A change in the wind for the Greens

Thursday, 30 August 2007 

Brown’s ambling and unimpressive performance on Lateline last night could perhaps be a sign that he is sensing a change in the political environment for the Greens that is emerging in the row over the Tasmanian pulp mill. Inevitably such an environmental issue so close to an election invites comparisons to two other examples, the Franklin dam in 1983 and the Tasmanian forestry issue in 2004. However, the differences are more interesting than the similarities.

Minor parties like the Greens never like to face up to it, but their development is often less dependent on their own initiatives than what goes on in the major parties. The Greens have especially been influenced by developments in Labor. The Franklin dam issue was the culmination of an ALP tactic began during the Whitlam years, where from the days of the ‘Green Bans’ led by the BLF’s Jack Mundy in the early 1970’s, environmentalism was used to fill a radical policy vacuum left by the decline of union influence. Hawke took it to an art form during his time in office. The increasing support given to environmental issues gave credence to the Greens as a stand-alone platform and as disillusionment with Hawke’s government increased, it took an organisational form separate from Labor. But no matter how distinct the Greens seemed, their programme never differed much from the Labor left with the only real difference being whether to organise in or out of the Labor party. As Hawke showed in 1990, that organisational difference never had much consequence as like the Labor left, no matter how much the leadership trampled over them, the votes (or preferences) always came back home.

Picking up local environmental issues may have been a tactic for managing the decline of Labor’s historical role, but could not replace it. It was this more than anything that was behind the fiasco of Latham’s forestry policy in 2004. As Latham ran around throwing off policy initiatives trying to fill up the hole in Labor’s agenda and distinguish Labor from the government, his stance on Tasmanian forestry itself probably didn’t cost many votes. But the sight of Howard being cheered by forestry workers exposed a much more serious problem – the profound policy vacuum that lay behind Latham’s campaigning and questions over what Labor stood for after the end of its historical role.

Labor has less of that problem this time. Climate change may be another environmental issue but of a very different order of magnitude. It is not only having increasing role in organising international relations but has important domestic implications too. That is why Gillard can comfortably fob off any complaints about Garrett’s silence on a Tasmanian pulp mill, by reminding of the very clear commitment he has to a global issue like climate change. The pulp mill issue is not exposing a problem with Labor’s support base like the Franklin dam, but this time, with the softness in the Liberal heartland as picked up by polls showing that it is probably the safe government seats where the anti-coalition swing is strongest.

A corrosion of a political party’s core base is unsettling and it is likely that the government is over-reacting to the threat posed by this issue (indicated not only by Turnbull’s move to defer the decision but also by reports that he may have stuffed it up). The Liberals may adopt a more environmental-friendly position after Howard, but not to the extent Labor did over the last 30 years. For Labor itself, the adoption of the climate agenda may see it distance itself from the type of environmental issues less suitable for a governing party.

While this shift might be thought of as good news for the Greens, it probably won’t be. By bringing climate change into the core of its agenda, the Labor leadership has less need to indulge a separate environmental agenda either inside or outside the party and it is likely to expose the Greens’ lack of real political independence from Labor. It is why the ALP has no urgency in agreeing preferences with the Greens (which were largely a formality anyway). Bob Brown’s initial threats to Labor are sounding increasingly hollow and the Greens certainly over-stepped the mark with yesterday’s threat to block Labor’s IR legislation, something Brown was sensibly backing off from by the evening. Perhaps it’s too neat a symmetry, but just as the Franklin dam brought the Greens into the national agenda, the Tasmanian pulp mill episode may signal the start of their exit.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 30 August 2007.

Filed under State of the parties

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