Greens’ sustainable future
The father of the Australian environmental movement was a politician ahead of his time.
On announcing his retirement from politics, Bob Brown yesterday recalled his life in his home state of Tasmania in the 1980s, when “I couldn’t walk down the street without windows being wound down” by passing motorists, “and I copped it”.
Brown was an outsider and an affront to the Tasmanian mainstream. He was an environmental activist who sat down in front of the bulldozers of progress, an openly gay politician who campaigned for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
But he turned out to be not so much an outsider as an outrider, a man ahead of his time. Environmentalism has proved to be one of the defining movements of the past half-century.
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
By blocking the bulldozers sent in to dam the pristine Franklin River, Brown created a cause celebre. The clash helped bring down the Fraser government, helped elect the Hawke government, and made Brown a national figure.
“I was out of jail one day and into Parliament the next, literally,” says Brown.
Environmentalism is the cutting edge of post-material politics, the attachment to self-expression and quality of life over the more urgent survival needs of income and physical security.
New regime … former Greens leader Bob Brown, left, with new leader Christine Milne. Photo: Andrew Meares
Post-materialists put greater priority on rights in the workplace, beautiful cities and the environment, according to a leading scholar on the subject, Professor Ron Inglehart of Michigan University. They have fuelled the growth of left-of-centre groups like the Greens and the campaigners GetUp.
Brown spoke of his plan to spend more time with his partner, Paul Thomas. Yesterday Thomas told reporters that he was looking forward to having Brown do some more of the household chores.
The new leader of the Greens, Senator Christine Milne, pointed out that when she was elected to the Tasmanian Parliament in 1989, acts of homosexuality were punishable by up to 21 years in jail.
It was her legislation that decriminalised homosexuality, she said, adding: “Now it’s mainstream.”
As he has helped bring environmentalism and gay rights from the periphery to the mainstream, so has Brown taken the Greens. A decade ago, he was the only Greens politician in the Federal Parliament. Today they are 10, nine senators and one member of the House of Representatives.
There’s been quite a change, he reflects: “I used to get quite a bit of abuse about the place,” but now he more often hears “thank God for the Greens”.
The party’s performance under his leadership has been impressive: “The Greens have increased their share of the vote at five federal elections in a row,” says the Herald‘s pollster, Nielsen’s John Stirton. “It’s something no party has ever done before.”
At the 2010 election the Greens garnered 1.7 million votes, an increase of half a million votes on the 2007 election. They accounted for 12 per cent of the primary vote.
“It’s the best ever vote for a minor party in Australia’s history,” says Stirton. “The Democrats peaked at 11 per cent, the DLP and One Nation peaked at 10 per cent.”
”We have shown we’re not the Democrats,” says Brown. ”We have broken into the House of Representatives. We aren’t there to keep the bastards honest” – the famous slogan of the now-defunct Democrats – ”We’re there to replace the bastards.”
In a flash of hubris yesterday, Brown declared that the Greens were “on a trajectory to be a future government”. But while the Greens control the balance of power in the Senate, they have made no discernible progress towards replacing the bastards.
Since the election, while the vote of the Labor and Liberal parties has moved up and down – Labor’s generally down, and the Liberals’ generally up – the Greens have held rock steady. “The average since the election is 12 per cent,” says Stirton. “They’re at 13 at the moment.”
This suggests that everyone who voted for the Greens at the last election is happy with their choice. But it also suggests that the Greens have not won over any new voters in the past year and a half.
After a steady climb, the Greens have reached a plateau. Brown says it’s a pause that refreshes rather than a permanent levelling: “We tend to plateau for a while and then we move on. Even if we stay where we are, we stand to win another three seats in the Senate” with the current levels of polling.
“There’s very little commentary about how the Greens are going to grow, and there’s always a great deal of commentary about how we’re going to shrink. It’s always been that way. In 1983, the [future] Tasmanian premier, Michael Field, told me as we waited in line for the parliamentary Christmas dinner: ‘After the Franklin Dam, you’ve got nowhere to go but down.’ And here we are.”
