A spent force?

This post grew from the comments section of a piece that @Drag0nista ran on the Guardian today, titled Time is up for the Australian Greens, in which she contends on the basis of polling data from Essential Media that the Greens are pretty much a spent force in Australian politics. Her argument is that the Greens reached their nadir in the 2010 election with a primary vote of  11.8%, they haven’t been able to grow their vote within this electoral cycle so it means that it is all downhill from here, evidenced by the fact that as Labor’s stocks have declined the lost votes have cleaved predominantly to the Coalition and that ground claimed as key battle territory for the Greens – from taking ownership of carbon pricing to forging alliances with regional Australia over coal seam gas – have not translated into positive polling data.

This kind of argument is entirely typical of the 4th & 5th estate’s obsession with the short term political spin cycle. Absent of any attempt at long term vision it is, to paraphrase Keating, all noise and no signal.

While it is hard to argue with the basic facts underpinning her argument – that the polls don’t look good and that the anti-incumbency mood at this election is unlikely to be kind to the Greens – the conclusions Drag0nista draws – that it somehow heralds the end of the Greens as a groundswell movement – simply do not stand up to analysis and completely misread the the social and political movement that the Greens represent. Far from being relegated to being a spent force on the basis of a single electoral cycle, the Greens represent a movement well and truly in its infancy. This is just the beginning.

During the course of the discussion the reader @Arbitraryname made the inevitable comparison with the Australian Democrats’ experience throughout the 1990’s. At a superficial level there appears to be some clear parallels: both minor parties claiming third-force status, both fought for and won the balance of power in the senate, both were instrumental in negotiating politically contentious taxes through parliament (sure, the carbon price isn’t strictly a tax but, as @Drag0nista drily pointed out, ‘perception is everything’). While it is easy to see why people automatically jump to compare the two, to do so would belie a fundamental misapprehension of the forces behind both the capital ‘G’ Greens and the broader small ‘g’ green movement.

The Australian Democrats were originally conceived as being a moderating balance between the two parties, founder Don Chip famously famously declared their function was to “keep the bastards honest”, he had no pretensions for the Democrats to usurp the traditional power base and, unlike the Greens, the party wasn’t underpinned by a distinct ideological point of difference to either of the majors.

Strategically, too, the Greens differ from the Democrats. The Greens have sought to integrate themselves into every level of government and across the country Greens are represented in local councils, state legislative assemblies and the federal parliament in Canberra.

The Greens represent a groundswell political movement that hasn’t been seen in Australia since the inception of the Labor movement in the early 20th century, it is a worldwide, grassroots movement, firmly bedded in a clear ideology that motivates people to organise communities from the bottom up.

In an age where union membership is plummeting and the movement flails in its struggle for relevance, while modern Labor party exists in an ideological vacuum and increasingly seems to govern simply for the sake of governing, the broader small ‘g’ green movement is rapidly becoming a linchpin upon which communities are able to organise and rally around. Whether it be inner-city latte-sippers opposed to toll-roads scorching through their community, hard bitten farmers on the land being encroached by coal seam gas development, or concerned citizens divesting their retirement savings from the fossil fuel industry, increasingly environmental campaigns are the force mobilising people to become organised and question the established order. And, as the impending climate catastrophe unfolds, with more and more ordinary Australian’s being impacted by its effects, there will be an pre-existing campaign infrastructure for the disaffected to organise around. And it is the capital ‘G’ Greens who are at the vanguard of that movement.

It might not be the sort of thing that will influence polls, or even secure short term electoral support for the Greens necessarily, but it is the sort of slow burn change that can absolutely revolutionise the ideological division that has dominated our system since before federation.

This, I think, is the key difference. The Greens aren’t just a political party, they are the political edge of a much broader social movement that doesn’t seek to just moderate the ideological divide so much as supersede it. As Bob Brown famously quipped; the Greens aren’t here to keep the bastards honest, they’re here to replace the bastards.

Climate change and how we respond to it will be the defining issue of this century. Currently, neither of the two major parties have any serious policy for addressing the crisis beyond a bipartisan and very tokenistic emission reduction target. When it comes to the big picture, on one side we have a party in thrall of an anti science ideology, while on the other one that exists in an ideological vacuum where the issue is predominantly used as a cynical political device rather than an ideology by which to navigate the ship of state.

Both sides are in bed with the fossil fuel lobby, neither has any kind of vision or plan to consider how the economy might function in the post mining boom and both are committed to the hilt when it comes to open slather development of fossil fuel reserves, completely oblivious to the changing international winds.

Worldwide the coal industry is under pressure; the shale gas boom in America has depressed coal prices, developed economies across the globe are beginning to implement carbon pricing, an international fossil fuel divestment lobby is putting the industry under the spotlight and, more importantly than all of that, China has announced it intends to peak its coal consumption by 2016, meaning coal prices will go into a period of terminal decline.

