Magazine of Socialist Action in Australia

The politics of the Greens

Reading Time: 9 minutes

This year’s federal election demonstrated that many voters are disillusioned with the policies of the Labor and Liberal parties. Both major parties share the same right wing policies and have threatened an agenda of cuts and attacks against working people in the face of the economic downturn. In this context, an increasing number of people across Australia are looking to the Greens as an alternative.

The Greens have often been the voice of left opposition in parliamentary politics, on issues such as the environment, the Iraq war, refugees and same-sex marriage. With much of the population to the left of the major parties on these issues, the Greens have managed to position themselves as a progressive alternative.

In the August election the Greens won almost 12% of the vote across the country, and won the lower house seat of Melbourne. The Greens also increased their Senate representation from five to nine Senators, effective from July 2011.

The Greens will hold the senate balance of power as of next year, as well as the pseudo balance of power in the House of Representatives, with Melbourne Greens MP Adam Bandt part of the one vote majority secured by the Labor minority government. In many cases, to pass legislation, the Gillard government will require Greens support.

While the number of elected Greens remains modest, over one in nine Australians voted Green in the federal election. The Greens are popular right now, but how they perform in the federal parliament will be a test to their continuing support and growth.

In the midst of some progressive slogans and talk of a “new political paradigm”, many people are hopeful that the Greens will effect positive change in their new, decisive role. To determine whether or not they can do so requires a deeper analysis of Green party politics. Simply looking at their policy statements alone is not enough.

Formation of the Greens

The formation of a national Australian Greens was influenced by the more established German Greens. The German Greens had originally taken their inspiration from the Australian labour movement, specifically the Builders Labourers Federation’s (BLF) ‘Green Bans’.

In his maiden speech in Parliament, newly-elected Greens MP Adam Bandt reiterated that “the name ‘The Greens’ has its origins in the activism of community members and workers who in the 1970s joined together to prevent the destruction of important parts of our built and natural environment. Petra Kelly, visiting Australia at the time, was so impressed by the ‘green bans’ imposed by the unions and the community that she took it back with her to Germany where they founded Die Grünen, ‘The Greens’.”

The Green Bans of the 1970’s were radical examples of working class environmentalism. At its height, the Green Ban movement held up billions of dollars worth of inappropriate development and saved large areas of Sydney from demolition – including whole suburbs, as well as saving significant historic buildings in Melbourne and other major cities.

While it’s not surprising that it was the organised working class that founded the mainstream environmental movement, it is surprising the Greens looked to the labor movement for their ideas. It is not the case that today’s Greens clearly align themselves with the working class.

Growing support

It’s only been recently that the Australian Greens have positioned themselves as the left opposition in mainstream politics. In the days of the Greens early electoral success, the late 80’s and early 90’s, the Tasmanian Greens entered into de facto-coalitions with both the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. These coalitions eventually broke down, and not surprisingly the Green vote went down in the period after.

It wasn’t until the early part of this decade that the Greens began to be seen as a party consistently to the left of Labor and the Liberals. As the Labor Party has moved drastically to the right over the last few decades, a massive vacuum has been left in which other parties have tried but failed to fill. The Greens have now managed, in many respects, to fill part of this gap.

Their increasing electoral success over the last decade has come on the back of the anti-globalisation movement, the refugee campaign, the early anti-Iraq War protests and the large environment protests over the last few years. In more recent times they have put their name to the campaign demanding equal marriage rights for same-sex couples.

The Greens have often had speakers at wide-ranging public protests and have publicly endorsed many campaigns. It has been during this period – when the Greens began to align themselves with progressive movements of workers and young people – that they have started making a broader electoral impact on a national scale.

The crisis of climate change has meant many more people have developed an environmental consciousness, many of them now looking to the Greens for leadership on this issue.

Considering this history, is it possible to say that the Greens are now a solidified left party? Can the Greens offer a real alternative to Labor and Liberal?

The Greens in Power

In the eyes of most people the Australian Greens have not yet been properly tested at a state or federal level. However, for some years they have exercised significant influence at a council level in a number of areas. One of these areas is Yarra City Council in inner city Melbourne.

Their conduct on Yarra City Council gives us taste of how Green party members act in positions of power. They have had numerous councilors elected over the last seven years and held the Mayoral position for a few of these years. During this time they have endorsed neo-liberal budgets, increased rates and childcare fees far beyond inflation, cut pensioner rebates and effectively cut funding for the arts.

While the Greens make endless election promises around environment issues, when it comes down taking action it has been the Socialist Party who have pushed for green waste collection, recycling for small business and a zero emissions policy for council.

At a state level, when the Greens held the balance of power in the ACT in the 90’s they supported the privatisation of public services. In Tasmania in the in early 90’s, The Greens/Labor Government handed down the greatest cuts to public service jobs in the state’s entire history, claiming it was “for the good of the economy”. In the aftermath, the Tasmanian Greens switched sides and supported the Liberal Government in Tasmania in the late 90’s.

More recently in Tasmania (traditionally their strongest area of support) the Greens sought to form a coalition government with the Liberals. When the Liberals refused, the Greens happily joined forces with the Labor Party. Since then they have voted for a budget that includes tax cuts for the rich and increased electricity prices for the poor.

In light of this past it should come as no surprise that the Victorian Greens are refusing to rule out forming a coalition government with the Liberals after this year’s state election. It seems that when the Greens actually get into power, keeping their electoral promises is less important to them than proving their “economic responsibility” to big-business and their allies.

International experience

International experience of Greens parties who have advanced earlier and further than the Australian Greens offers insight into where Green party politics leads in practice.

