Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Has the Green electoral juggernaut finally been halted?

If so I argue it is because they have stopped being a conservative, environmental party and changed to become a party of the hard left. . .


Occasionally, during a one-on-one interview, there’s a moment that’s particularly revealing but doesn’t make it into the final story. Body language, for example, sometimes reveals far more than an interview subject might intend about the way they really think.

That’s one of the reasons we like to watch our politicians on TV. We think it gives us a ‘feel’ for them, helping us to work out how truthful they are and whether or not we think we can trust them. But when you’re reporting an interview you have to rely on the words. ‘Feelings’, no matter how soundly based they may seem, are inadmissible evidence in news stories.

Which is why I never wrote about the sensation that gripped me when speaking to a Green Senator in early 2010. We’d met by accident on a staircase at Parliament House. Kevin Rudd was still attempting to patch together an emissions reduction deal with Malcolm Turnbull at the time, so we began discussing the issue. The Senator offered a succinct, stinging analysis of Rudd’s failure to work with the environment movement.

I asked if the Greens had attempted negotiating separately with the Liberals to achieve a better outcome for the environment. It was a mistake. We continued talking, but it was no longer a real conversation. Eye contact stopped. My question had unintentionally revealed I was an outsider. To me, the suggestion that the Greens might be prepared to do a deal with the conservatives to achieve something appeared totally reasonable: the Senator apparently thought the suggestion ridiculous. The gulf had widened into a chasm. That’s just my story, of course and I can’t prove I interpreted what was happening correctly. Nevertheless, given what happened in the final days of the last parliamentary sitting, I think it revealed a deeper reality; one I’ve refused to believe in the past because it smacked of Labor propaganda.

Other people I admire, like John Faulkner, had always insisted the left’s objectives were better accomplished by working from within the Labor movement. After watching him getting rolled, time and time again, I began to doubt him. Now I think I was wrong, and for me the asylum seeker issue has been the catalyst.

The reality is that a large number of asylum seekers are continuing to come to Australia by boat. The (political) reality is that most voters are unhappy with this situation. Labor wants to return the people on the boats to Malaysia; the Liberals want to send them to Nauru. Either method would represent a deterrent. Only the Greens stand between the majority parties and a solution. Yet, because neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbott is prepared to compromise, the Greens hold the casting vote. And they’re preventing any change at all.

Tears will not stop further tragedy: doing that requires action. But this issue has defined the Greens (post Bob Brown) as policy purists. They won’t negotiate. Brown had recognised that sometimes achieving any advance is better than obdurate purity. That’s what politics is about – achieving as much of your policy agenda as possible. If that requires compromise, well, so be it.

However the Greens won’t shift on the asylum issue. Even slightly. A pragmatist would seek to save as many people as possible. The Greens are refusing to make a deal. But the real world isn’t perfect, and this is the one most voters inhabit. The Greens have dealt themselves out of participating in the future. When Tony Abbott’s elected such moral purity will be exposed as bankrupt and irrelevant.

Last weekends by-election for the Victorian state seat of Melbourne marked a turning point in Australian politics. The previously irresistible Green juggernaut was halted in its tracks. Not by Labor, but by independent voters who decided they weren’t prepared to harness themselves to a blind ideological crusade.

Don’t believe the usual mumbo-jumbo about there being no broader ramifications from the Melbourne result: it will have dramatic ramifications across the country. The Greens still, typically, refuse to admit or even understand what has happened. Professional politicians, like Labor, deal in the real world. That’s why, on Saturday night, that party looked at the way the votes were flowing, counted the numbers, and worked out they’d won. ALP officials will spend the next weeks and months carefully analysing polling details, together with subsequent research, building up a detailed picture of exactly what happened. Central to this will be a vital question. What changed during the last two weeks before the poll to alter what had earlier looked like almost certain Green victory into a defeat? It’s difficult to believe that the refusal to compromise in the Senate didn’t play its part.

If any party wants to grow, the votes have to come from somewhere. The most fertile ground for enlisting people is always the centre. That’s where the disillusioned voters hang out, waiting to be inspired. But motivating new recruits isn’t easy, and that’s why the Greens have found it much easier to cannibalise the left. The weekend’s ballot demonstrated conclusively that this strategy leads down a dead-end.

The electors who decided the eventual result were neither ideologues nor ‘workers’: they were average Australians. Nearly two thousand people, for example, put a ‘one’ next to sex and then worked their way down the list until they finally decided to put Labor ahead of the fringe. There was also a massive crowd of people who couldn’t even be bothered to turn out and vote. Yet those who did make a real effort to lodge a postal or pre-poll ballot overwhelmingly favoured Labor. This was the real shock for the Greens. In the past the committed voters – people who really want their vote to count – have always plumped for them. This time they didn’t.

That’s why the Melbourne result represents a watershed in Australian politics. For the Greens it’s a disaster. A humiliating rout that will – unless the party makes significant changes to its political style – signify it has passed its zenith and begun its decline. Those on the left who want to achieve change will need to work with Labor: no matter how great its faults.


  1. The Greens are not 'hard left' as much as radical extremist Left. Bob Brown admitted there were two groups in the party - one being the old campaign type of environmentalists and the other being social issues types (read socialist). Driven by uncompromising ideology, cynicism and a hatred of all things institutional, their crocodile 'tears' at recent asylum boats sinkings were nothing more than dramatic theatre.

  2. Thanks. That distinction is absolutely correct as far as the aficionados are concerned, and I'm sorry I didn't use the appropriate label.