Britain's harsh lesson for the Greens

As in London, our governing party's decision to stand off against its partner is pushing both closer to the edge. But the Greens' poor appetite for compromise is set to make its electoral standing tougher than ever.

Political events in Britain are providing a strange mirror image of the spectacle of Labor and the Greens ripping their own governing alliance to shreds.

Back in Blighty it's the conservative government of David Cameron that teeters on the edge of oblivion, and it's the minor Liberal Democrats partner causing Tories to openly canvass losing government rather than go on ceding ground to their uneasy bedfellows' policy agenda.

Here, of course, it began with Labor's Right faction heavies deciding that, with electoral doom looming anyway, they might as well turn on the Greens.

That move, which Treasurer Wayne Swan denies is an 'orchestrated' campaign (how stupid does he think we are?) was initially derided by commentators as a flawed strategy – though psephological guru Malcolm Mackerra today has given it his full endorsement.

From Right faction king-makers Paul Howes and Sam Dastyari, the anti-Greens rhetoric quickly spread across factional lines and was taken up by Labor figures actually elected to represent the general public (unlike those two).

Former Greens leader Bob Brown said Labor was committing hara-kiri and numerous Greens MPs pointed to the fact that over a million Australian voters had backed them at the last election.

That riposte is weak. While the Greens' numbers are correct, they obscure some important divisions in that voting 'bloc' that will come into play at the next election.

As I wrote earlier in the week, a great many of those million voters are more disgusted with the often 'extreme' policy positions of the Labor and Liberal parties than dyed-in-the-wool Greens voters (Will the new Don Chipp please stand up, July 10).

The disgraceful behaviour of all parties two weeks ago, when a compromise to prevent further drownings of refugees in the seas to our north could not be found in parliament, is likely to change voter perceptions a huge amount before a 2013 poll. Voters will be entitled to ask: "Where is the third force in Australian politics that can knock the heads of the major parties together to reach sensible compromise?"

The Greens have not done that – in virtually every policy area they see their job as being to pull in a more radical direction and make the voices of an angry minority heard. This is all very satisfying to the MPs involved, no doubt, but the results, once the filter of realpolitik is applied, are generally regressive.

Previously, disgruntled major-party voters (mostly from Labor) could blithely shift their votes to the Greens on the basis that (a) they're really not Labor and (b) at least I'll be helping the environment.

However, the easy choice to vote Green is growing more problematic by the day.

The strength of the Greens ideological intransigence, seen most clearly when they blocked the Rob Oakeshott-sponsored 'boats' compromise legislation in the Senate, cannot be swept under the carpet any more.

Shifting a vote to the Greens will at the next election be, more than ever, a vote for utopianism to the detriment of pragmatic policy solutions.

As long as the Labor and Liberal parties continue to cherry pick policies that are simply the opposite of each other's, that mean the Greens only make matters worse.

And for those voters who really do care about the environment, the next election will be a chance to reflect on the fact Greens policy purity has resulted in worse outcomes on carbon pricing (that is, it will be scrapped) and the Murray Darling Basin, where environment minister Tony Burke's attempt to reach a compromise on the level of 'environmental flows' has been impeded by his government's alliance partner enraging farmers and rural communities by paying little heed to the fear of those who would lose their livelihood.

As I pointed out on Tuesday, the scientific logic underpinning Greens policy is good. And the political and economic logic is awful. Allowing a politically sellable carbon policy to be passed would have been a step forward on carbon emissions reduction. Instead the Greens forced something on Labor that, in Julia Gillard's words, "works effectively like a tax". That is, frankly, unsellable.

That, presumably, is why Mackerras today calls the Greens "the greatest gift Tony Abbott ever had."

The same applies to the Murray Darling, where a fragile agreement with state governments is on the verge of being struck – albeit with far lower environmental flows than the Greens have consistently called for. But that is how our current system of democracy works – it attempts to find a compromise between 'pure science' and what voters will freely agree to. A national framework for that river system would pave the way to tighter environmental flows in future, without the fear and report-burning hysteria seen when the initial draft plan for the Basin was released.

The Greens can rationalise away their role in these policy debacles, the boats tragedy in parliament a fortnight ago, and in many other policy areas. But I don't think voters will, especially when it comes to marking their Senate ballot papers which to date have been the source of Greens power.

To return to the situation in Britain, conservatives (who, incidentally, are leading the charge to price carbon) have had enough of Lib-Dem policies, even though the Lib Dems have been relatively compliant in compromising their own deeply held beliefs to get laws through parliament – most noteably, this involved a 'u-turn' on abolishing student tuition fees. A nasty compromise for Lib Dems, but one they deemed necessary.

Here, the Greens have shown little ability for such compromise. The outpouring of bile from Labor MPs, unionists and ALP party officials is recognition of this.

Labor might still be doomed, but not as doomed as if it stayed silent on the failure of its parliamentary partner to achieve 'least bad' outcomes – which is all democracy can ever really promise in the first place.

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