“It’s not easy being Green.” Or, at least that’s been the claim of pundits eager to write-off the environmental party after a challenging few years.
In 2012, the retirement of leader Bob Brown sparked speculation that the Greens were heading the way of the ill-fated Australian Democrats. Swings against the party at last year’s federal election and a string of state elections added fuel to the fire. The party has also lost its mantle as the “new kid on the block”, jostling for media space with the outspoken Clive Palmer in a much more crowded Senate.
But while Palmer might grab the headlines, it is the Greens who are making history. The re-election of Senator Scott Ludlam at Saturday’s election will deliver the party 10 federal senators from July (along with Adam Bandt in the lower house) smashing the minor party record it previously shared with the Democrats. Indeed, there is reason to believe the Senate election will mark the beginning of a Green resurgence and should leave no doubt that the party is a permanent fixture on the nation’s political landscape.
There were numerous factors behind Saturday’s strong showing for the Greens. Labor’s botched preselection process would certainly have played a role.
In Senator Louise Pratt the ALP had a strong and effective advocate, widely respected in the community. She was shafted in favour of a man who is not only faceless but graceless. Representing a vision that is the antithesis of modern progressivism, Senator-elect Joe Bullock appears to have mortally wounded his running mate’s prospects through his ill-discipline.
Voters did not believe that this ideological soulmate of Tony Abbott would be able to take him to task in the Senate. But the result is more than just a rejection of Labor machine politics and Bullock is symptomatic of a broader problem for the party. For it is not simply that the ALP cannot keep its house in order, it has no plan for the house it wants to build.
While it claims to “stand up to Tony Abbott”, it is linked to most of the Government’s program. On the shameful human rights abuse unfolding on Manus Island, Labor’s silence has been deafening for fear of disowning a policy of its own design.
On the economy, having committed itself to the madness of a surplus at all costs under Gillard and Swan, Labor will struggle to offer an alternative to the cuts to public services that will shape the first Abbott Budget.
It still argues for big business to pay its fair share yet after watering down its mining tax, delivered the greatest flop since Gretel Killeen hosted the Logies. And the list goes on.
Labor’s current ascendency in the national polls masks a serious structural dilemma. It is hopelessly torn between its traditionally conservative working class constituency and its socially progressive middle class.
Social and economic change has revealed deep divisions between these two groups, seeing the Greens build a solid base; primarily of younger, tertiary-educated professionals.
Labor’s willingness to capitulate to the Abbott agenda will fail to inspire this growing constituency who regard issues like climate change and asylum seekers as fundamental moral and ethical challenges for the nation, rather than fodder for political “short term-ism”.
By contrast, the Greens share the passion and purpose of this new constituency. Through his scorching critique of the Abbott prime ministership in the Senate last month, Ludlam gave voice to these Australians who are appalled by the Government’s agenda. This provided a strong foundation for a Green campaign that offered a bold alternative vision.
Indeed, this was the story that underpinned the Greens’ initial electoral resurgence in the early years of this century. With both Labor and the Democrats divided over how to respond to the Howard era, it was the Greens who offered genuine ideological opposition and Bob Brown emerged as the conviction politician of the Left.
With the Democrats holding the balance of power in the Senate, the Greens were better able to build their profile and campaigning capacity. At the same time, avoiding the odium of facilitating Howard’s legislative agenda. The rest is history.
Fast forward 10 years and the Greens face a similar political environment today. This time around, however, the balance of power is likely to be held by a motley (and wildly unpredictable!) crew of micro-parties and the Greens’ hand is greatly strengthened, with 10 senators, not two.
In Christine Milne, the Greens have a leader with similar qualities to Brown. A conviction politician and activist of decades standing, she is well placed to offer a strong alternative voice. It is a space that the Labor Party is unlikely to fill any time soon and as Ludlam’s win on Saturday demonstrated, it is fertile ground for the Greens.
While the nation may have swung to the Right in recent years, to borrow a phrase made famous by John Howard, the Greens are not only here to stay, but may well find that the “times suit” them.
This piece was first published on the ABC’s The Drum.