As accolades flow in at the end of Bob Brown’s parliamentary career, serious questions hang over the future of The Greens under Christine Milne.
On the one hand, Milne’s appeals to “progressive business” and “country voters” signify she wants to follow a rightward path, on the other, the elevation of Adam Bandt to Deputy Leader may bolster the confidence of the party’s left.
Brown built The Greens into Australia’s most electorally successful left of Labor Party ever. They stood out as the voice of principle over refugees and the Iraq War and attracted many former Labor voters as Labor embraced pro-market policies and deserted its working class base.
However, holding the balance of power in the Senate since the 2010 election has increased pressure on them to shift to the right. Bob Brown led the effort to make The Greens “responsible” holders of parliamentary power, hoping to use their numbers to extract concessions.
Replacing the bastards?
Their agreement with Labor over the course of the last 18 months has shown the problems with this approach. The carbon tax that The Greens regard as a success is useless for reducing carbon emissions and deeply unpopular.
Distancing his party from the strategy of the Democrats, Brown has often repeated that The Greens’ aim is not to “keep the bastards honest, but replace the bastards”. But this is seen in purely electoral terms, to be achieved by appealing to conservative voters.
While Brown and Milne have said they will oppose tax cuts for big business, they have made a point recently in the mining tax debate of supporting tax cuts for small business. Brown has used his personal authority in The Greens to attack the more left wing NSW branch and even aided the Murdoch press’ witch hunt against their support for boycotting Israel.
Christine Milne may be seen as a tough negotiator, but signs suggest she will continue down this path. She spent her first days as leader promoting her past involvement in minority governments in Tasmania as proof of her responsible record—although this includes support for the Liberals, budget cuts and school closures!
As for her comments regarding “progressive business”, it doesn’t exist. Which bit of business is not demanding an end to penalty rates and changes to FairWork to allow easier dismissals? And the Queensland election shows that while “country voters” might oppose coal seam gas, that opposition does not translate into electoral support for The Greens.
The Greens’ electoral success has been a product of winning support from left-wing Labor voters. In the 2010 election, five out six of their 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.
Already, their agreement with Labor and reliance on parliamentary horse-trading has seen The Greens’ rise stall. Their support has been stuck at 12 per cent consistently since 2010 and for the first time since 2001, their vote decreased, in the recent Queensland election.
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, to stop the NT Intervention, to legislate for same-sex marriage, and to restore workers’ rights.
In his resignation speech, Brown pointed to Greens policies like public funding for “Denticare”, high-speed rail, and higher taxes for the mining companies. But they will not be achieved in negotiations with a rightward moving Labor government, hell-bent on achieving a budget surplus. They require building a fighting movement for change outside parliament.
Many will remember Bob Brown for his best moments: getting arrested at protests in support of the environment, or alongside Kerry Nettle, standing up to heckle George W Bush when he visited parliament. He was Australia’s first openly gay parliamentarian. But Brown’s role in undermining the left inside the party and establishing it as a respectable parliamentary player may mean that those looking to take The Greens in a more positive direction are feeling relieved.
The change of leadership could present an opening for the left, as Milne does not have the same authority as Brown to pursue a conservative agenda.
The NSW branch could fight for more of a hearing and fight for the party to build formal links with Labor’s disenchanted union base. Bandt could use the House of Representatives to challenge Labor more sharply and take a big stick to Abbott.
A hopeful future belongs with The Greens if they recognise the significance of the disintegration of Labor’s support base. But if they don’t, without a party that does fill that gap, Australia will see more results like the Queensland election.
Correction: Christine Milne did not support school closures in Tasmania during the Labor-Greens Accord years and introduced legislation which helped to save schools that were slated for closure. This is not to be confused by the debate over school closures in Tasmania in 2011-12, where a Labor-Greens coalition proposed 20 school closures (which have now been deferred until 2015).