Underachieving Greens can do without your vote

Posted 21st October 2014 by Clare O'Neil in Articles | 0 Comment
[caption width="620" align="alignnone"]Australian Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne and Deputy Greens Leader Adam Bandt. Australian Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne and Deputy Greens Leader Adam Bandt. Photo: Eddie Jim[/caption]

At the last federal election, 1.6 million voters gave the Australian Greens a go at being more than a party of protest. The pundits talked big, touting the Greens as the new “third force” of Australian politics. Three years on, has the party proved deserving of such a role?

The 2010 election gave the Greens a box seat in a hung Parliament. The party doubled its representation to 10 MPs, shared the balance of power in both houses of Parliament, and ultimately shared government with Labor for most of this term. A minor party has not wielded so much power in many decades.

With all this political muscle, what has the party achieved? On climate, the Greens finally voted to implement a scheme that is strikingly similar to the one they rejected in 2009. On refugees, Australia’s policies have grown dramatically more draconian and the Greens have been unable to do anything about it.

These are the Greens’ areas of passion. On broader policy – the economy, health and education – there is scant evidence of Greens influence.

Yes, there have been achievements. The Greens highlight a $5 billion investment in dental care and the creation of a new Parliamentary Budget office. These are important initiatives, but they are modest.

They pale in comparison with those achieved by the Australian Democrats in its prime, or even Brian Harradine (the lone senator from Tasmania who held the balance of power in the Senate during part of the Howard years), though neither held nearly as much influence as the Greens have in this last Parliament.

Why have the Greens not achieved more? One reason is that their political style has remained that of a bit player. At the radical fringe of politics, the hard line is the righteous path. But in the main game, compromise is essential to getting things done.

Asylum seeker policy illustrates: the Greens’ unwillingness to contemplate offshore processing has dealt them out of the policy discussions. At times, the party’s rhetoric has seemed more suited to the student representative council than the nation’s Parliament.

It’s like listening to Pauline Hanson on immigration, or Bob Katter on the protection of North Queensland’s banana industry. Everyone already in agreement is nodding furiously. Those who hold a different view are ill-informed, stupid or nasty. Such is the luxury of the fringe party.

So, if a vote for the Greens is not likely to create much real policy change, what is the progressive voter to do come September 7?

Labor has not made itself a very attractive option. The treatment of asylum seekers, the mismanagement of the mining tax – these are not policies that progressive Australians feel good about. But Labor has also put in place the national disability insurance scheme, reformed education, waged a war on tobacco and invested in nation-building infrastructure such as the national broadband network.

Some may prefer a party advocating unsuccessfully for the “right” policies than one that makes compromises to get part-way there. But the impact of voting Greens goes beyond providing a fringe group with a bigger loudspeaker.

By voting Greens, we diminish Labor’s ability to represent progressive Australians. This is the case for three reasons.

First, Labor will have to go in to battle against other progressives, taking resources away from the fight against the conservatives.

Second, losing inner-city seats threatens to take progressive voices out of the Labor caucus (such as Cath Bowtell in Melbourne, who will run against Adam Bandt on September 7, or Tanya Plibersek in Sydney, whose seat could be under threat). These are, or could be, MPs who will work from the inside to create real change.

Third, by endangering Labor’s ability to govern in its own right, we push Labor towards the centre, because the party is more likely to need support from conservative independents or Liberals to get its policies across the line.

We all want to feel proud of who we vote for. But when deciding how to vote, we must look not only at what is said, but what is done.

The performance of the Greens in this last term calls into question the party’s effectiveness as a mainstream political force. What they have shown themselves to be good at is articulately representing a radical perspective, as a conscience of the nation. That is the party of which Bob Brown was such an effective leader.

But it is a role that can be played without taking up 10 seats in our nation’s Parliament. If you want to make a real difference to how our nation is governed, then at this election, the Greens can probably do without your vote.

Clare O’Neil is a former Labor mayor of Greater Dandenong and has a masters in public policy at Harvard Kennedy School, where she was a Fulbright scholar.

Originally published August 5, 2013 in The Age

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