Will the new Don Chipp please stand up
The Greens' radical alternatives have given voters a chance to express rage at mainstream politics, but the party is making a serious error if it mistakes this for effective policy.
Despite former leader Bob Brown's deluded statement that "we're not there to keep the bastards honest – we're there to replace them", the Greens have functioned best as a barometer of dissatisfaction with Labor and, to a far lesser extent, the Liberal party.
That's a function that must be kept alive and well in the federal parliament – though not necessarily by the Greens.
It is only the age-old trap of believing one's own PR that has led the Greens to think their policy platform offers a real alternative to those offered by the major parties. Nonetheless, by offering some radical alternatives, the Greens have given Labor voters in particular somewhere to express their rage at what's happened in mainstream politics.
But protest votes do not move permanently. In the federal seat of Melbourne, for instance, Adam Bandt managed to wrest enough votes away from Lindsay Tanner's successor, Cath Bowtell – with the help of Liberal preferences – to become only the second Green to sit in the House of Representatives. (The first, Michael Organ, held the first Greens House of Reps seat between 2002 and 2004 via a byelection in the NSW seat of Cunningham.)
But the Greens are making a big mistake if they think those voters' relationships with Mother Labor have broken down. Like angry teenagers running off with radical new friends, they're almost bound to return one day for a home-cooked meal – in this case a functioning economy with, amongst other things, an industrial relations environment that neither rips off workers nor unduly crimps investment.
In this particular phase of Australian history achieving a functioning economy, while maintaining a decent measure of social equity, is an extremely difficult balance. Labor's claim to be 'spreading the benefits of the [mining] boom' is the right message, but one backed up with some rushed, inefficient policies.
Sharing the boom so far involves:
– Imposing a badly structured mining tax that will end up raising much less revenue than could be raised without seriously threatening inward investment (despite all the mining industry cant to the contrary, global capital flows to where risk-adjusted returns are highest, and in today's global economy Australian mining remains highly attractive);
– Restructuring the taxation and benefits systems to help sell the carbon tax rather than reforming them for their own sake;
– Maintaining stimulatory government spending way past the end of the GFC, propped up by a blow-out in federal public debt – a situation that, with the last federal budget, has become a real problem (Swan's dangerous debt game, May 10).
In response to this suite of hasty, 'cling-to-power' policymaking, the Coalition offers some highly dubious alteratives. It's promising:
– It will abandon the mining tax altogether, labelling it as a 'tax on success'. This might make sense were it not for the fact that the sky-high dollar flowing from the mining boom has helped ravaged non-mining-related trade exposed industries such as manufacturing, education exports and tourism.
– It will deliver tax cuts and benefit increase commensurate with Labor's carbon-tax 'bribes', but purely for political reasons – that is, without reference to the Henry Tax Review or any other grand plan for making our tangled tax system any more productive or equitable. This leaves the Coalition with a whopping cost cutting program of approximately $70 billion a year to keep the budget in the black.
– Finally, the Coalition's cost cutting will apparently be so deep that it can stop borrowing to fund the day-to-day costs of service provision (as Labor is clearly doing) and begin to pay down the national debt. Nonsense.
Caught between the Labor rock and the Coalition hard place, it's natural for voters to turn to a third party. And yet what are the Greens offering?
The regulation of CEO salaries, a 50 per cent marginal tax rate, a much higher mining tax to fund health and education services and a delay to the 'return to surplus' that both the Coalition and Labor are now wedded to.
To those policies can be added the Greens desire to see a renewable energy sector at least half owned by government. It is the Greens' input into carbon pricing that has pushed the per-tonne carbon price to $23, raising a huge amount of revenue to be loaned, distributed as grants or directly invested by government to build renewable energy capacity as quickly as possible.
The problem with such a deeply socialist agenda is that, due to a basic mistrust in the market, it would not only deliver policy outcomes at too great a cost (there is no erasing the failed economic experiments of socialism in the second half of the 20th century), but is politically impossible in a democratic Australia at this time. As I have noted previously, the Greens are managing to take their own agenda backwards by overplaying their hands on carbon pricing (Are the Greens really back-pedalling on carbon? July 5) and, more recently, illegal boat arrivals (The boats bill must be allowed to pass, June 28).
As Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews said yesterday: "[The Greens] main game is holding themselves hostage to their own ideals, to an evangelical idealism that achieves nothing."
And we need a third party that can achieve something – a party that will not overplay its hand, but find a way through the maze of our difficult (but necessary) democratic and economic institutions to deliver results for all those voters who can't stomach a Labor or Liberal vote.
On that note, let me end with remarks from Don Chipp's farewell speech to parliament as he left the Liberal Party to form that other balance-of-power party of recent decades, the Australian Democrats – a party that only seven years ago handed its baton to the Greens:
"I have become disenchanted with party politics as they are practised in this country and with the pressure groups which have an undue influence on the major political parties. The parties seem to polarise on almost every issue, sometimes seemingly just for the sake of it, and I wonder if the ordinary voter is not becoming sick and tired of the vested interests which unduly influence political parties and yearns for the emergence of a third political force, representing middle-of-the-road policies which would owe allegiance to no outside pressure group."
So please, won't the new Don Chipp stand up.