The Greens – more than a protest vote

The groundswell in support for the Greens has called into question the traditional left-right political divide. But is this a genuine remake of Australian politics as we know it, or will the Greens go the way of their offshore counterparts?

Is there no stopping the Greens? Coverage of the impending Victorian election, now three weeks away, is obsessed with the impact the Greens will have on Labor and Coalition representation in the state that returned the strongest Greens vote in the federal election.

All this media attention might be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Long-time polls watcher Charles Richardson points out that if party strategists get caught up in the 'Greens threat' debate, the real damage will be done in seats where the Greens vote is irrelevant. This, he says, is being misunderstood by journalists. (Could this be because so many journalists live in the inner-city seats where the Greens vote is pivotal?)

Four seats are widely considered likely to fall to the Greens in their own right – though former Liberal Party Victorian deputy director Tony Barry argues that the list is longer, including the seats of Melbourne, Richmond, Brunswick, Northcote, Prahran and Albert Park.

Yet the Victoria election, says Richardson, will be decided in the outer suburbs and regions. Yes, a small number of inner city seats will change hands based on preference deals done with either Labor Premier John Brumby or Coalition leader Ted Baillieu – but making a hullabaloo over it, particularly for the Liberals, could cause more harm than good.

One of the aphorisms of the Green movement globally is that it is "neither left nor right, but in front". Perhaps, but voters on both sides of politics in the seats Richardson refers to will superimpose whatever ideological bias they like on the Greens – if Labor does a deal, it's 'lurched to the left' and if the Coalition does the same, it has lost its "moral authority and philosophical consistency," as Barry put it earlier this week.

During the federal election, Liberal candidate for the seat of Melbourne, Simon Olsen, directed his preferences to Greens candidate Adam Bandt – helping make him the first ever Greens House of Representatives member elected at a general election. In that race, Bandt did not return the favour due to a federal deal Labor struck with the Greens.

It's important to remember that 'directed' is a misleading term. 'Suggested' is a better word – and Victorian Greens strategist Stephen Luntz says there is plenty of evidence that Greens voters are more independent minded that major party voters in this respect.

Indeed, after the preferences deal was done during the federal election, Bob Brown was not shy about fronting cameras to urge Greens voters to "make up their own minds", whatever their how-to-vote card said.

So in Victoria, any deal Ted Baillieu can seal with the Greens might actually work to undermine his chance of taking the top job on Spring Street.

The preferences issue has divided the party at both a federal and state level.

Traditionally, both Labor and Liberal candidates list each other last, so in actual fact, sticking to the traditional formula preferences the Greens over Labor anyway.

But John Howard challenged this practice last week during an address to the National Press Club – saying "the Greens are worse than Labor – much worse".

This in turn earned Howard a rebuke from former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett, who was quoted as saying that "the Liberal Party has for years, and only once has not, put the Labor Party last. That therefore means that they've preferenced the Greens before they've preferenced Labor".

The single time the Liberal Party did not do this, says Kennett, was when it pushed Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party to the bottom of the list.

Spoiling politics?

All the squabbling over preferences threatens to distract the major parties intellectual leaders from more important work – remaking the Labor and Liberal policy platforms for the strange, post-ideogical era the Australian polity finds itself in.

Federally, the Greens took 12 per cent of the primary vote (polls predicted 14 per cent), but the latest Newspoll shows 19 per cent expected in Victoria.

One in five voters? That's starting to look, gulp, like a bit more than a protest vote.

In fact, says Luntz, it's not entirely wrong to say that the Greens attract protest votes – mainly from the left of the Labor vote. However, he adds that once they've made their protest, they take the party they voted for more seriously, learn more about it and ultimately decide to stay.

Greens leader Bob Brown made the point last weekend when he told the ABC's Insiders "they're real candidates who are going to be real parliamentarians. And this is what the press doesn't get, I mean that it's not a parking of a vote. It's not a protest vote."

Brown's charge against journalists, echoed by all the of party sources contacted for this article, is that viewing Greens policy through a left/right or Labor/Liberal prism prevents commentators from understanding what the Greens platform is about.

The easy interpretation is that the party is either a new nature-obsessed incarnation of the romantic movement, and therefore not to be trusted with hard-headed matters of state or economy, or – far worse – a gathering point for covert Marxists.

On the first charge, Luntz, himself from a scientific background, says he does meet people within the party whose views on science he cannot agree with – but he points out that there are a very large number of engineers and scientists within the Greens membership, who take a decidedly scientific, rather than romantic, view of the world.

The Marxist charge has been directed at Adam Bandt a number of times, particularly with regard to his student politics history, and he certainly makes no secret of his ties to the left. In his first speech to parliament Bandt thanked a number of officials in three unions directly for their support and said: "To those unions I have worked with over many years, but especially those who took a big leap to support me and the Greens: your commitment to principle and to real change for the benefit of your members is humbling."

It is easy, then, to dismiss Greens supporters as the Labor's disenfranchised economic-left voters, augmented by socially progressive voters alarmed by the ALP's more right-leaning stances on issues such as euthanasia, gay marriage, treatment of asylum seekers and Australia's military commitments abroad.

But Greens advisors contacted for this article protest that this is again relying on the simple left/right dichotomy.

A better way to describe the party, according to one, is as a party promoting "ecological economics" – implying a holistic view the way human institutions, including businesses and markets, must ultimately work within natural ecological boundaries.

There is one boundary, however, that the Greens are intent on breaking through. Armed with the party's four key principles – ecological sustainability, grassroots participatory democracy, social justice, peace and non-violence – it aims to force change on the major parties and remake politics in its own image.

The principle underlying this process is to reach 'consensus' on policy issues rather than use a small party executive to lay out an ideological master plan.

Sounds good in theory, but in practice this approach to politics has had mixed success abroad.

It's a little known historical fact that Germany's enormous Green movement in the 1980s and 1990s was inspired by the Australian union movement's 'green bans' on projects such as the shipping of uranium in the 1970s, as Adam Bandt noted in his first speech to parliament: "Petra Kelly, visiting Australia at the time, was so impressed by the ‘green bans’ imposed by the unions and the community that she took it back with her to Germany where they founded Die Grnen, ‘The Greens’."

And yet where has the German project led? By the early 1990s, the Greens in Germany split along two factional lines – 'realos' who sought to work within existing political and capitalist structures to achieve their ends, and 'fundis' who rejected pragmatic engagement with existing parties on the grounds that it only diluted Green principles.

'Fundis' began to fade from the party ranks while the 'realos' went on to forge an alliance with Germany's Social Democrats – and made considerable compromises on previously stated policies such as opposition to nuclear power, opposition to numerous foreign troop deployments, and support for aid programs in the developing world. Effectively, Greens survived and prospered by embracing realpolitik and becoming, well, less Green.

All of which raises a big question for the Greens in Australia, as they step up to exercise the balance of power (in some cases) in the federal House of Reps, the Senate from July 2011, and potentially both houses of the Victorian parliament after the 27 November election.

Whether the Australian polity is returned by degrees to the conventional politics of left and right, or whether the groundswell of support for the Greens can indeed remake Australian politics along lines closer to their founding principles, will be keenly watched – by friend and foe alike.

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