The Greens: Paddling Hard but Missing the Wave

[Just published at Independent Australia]

article-9388-heroDisaffection with old parties and old politics continues to grow, here and abroad. Unlike the US and the UK, however, progressive politics in Australia is hardly progressing. The Greens are the obvious standard-bearer, but so far they are missing the wave. It matters because the destruction of the informed, fair-go society and the sell-out of our sovereignty continue apace.

In the recent election the Greens pulled only 10% of the 23% of primary votes that went to non-major parties in the House. For the Senate, they got 8.7% of around 35% of non-major primary votes.

Richard Denniss, writing in the August Monthly, notes that the most common ground among the disparate new cross benchers is opposition to the neoliberal program of free trade, trickle-down economics and privatisation. Yet they are more reactionary than progressive. Several claim global warming is a hoax, and many are intolerant of progressive social causes. The Xenophon Team are reasonably sensible as far as they go but there is no broader vision of Australia’s direction.

With that perspective, a well-pitched progressive party could arguably be pulling 15-20% of the vote in Australia, perhaps much more. The rising wave of discontent has been evident now for several election cycles. There is also good evidence that Australians want a more compassionate, less frenetic, greener society with sovereignty over all our affairs. Yet good people have fears too, and they may turn to reactionaries if they see no-one else as viable. Perhaps the Greens still don’t really believe they can aspire to government, so their message is not convincing.

Some clues emerge from Paddy Manning’s account of the Greens’ recent election campaign, also in the Monthly. It emerges that apparently many Greens, perhaps especially in NSW, see themselves only as a protest or balance of power party and have little interest in gaining more votes. Evidently they imagine that can only be done by compromising their principles and moving to the “centre”.

One can appreciate the general point, especially given the modern history of Labor, but they must be particularly oblivious to have missed all the signs of the rising discontent with politics-as-usual. Many people are desperately looking for something better than inequality, exported jobs, rising social conflict, and being priced out of housing, higher education and, if the Liberals had their way, healthcare.

One must also wonder at protesters who evidently never expect to change anyone’s mind. The neoliberals never had such doubts, and dragged the “centre” far to the right. We need to drag it back.

People don’t necessarily want populist reactionaries. Social researcher Richard Eckersley, reporting in a recent issue of Oxford Development Studies, asked people to choose between two scenarios. The first was a fast paced, competitive, individualist society focusing on wealth generation and the good life. The second was a greener, more stable society emphasising cooperation, community, family, less inequality and greater economic self-sufficiency. 75% of people expected the first scenario, but fully 93% preferred the second.

So most people don’t like our current direction, but they don’t know how to change it. There is the opening for a progressive political party.

There is actually even greater potential. One of the least-acknowledged truths of the modern world is that free markets have no sensible basis in theory, and their track record is poor and getting worse, as I have explained in my book Sack the Economists.

Economic performance in the neoliberal era since 1980 has never come close to that of the postwar decades until the early 1970s. The earlier social democratic era featured GDP growth of 5.2%, unemployment a minuscule 1.3% and inflation 3.3%. Neoliberal mediocrity has been partly disguised by steadily rising private debt that has caused one huge financial crash and threatens more.

The difficulties of the 1970s were mostly extraneous: oil prices quadrupled and the US paid for the Vietnam war by printing money and stoking inflation. Those problems could have been overcome without abandoning the social democratic approach.

The theory that says free markets are best applies to an absurdly abstract world that has no serious relevance to real economies. It’s not hard to understand why either. Don’t be intimidated by neoliberalism, it’s a paper tiger.

Most of the so-called Left has missed these simple, basic facts. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn are quite sensible to propose a return to democratic socialism. (We could do even better, but that’s a story for later.)

So people want a greener, less conflicted and more compassionate society, and they can have it by voting for social democracy. Then why aren’t the Greens reaping the benefit?

I grant the mendacious hostility of the Murdoch press and the major parties has been a difficulty, along with the disparaging condescension of much of the commentariat. Why not meet Murdoch head on, the way Scott Ludlum took on Tony Abbott in his Senate speech? Call the lies and distortions. Make it so every time Murdoch screeches the Greens vote goes up. The rest of the media love a fight and might even report it.

