When a marriage busts up, those involved are apt to make some hysterical claims. And so it has proved to be, now that the Greens have walked out on the Labor Party.
Labor, the abandoned party, has given full vent to its emotions over recent days. Perhaps that’s understandable, but that doesn’t make the Labor view true.
Or even coherent.
The Greens have been portrayed as “naïve”, and also calculating. Ineffectual and also threatening. A hippie-esque party of protest and a bunch of anti-capitalist fifth columnists intent on job destruction.
Those on the Labor left, such as Anthony Albanese, who fear the competition the Greens pose in their inner-city seats, would have the public believe the party has, in his words, “a parasitic relationship with Labor, attempting to gain credit for initiatives which are Labor initiatives when they find it convenient”.
That implies the Greens have no real agenda for governing.
Those on the industrial right, such as the Australian Workers Union’s Paul Howes, would have us see them not as parasites but as predators, with a very definite and scary agenda. His is the loudest voice of the old-style right-wing union cargo cultists, concerned largely with how that cargo should be distributed between capital and labour. Green values are so utterly foreign to him that he would have the party destroyed, even if it meant giving preference to the Liberals.
After the split, perhaps the most confused response of all came from Labor’s Environment Minister, Tony Burke, who argued two propositions in the one interview: that the Greens’ environmental demands were insatiable, and also that they had long since decided “they didn’t really want to be an environment party”.
Truly, the government’s arguments have been, as my father would say, all over the shop like a madwoman’s breakfast.
About the one consistent line is that they are a party of extremists.
So The Global Mail thought it was time to go to the record, to see what the Greens do argue for, as shown in the parliamentary record. Putting our new Party Lines tool to work, we have searched all the top topics of debate in Hansard back to 2006, and particularly since 2010, when the Labor-Greens alliance came into being.
Now, we all know that environmental issues are central to the Greens’ philosophy. And climate change, being the biggest global environmental issue, has been their biggest topic. But last year climate change finished in 10th place in the number of mentions by the Greens, with just 166 mentions, well down on the average of 385 over the previous five years. Logging, clean energy, national and marine parks, all Greens’ perennials, collectively raised several hundred mentions, too.
More interesting, as shown in the accompanying graph, is that the Greens have ranged over a wide array of topics — superannuation, health insurance, dental care, aged care, and much more.
We’ll come back to some of those more surprising issues. First let’s compare the record with what the various Labor folks have been saying about their erstwhile allies’ agenda, starting with Prime Minister Julia Gillard who said, the day after the split:
“At the end of the day, the Greens party is fundamentally a party of protest rather than a party of government.” And:
“The Greens party is fundamentally a party that would prefer to complain about things than get solutions.”
This is patent rubbish. Given the opportunity — the balance of parliamentary power — the Greens rushed to implement policy solutions.
What was the biggest single issue in federal politics over the period of the Labor-Greens alliance? Putting a price on carbon.
Gillard won government promising there would not be a carbon tax. The reason we have one now is that the Greens forced one on the Prime Minister as part of the marriage dowry.
You can argue about whether this was a good outcome or not, but you cannot dispute the fact that the Greens came out looking very much like a party of government.
While we’re on the subject of taxes, consider also the mining tax. The Liberal-National parties opposed having one at all.
The Labor government tried two versions of the tax, and made a mess of it both times, as the Greens warned they would. The tax’s failings have become a major theme in leadership tensions within Labor, as various senior personnel seek to shift the blame. Now the Greens are the only party proposing a fix for the tax, so who comes across as the party that would “rather complain about things than get solutions”?
Which party pressed for a national dental health scheme, and which party eventually acceded? That would be, respectively, the Greens and Labor. Ditto the establishment of a Parliamentary Budget Office, modelled on the United States Congressional Budget Office, and intended to provide accurate, non-partisan policy costings. There are other examples — the planned referendum on indigenous recognition comes to mind — but you get the picture. On a range of substantial initiatives, it is Labor which has coat-tailed the Greens, not vice versa.
Now, let’s go back to our Party Lines database, and see which issues most absorbed the Greens in Parliament. We have entered various key words and collated the number of references to particular issues. You can too – here.
