The Greens’ split with Labor will prompt the ALP — no doubt soon to be in opposition for a while — to do some serious soul-searching to decide what it stands for.
“Maybe there’s a God above
But all I’ve ever learned from love
Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you”
— Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah
Lord, if there’s one thing you can learn from the Greens’ departure from the Labor-Green alliance, it’s never, never be the dumpee — and if you are, yelling, “well I was over it ages ago!” isn’t going to cut it.
Listen to these caught-off-guard responses from the Labor bunker, translated by moi for your edification:
Gillard: ”This is a matter for Christine Milne and the Greens. We will always be the party that puts jobs and growth first” (translation: “your actions are irrelevant to my plan to continue crying to Wilco in a darkened room”). Swan: “Senator Milne’s decision will not have any practical impact on the operation of the Parliament, as the Greens would continue to support the government on supply and confidence motions” (translation: “if we can maintain civility, it will not be necessary to have the dog gassed”). And best of all, Paul Howes: “This is just a political ploy by Christine Milne because she’s upset that she lost the campaign in north-west Tasmania. Well, boo hoo. At the end of the day the federal Labor government has done the right thing for jobs. Frankly for Christine Milne to say that Julia Gillard hasn’t delivered for the environment after she introduced a carbon price demonstrates how out of touch with reality Christine Milne is (translation: “well, I split up with you three weeks ago and didn’t tell you. So you can’t break up with me”). Boo hoo? Great comeback, Paul.
The Greens got the better of Labor on this, as they have done since they rejected Rudd’s preferred climate change model in favour of their own, helped trigger the leadership changeover, gained a deal for the support they would have given the Gillard government anyway, and pushed a relentless series of policy proposals onto a quasi-paralysed Labor, the most important being a carbon tax that remains Labor’s centrepiece — and the likely cause of its destruction — but that will survive Labor’s downfall, if Senate control can be retained.
Labor has torn itself apart over six years of unstable leadership; the “faction-ridden” Greens had a smooth changeover, remained functional throughout, and released a modified policy agenda after the event. Contrary to media baiting about a collapse, their federal support has stayed within the 10-14% band occupied by the knowledge/culture/policy worker class that form their social base, while Labor’s collapse to a 30% primary vote represents a significant desertion of the suburban middle they need to maintain viability.
Finally, Gillard has unquestionably suffered by comparison to Christine Milne — the lifelong Labor activist/lawyer/insider up against the Tasmanian mum and teacher who got involved in politics to protect her community and developed into a tenacious political leader. When the dust settles after the election and, barring a heroic Labor campaign, Tony Abbott is prime minister, the main game will shift to the Senate.
Should Labor have suffered the expected collapse in its fortunes, it will be faced with a Greens party that is of the same magnitude as Labor, rather than being a small two or three-senator contingent. Labor will then face the choice of either emphasising its common ground with the Greens over broad values while differing on shorter-term priorities, or continuing its fruitless culture war, driven by teen Trotskyists, manic Hayekians and Marn Fern, further depleting its energy. Whatever their many weaknesses in terms of internal organisation, money, media hatred, etc, the Greens have the strength that comes from knowing why they’re there, while too many of Labor’s core are there because they’ve been there since uni and they don’t know how to do anything else.
Labor will be floored by its loss, utterly, because it has been barely standing in the first place, due to its failure to find a new expression of its essential commitment to a society of greater equality, freedom from want and the universal opportunity for human flourishing and a meaningful life. In the Whitlam era that was constructed as coming from state processes, symbiotic with community activism. Under Hawke/Keating, it was hitching more expansive opportunity to the dynamism of the market (however contradictory).
Since that collapsed in 1993, there has been nothing from Labor, nothing at all — piecemeal proposals and the ultimate farce of the 2020 conference, where the party went to the people to find out what its identity should be in the space of a long afternoon.
