With the last week of the old Senate, there’s been considerable discussion of what killed the Australian Democrats and how the new cross-benchers – the rather disparate grouping of the Greens, Steve Fielding and Nick Xenophon — will handle the balance of power.

The Greens and the Democrats both offer(ed) fascinating alternatives to the now-dominant political model in Australia. The Democrats were primarily a balance of power party, dedicated to improving legislation and government accountability. They were a process party. The Greens, in contrast, aren’t about process. They believe in stuff, with a passion. They may have the policy purity of the powerless, but no one is in any doubt as to their core beliefs. But they also have a scepticism of business-as-usual politics — and business-as-usual business, for that matter — that places them at odds with the existing political system.

Listening to Christine Milne on climate change and peak oil is fascinating. She makes the obvious point that the mechanisms to address high oil prices and reduce carbon emissions from transport are the same — significant increases in fuel efficiency and greater use of public transport. But she goes further and discusses the need to shift infrastructure funding from new roads for ever-more costly vehicles to mass transit for our growing outer suburban areas currently unserved, or under-served, by public transport; to encourage businesses to relocate closer to their employees, giving them a competitive edge in attracting workers in a tight labour market, and to get rid of the crazy mix of tax signals that encourage car usage.

In a couple of sentences she covers the portfolios of Penny Wong, Martin Ferguson, Anthony Albanese, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. And touched on most of the key areas — climate change, the impact of globalisation on demand and infrastructure — where our current political model has failed us.

This is not to elevate the Greens as the Future of Australian Politics. They can be immensely frustrating — the most economically rational politicians in the place one moment, and absurdly unrealistic the next. But their outsider status enables them to identify links and complementarities that seem beyond the grasp of the major parties.

There are other complementarities. Our reliance on fossil fuels empowers some of the world’s worst regimes and human rights abusers — from the misogynistic theocrats of Saudia Arabia and Iran to the kleptocracy of Russia. We continue to run a massive and increasing current account deficit in spite of historic terms of trade in our favour. Our major cities impose billions in congestion costs and commuting time on the community every year.

In short, a shift away from a reliance on private petrol-based vehicles ticks so many policy boxes it’s not funny. And each one comes with winners.

Australia’s long-term switch from protectionism to free trade was fuelled by a growing awareness of how much Australians would benefit from such a move, even while recognising the costs of those directly affected. The Hawke Government, led by Keating, was a relentless advocate of the community-wide benefits of economic reform, even when their core constituencies were affected. Even the Howard Government, albeit with the aid of a dodgy advertising campaign, was able to sell the GST, which is now an irreplaceable component of the taxation system.

However, the many winners of a switch from fossil fuel dependence haven’t been identified by the Government. The debate is about losers. The Prime Minister is engaged in a pitched battle with Brendan Nelson over a few cents a litre. Penny Wong’s department and Treasury continue to work away at an emissions trading scheme while we wait to see if the Government will have the gumption to include transport. And Martin Ferguson — God help the translators in Jeddah trying to understand him — wants to incentivise further oil exploration so we can continue with business-as-usual.

There is a debate to be had — and won — about the massive benefits from switching away from our current fossil fuel-based transport system. That will change the politics of this issue. And change is required. Business-as-usual won’t work. Business-as-usual means we all become losers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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