The Greens’ national conference in November saw a continuation of efforts to drag the party rightwards in an effort to seek electoral “respectability”. The party’s more moderate federal MPs, with the support of the federal parliamentary caucus, sought to water down policy in a number of areas.
Despite opposition from NSW and WA delegates, the conference voted to drop support for the immediate abolition of university fees in favour of a policy of gradually phasing out HECS. This was justified in order to allow the Greens’ federal election platform to be fully costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office. These shifts come after inheritance tax was dropped as policy at the Greens’ National Policy Conference in July.
Greens Leader Christine Milne’s keynote speech outlined the federal parliamentary caucus strategy for putting the party on an “election footing” for 2013. Milne re-iterated the strategy she outlined when taking over from Bob Brown—that The Greens should focus on winning votes from “progressive business” and “country voters”, in particular farmers opposed to coal seam gas.
There was a conscious push to focus on environmental issues including the “Too Precious to Lose” campaign and forests—instead of putting The Greens’ policies on public services and workers’ rights, or even refugees, at the front of their election campaign. Yet these are the issues that have been crucial in winning The Greens increasing support from disillusioned Labor voters since 2001.
The hope of being a parliamentary player has pulled the party leadership in the direction of respectability. But being too associated with Labor’s unpopularity and failures has tainted The Greens federally, and has been reflected in recent election results in the states.
The party leadership’s actions at the conference signify they have not learnt the lessons of their partnership with Labor—that little can be wrested through parliamentary deals out of a government in the race to the right with Abbott, and intent on a delivering a budget surplus. Even less concessions will be possible under an Abbott government.
The left has been hesitant about organising to argue inside the party about The Greens’ direction. But doing so is becoming increasingly urgent.
The Greens’ renewed push to restore the mining tax to its original rate and reverse cuts to single parent payments, increase NewStart payments (the dole) and fund public education are popular and could win broad support from unionists and the social sector. The courageous stand of The Greens MPs against offshore processing of refugees, in the face of right-wing media hysteria, could be the basis for working with refugee rights activists in the lead up to the federal election.
This would help focus The Greens back on building grassroots social movements—where the real power to push the political terrain to the left lies. The Greens MPs could use parliament not to wheel and deal, but as a megaphone for these struggles. Otherwise The Greens will increasingly drift to the right under the pressure of governing alongside the major parties.