Can two party politics cope with something as challenging to traditional political assumptions as climate change?

The rise of Rudd Labor, together with the Howard Government’s current dominance of both houses, has returned Australia to a two party view of the world, at least for a time. While various commentators have been quick to point out the impact on Greens polling figures, by far the more insidious result has been the abstraction of the policy debate into a “he said, she said” argument where the real imperative to act is irrelevant.

With climate change, that means the essential scientific grounding for setting targets, as well as a critical analysis of energy options, are being ignored.

If two party politics were the limit of our system, we would be in serious trouble, with no prospect of real action before runaway climate change is locked in.

But there is another option – balance of power politics.

Where a two party system entrenches positions through its adversarial nature, balance of power politics requires a negotiated outcome. It creates the space for parties and their leaders to change their minds without losing face to key constituencies.

In my time holding balance of power as leader of the Tasmanian Greens, we achieved social reforms that would never have been possible while Liberal and Labor held majorities.

For example, Premier Rundle was personally open to the abolition of homos-xuality as a crime with a 21 year jail term, but Ray Groom and Michael Hodgman, together with Labor’s Michael Polley and David Llewellyn, were vehemently opposed. Those who wanted reform from all sides were happy to see Green legislation passed, but they would never have introduced the legislation themselves.

Rundle and I knew that we had to achieve a negotiated outcome which would allow both his and Labor’s MPs to save face. After a long process involving publicised mediation with legal experts and culminating in a conscience vote, we finally passed the laws.

In similar negotiated fashion, we achieved gun law reform and an official apology to the Stolen Generation, key reforms which would not have happened had either party held a majority. Labor and Liberal had for years defeated every effort by the Greens to ban automatic and semi automatic weapons. Even in the face of community outrage after Port Arthur, they were reluctant to change. It was because the Greens, in balance of power, proposed a tripartite process to reach agreement that reform was achieved in Tasmania, setting the example for Prime Minister Howard’s national reforms.

Climate change presents a tremendous political dilemma to the old parties, as both have key constituents – coal corporations or mining unions, for example – who are passionately resisting change. For as long as one party controls both houses, or one governs and the other controls the Senate, these constituencies will hold sway and true climate action will be impossible.

The bipartisan opposition to requiring those 250 companies who use 40% of Australia’s energy to implement energy efficiency opportunities revealed in audits is a case in point. What justification can there be for refusing to mandate such energy savings other than that neither party wants to upset the aluminium and minerals sector?

But after the election, if we Greens achieve balance of power in the Senate, the opportunity will arise for true leaders on any side of politics to do the right thing and achieve results in spite of the short term interests of favoured constituencies. We will then be able to achieve reform on the scale needed to prevent runaway climate change – reform which both old parties portray as extreme but both know is necessary.

Ironically, they lack the courage to make it happen when they have the power to do so. Only when no one party has all the power is genuine progress made.