Indeed, it’s only in response to the Greens’ rise that Labor has sharpened its image, to be the party of “jobs and growth”. That, together with a media blitzkrieg on the Greens, may have helped Labor, but it has also painted it into a corner. Labor has become a party that ramrods the engine of growth, cleaving to the US alliance and global order while addressing some inequality for special and marginal groups. About the core conditions of most people — work, time, child-raising, housing — it has had almost nothing to say, leaving them to the mercies of the market in most areas of their lives. The result? An overworked, time-poor, semi-precarious mass class in the middle of what we are continually told is the most prosperous country on earth.
Labor has lost the opportunity to outflank the Coalition because it has done much of conservatism’s job for it — reconciling people to the idea that the frameworks of life are relatively fixed, and that’s the way it is. Instead of making visible life-change, Labor has levied taxes for enormous projects — Building the Education Revolution, infrastructure, climate change — without connecting them to immediate improvement. It’s an error that could only be made by a party that has become a caste, joined at university (and if that sounds snobbish, check the frontbench for anyone without a degree, and ask where the snobbery lies), and increasingly oriented towards the management of behaviour and people — hence the signature move of “cigarette plain packaging”. It is going to spend a while in opposition working these things out — or not bother, and become an appendage to the Coalition for a decade, a loyal opposition to the other “growth” party.For the Greens this new era will also be a challenge. The end of this government will bring the departure of a number of key people whose political life began in the 1970s, when Labor was still a party oriented to concrete and immediate change. Together with the departure of Bob Brown, this marks a ruling off of a period dominated, however vestigially, by the hopes and assumptions held by the Left during that period. There will now have to be a process of categorical rethinking of what Greens politics is — one rather larger than the policy clean-out of late last year.
For the Greens are caught in a potential contradiction, too. They are a party founded — going back all the way to the proto-Green United Tasmania Group of 1972 — on the notion that the relationship between humanity and nature is in crisis, due to the subsumption of the latter to the former. That insight, confirmed by science with the imminent catastrophic effects of climate change, dictates a necessary transformation in the way humanity lives. Yet as the Greens have progressed, they have had to add a series of policies on everyday economic management to that core. Those policies largely remain those of a European social democratic party, relying on a high-growth economic base, coupled with tax, redistribution and social investment. The model assumes the very growth scenario that the old parties are based on and is in contradiction with the core idea of a planetary crisis that sparked the formation of the party in the first place. On top of that, a series of rights-based social policies — same-sex marriage, pro-euthanasia — have been added, with the strong implication that they are a “natural” or inevitable fit with the politics of planetary crisis. A fourth layer has been some of the dominant foreign policy causes of the big-L Left around the issue of anti-imperialism. As the Greens have morphed into the party of the knowledge/culture/policy worker class, those causes have assumed a rough equality: euthanasia, Israel-Palestine and the boiling of the oceans roughly equal in prominence. Since some of these policies — same-sex marriage, refugees, etc — attract quite passionate support from their class base, the Greens have been shifted by stages into being a sort of grab-bag New Left party.
From now on, the Greens will have no choice but to have a head-to-toe rethinking of how these policy layers relate to each other — and they must find a way to make the central notion of a planetary crisis the visible core and backbone of their worldview and program. That cannot be done without connecting such a macro-concern to the conditions of everyday life — not in the form of particular causes, but of the general conditions of everyday life. The working day, genuinely affordable housing, parental leave, the opportunity for a lower consumption, time-rich life, and so on — these are all changes that will be necessary to dealing with huge environmental changes in a way that is globally just, but would also appeal to many people within and without the Greens’ class base, as a visible and tangible improvement in their lives, something worth voting for right now.
Returning to that notion of crisis — and to the absolute moral responsibility that it demands of those who understands its seriousness — may cost the Greens some support in the short term. But it is only through such a process that they will successfully reground themselves in such a way that factional differences cannot sunder them. That is not a simple process of moving Right or moving Left — the new focus would essentially have a Left and Right faction based around it, offering differing diagnoses of how the crisis can be addressed, but not disagreeing on its importance. Labor’s troubles are that it has no big ideas; the Greens currently have rather too many. That is a more desirable problem in the short term; in the long term it may be a more disastrous one. One way or another they’re going to have to sort it out, most likely while Labor wanders the wilderness in search for yet more new leaders. Boo hoo, hallelujah, I am trying to break your heart.