The Greens’ fight to “replace the bastards”

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Solidarity distributed this leaflet at The Greens’ national conference in Sydney on November 1-5, discussing some of the issues in The Greens’ focus on parliamentary influence and the potential to build a party that can be a megaphone for struggles, protest and resistance to Labor’s neo-liberal agenda.

The 2010 federal election saw The Greens win the balance of power in the Senate and break into the lower house for the first time.  The Greens have become Australia’s most electorally successful left-of-Labor Party ever. They have stood out as the voice of principle over refugees and the Iraq War and attracted many former Labor voters as Labor has embraced pro-market policies and deserted its working class base.

The Greens’ principled stand has seen the Murdoch press wage a relentless campaign against the party in general and NSW Senator Lee Rhiannon in particular. More recently, the right wing of the Labor Party has launched its own campaign against The Greens.

The electoral set-backs in NSW, Queensland and the ACT have seen commentator after commentator pronounce The Greens’ demise. Not only are such declarations premature, they are part of the right wing campaign to isolate the party.

However, there are warning signs that the pull of being a parliamentary player has resulted in an undue focus on extracting concessions from the major parties. Worse, this appears to have had electoral consequences and be pulling The Greens to the right. The swing against The Greens in the ACT elections seems to be partly due to The Greens’ concern to be part of the Labor minority government rather than carve out a clear policy path to the left.

Where are The Greens headed?

Similarly, at a federal level, there is a risk that by being seen to be an apologist for Labor’s neo-liberal policies, The Greens will suffer from any swing against Labor. While it was absolutely right to support a minority federal Labor government, this is the danger of a focus on parliamentary politics and extracting concessions.

The Greens took a principled stand against Rudd’s CPRS—rightly describing it as “worse than nothing”. But as a central supporter of a minority Labor government under Julia Gillard, Greens leaders have become boosters for a carbon tax that is both useless for reducing carbon emissions and deeply unpopular. Rather than strengthening their own climate change credentials, Greens MPs are seen as apologists for a Labor policy that has actually undermined the level of community support for real action on climate change.

The Greens’ parliamentary numbers have not been enough to stop Labor’s capitulation to the Liberals over issues like refugees, same-sex marriage or workers’ rights. Instead it is the politics of Tony Abbott and the right that now dominate the debate.

Replacing the bastards?

Distancing The Greens from the discredited Democrats’ strategy, former leader Bob Brown has often repeated that The Greens’ aim is not to “keep the bastards honest, but replace the bastards”. But too often this has been seen in purely electoral terms, resulting in attempts to building up a larger vote by appealing to conservative voters. The temptation to put expediency above principle seems to have informed the move at a Greens’ National Policy Conference earlier this year to remove inheritance tax from the party platform. Only the NSW Greens opposed the move.

Worryingly reports from the meeting indicate that Bob Brown justified the need for the shift by saying that the inheritance tax was “electoral poison and costing us one or two percent of the vote”. The rationale behind moves to drop “free education” from the party platform at this weekend’s conference seem to be similar.

Another example of the way the push for “respectability” manifests itself can be seen in the way Bob Brown has used his personal authority to publicly attack the more left-wing NSW branch, even aiding the Murdoch press’ witch hunt against the NSW Greens over their support for the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. He did it again after recent NSW council elections when he blamed left-wing NSW Greens policies for their vote. After praising Chistine Milne and her “responsible economic policies” he told ABC’s 7.30 program, “I think some of the inner-city Greens need to take a good look at themselves.”

Unfortunately Christine Milne, as leader, seems set to continue down this path. Her appeals to “progressive business” and farmers are similarly designed to appeal to conservative voters.

The talk of “progressive business” means chasing something which doesn’t exist. Which bit of business is not demanding an end to penalty rates and changes to Fair Work to allow easier dismissals? And the Queensland election earlier this year showed that while farmers might oppose coal seam gas, that opposition does not translate into electoral support for The Greens, but can just as easily benefit right-wingers like Bob Katter.

New left?

The Greens’ electoral success has been a product of winning support from left-wing Labor voters. In the 2010 election, five out six of Greens’ votes came from disaffected Labor voters. Looking for votes amongst farmers and business will take The Greens away from the policies that won them that support.

Instead of lowering their sights to tinkering in parliament, The Greens could be a megaphone for all the discontent associated with Labor’s crisis and the horrifying possibility of an Abbott government. Such a presence could help shift politics left and fan the flames of the struggles for refugee rights, against the NT Intervention, to legislate for same-sex marriage, and to restore workers’ rights.

In her recent speech to the National Press Club, Greens Leader Christine Milne pointed to Greens’ policies like public funding for “Denticare”, high-speed rail, and higher taxes for the rich.

But whatever small concessions may have been obtained from Labor, there is a very real limit to what negotiations with a rightward moving Labor government, now hell-bent on achieving a budget surplus, can achieve. To get real action on climate change, for example, it will be necessary to build a fighting movement for change outside parliament. The Greens could play a significant role in cohering and building such a movement. The Greens could start to use their support base to actually build and organise movements of resistance, instead of simply being seen to represent them in parliament by moving bills that are usually voted down or ignored.

There is the beginning of a discussion inside The Greens about what sort of party The Greens should be. Some think that the party can simply become more influential and eventually “replace the bastards” by simply accumulating more and more votes. But real change is not won in parliament; it is won through real social campaigns, through protests and strikes.

It is also obvious that the establishment will not just allow The Greens to “replace the bastards”. It doesn’t even like The Greens having 10 per cent of the vote! In particular, The Greens have to take seriously the task of winning over Labor’s historical working class base. The unions are not just another lobby group; they represent the organised working class. Some unions are already willing to make significant donations to individual Greens election campaigns because they don’t believe Labor represents workers any more.

Allowing unions not just to donate or lend foot soldiers at election time, but formally affiliate with the party, would be an important step to winning support in Labor’s working class base and helping transform The Greens into an explicit left alternative to Labor.

A hopeful future belongs with The Greens if they recognise the significance of the disintegration of Labor’s support base and the chance to shift politics to the left. Labor has been trounced at recent state elections because of its neo-liberal policies and the bitter disaffection of many who have traditionally voted for it. The Gillard government faces the same thing at the next election.

The threat of a Liberal government led by Tony Abbott is very real. Key to fighting that threat is fighting Gillard – over same-sex marriage, refugees, over union rights, over climate and welfare. The success of The Greens won’t just be measured in the numbers of votes at the next election. It has to be measured in the ability of The Greens to build the kind of campaigns that can defend jobs, conditions and the environment. First and foremost that means that principles must not be sacrificed to electoral pragmatism for the sake of “one or two per cent” of the vote.

The Greens have played an important role supporting refugees, and in the fight for same sex marriage and union rights. Ensuring The Greens membership becomes more deeply a part of those struggles, and concerned with the parliament of the streets as well as the parliament in Canberra, will be an important part of keeping Tony Abbott out of office and winning real change.

Sydney Solidarity

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