And what has been the response of the old parties? Full steam ahead (pun intended) with fossil fuel development! This steady-as-she-goes approach might serve the old parties well in the short term but when the coal industry flounders and the reality of the climate emergency becomes reality for the electorate then there’s going to be a lot of pissed off people looking for leadership who aren’t going to see much coming from the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of Australian politics.

Whether or not any of that translates into electoral gains for the Greens as a party remains to be seen but, far from being extremists, the Greens are the only party that has a policy vision that is both economically and environmentally sustainable over the long term. As the small ‘g’ green movement matures and grows, the natural place for them to park not only their vote but also the energy, idealism and intellectual capital of an entire generation of politically engaged progressives will be with the capital ‘G’ Greens.

In Melbourne, Adam Bandt has managed to muster over three hundred enthusiastic and committed volunteers for his campaign – outnumbering the hundred odd that Cath Bowtell has managed so far by 3:1. Labor can only dream about drumming up that kind passion within the community in this election.

If the Greens go backward in September that passion, dedication and commitment isn’t just going to switch off, it’s not suddenly going to be redirected back to the Labor Party. Like it or not, the Greens are the third force in Australian politics and are here to stay.

The old parties are the ones suffering the real “relevance deprivation syndrome” among the community, as evidenced by the terminal decline in party membership and while commentators such as Drag0nista write them off as a spent force, in reality, the Greens are the only party that has actively grown its membership base over the last decade. With the seemingly inevitable bloodbath that awaits Labor and the long term historical decline in union membership, it makes it hard to see how this “giant” is ever going to recover as a viable force in Australian politics.

There has been a fundamental realignment of progressive politics in Australia, Labor is no longer the natural party of the progressive left. The old Whitlam compact between the traditional blue-collar base and the inner-city educated elite has broken down. And Labor hasn’t done much to win those voters back, instead indulging a short term obsession with the swinging voters of western Sydney. Those people, who used to represent a vocal, passionate and committed voice for the party, aren’t coming back as long as Labor are vilifying refugees and punishing single parents for short term political gain.

People have been predicting the ‘peak’ of the Greens since the United Tasmania Group first formed in 1972, I suspect that @Drag0nista will join the long line of commentators who have been too quick to dance on their grave.

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7 responses to “A spent force?

  • edward eastwood

    I’d really love to agree with you, and I sincerely applaud your enthusiasm,
    however what the Greens need is strong leadership or at least a more proactive approach as an alternative to ‘Tweedledum, Tweedledee’ of the main parties, and they’re not getting it through Christine Milne.
    See her interview with the Guardian June 6 2013, or visit my blogsite and read The Greens-Third Party Insurance? Or ‘Christine Milne: More concerned about political correctness than political struggle.’ in The Mugwump Post.
    Keep the faith! Australia does need a new paradigm in politics for the 21st century and I believe that the Greens offer the best chance to do this.

  • Disagreement: A Primer | Drag0nista's Blog

    […] Civilly dissect and challenge the facts used in the other side’s argument in a post of your own like this and this. […]

  • Alex White

    The Greens Party are definitely not the political wing of the environment movement, and I know a great many activists working and volunteering for environment organisations who would disagree with your characterisation of them along those lines.

  • Alex White

    On your comparison between the Bowtell & Bandt campaigns, I think you should keep in mind that the Greens Party are seriously contesting/defending just one lower house seat. Greens Party volunteers from around Victoria are working solely on Melbourne. Labor volunteers on the otherhand have scores of marginal seats to contest against the Liberals, and one to contest against the Greens party (Melbourne, obviously). So the comparison of 300 volunteers vs 100 in Melbourne is rather naff.

    • cstanyon69

      Alex, you’re overlooking the possibility that there are no Greens volunteers working elsewhere. I have first-hand knowledge that this is not the case, as the Greens are fielding candidates in many electorates, all of whom will need & are getting support. There are also more seats in contention than just Bandt’s – Melbourne Ports is one of which I know, firsthand.

      Remember, too, that the number of seats in contention relates to the total number of voters; Labor has many more of both, so supposedly more volunteers. But, it does not, per voting capita.

      • theshoddypolitic

        Also, I’d add the Greens are running a decentralised local campaign, with neighbourhood organisers campaigning in their neighbourhood. The vast majority of volunteers live, work and study in the electorate. The Greens are able to harness an enthusiasm sorely lacking in the Labor movement because they actually have a coherent ideology that motivates grassroots activism.

  • cstanyon69

    With Greens and the (under-reported) Sex party claiming around the same amount of the primary vote – 8-12% – it seems to me there is a broad-base movement away from the Labor party. The Greens would do well to preference the Sex party and the reverse, over and above Labor. This would net each around 20% of secondary preferences, not counting any other, less-popular candidates.

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