Before the Coalition’s Canavan of Covfefe mucked things up somewhat, the right, and a lot of the centre was having a high old time with the Greens. For years, the party has been trying to reshape its image, getting away from the happy hippie activist thing, donning the grey suit and open-necked white shirt “sent from the future to save you” look, or the black skivvy Newport Jazz Festival ’65 alternative. In one bad week, a lot of that got blown away, with not one but two resignations on the grounds of section 44 dual citizenship, and the possibility that others might follow, including some of those lined up to replace the departing senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters.
To cap it all off, the latter appeared at a press conference in a park with — “Who was that guy?” everyone asked, “the one in the relief map scarf and the little glasses, was it her guru?” Was it that De Rucci guy who advertises furniture at the airport? No, it was Jonathan Sri, a Greens councillor (not counselor), fresh from his audition for the George Harrison biopic apparently, and landing the Greens squarely in hippie territory once again. News Corpse had fun, with poor old Lobbecke having to crank out a fairies down the garden pic, and Chris Kenny having a culture wargasm about the imminent demise of the party. Laura Tingle’s focus on the party room relations was simply rendering the issue in the only terms she knows how to talk about. Peter van Onselen wrote a sensible piece in The Australian, which sounded like a surviving sailor tapping out an SOS from inside an upturned hull. It was left to our own William Bowe to make the obvious sensible point — the Greens vote appears to be holding at 9 or 10%, but the changing nature of parliamentary politics makes it unlikely that that will guarantee nine or 10 senators in the future.
For those watching the situation dispassionately, it was clear that the “Greens in disarray” line was the opposite of the truth. They had had a sharp internal conflict arising from the Gonski 2.0 vote, which had been resolved after some confusion, and they had suffered a blow due to hard-to-forgive slackness in procedural matters. Not good in either case, but what was noticeable was that the party apparatus was able to regroup and move forward. Compare and contrast Chris Kenny’s beloved Liberals, who market themselves as the sensible party of government, and who have been beset by an actual party split outside — the energetic Cory Bernardi making a reasonable go of establishing an independent conservative force — a rogue element inside, a split on the right between Abbott supporters and those who describe them as “delcons“, a PM who thinks that not mentioning his nemesis’s name is a good look, procedural rebellion at state conferences, and the distortion of governance to create a super-ministry to satisfy factional demands. And then the Canavan of covfefe, with the possibility of more section 44 chaos on the way, maybe in the Reps. The Libs are not in the crisis that headline writers would like them to be, but they’re in a lot worse shape than the Greens.
No, the challenges the Greens face are more long term and structural. The first problem is one of success. Though it might not look it from some of the appalling decisions, the political framework in the West has been greened. Thirty years ago, Western political discourse constructed the polity as an economy-society, with the environment as a separate externality/intangible/free good, to be shown the same regard as a farm dog: look after it and love it when you can, then shoot it if you need to. Now, the idea that the polity is an economic-social system situated within a wider and essential environmental system has become the general rule. The true insanity of the US political system and its wider culture is measured by its failure to full incorporate such an understanding, when even authoritarian and neoliberal states such as China, Russia, and India are doing so, whatever else they do.
This is a tremendous, epochal achievement by the global green movement, and difficult for those who did not live through it to appreciate day by day. The fact that every party has to go through arabesques of bullshit to justify something like the Carmichael mine, rather than just making a joke about saving the ring-tailed potoroo fnarr fnarr, means that the entire debate is being held on green terrain.
But it also means that centre-left parties are taking on increasingly large amounts of the program, and increasingly grand promises, and fusing it to a social democratic program. Since such parties can form government, implement and deliver, they can draw support back from a party whose chance to be in, on near, government pretty much relies on a hung parliament. The Greens only need to lose a couple of percent in that manner to be in some trouble. If Labor has decided, strategically, that there is now a wedge of suburban, one-time working-class voters who are now sufficiently propertied and culturally conservative that they will never get them back from the Coalition, then raiding the Greens may make sense.
But the response by the Greens to such a threat can’t be conducted simply in a corporate manner, like a company looking for a variant product in new markets. After all, if progressive mainstream parties were genuinely “greened”, there would be an argument for simply dissolving the Greens back into them, to strengthen the left that was already there, and create a genuinely progressive behemoth. That, it should be said, is not a strategy I’m recommending.
The only way in which the Greens can respond to the shift in politics must be to reflect deeply on what the essence of their politics is, and why members of such a party are in it in the first place. That reflection can only come to one conclusion: the Greens cannot be a party that is primarily about same-sex marriage or refugees, or sexist advertising, or a hundred other causes, no matter how compelling the moral claims, or the electoral advantage of such. The Greens have to be a party centred on the single fact that the current global political-economic-cultural system is undermining the possibility of human (and much other) life on this planet, that it has opened up the possibility of human extinction in real time, through creating 8 degrees+ temperature rise, and oceanic system collapse and other processes. There is also opened up the possibility of minimal survival, in which we inhabit a planet of wrecked habitats, invariant polluted environments, one choked with garbage everywhere.
This world crisis has to be at the centre of green politics, and the party’s unenviable role is to body this forth into every political discussion, and to disrupt the notion that we can simply sort wildly differing political causes as equivalent, and off-the-rack: regional library services/Israel-Palestine/extinction of major fish species/unisex toilets on interstate rail/etc … The Greens have to propose solutions that are integrated with global equality and social justice, and the prospering of communities. But they, we, can’t hide behind notions that all interconnected causes are of equal weighting or significance, either.
The “unenviability” of this is because the Greens get much of their support from exactly the opposite sort of politics: that of maintenance and representation of base-class values and imperatives, through issues such as same-sex marriage and refugees. But at some point a focus on such issues becomes not merely beside the main point of what a global green movement has to be about, it becomes positively politically regressive, because it obscures the depth and reality of the global crisis.
The advantage of this dilemma is that it makes things simple: the Greens have no choice but to find a way of being a party of dual character — one whose purpose, within a mildly greened, and green-washed, politics is to present the nature of the crisis afresh, at the same time as proposing bold solutions to it, which encompass many of the more particular causes it takes on (and without pretending that some triage must not take place — some prioritisation is long overdue). Put simply, if the Greens aren’t doing that, there’s no point being in politics. One might as well return to social activism — or abandon political concern and turn to selfish hedonism on a time-limited planet. The latter choice is no real one for most. The other way is a hard road, and it turns upwards — but there is no other way forward, and no one else who will take it.