The recent ACT election ended badly for the Labor-Greens governing partnership, with a 7.3 per cent swing and two extra seats for the Liberals. This should be an embarrassment to more moderate Greens, who argue that entering coalition governments with the major parties is the key to electoral success.
The Greens suffered the greatest setback, with a loss of three seats and a 4.9 per cent swing against them. But with Labor and Liberal both holding eight seats, the sole Greens MP Shane Rattenbury remains able to determine who forms government. He eventually decided to return Labor to power, but not before trying to tempt the Liberals into negotiations, saying, “Our door is open to both parties”.
This kind of flirting with the Liberals can only alienate Labor supporters from The Greens and make the party appear more right-wing. Labor is certain to use it to undermine The Greens’ vote—by pointing out that voting Greens risks letting in a Liberal government.
Some voices in The Greens are pushing in this direction. Following the last ACT election in 2008, then federal leader Bob Brown encouraged the ACT Greens to support a Liberal government in exchange for the offer of two ministries. His advice, he said, was, “for the Greens to take ministries, to share government.” The ACT Greens declined, and backed Labor. The Greens did not take any ministerial positions but signed an agreement with Labor, similar to that agreed federally with Julia Gillard, in the hope this could deliver more of The Greens’ policy goals..
Governing with Labor
The Greens voted surged to 15.6 per cent in 2008, in response to cutbacks to public services under the Labor government, including the closure of 39 schools and the running down of public transport.
But their agreement with Labor has muzzled The Greens, drawing them into justifying the kind of neo-liberal policies they were elected to oppose. Instead of looking to build grassroots opposition and pressure on Labor to improve public services they have been drawn into parliamentary games.
So while the government has attempted to give itself a progressive veneer through solar energy policies, it has made no moves to tax big business in order to seriously boost public spending.
The best the Labor government could manage was a longer wait to get its budget back into surplus and a plan to rationalise taxes in the name of efficiency. Its latest budget still includes cuts of another 180 jobs in the public service.
But ACT Greens leader Meredith Hunter simply defended the government’s tax plans, which would see rates raised to allow the abolition of stamp duty, saying they were, “supported and hailed by many around the country… such as the Liberal Treasurer in NSW.”
The plan allowed the Liberals to make the ridiculous claim that rates were going to increase by 300 per cent. But if the Labor-Greens government had promised to target corporations and the rich to expand tax revenue, the plan would have proved much more popular.
Over same-sex marriage too, The Greens allowed themselves to be dragged into line behind Labor. In August this year they voted to support legislation to allow civil unions, an inferior form of “relationship recognition” that falls short of marriage. In the context of Federal Labor Leader Julia Gillard’s refusal to support same-sex marriage, this was an effort by ACT Labor to avoid embarrassing the federal party.
This stance put the ACT Greens at odds with Greens federal MP Adam Bandt, who has labelled civil unions “a step backwards” that would set up a separate, discriminatory form of relationship recognition for same-sex couples. The ACT Greens should have called Labor’s bluff and simply demanded legislation for full same-sex marriage, like that recently debated in parliament in Tasmania.
The Greens’ agreement with Labor federally has been just as damaging. The dominant sections of the party want to take it in a moderate direction, focused on negotiating parliamentary deals. But as the experience of this approach in Tasmania, the ACT and federally shows, the price is that The Greens become more closely involved in running the system and taking responsibility for government. But this has not forced any serious change from Labor governments. A return to building social movements that can put real pressure on government is needed.