The record will surprise those who still think of the Greens as a single-issue environmental party.
Among the searches we did, top of the pops for the Greens last year were references to the asylum-seeker issue. The key words “asylum seeker” came up 211 times in 2012; “refugees” came up 737 times; “offshore processing” got 60 mentions. The related concept of human rights — often but not always used in conjunction with asylum seekers — bobbed up 368 times.
The salient point here is that the Greens were critical of Labor for abandoning its previous position on the handling of asylum seekers (it had dismantled the “Pacific solution” and committed to onshore processing for all unauthorised arrivals, not just those who come by plane or overstay a visa), and adopting, almost in toto, the more punitive positions of the conservative parties. The party that Labor now derides as “extreme” was actually, in substantial measure, advocating what used to be Labor policy.
Enter the words “single parents” into the database and you find 159 mentions. The issue was hot because the Labor government had cut the benefits paid to single parents. The Greens opposed this, as did all the big welfare groups. It caused considerable angst among many Labor people, too.
But those worried Labor people had to keep quiet while single parents became collateral damage in the quixotic pursuit of the budget surplus, which left the Greens as the only ones speaking to, and on behalf of, what has traditionally been a Labor constituency: the working poor.
It has been a similar story with the Newstart Allowance (“unemployment benefit”, 242 mentions), and other government benefits. The Greens — in the case of Newstart in particular, supported by all the major welfare groups and even a substantial component of the business lobby — usurped Labor’s traditional position as advocates of the needy.
“Marriage equality” (176 mentions), and “same-sex marriage” (27) took up a lot of the Greens’ parliamentary speaking time.
They were in favour, unlike either of the big parties. This is a controversial issue, to be sure, but to suggest support for same-sex marriage is extreme is to suggest the President of the United States and the Conservative Prime Minister of Britain, among many others, are extreme.
The rank and file of Labor wanted gay marriage recognised; the parliamentary leadership, for whatever reason, wimped it.
The Greens were the only party whose position was in accord with both the majority public opinion and the grassroots of the Labor government.
More surprising, though, is how much the Greens had talked about agriculture (104 hits for 2012), often these days in association with coal seam gas (272) and coal mining. The Greens are increasingly singing from the same song sheet as farmers about the threat posed by extractive industries to agricultural land and water.
And the Greens seem to be trying to forge other surprising alliances.
They want to cut the tax breaks on superannuation for high-income earners, to be sure, but they want to use some of the proceeds to give a significant tax cut to small business.
As interesting as what the Greens talk about, is what they don’t. You will look in vain, for example, for any reference to decriminalising drugs.
These fringe policies, with which the Greens have been tarred in the past, not only don’t get a mention in the House, they have been largely expunged from the party’s policy platform.
Anyway, you can search the database for yourself. What you will find is that on some subjects, such as fossil-fuel mining and asylum seekers, the Greens stand well to the left of the big parties, but on a lot of others they defy the “peace, love and brown-rice” stereotype.
That is not to say the Greens have become mainstream, or to endorse their policies. It is only to make the point that Labor, in its electoral desperation, has become more than a little hysterical in its claims of Green extremism.
What better example than the AWU’s Paul Howes, in an article in the Murdoch press a little while back, claiming that the Greens’ sports policy — because it suggested placing greater emphasis on non-contact sports for children — meant “no more rugby, no more Aussie rules, no more hockey or netball. Let’s all go meditate instead”.
This analysis rather amused the Greens spokesman for sport and health; Dr Richard Di Natale was a pretty handy footballer in his day, playing six seasons in the Victorian Football Association until he blew a knee.
That anecdote kind of says it all, doesn’t it, about the Labor Party’s current critique, and Howes’s in particular?
Labor must try to construct a false narrative about the Greens, because Labor no longer has a clear narrative of its own. The party of vision became the party of compromise: it went with the conservatives on boat people, with big mining on tax, with the econocrats, the private schools, the pharmaceutical companies, et cetera, et cetera.
Think health care, welfare, same-sex marriage, education reform, the list of issues on which the Greens are making inroads with traditional Labor constituencies is long.
No, the real problem Labor has with the Greens is not at all that they are too extreme. It is that they are not extreme enough.