Inside Story

Labor’s Green opportunity

Labor’s combative relationship with the Greens reflects its failure to develop a genuine counter-narrative to the Coalition worldview, argues Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman 13 February 2014 2994 words

Adam Bandt’s campaign for the Greens in Melbourne became “a genuine grassroots movement.” Ryan Egan/Flickr

THE Tasmanian Labor government is almost certain to lose power in March; so blame the Greens. That seems to be the current strategy of the Labor Party, and one that might well perpetuate their losses. Interviewed on ABC1’s 7.30 after calling next month’s state election, premier Lara Giddings claimed that her Labor–Green coalition had been a good government, but because her voters didn’t like the Greens she would promise no more coalitions.

I wish Leigh Sales had followed up by asking her whether she would countenance a “grand coalition” with the Liberals if the Greens happened to end up with the balance of power (though this is unlikely given that the polls suggest an outright Liberal victory). But Giddings’s constant refrain that she stood for Labor values, without any explanation of which of those values her Greens ministers had not accepted, is a microcosm of the confusion within Labor about where the party now stands.

Giddens did claim that the Greens were too wedded to environmental concerns, but this is an awkward argument to sustain when federal Labor is attacking the Abbott government over climate and the environment. She came across as yet another desperate Labor leader trying to position herself as a sound economic manager without acknowledging that this is precisely to yield the ground of “Labor values” to those of narrow neoliberal economic doctrines.

Labor seeks to be a progressive party while running away from any policies that might actually challenge the orthodoxy of the conservative press. This was typified by the reaction to the re-election of the Greens MP Adam Bandt in Melbourne on 7 September last year, which created great bitterness among many in the Labor Party. Despite Labor’s uneasy relationship with the Murdoch press, one of its state MPs, Jane Garrett, used the Australian to attack the Greens for undermining progressive politics. Nowhere in her article did she mention asylum seekers or climate change; apparently they don’t fit her concept of “progressive” politics. Yet thousands of Australians do see these as key issues, just as did Kevin Rudd when he made them central to his campaign in 2007.

Rudd’s victory back then should remind us that Labor wins when it appears clearly more progressive than its opponents: think Gough Whitlam in 1972, Bob Hawke in 1983 and Paul Keating in 1993. Attempts by Labor to position itself as a better manager of the status quo – Kim Beazley’s tactic in 2001 – are less successful because the party can’t outbid the Liberals on that ground unless the Liberals overreach (as Howard did with Work Choices) or run out of steam. What’s different now is that Labor no longer has a monopoly of progressive views.

Yes, there are elements within the Greens who appear wedded either to single issue environmentalism or, in the case of some in New South Wales, carry the legacy of an old authoritarian left. But most of the current generation of  Greens appear better social democrats than those in the Labor Party who support mild redistributive policies but are scared to acknowledge that these require major changes to taxation and an abandonment of the cult of the market and indiscriminate growth. Even Julia Gillard was attacked by some of her own colleagues – one of whom seemed to think families with incomes of $150,000 were just scraping by – for promoting “class warfare.” The desire of the Labor Party to both reach out to the “aspirational middle class” and accept the need to provide a safety net for those worst off assumes that constant economic growth and low taxation can be maintained.

Labor has yet to find a convincing definition of progressive politics that is more than a wishlist of discrete policies. Any serious questioning of the mantra of growth and consumption is regarded as electoral suicide. The party is trapped in the legacy of economic rationalism, which leads to the contradictory position of its current leaders, who simultaneously talk about the need to focus on climate change while also increasing economic growth.

Because this is probably a necessary short term strategy for election, I doubt whether the Greens can seriously replace Labor as the alternative party of government in Australia. Indeed, the political commentariat seem agreed that the Greens are now insignificant; even as sensible a reporter as Jennifer Hewett has suggested that “we just politely ignore the Greens as irrelevant.” Like the Australian Democrats, it is argued, the Greens will dwindle away under the pressure of some apparently immutable need for a binary party divide.

I DOUBT, though, that Labor will ever again win a majority in its own right. The steady decline of both union members and a sense of working class solidarity is eroding its base. More importantly, the language of social justice and egalitarianism is disappearing from the common language, to be replaced by a narrow conception of individual achievement.

The recognition that society as a whole benefits from a fair degree of equity has been undermined from both sides of politics through tax incentives, growing support for private schools and a constant rhetoric of cutting back on government services. Many of Labor’s “true believers” no longer know what that term means; as one former minister said to me, the people working for the Greens would have been working for us ten years ago. Even if the Greens can only muster 10 per cent of the electorate their supporters are disproportionately young and enthusiastic, which makes them a more significant force than the numbers suggest. Moreover, unlike the Democrats, they have a set of principles that go beyond being a sane middle ground between the major parties.

