The Green thorn in our side

Jane Garrett

THE opening paragraph of one of the copious direct-mail letters and brochures sent out by Adam Bandt in the recent federal election screamed “in Melbourne you are in a unique position. It is the only seat in the country where the choice is not between Labor and the Liberal, it is between Labor and the Greens. Your vote is therefore powerful”.

To the rest of Australia it sounds odd, but in Melbourne it deserves some analysis. Let me begin with the first aspect, namely the uniqueness of Melbourne. It is correct to say Melbourne is the only house of representatives seat out of 150 nationwide where the choice is between Labor and the Greens.

Despite supposedly being on the march for the past 20 years, an unstoppable and irresistible force, the “light on the hill powered by renewable energy”, and a high-profile and vocal member of the Gillard minority alliance, the Greens Party is a serious player in only a single seat. Indeed, after fielding huge numbers of candidates for federal lower house seats over 30 years, it has been successful on three occasions. Twice in the seat of Melbourne.

And what was needed by the Greens Party to win this single seat of Melbourne? All reasonable estimates were that between $1.2 million and $1.5m was spent by Bandt in the electorate (he’s refusing to reveal the figure). It certainly felt like that with the enormous amounts of billboards, glossy brochures, and prime-time television advertising. We know much of the money came from a couple of unions.

And during this election, as they have for the past three years, Bandt (and the Greens) primarily ran a highly negative campaign against Labor. While there are fleeting references to Tony Abbott and the Liberals, the focus was almost entirely on what a bad job Labor had done, how much we had “disappointed”, that we were “cruel”, and engaged in “a race to the bottom”.

We were an “old party”, that had “no compassion”, we were indistinguishable from the Liberals, had lost our way and were not truly a progressive force. Christine Milne repeatedly joined in the fun as well, particularly in her press club speech after “breaking up” with us, when she accused us as being as bad as the conservatives on climate change and in bed with big mining and big business.

All this money and all this trashing of Labor for a single lower house seat.

Yes, Melbourne is unique. And we need to understand we are not reflective of the rest of the country.

Post the success of the Palmer United Party at this election (in fact PUP polled a similar vote level to the Greens nationwide), Jon Faine said on his ABC radio program he didn’t pretend to understand Queensland politics in reference to someone like Clive Palmer being elected to parliament. I’ve lived in Queensland and represented workers in that state. And let me tell you, they can’t understand how someone like Bandt can be elected either.

As one person in the north said, “you guys say we’re mad, but down there you elect a bloke who wants to shut our mines, our towns and cause mass unemployment. You seem pretty nuts to us”.

Which brings us to the concept of “your vote is powerful”, which was also Bandt’s campaign slogan in 2010. Your vote in Melbourne is somehow more special or effective because you can elect Bandt. It’s been a clever tactic by the Greens over the past couple of elections, but what damage is that notion doing to the Left more broadly? Plenty.

First and foremost, we live in a democracy. Every vote is equal. Those who seek to form governments have to stand in every seat, have to listen to every electorate, have to understand and respond to the array of different pressures, concerns, ideas and demands that exist in a country as large and diverse as ours.

They must develop policies and approaches that encapsulate all of this. They must engage and persuade millions of people in cities, towns and the bush. They never have the luxury of talking to only a single community in a single seat.

Second, because we live in a democracy and every vote is equal, the community quite rightly resists the notion that a minor party or single-issue player should dictate well beyond its voter base. Yet that’s what the Greens did during the minority government, and its conduct since this election shows it has learnt nothing.

Imagine, for example, how people would feel if Palmer started trying to dictate to the Liberal government what it should and shouldn’t do, or claiming the decisions of the government as his own. Or if Palmer began calling himself the “real government” on the basis of 6 per cent of the vote.

Yet this is exactly how the Greens behaved during the minority government towards Labor – claiming credit for everything Labor did and at the same time attacking us for not doing enough. Bandt was assisted in this task by the ill-advised shotgun marriage, complete with wattle, that Labor needlessly entered into with him (when he had already stated he would support Labor prior to the election). Bandt exploited this, reproducing the signed agreement with Gillard in all his communications, and attempting to colonise as his victory every progressive policy Labor implemented.

