Finally, a good news story: reports the Greens intend to maintain their moderate drugs policy rather than back-pedal — as they repeatedly have in the past — under threat of a scare campaign in advance of this year’s federal and Victorian elections.
Now, I’m not going to use the occasion to revisit the drugs debate itself. Anyone who by this time still thinks that prohibition is working or is ever likely to just hasn’t been paying attention. But in light of the Greens’ recent surge in the polls, it’s interesting to think about how minor parties handle controversial policy areas.
The most common criticism of the Greens has always been that they are a “single-issue party”. One of the effects of that is that when people look at their policies outside the area of the environment, they expect to find them poorly thought-out or unrealistic — so of course that’s what they find. The only way for any party to avoid that sort of scrutiny is by having policies that are vague to the point of meaninglessness, as the major parties have generally learnt to do.
For the Greens to backtrack on their drugs policies when attacked showed a misunderstanding of how smear campaigns work. Their connection with reality is more or less coincidental; if one policy changes, the tabloids will simply pick on a different one — or, as they have in the case of drugs, just ignore the change and lie.
What’s more, by any rational standard the Greens’ drugs policy is quite moderate. It does not argue for drug legalisation; it supports harm minimisation (which all political parties have at least paid lip service to in the past), safe injecting rooms (which work well in NSW, and were Labor policy when it was elected in Victoria) and evidence-base policy (which is hard to argue against, although most politicians hate the idea).
An online poll on The Age website last week was running at 80%-plus support for the policy. If this is the worst anyone can find in the Greens’ policy corpus, they can’t be too scary.
But there’s a different dynamic involved for a party that’s seeking a significant share of political influence as compared to one that sits as a permanent minority on the sidelines — the position that the Greens were in not long ago. If you’re really just a pressure group, getting the policy right is the key thing; if you become a serious player, there are other priorities. To some extent at least, you have to play by the same rules as the major parties.
A few years back I had a go at the remnant Australian Democrats over this; they were taking fright at a scare campaign on drugs as if they were still a going concern. As I said, when people aren’t voting for you anyway, you might as well take the effort to get the policy right.
The Greens are in a different position. Even so, it’s pretty clear that a big part of their attraction is their commitment to principle. Many of their potential voters would disagree with several of their policy positions, but are hungry for a party that genuinely stands for something and puts a value on integrity. Backing away from controversy risks damaging that reputation, and once lost it is almost impossible to recover.
It’s also worth remembering that becoming a serious player brings not only greater scrutiny, but a greater opportunity to explain one’s case.
One reason that smears against minor parties are so effective is that those parties have so little publicity to start with; the smear monopolises the coverage, and their own positive case never gets a hearing. This morning’s story is itself evidence that the Greens have moved beyond that stage.
If they can use the opportunity wisely, the Greens might add to their own reputation and at the same time contribute to a saner public debate on drug policy.