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Feb 21, 2013

Boo hoo, the Greens have gotten the better of Labor

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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


“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.

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50 thoughts on “Boo hoo, the Greens have gotten the better of Labor

  1. Russell

    Unedifying triumphalism… Labor has been “destroyed” (Hallelujah!) and we are left with Tony Abbott for a decade. Crack open the champers Guy, and join the coalition in the celebration.

  2. john willoughby

    Prepare for all out war if abbott advances to office under the present circumstances..

  3. Warren Joffe

    “…..its essential commitment to a society of greater equality, freedom from want and the universal opportunity for human flourishing and a meaningful life.” intentionally or not you put your finger on a problem there GR. Except for the “greater equality” (and that’s not as clear as many might think) the essential commitment could equally be that of your typical Coalition member, not least old Country Party types. And you would have noted that Tony Abbott, a Catholic from the Santamaria school, might be a lot closer to old-time ALP ideals than the present crew of university and union mates.

    There are of course the equivalent in the Coalition of “manic Hayekians” whom you see in the ALP but basically we are now looking at collections of university educated middle to upper middle class and professional people who all have much the same sort of secular feeling for what is the proper way of dealing with one’s fellow citizens. And partly that is because it is an expression of the place they share on Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs. Being our rulers is nice for their egos, in a nice sort of way.

    But what of “greater equality”. That’s a red herring because no one now denies that there is a rough and ready Gaussian curve of the distribution of whatever smarts it ta

  4. Wobbly

    If it’s going to be all out war, then you can already caste Paul Howes as Edward VIII / Duke of Windsor! And Marn Fern as Captain Mainwaring (Dad’s Army).

  5. Wobbly

    Whilst I’m on fantasy WW2 comparisons, gee Tony’s latest declared intentions do sound akin to Blitzkrieg!

  6. Microseris

    The end of the growth economy is not going to be mandated by governments, but rather imposed by nature as we run up against the limits to growth (a finite planet). The only thing that keeps growing is a cancer and we know how that plays out.

    In these circumstances our votes and therefore the government elected is largely irrelevant. Some are just more frustrating than others and may get us there just a little quicker.

  7. Warren Joffe

    …takes to get on in the academic world, public sector or competitive business and professional life. So perhaps 10 to 20 per cent are going to be obvious laggards despite our world-beating minimum wage and despite the fact that probably only 20 per cent of us will be net lifetime taxpayers (i.e. as individuals after netting various benefits such as OA pensions, health care rebates etc. Come to think of it, 20 per cent may be an exaggeration) thanks to our natural resources.

    We don’t need assertiveness training for what might once have been the “humble and meek” since they have been given votes and a sense of entitlement. But what possible claim does the secular ALP have to dealing better with those seriously unequal on the down side than the Coalition which is probably slightly more Christian? Actually its only distinguishing feature is that it represents more of those on the public teat, the social welfare, aboriginal and other equivalent “industries”. After all, has anyone done any serious calculation of the absurd cost in Australian salaries of our pathetic little refugee quota pretending to impinge on the sad lives of millions by taking 13750, or 20,000 to be fellow non-taxpayers (and occasional success stories, if not the great Jewish and Baltic states ones but perhaps footballers and Olympic athletes….).

  8. Nudiefish

    Brilliant piece, Guy.

    It sums up everything I feel about a political party that was originally created with the intention of fighting for the little Bloke (non-gender specific, of course).

    The Labor Party is nothing less than “Liberal Lite” nowadays.

    They should nail this essay on the front door of ALP HQ. If Labor gets booted in September, what has Australia actually lost?

  9. Warren Joffe

    You and I might come close to agreement Nudiefish. On my analysis there really aren’t nearly enough voters who are themselves seriously in need of a leg up from the hale and hearty employed taxpayers and it is the public employees’ interests that the ALP must therefore necessarily pander too, both in pious rhetoric and with taxpayers’ money, rather than the intrinsically disadvantaged. Public servants and teachers may do admirable jobs with a degree of selflessness but they hardly qualify as the 21st century “little Bloke”.

  10. Warren Joffe

    @ Microseris

    I think you overlook the reality that growth is continuing and will continue in the sense that we will get more for less or better versions of what we have with no significant impact on resources – though a continuation of some 20th century population growth rates could spoil that scenario, but don’t look as though they are going to.

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