It is common to claim that the young are less interested in politics. This is to misread the disillusionment with the existing state of political debate, and to the extent to which new generations forge different ways of doing politics. As rusted-on party allegiances crumble, the attraction of outsiders on both the right and the left increases, as shown by the sudden success of the Palmer United Party. Outside Victoria, the Greens lost support in 2013 because they were seen simultaneously as part of the system, through their alliance with Labor, and as too radical – as tree-hugging crazies who would destroy the economy, according to the Murdoch press and the Labor right.

Some in the Labor Party understand this new political environment, and recognise that there needs to be real change in the way the party governs itself and proposes to govern Australia. But I doubt that Labor has the internal reserves to do this alone. The left–right division within the party is no longer much more than a way of distributing party spoils, and the goodwill briefly generated by the leadership contest was quickly dissipated by the cynical manipulation of caucus’s vote for shadow cabinet by the factional groups. More significant even than party reform, Labor needs to radically rethink the legacy of the Hawke–Keating policies in light of the growing significance of global warming and the ongoing decline of manufacturing industry, which is probably irreversible given our population and the bipartisan zeal for free trade. Labor might save APC Ardmona; I doubt whether they will be able to resuscitate a domestic car industry.

Just as Liberals and Nationals have found ways of working together to build a coalition, despite moments of deep tension, the left needs to find ways of working together if we are to be relevant in face of a resurgent populist right. Every time Labor attacks Greens voters it reduces the possibilities of winning back the growing number of voters who are not willing merely to support Labor out of some residual sense that it is the party of those who are worse off. Labor may lose several inner city seats to the Greens; it should worry more that it currently holds virtually no provincial electorates outside Victoria, except in Newcastle and Wollongong.

Coalition does not mean agreement; indeed the experience of the Labor–Green coalitions in Tasmania have has disappointed many on both sides. But it does mean some mutual respect and discussion, and a willingness to swap preferences even where there are major disagreements about policy or candidates. While any alliance will be seized on by conservatives to attack Labor, a sensible dialogue would allow both parties to maintain a distinct identity while avoiding dissipating energies better directed at the right.

Politics is both about the allocation of economic resources and the recognition of diversity and inequality based less on money than on factors such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. The Labor Party grew out of a passion to improve the lot of the working class, and class inequality remains a reality in Australia today, as so much of our popular culture – think of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda or Chris Lilley’s TV show Ja’mie – reminds us. But we can no longer depend on the union movement to represent the worst off in society, nor can Labor claim a monopoly of concern for the dispossessed.

The Greens, too, have grown beyond their original focus on the environment to embrace a range of issues that are concerned with social equity and justice. Precisely because they cannot become a party of government they are able to take a longer-term view on some of the key issues that face us, and on issues such as asylum seekers, climate change and international development they are a necessary corrective to those in Labor who are unwilling to think beyond the next election.

Politics, it is often said, is the art of the possible; I have heard Julia Gillard speak eloquently about this. But what is possible is in turn politically constructed, and it is here that a Labor–Greens alliance offers new prospects for opening up a debate that goes beyond the Labor’s current attempts to appear progressive while being unwilling to challenge the basic assumptions of neoliberal economics. The ubiquitous attacks on high taxation (in reality, Australians are relatively lowly taxed), on “the nanny state” and on the incompetence of the public sector are as much product of the much touted reforms of the Hawke–Keating period as are lower tariffs and a more open economy.

The 2013 election saw worrying signs of American-style politics, as Clive Palmer demonstrated that well-funded right-wing populism can be successful, but the swing to the right was also a consequence of Labor’s failure to develop a genuine counter-narrative to that which defines conventional economic management and facilitating individual acquisitiveness as the central aims of government. A genuinely progressive politics would be one that questions some of the basic assumptions that have enabled the constant attacks on taxation and regulation, and demonstrates that in a country of growing urbanisation, an ageing population and environmental fragility we depend more, not less, on government.

At least one wing of the Greens is willing to enter this debate, to be honest that a richer society is often one in which we benefit more from collective action rather than individual initiative. Most Australians recognise the need for a disability insurance scheme, better funded public schools, vastly improved public transport and a national broadband network, but Labor was always vulnerable because it was unwilling to acknowledge that this would mean increased taxes. Beware the constant mantra of the financial press about the need for more economic reforms: these are often code for new ways of increasing economic inequality which, as Labor MP Andrew Leigh has demonstrated, is already rising in Australia. The market can’t do much about growing transport gridlock or the increasing fragilities of an ageing population, though it seems very effective in increasing the wealth gap between a small part of the population and the rest.

