The Australian Greens have the potential to become more than a minority bourgeois party, but only if they manage their growth maturely, writes guest blogger Emily Table.
Every man, woman and their companion animal has an opinion about the Greens at the moment. Whether it’s the Labor Right launching an all out assault to hide their utter lack of policy ideology, Greens insiders sharing frank views about the internal workings of the party, or News Ltd journalists jumping on whatever bandwagon has rolled into town, the Greens are the political party to be talking about.
Senior Greens figures like Christine Milne may be feeling a little jittery about the unprecedented level of attention, especially so soon after the retirement of the essentially messianic Bob Brown, but in reality the scrutiny of the Greens from different perspectives (if you can call what Paul Howes does anything other than Neanderthal) is a sign that the Greens are emerging as a genuine third entity in an Australian political system heavily geared towards only having two.
The flavour of the week is the Left coming at the Greens about the ‘Greens bourgeoisie’ or ‘Neo-liberals on bikes’, spurred partly by an Australian Greens policy meeting where the party voted to ditch estate taxes on the wealthiest individuals in Australians. The decision doesn’t appear to have gone down too well with the NSW Greens – though, with six of their seven current State/Federal MPs either hailing from Sydney’s Inner West or Eastern Suburbs or being one-time long-term residents, they’re hardly the proletariat.
Writing in Jeff Sparrow and Antony Loewenstein’s recent collection of left-centric and thought-provoking political essays, Left Turn, writer Christos Tsiolkas steps away from fictional social commentary to take a swipe at the Greens/Left bourgeoisie – positioning himself as one of them throughout to neatly co-opt potential criticism.
Despite identifying as a Greens voter, Tsiolkas paints a stereotypical picture of the Greens displaying a somewhat juvenile understanding of the party’s broad platform, albeit from the Left: “The Greens’ great strength is the moral certitude and conviction they bring to their arguments about the ecological dangers of over-consumption; that conviction is also expressed in their consistent objection to the inhumanity of Australia’s treatment of refugees,” he writes.
Pretty much any Australian asked about the Greens in a focus group (preferably with padded chairs, iced vovos and a latte) would circle a net of climate change and refugees around the party, most probably throwing marriage equality into the mix.
If the Greens are simply the ‘Bourgeoisie Left’, that’s fine: intellectual understanding of, and outrage about, human induced climate change is arguably a middle-class luxury; refugees and marriage equality are typically argued as human rights issues rather than along Left/Right paradigms. But is this actually an accurate depiction of the Australian Greens and its affiliated but highly idiosyncratic state and territory based counterparts?
Tsiolkas also writes, moving from admiration for the Greens’ principled stance on asylum seekers and refugees to veiled criticism of their fence-sitting on the after-affect issue of migration of any kind, population: “The question of over consumption can’t be addressed without asking what forms of work and production can we hope to create that do not favour an educated, mobile and wealthy elite in our global economy.
“I don’t believe the international crisis in the movement of peoples across the world can be addressed without also rethinking the limits our nation places on population… It is my sense that the Greens have not yet begun the work of understanding such contradictions and beginning to address them. It is my belief that until they do they remain a bourgeois minority party,” Tsiolkas writes.
There is certainly evidence some Greens are more comfortable campaigning in the upper echelons of Australian class structures. Take newly elected Greens MP Jeremy Buckingham, for example, who has been quite vocal about courting the votes of farmers.
Buckingham campaigns predominantly on the issue of coal seam gas (he’s currently touring the United States with his staff to learn more about the issue) in the course of which he frequently rubs shoulders and allies himself with members of the ‘new agrarian bourgeois’ like Alan Jones and Tim Duddy.
The language and campaigning used by Buckingham is similar to that adopted by Senator Christine Milne, who began her run as Australian Greens leader with a regional tour ‘designed to improve the party’s relationship with farmers,’ (starting, coincidentally, in Buckingham’s hometown of Orange).
It might also explain some of the recent enthusiasm for overturning the party’s inheritance tax policy, with figures like Duddy and Jones likely unimpressed that their anti-CSG campaigning buddies wanted to modestly levy their second, third and fourth family mansions after their eventual demise.
If all the Greens public representatives were campaigning in this fashion, Tsiolkas’ tag of a “bourgeois minority party” might have some weight, but a look at the campaigns run by Adam Bandt (successfully) and Cathy Oke (tipped to be so) in Melbourne show a different side to the Greens as a political party than stereotypical wisdom may suggest.
One of Bandt’s key pillars in his successful tilt at the Federal seat of Melbourne was public housing – a social justice issue and far removed from the stereotypical ‘Greens bourgeoisie’, who would presumably be hurrying their children past the housing commission flats on their way to their comprehensive selective school.
Greens candidate for the state seat of Melbourne Cathy Oke, in the final week of what has become a high-profile by-election, has also chosen to focus on public housing, attending a rally with Bandt calling for a Public Housing Commissioner in Victoria.
The successful Melbourne Greens machine, exemplified Bandt and Oke’s campaigns, have clearly done their research. They understand not only that housing affordability is a key issue amongst their constituents, but also that the Greens are occupying the political hemisphere of the Left made vacant by the Labor party. They are unafraid to campaign long and hard on core social justice issues, and the results are speaking for themselves.
The Greens bourgeoisie, recently defined by Christos Tsiolkas, The Left Flank and NSW Greens party elder Hall Greenland, appear more comfortable campaigning on issues like climate change, asylum seekers and marriage equality.
That has been all well and good bringing the party to a position where they comfortably hover around 10-15 per cent and claim proportional representation of seats in upper houses of parliaments around the country (that actually have upper houses – hello Queensland). But the next step requires a Trotsky-esque continuation of ‘the revolution’ to vocal and sustained campaigning on policies which have for years formed the effectively unvoiced pillar of the Australian Greens politics, social justice.
In a purely pragmatic analysis, Bandt, Oke and Co. are campaigning on social justice issues only because of the evident electoral gains on offer. A converse argument is that Milne, Buckingham and Co. would do well to broaden their appeal and sound bites to where any realistic successful future of the party lies – to the left of Labor and the Coalition – with an ever-predominant working and lower-middle class who have been abandoned by professional politicians addicted to power and its accompanying social and material wealth.
If the Greens really do politics differently, here is a perfect opportunity for them to show the public they mean what they say.
The Australian Greens are a diverse party with a broad progressive policy suite which marries concepts like social justice, grassroots democracy and environmental sustainability, which if you’re honest about it isn’t necessarily a love-match. Like most marriages, it’s never going to be all wine and roses.
Christos Tsiolkas may be incorrect in labeling the Greens a “bourgeois minority party,” but there can be little doubt that different figures within the Greens are pulling the party in different directions.
A good friend of mine and former Labor member told me over coffee once that it’s a sign of maturity in a party when the different factions (for want of a better word) can debate their differences openly, that is, in the media. Labor, the Liberals and the Nationals all do this, albeit often messily and heavily choreographed.
The next twelve to eighteen months will likely tell us whether the Greens are going to emerge from adolescence as a mature political force of the new Left, which can publicly and maturely debate and reflect on the spectrums within their policy platforms; and, in doing so, inform public debate and achieve further electoral success.
Emily Table is not nearly as cynical as she ought to be by now. She can be contacted at email@example.com and will emerge on Twitter properly one of these days via @ems_table. A website/blog of her own is probably too much organisation to ask for right now.