But Brown is prepared to countenance the possibility that he took the party as far as he was ever going to be able: “In that case I’ve made a wise decision to hand over to someone else.”
The plain risk now is that, without its familiar trademark leader, the party will suffer a loss of profile and a loss of support. “Are the Greens like Yugoslavia – a bunch of different factions that are only held together by a leader?” poses Stirton. “Once the Democrats lost Cheryl Kernot, they disintegrated. Will the Greens implode or go to new heights?”
Inglehart believes that the post-materialists who’ve fuelled the Greens have reached the limits of their growth in the developed countries, at least for now:
“The logic of post-materialism is that growing up under high levels of economic and physical security is conducive to an intergenerational shift toward post-materialist values.”
But, he explains: “The relative economic stagnation and high unemployment that western Europe has experienced during the past two decades has slowed the intergenerational shift in those countries almost to a halt … In the rest of the world, however, an intergenerational shift toward post-materialist values is starting to take off – particularly in the ex-communist countries and also in China. Australia looks like a west European country in this respect.”
The Australian Greens disagree. “I think he’s wrong,” says Brown. “First, Australia has not had a recession. Second, the strength of the Greens is our determination to get a fair return from the mining boom.
“Wait till there’s no meaningful response from the big parties on the Gonski report into education funding, or on Denticare, or high-speed rail while we’re the wealthiest country in the world per capita.
“There’s going to be a lot of disquiet in the electorate. Tony Abbott is not the answer to any of that. And neither is Julia Gillard because she’s not adequately taxing the mining industry,” even with the imminent introduction of the mining super-profits tax from July 1, budgeted to raise $10.5 billion over three years.
And it’s the miners who are Christine Milne’s prime target. She has declared a strident new offensive against the mining industry. Yesterday she attacked the “rapaciousness” of the miners, and the Labor and Liberal parties who are “willing to cave in to the few who want to push out of the way every environmental protection” ever created.
“If ever the Greens were needed,” she steamed, “in redefining the debate in Australia, it’s now.”
The Greens have risen not only on environmentalism and gay rights, but also on redistributive economics. Confronting the mining sector represents the perfect convergence of environmentalism and redistribution.
The Greens have always stood for the revival of the old Labor commitment to redistributive socialism. Their tax policy, for instance, prefers less tax from the GST and more from income taxes. Specifically, it commits the party to raising the top income tax rate from 45 per cent to 50 per cent. And it demands company tax rise from 30 per cent to 33 per cent.
Brown has not only pledged to fight for a “much more equitable tax system”, he’s also pledged a cap on executive salaries of $5 million.
The mining boom presents a big, rich new target for the Greens redistributive agenda.
But the underlying truth of the Greens’ gains is that it has prospered only where Labor has given it the opportunity. The Greens’ biggest single advance was in the months immediately after Kevin Rudd, on the urging of Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan, postponed his climate change plan. Gillard moved Labor further right, and the Greens picked up yet more votes.
Of every six votes the Greens gained at the 2010 election, five appear to have come from Labor. Labor has traditionally been a two-legged electoral construct – traditional Labor blue-collar voters in working-class electorates, and progressive, educated inner-city intellectuals and professionals.
By catering increasingly to the blue-collar base, Labor has handed its progressive vote to the Greens. That’s why Bob Carr, before he became Foreign Affairs Minister, said: “We have to counter the Greens by talking about how Labor can deliver Greens environmental ambitions, whether pricing carbon or saving forests, but with an economic edge. We have to be the party that wins on economic management. Can we straddle both? Absolutely.”
Until that day, the Greens will continue to work on harvesting unsatisfied Labor voters. Milne, by targeting the miners with new intensity, will attempt to take the party to new heights.
While the Greens might be ahead of the times, Labor has made it easy for them by being behind the times.
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