliamentarians, to date, has been significantly higher than the ALP average.

    Certainly the corporate mass media is against the Greens, but it's losing public credibility and is in long term decline.

    So why the 'moss ceiling' of 20% over the next few parliamentary terms? I think that may be just a story conservatives on both 'sides' tell each other to stay cheerful.

    Time will tell :-)

  2. When the Canterbury Greens condoned the wilful misconduct of Labor MPs and Canterbury Council. A council slammed by a NSW Ombudsman investigation, then the Greens represent nothing whatsoever.

    A Mallone supporter