THE Rudd–Gillard governments took tentative steps towards changing the balance between the most and the least advantaged in our society, but they failed to challenge the underlying ideology of individual acquisitiveness that underlines the excesses of neoliberalism. The backdowns on the mining tax and carbon trading were emblematic of a failure to create a coherent progressive narrative that challenged the dominant orthodoxy.

Moreover, for all Rudd’s hyper-energy on the world stage and Gillard’s developing nimbleness in global affairs, they failed to challenge Australian parochialism by creating a genuine awareness of what both in different ways identified as the coming Asian century. The Abbott government has slashed foreign assistance, but they are following a path begun under its predecessors. Unlike the British conservative government, Labor was unwilling to ring-fence assistance to the world’s poor, even though it is likely that reducing massive global inequality contributes more to our long-term security than purchasing more military hardware. Australia now sits on the Security Council, and will host the G20 meeting in 2014, but none of our mainstream leaders have spelt out a convincing argument about what this means in terms of creating a more just and secure world.

Politics works in poetry as much as prose, by which I mean a vision for change has to consist of more than a shelf of good policy proposals. Julia Gillard was one of our most active prime ministers in policy terms, and one of our worst in conveying her larger view of a better society. Clearly she inspired many women, and there was genuine grief when she was overthrown, but her failure to engage a majority in a shared vision for Australia cost her dearly.

One might well object that Abbott provided even less of a vision, but that is the great advantage possessed by conservative politicians: because they rely on what is taken for granted they have less need to articulate their view of the world. It is those who seek change who need to unsettle what is taken for granted in ways that persuade the majority that things can be better, and this requires more than merely rearranging the priorities within the status quo.

On the evening of the 2013 elections, as iconic electorates fell across the country – Bass, Barton, Capricornia, Eden-Monaro – I was one of perhaps 600 people who gathered in a warehouse in North Melbourne to celebrate Adam Bandt’s victory. Some Labor supporters were bitter that we could celebrate in the midst of the Abbott victory, but they failed to see that what was at stake was not merely an electoral success but a sense of taking power at a local level. As was true of the support that elected Cathy McGowan to the once blue-ribbon Liberal seat of Indi, Bandt’s campaign had become a genuine grassroots movement, energising people who retained a deep cynicism about mainstream politics. (And not just them: some Labor members who’d been handing out the party’s how-to-vote cards told me they then voted for Adam.)

Labor politics remain based on an imposed solidarity used to paper over bitter internecine power battles. But our system, unlike the American, requires us to vote for a government rather than individual representatives, and then forces our representatives to hide their real views in the name of party loyalty. That system cannot, nor should it, survive. The “free vote” on same sex marriage, adopted by Labor to allow its then leader to vote against party policy, should be extended to all legislation that is not crucial to the survival of a party in government, and the most difficult change required of Labor culture is to rethink the idea of party loyalty and solidarity. There is a danger that this could make MPs more susceptible to well-funded lobbyists, but the American system is sufficiently different that their excessive legislative corruption is unlikely to be replicated here even with less regimented parliamentarians.

The real struggle for political support takes place not around policy details but rather in relation to how people see the world. It is the political culture, not partisan tactics, that ultimately decides the directions in which a country moves. Changing the discourse means more than easy attacks on Tony Abbott and his government; it means respecting the fact that they were chosen by a majority of the electorate because they tapped into people’s fears and desires better than the parties of the left. Almost before the election was over my Facebook page was full of people venting their spleen against both Abbott and those who had voted for him, which might make us feel good but shows a remarkable inability to acknowledge that the real struggle is to change how a majority of Australians understand the need for and the possibilities of government action.

This is more likely to happen if there is a dialogue between Labor and the Greens that acknowledges that neither has a monopoly of political virtue and that there may be more common ground than either wishes to acknowledge in the bitter aftermath of the end of their agreement and the decline of votes for both parties. The alternative is to cede the command posts of our political culture to a newly invigorated and hungry right.

How we imagine ourselves and the wider culture is both individual and social, and we turn to political institutions to help change the environment in which we all live. Politics is both about mobilising people to come together for a common purpose and an ongoing act of constant manoeuvres for personal advancement and power, at once the most noble and the most venal of human activities. Politicians will always be motivated by a mixture of altruism and self-interest, but if, like so many of the Labor boys, they constantly prioritise the latter they cannot expect to achieve the former. •