There is no better example than the German Green Party. The German Greens grew out of progressive social movements in the 1970’s, particularly the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements. Their electoral vote steadily increased from 1.5% in 1980 to 11% in 1997. Over this period, with a decline in struggle and no mass movement to base themselves in, they shifted dramatically to the right. In 1998 they entered into Government with the Social Democratic Party (the German equivalent of the ALP) and governed jointly between 1998 and 2005.

In power the Greens proved that they were capable of creating policy in the interests of big business. When leaving German politics a few years ago, a leading Greens politician boasted that “Although big business complained about [our] reforms, they worked in their favor.”

These reforms were around profitable ecology. The German Greens made health food into a thriving business sector, as they did with wind and solar energy, which received strong state support while raking in huge profits. The eco-taxes they implemented, (higher taxes on fuel and power) were passed on to consumers and meant an increase in the cost of living for ordinary people.

But the German Greens stopped well short of actually seriously tackling environmental problems. Of the most polluting coal plants in Europe, five of the top ten remain in Germany. But it wasn’t only environmental policy they retreated on when in power.

While the German Greens started out as an anti-war party, they ended up supporting the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 and the deployment of German troops in Kosovo. They also voted to send German troops to Afghanistan in 2001. It was actually the Greens who gave enough of a left cover to German capitalism that allowed Germany to militarily engage for the first time since World War Two.

Their total lack of orientation to the working class was also apparent with their 11% tax cuts for the wealthy, saving a millionaire approximately 100,000 Euros a year. Corporate tax was cut from 40% to 25%. At the same time deep cuts were made to welfare, healthcare and education.

This rightward shift of the German Greens is not accidental and is not an isolated example. Similar experiences have happened recently in Ireland. In Ireland the Greens went into coalition with the traditional Irish capitalist party, Fianna Fail, in 2007. Since this time the Irish economy has plummeted into recession and the Greens have retreated on the policies that got them elected.

As part of the coalition government, the Irish Greens have responded to the crisis with a series of attacks on working people. Their 2009 budget cut workers’ incomes up to 8%, cut welfare by 2%, and reduced housing benefits for the unemployed. It’s estimated that these cuts resulted in the average Irish family being 7,000 Euros worse off. The Greens coalition government also attempted to abolish free healthcare for people over 70.

The 2009 elections in Ireland reflected how disillusioned people have become in the Greens since their time in government. They lost 15 of their 18 council seats. It is a real possibility that the Irish Greens will be wiped off the map in the upcoming Irish general election.

Why do the Greens sell-out?

The Greens, like the other major parties, see their fundamental strategy for changing society as becoming a serious electoral force. Any support for actual struggle is subordinate to the goal of winning elections. But history has shown us time and time again that real change is achieved through struggle on the ground, not through parliament.

This purely electoral approach means they necessarily accept the political and economic framework of capitalism. The purpose of capitalist parliaments is to give a democratic facade to the rule of capital and the free market. To operate purely within the electoral realm is to give consent to the very basis of the profit-before-all-else system of capitalism.

The main reason the Greens are not able to implement their progressive policies is because of this acceptance of capitalism. They don’t acknowledge the class nature of capitalist society. They don’t see the interests of the capitalist class the working class as diametrically opposed. Therefore, they don’t see the working class as an ally, and as being the only force capable of seriously challenging the status quo. This is why the Greens fail to consistently side with workers over bosses.

There is no doubt that the Australian Greens have a number of progressive policies on paper. But without a class analysis or an alternative plan for running society they are forced to play by the rules of the profit-driven system. This means that, whether they like it or not, they are forced to bend to the needs of big business. Particularly in an economic downturn, they find themselves implementing the opposite of what they claim to stand for.

While the Greens correctly highlight environmental destruction and climate change as major issues in need of immediate political attention, they can only fall back on general appeals for a cleaner, more sustainable world with no viable way of actually achieving this on a broad scale.

Essentially, they propose the impossible – that capitalism becomes an environmentally and socially sound system. This is impossible because the fundamental basis of capitalist society is the exploitation of both labor and the environment for profit.

This can be seen explicitly in the energy industry, where the technology already exists to move to renewable forms of energy production, yet the coal industry continues resist a shift to renewable energy to maintain its profits.

Only a publically owned and democratically planned economy – organised and based upon the needs of the population, instead of profit – is capable of stopping the destruction of the environment.

The failures of the Greens only prove that environmental questions are class questions. This, ironically, is a lesson the Greens should have learned in the very beginning from the BLF Green Bans. The Green Bans showed that the fate of the planet can not be left to capitalist governments or market forces. It is the organised working class and community organisations who need to take the matter into their own hands. On the other hand, what the Greens have shown is that appeals to big business and capitalist governments achieve nothing.

The Greens can sometimes propose good reforms and socialists should support these. But it is also necessary to highlight the need to fundamentally change society in order to keep and extend those gains. Generally, whatever is given with one hand is taken away by other. This has been the experience of the Greens in power.

Build a real alternative

As the Greens take a more prominent place in Australian politics, people will begin to recognise the limitations of their approach. It is one thing to put the question of war in Afghanistan or same-sex marriage up for debate within parliament. It is quite another to build a mass movement of people, supported by industrial action, to force those in power to heed to the will of ordinary people.

The socialist solution to the problems facing ordinary people is to mobilise people to take action themselves. While we also stand for parliament our main focus is to use elected positions to strengthen campaigns and to raise the ideas of public ownership, workers control and a democratic plan for production. Only a socialist society that puts people and the environment before profits can provide a real alternative to capitalism.

By Mel Gregson


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