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In a federal election where the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the conservative Liberal Party put forward a right-wing policy consensus, the Australian Greens have seen a huge boost to their vote – a clear indication that significant numbers of people are looking for a left-wing alternative.
Voters have left the ALP in droves, delivering a swing of 3.7 per cent nationally to the Greens. At the time of writing, the Greens vote as a share of the total has increased to 11.4 per cent in the lower house and to 13 per cent in the senate.
The Greens vote was strongest in gentrified inner-city seats, home to white-collar workers and the progressive middle class: Melbourne (36 per cent) Sydney (24 per cent), Denison (Hobart – 19 per cent) and Brisbane (21 per cent).
They have gained 6 new senators – one in each state. In the lower house seat of Melbourne – ALP-held for over a century – Greens candidate Adam Bandt has surged to victory with a swing of over 13 per cent. This is the first lower-house seat ever won by the Greens at a federal election.
For the time being they have established themselves as the third force in Australian parliamentary politics. There are now 9 federal senators, one federal MP, 23 state representatives and well over 100 local Greens councillors.
A rejection of Labor’s right-wing drift
The Greens’ result clearly reflects that a mass of voters has rejected the right-wing drift of Labor.
The gradual rise of the Greens in the polls from the end of 2009 was in substantial part due to disappointment with Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. The government’s declining popularity saw a swift response from party leaders, who moved to depose Rudd and replace him with Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard.
The change in leadership saw a rapid defection of Green votes back to the ALP. In the week after the change, the Greens were polling, on average, 3.5 per cent lower than prior to the change (9.8 per cent as opposed to 13.3 per cent).
Clearly a section of Labors’ supporters was hoping that Gillard would deliver something better than the right-wing Rudd. But within two weeks it was clear that Gillard was no better. In fact she shifted the ALP further to the right, capitulating on a planned “Resource Super Profits Tax” on mining companies; fanning the flames of racism toward the small number of refugees arriving on Australian shores by boat; and dithering over the issue of climate change.
The Greens’ support was restored and the party reinvigorated almost instantly. The worse Labor got under Gillard, the more she appealed to the racists, the better the Greens appeared to people wanting a left-wing alternative.
They campaigned on climate change and human rights: refugees, same-sex marriage and the war in Afghanistan. In his victory speech, Bandt singled out these issues as ones that had now been put “back on the national agenda”. “Never again”, he said, “will [progressive] values be taken for granted and trashed for political purposes.” The Greens determination to push back against the major parties on these issues was one of the highlights of what was otherwise a rotten election.
The contradiction of the Greens
However, despite the Greens positioning themselves to the left of Labor on most issues, there remains a significant contradiction in the way the party has advanced itself. There was one moment in the Greens campaign which sums up the predicament of the party now that it holds the balance of power in the senate.
The moment seemed insignificant – a simple gaffe. The occasion was the party’s launch in Canberra. Party leader Bob Brown suggested that the Greens would consider supporting offshore processing of asylum-seekers in East Timor, an idea floated by new PM Gillard:
“Our position is we will always look at amendments. And remember, the government has no legislation before this parliament or before the parliament of Timor Leste. When we look at that we will try and improve it so it does stick with international law.”
It is well understood by refugee campaigners – and the left generally – that offshore processing (detaining people in other countries or islands) is a ruse intended to stop refugees exercising their right to seek asylum in Australia. Brown quickly clarified that the Greens’ policy is to oppose offshore processing. Yet he was caught in the contradiction of the Party’s approach to the election – and politics – as a whole.
On the one hand, the Greens have promoted themselves as a left alternative to the ALP. They have called for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan; the scrapping of the laws which treat construction workers as second-class citizens; the end to a six-year ban on same-sex marriage; an expansion of Medicare; and increased taxes on the wealthy and the mining companies.
On the other, they have been at pains to position themselves as a party of the mainstream; responsible and worthy of trust by the establishment. As Victorian state Greens campaign manager Szilvia Csanyi put it back in April: “We’re trying to cut through this old image and false perception of the Greens as tree-hugging radicals – that’s not what the party is about… We want to change that image and be more attractive…”
The Greens contrast themselves with the conservative Liberal Party – not to show that the Liberal’s are right-wing and that the Greens are the only ones prepared to stand up to them now that Labor are effectively their mirror image. Instead, they portray the Liberals as irresponsible in contrast to the Greens as experienced and competent negotiators.
The Liberals, they argue, offer senate deadlock; they are blockers of policy. The Greens, however, offer “responsible review” of policy and, according to Brown, “won’t be blocking anything”. Brown’s “gaffe” over refugee processing was actually an expression of this contradiction between being “progressive” and being “responsible”. He accidentally fell on the “responsible” side of the fence, temporarily forgetting the thousands currently rotting away in detention camps.
The bind for the Greens is that if they are truly to be a left alternative to the ALP they actually have to block right-wing policy. Otherwise they will prove themselves no better than the Labor left: progressive in words only, and disingenuously parading themselves as “concession getters” while rotten policy after rotten policy is passed.
Now that the Greens have the balance of power, this contradiction is more than theoretical. The key question is which side will they ultimately fall, and on which issues? Brown has made it clear on company tax: they won’t block the lowering of it. What else won’t they block?
Will they be the responsible managers of the Senate in service of the Australian ruling class when it comes to cutting welfare payments? Or will they do what any progressive should do when faced with such a right-wing government and obstruct and fight them all the way?
Now that they have to be accountable for their words, there will be increasing tension within the party. The coming years will see budget cuts, and both major parties are committed to a right-wing program in office. If those on the left of the party capitulate to the will of Brown and others (including the mainstream media and the establishment) to be “responsible”, the Greens will play a clear role in implementing the agenda of the major parties.
The results of the Tasmanian election in 1992, may be instructive for what this means. The Greens propped up the minority Labor government from 1989 as it unleashed a wave of austerity. Brown told the Australian Financial Review in 2004 that: “there were savage budget cuts. We had Greens’ supporters protesting outside our offices. We went to some very angry public meetings, but we Greens held the line.
The end result was that the Greens vote dropped over 20 per cent. They have obviously recovered, but nationally they may lose left-wing supporters as they show themselves to be just another mainstream pro-capitalist party – as has happened in Ireland and Germany.
On the other hand, if a section of the party stands resolutely against the current they may be able to play a role in rebuilding resistance and strengthening the left. That would be a positive development, but will come at the expense of destabilising the party as a whole. Their respectable middle-class base is unlikely to tolerate “irresponsible behavior” like fighting the right.
Already there is evidence of some division within the party over the question of which of the major parties to in government. Bob Brown is pushing for discussions with Liberal leader Tony Abbott about the possibility of supporting a Liberal minority government.
Adam Bandt however, initially rejected that path: “I made my position clear that were we to be in a situation where my vote was important, my view was that that would be best delivered by working with a Gillard government and that’s a view that I still hold.”
At this point it is difficult to predict how the contradiction will play out. However – and unfortunately –there is little indication that there are senators willing to seriously fight for left-wing policy, rather than simply negotiate for a few crumbs.
BEN HILLIER is a contributor to sa.org.au. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.