Labor’s slide in the polls has seen substantial numbers of voters move towards The Greens.

On current polling, The Greens will win between 12 and 16 per cent of the vote at the next election, enough to secure them the balance of power in the Senate.

Rudd’s return to Howard-era refugee bashing and his junking of the CPRS has boosted The Greens. Seeing a growth in the numbers of those critical of Labor from the left should encourage all of us.

Balance of power
But if The Greens win the balance of power it poses a danger. Some leaders, like Bob Brown, primarily see The Greens’ power in the ability to extract pragmatic concessions through parliament. Queensland Green Drew Hutton typified the commentary in a recent article in the Brisbane Times where he asked, “Do they [The Greens] want to be taken seriously as a political force or do they just want to be a social movement?”

The implication is that to be “taken seriously” you have to water down your principles and accept parliamentary compromises.

The recent Tasmanian Greens election campaign set out to portray The Greens as a respectable centre party that would bring “stability” by being a faithful partner is a coalition government.

This logic has drastic consequences—the Greens opposed a teachers’ strike during the campaign, and were willing to strike a deal with pro-business Liberals to get themselves ministerial positions. In the end they have taken ministerial positions in a Labor government—but the dangers here are just as real.

As part of the Greens-Labor coalition in Tasmania from 1989-1991, Greens voted for public sector cutbacks, despite union protests. Senator Christine Milne defended the actions, saying it was necessary to “rectify [the previous government’s] reckless spending”.

In the same vein, Bob Brown consistently emphasises the Greens’ role in helping to pass Rudd’s stimulus package last year. Brown sees this as a model of how a “constructive” balance of power party should operate—by looking to extract minor modifications to government legislation in exchange for agreeing to pass their bills.

The stimulus debate was an opportunity for Brown to argue for big spending on renewable energy to boost jobs. But instead The Greens settled for negotiating some extra funding for bike tracks and heritage buildings.

More recently, Bob Brown has echoed the major parties concern to “cut the deficit” in government spending—that logic saw cuts to climate and environment programs in the recent budget.

This concern to moderate demands to what is “realistic” through parliamentary manoeuvring means many Greens policies stop half way.

Their role in the climate change debate has been to call for negotiations around emissions trading, and now a price on carbon. The Greens publicly support failed market mechanisms like carbon trading. They stop short of calling for the most direct solutions, like building large-scale solar power.

Following the same strategy, the Australian Democrats negotiated themselves into oblivion when they helped Howard pass his hated GST. The same approach could severely damage The Greens.

Struggles outside parliament
Parliamentary manoeuvring is not the way to bring about change. Even if The Greens secure the balance of power, Labor is likely to continue to seek Liberal support to implement his policies.

Struggles outside parliament are the key. Howard had the numbers in parliament to launch his attack on the MUA and to authorise uranium mining at Jabiluka. But on both occasions he was stopped by mass protest movements.

The consistent mobilisation by the refugee campaign, as well as the organising to take pro-refugee arguments into the unions and to the Labor rank-and-file, also turned Howard’s cruelty to refugees into a liability by the end of his time power.

The Greens’ popularity shows the potential support base for a fight to demand real change from Labor. But a focus by The Greens on parliamentary wheeling and dealing will lead to unnecessary compromises—and will weaken the confidence of all those who vote for them about building movements for change.

If Greens Senators instead put all their energies into building these struggles it would greatly strengthen them.

Whatever happens it will be the efforts of socialists and other grassroots campaigners to build the movement outside parliament—both in the lead up and after the election—that will determine our capacity to genuinely shift politics.

Amy Thomas

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