During the recent campaign Milne (no doubt knowing the drop in vote that was coming) declared political parties should not worry about how people viewed them or the number of votes they get as long as they “stand on principle”. Please. Tell that to the millions of people who rely on progressive parties to fight for and deliver universal health care, public education, workplace rights and disability care. If people don’t vote for you, you can’t implement the values and polices you believe in. In a democracy, saying things like that is not a sign of higher morals – it’s downright arrogant.

Milne also said the rise of Abbott’s popularity would “be good for the Greens”. “Abbott proof the Senate” was the Greens’ catch-cry, while they hacked into Labor, which was trying everywhere to “Abbott proof” the house of reps.

And the hubris rolls on. At his victory party, Bandt declared himself, on the basis of 27,000 primary votes, “the real opposition” to Abbott. And then he danced the night away while the rest of us watched Abbott assume control of the country.

At the post-election press conference, Milne refused to take any responsibility for the swings against her party, once again blaming Labor. And yet again she declared the whole shemozzle an “outstanding” result for the Greens.

This sort of arrogance and overreach by the Greens has cost it, and the broader Left movement dearly. The Green vote was smashed at this election: the party lost a quarter of its support. It has no new representatives in Queensland or NSW. A number of its other senators will be there only because Labor preferenced them. The country has been clear: it doesn’t like the overreach.

The fact that the Greens are on the nose was reflected in Bandt’s campaign itself. He ran like an independent, rather than on the party brand. All the advertising and correspondence focused on “Vote Adam Bandt” rather than vote Greens.

The fights in Melbourne have required millions of dollars that could have been spent taking on the conservatives. They’ve involved a relentless trashing of the brand of the only party that was fighting to form government, to engage with all Australians and to implement a progressive agenda.

I believe we have a duty to take the values we hold so dear and seek to influence and change the country in a manner that is sustainable. It’s not OK to stay in a bubble and talk to ourselves in the mirror. The millions of Australians who rely on the great work of progressive governments just can’t afford us to do that.

When Lindsay Tanner held Melbourne he would explain to often angry people about the complex and difficult path to building a consensus around progressive reform by taking middle Australia with us. Bandt now pretends to offer a short cut. Just vote for him and you can go home satisfied you have lived your values. Your vote is a leave pass.

That leave pass is embraced by parts of the intelligentsia who prefer to assume those who don’t agree with them are ignorant, rather than take up the challenge of the great Left academics of engaging with and persuading those who live a different experience.

And for some, the leave pass also comes with a special privilege. It permits them to say it is all Labor’s fault; that if only they were as smart as me they would be winning seats everywhere; that I know I’m right because everyone clapped on Q&A when my tweet was published.

And then we wake up and there’s the front-page announcement in the country’s biggest-selling newspaper of the new Abbott government’s strike force against unions. There are religious elders bemoaning the slashing of foreign aid. There’s the Senate about to be controlled by a group of “non-Left” senators. The contest isn’t and never was a Labor-Greens battle. It’s a Liberal-Labor battle and the Liberals won. And boy is the country changing.

The leave pass Bandt offers is illusory. Forming progressive governments and achieving change is as complicated and demanding and difficult as it always was.

So join a union and organise workers. Visit a coal mine. Go to Mt Isa, Ipswich, Penrith, Kununurra or at least Cranbourne. And to the Greens Party elite, for god’s sake stop sneering at an unemployed Maffra car enthusiast who got into the Senate, because on the basis of your test, his voice is powerful too.

And to my community, the inner city of Melbourne, I ask that when Abbott comes on the TV, don’t turn him off. Listen to him. Understand what the real contest is saying, so you are able to respond. Read The Australian, the Herald Sun, the Daily Telegraph, the Courier Mail. You mightn’t like what they are saying, but you should know what they are saying, because sometimes they get it right. They were on to Palmer and why he was a threat to our democracy while many of us giggled.

And next time you pick up your pen or your microphone to bemoan the state of progressive politics, ask yourself what are you doing to engage, debate and persuade in seats across the nation. Start in Tasmania in the March state election. The federal Green vote just halved there, and the state Labor party primary vote is by all accounts in serious trouble.

Eric Abetz is a local hero and is leading the campaign to rip up the forestry peace deal. Now go to Burnie and help switch a vote, because Bandt’s leave pass won’t save our heritage-listed forests.

The Australian, 14th September 2013
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