The Australian Greens have seen their vote stagnate in the last few years, and in 2016 this resulted in the division between the left and right of the party coming out into the open, with the formation of Left Renewal.
Left Renewal is made up of Greens who want to challenge the party’s more conservative leadership. While it has enthused a layer of Greens activists, the group hasn’t outlined any strategy for changing the party. Socialists argue that there is an underlying reason that the Greens aren’t able to provide a convincing left alternative, and that reason is that they do not base themselves on the working class.
The most powerful social force for progressive change is the working class, but workers are currently facing a crisis of leadership. With the ongoing alliance of many trade union leaders to Labor and to the capitalist system, and with the absence of a real mass worker’s party, there is no vehicle which workers can use to push their interests forward.
Crisis for ruling parties
At the same time, the major parties face their own crisis. They are incapable of producing leaders that the public are happy with, because these parties are obliged to carry through cuts on behalf of big business. The worsening economic situation has led to a backlash against both the Liberals and Labor.
Prime ministers from both major parties have been toppled one after another, often as a result of their own party members recognising their unpopularity. In the last election, 26% of people voted for a minor party as first preference. But the Greens vote barely changed compared to 2013, and was lower than in 2010.
The rise of right-wing populist parties shows that there is scope to challenge the major parties if you highlight the issues that are important to working class people. Unfortunately, opportunists like Pauline Hanson have combined populist ideas with racism and nationalism and have been afforded plenty of space for it in the mainstream press, but as we have seen in places like France left-wing figures that talk to the working class can also break through.
No trust in the Greens
The Greens vote is stagnant at a time when anti-establishment sentiment is rising because they have aligned themselves with the major parties.
From 2010 to 2013, the Greens used Adam Bandt’s seat in Parliament to keep the Gillard government in power. During this time, Gillard forced thousands of single parents onto the Newstart payment and pushed deep cuts to social spending. These were some of the largest cuts seen in decades.
The Labor government, propped up by the Greens, also extended Australia’s brutal refugee policies, supported the war in Afghanistan, and introduced policies to create what are effectively voucher schemes for disability services and for school funding. These last measures, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and the reforms recommended by the David Gonski-headed “Review of Funding for Schooling”, also became Greens policy during that time.
The Greens also attached themselves to the carbon tax, an unpopular measure that not only fails to address the root cause of climate change, but threatened to pass the cost of dealing with climate change onto the average person instead of onto the big companies that are ultimately responsible.
Their rightward trajectory is not simply a matter of passively supporting right-wing governments. The Greens have been in government twice in Tasmania – both times as part of a coalition with Labor. Both times they supported cuts to public spending, resulting in thousands of public sector job losses. In 2011, they found themselves on the wrong side of picket lines by attempting to close down 20 public schools, which the community fought successfully to save. During this time, the Greens actually held the Tasmanian education portfolio.
The Socialist Party has had direct experience facing the Greens on a local council level in Melbourne. We have had two members on Yarra Council in the past, who were always the only dissident votes at budget time. The council has historically been dominated by the ALP, and controlled effectively by a Greens/ALP majority since 2004.
Greens councillors have consistently voted for over-inflation rate rises, and often supported cuts to council services as well as inappropriate developments pushed by developers with deep pockets. While they present themselves differently, the true role of the Greens has been to facilitate the gentrification of the inner north, gradually forcing poorer working people and students out of the area.
With this record, working class people have no reason to trust the Greens. While some commentators blame their stagnant vote on Australians moving toward the right, it is clear from their history that the Greens have in fact propped up unpopular right-wing policies when in power. Their rising vote was cut off by their alliance with Gillard – their stagnation comes from their failure to act in genuine opposition to the government.
They support capitalism, which means that when the logic of capitalism requires cuts to public spending, the Greens cannot present an alternative socialist budget that taxes big business, promotes public ownership, and expands essential services instead. In fact, they have made a calculated effort to openly distance themselves from their activist past and to portray themselves as responsible managers of capitalism.
Even though their policies on paper can appear somewhat better than the major parties, they reject a principled, fighting approach toward winning those policies. Instead, they enter into parliamentary agreements with capitalist parties, claiming tiny victories on some aspects of their policies while selling out much more.
While the Greens do attract some genuine activists, as a party they don’t campaign outside of parliament. At rallies, they often call on protestors to simply vote for the Greens at the next election. Their narrow focus on parliament flows from the fact that they aim to represent a layer in society who are more-or-less comfortable with the underlying system, but who have concerns about the way it is being managed, and so only want a seat at the table.
They base themselves on middle class small business owners, professionals and academics. In elections, they focus on relatively well-off inner city areas. They stand candidates that include doctors, lawyers, and at least one ex-merchant banker. These are not the people with the social weight to fundamentally change society. That social weight lies in the hands of the working class.
The working class
Capitalism is a class system that depends on the labour of an enormous working class, whose work creates profits for a tiny ruling class. The working class makes up the majority, and is the productive class in society. This means that working people hold a huge amount of latent power. Society cannot run without them. When workers mobilise en masse, we have the power to challenge the logic of capitalism and, if the right lead is given, to ultimately to restructure society along socialist lines.
In addition to holding enormous social and economic weight, workers have the potential to be the most progressive force within society. This is because workers often have the experience of running things collectively in their workplaces, and organising democratically within their unions and other organisations.
While it is true that many backwards ideas exist among working people, these ideas are direct products of the divisive society we are raised in, and they can be fought. At the end of the day, working people have a common material interest in cutting across divisions that are based on race, religion, gender and sexuality. We have a common interest in a society that provides for everyone’s needs, rather than one which enriches a tiny minority by exploiting our collective labour.
Reforming the Greens
Instead of basing themselves on working people, the Greens focus on gaining support from the middle class. To reform the Greens, Left Renewal faces the difficult task of convincing this layer to take on the priorities of working class people, while convincing workers to support a party that they cannot trust.
Even if this somehow succeeded, history has shown that to push through progressive change, it is far more effective to have workers and young people in the lead, rather than following behind a middle class movement.
A much better strategy to challenge the capitalist system is to begin the task of building a party that is unashamedly based on the working class. The basis for such a party already exists. If the trade unions, progressive community groups and the existing left organisations came together around a program that promoted the interests of ordinary people and the environment it would have the potential to make huge inroads. The most recent example of this is the movement around the left firebrand Melenchon in France.
The socialist alternative
Australia has been partly insulated from the global financial crisis, but not entirely. Parts of the country are in recession, and the government has been pushing through an agenda of austerity – tax breaks for the rich and spending cuts for everyone else – for years. There are a number of things that could trigger a fresh crisis in Australia – for example, a collapse in the enormous housing bubble.
In Europe and the US, the economic crisis is more developed. People are turning toward new mass protest movements, and toward building new parties on the left. This has not yet happened in Australia, but it will as the situation worsens.
As these movements develop, people will begin to see their strength in resisting this system. The basic problem of our time is that while big business has several parties to represent it, workers don’t have one of their own. More important than trying in vain to reform the Greens is the task of building the social and workers movements and welding them together to build a new party of struggle. Unlike every other party in government, this would have the power to challenge the capitalist system itself.
By David Elliott