Labor wasn’t left enough. Labor wasn’t green enough. And Bob Brown saw an opportunity to capitalise on both.
Under Brown’s leadership, the Greens Party primary vote in federal elections grew from 1.9 per cent for its first election in 1993 to 7.2 per cent in 2004 – a point at which the Howard government started to feel pressure from the left over issues such as the Iraq war, education cuts and industrial relations reform.
Brown’s party, for it really was his party until his retirement as leader in April 2012, took slightly more (7.8 per cent) during the ‘Ruddslide’ win for Labor in 2007, but most tellingly of all, hit a high-water mark of 11.8 per cent of the primary vote as dissatisfaction with Labor grew in 2010.
Brown said all the right things to woo disaffected lefties and greenies. It was a remarkable achievement that new leader Christine Milne is having a lot of trouble emulating. The party took 8.6 per cent of the vote at the 2013 election and this week’s Essential Media poll puts it slightly higher at 10 per cent.
Now compare those voting figures to the green right.
Sorry? What green right?
Green politics, so we have been indoctrinated to believe, is a natural bed-fellow of Marxism. Stands to reason – only the state can socialise the costs and benefits of economic activity.
To socialise the benefits you tax the hell out of hard workers and give the proceeds to indolent public servants and work-shy lay-abouts.
To socialise the costs, you impose Pigovian taxes that discourage negative externalities – whack an excise on tobacco to help pay for health costs, royalties on minerals to reimburse the owners (all citizens), or an environmental tax on polluting activities.
The confusion in Australian politics is that both forms of socialisation are ‘left’, when in fact that proposition is only half true.
While ever-increasing socialisation of economic benefits is a leftie thing, making people pay for the trouble or damage they cause is perfectly in keeping with conservative and liberal political philosophy (and their more prevalent ‘neo’ forms).
Does Tony Abbott know this? Well of course he does – despite his halting, simple, and rather child-like persona in front of cameras, his behind-the-scenes intelligence cannot be doubted.
But that raises a question as to how well he is protecting his ‘green right’ flank.
Yesterday, the soon-to-be-abolished Climate Change Authority released an inconvenient draft report arguing what any self-respecting climate scientist knows – that reducing carbon emissions by 5 per cent on 2000 levels by 2020 is a tiny spit in the bucket when it comes to limiting global temperature rises.
The wealthiest nation on earth, with the highest per-capita carbon emissions, is doing the bare minimum to encourage its poorer neighbours, which emit far less CO2 in per capita terms, to switch to cleaner power sources.
Poor, poor Australia, they must all think, that it can only afford a 5 per cent target.
In releasing the report, Climate Change Authority chairman Bernie Fraser said that by eschewing the buying of international permits, the Coalition government’s Direct Action plan was taking an “extreme” approach to hit a target that, anyway, should be much higher – 15 to 25 per cent.
In the echo-chamber of contemporary Australian media, it’s tempting, often, to assume that human-induced climate change was a fad, a flash in the pan, that will soon fade away of its own accord.
Sadly that’s not what the scientific community is finding. It’s not what the basic physics of green-house gases suggest, nor is it what the most complex climate models – which start from those basic physical principles – demonstrate with increasing certainty.
For Abbott this is a problem. Many commentators have argued that Direct Action has always been a plan to do nothing about climate change.
Even Malcolm Turnbull, who lost the Liberal Party leadership over his market-based Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, has argued that a key advantage of Direct Action is that it’s an easy policy to dismantle.
He told the ABC’s Lateline in 2011: "If you believe there is not going to be any global action and that the rest of the world will just say, 'It's all too hard and we'll just let the planet get hotter and hotter,' and, heaven help our future generations if you take that rather grim, fatalistic view of the future and you want to abandon all activity, a scheme like that is easier to stop."
The growing problem for the Coalition, in light of the CCA’s report and Abbott’s recent spat with UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, is that wishing to price pollution, so as to make polluters pay for social harm caused by their activities, is a thoroughly conservative ideal.
Take, for instance, the following comments from a report by the Quality of Life Policy Group – a think tank set up by David Cameron in 2007 to advise the Tory shadow cabinet on what conservatives should do to better “husband resources” for future generations.
"Environmental issues have all too often been colonised by the rhetoric of the left. Yet concern for continuity, for preserving the stability and protecting the beauty of the natural environment, is a deeply Conservative approach. As [political philosopher] Roger Scruton writes, ‘Conservatism, as I understand it, means maintenance of the social ecology. Conservatism and conservation are in fact two aspects of a single long-term policy, which is that of husbanding resources. These resources include the social capital embodied in laws, customs and institutions; they also include the material capital contained in the environment.’
"So, in adopting a green agenda, David Cameron is placing himself in the centre ground of the Conservative tradition. What is new is the urgency of his mission. Climate change, pollution, and the bio-degradation of the planet demand action and demand it now.”
Abbott, despite all his tree-planting rhetoric, is not doing likewise. On the major environmental crisis facing the planet, his approach is roundly condemned by most economists and climate scientists alike.
The political problem with that is that it keeps open the possibility that Australian conservatives, like their contemporaries in the UK, will wonder why the Left gets to claim ‘conservation’ as their own.
The Greens split the Labor vote. Now the brown-right (Clive Palmer), gun-right (Liberal Democrats) and hoon-right (Motoring Enthusiasts) have taken some of the conservative vote and threaten to take more in future.
But how long until a green-right party is launched to do the same? Abbott’s actions on climate change leave one gaping flank exposed.