I agree with Paddy Manning that putting out detailed costings only provides grist for Murdoch’s lies, and the distraction of debates about forward projections. It would be easy instead to simply to point to potential savings of tens of billions of dollars and to say there is great scope for implementing many Greens policies. Most voters don’t care about all the numbers anyway, especially while the Greens are well away from forming a government.

But perhaps that focus on detailed numbers is symptomatic. The Greens, in origin and still in name and mainstream image, are an environmental protest party, with minority social causes added more recently. They’re trying to look safe and serious, but if you try too hard you just show your insecurity.

The Greens have developed the broad policies of a mainstream party, but their strategy seems still to be that of a fringe party. Gaining a few percent and a few seats per election might be the strategy for less critical times, but there are much bigger changes brewing. They’re paddling hard but don’t seem to notice the looming wave.

What is lacking is a simple narrative that cuts through. Sanders and Corbyn have found themes that resonate, now we need themes that resonate in Australia. Easy to say, I know.

Jobs and job security have to be front and centre and that means, all you lovely tree-huggers, talking up front about a clean, smart, caring economy. Other potential themes are fairer flows of wealth, accessibly-priced housing, education and health care, sovereignty over land and money flows, and a liveable planet with a live Reef.

Clean energy, energy efficiency and healthy food create more jobs than mining and agribusiness, so the jobs message is there to be used. Job security will come not only from returning some power to employees but also from protecting small business and farmers from corporate depredations (think ColesWorth) and from cultivating a thriving (clean) industrial ecosystem, a concept largely absent from mainstream thinking.

Fairer flows of wealth can be assured not only through minimum wage and tax policies, but also by slowing the mechanisms that unfairly pump wealth to the wealthy, like financial market speculation, developer capture of rising land values, unnecessarily concentrated ownership, and more.

Yes I said a caring economy. The choice is not just between monster capitalism and big socialism, that’s a false dichotomy. Markets always function under rules, and at present the rules are rigged to favour the rich. They can be changed to share wealth more fairly, and to promote quality of life instead of more and more stuff. That’s why the post-war decades were better, and we can do better again. All the green and social causes will be much easier to take care of if we’re pushing downhill, not uphill.

Offer a healthy society. People want more time with family and community, they want government ownership of major services and Aussie icons, and they want healthy cultural institutions – all things our parents could afford but we allegedly can’t. The present wave of intolerance is fed by job and income insecurity, so addressing those concerns can take oxygen from the xenophobes and ranters.

Or how about just democracy, sovereignty and sanity? I’m thinking of corrupt major parties that accept millions from vested interests, sell the ground from under us, invite foreign investment sharks to run our affairs, and sell the coal that will tip us into catastrophic warming, all the while viciously defending us from people in leaky boats who generally make excellent citizens.

I have argued in my book that of the three modern party groups the Greens are actually closest to Menzies’ policies of the 1950s and 60s. By today’s standards Menzies was a lefty, a mild social democrat. The modern Liberal Party has been captured by IPA extremists, and Labor follows meekly along. So disaffected Liberal and Labor voters are both fair targets, without compromising the Greens message.

Politics, and the world, are likely to be transformed within the next five to ten years, through financial and political collapses, global warming, resource shortages and tides of displaced people. We will move towards either a police-state corporate colony or a greener, fair-go, resilient society. Which way we go will depend on the leadership we have.

There are a number of nascent progressive parties, but they have yet to gain traction. The Greens are established and functioning. Since Labor abandoned the field they are the only option. If they are to lead, they need to be willing to keep adapting until they catch the wave.

It is not a time to play safe. Can the Greens step up to the challenge?

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3 thoughts on “The Greens: Paddling Hard but Missing the Wave

  1. don owers

    Arguably one of the most successful actions of the Australian Greens has been the reaction to their Democracy for Sale website. This site allowed the media and public to readily access information on ‘who gave what to whom’ and has, (albeit grudgingly), forced some governments to make changes to the funding regime. But more importantly it showed that political donations were not just for buying favours, they were also about changing government policies or legislation to suit the donor at the expense of the general public, including their right to protest. And when it came to getting legislation changed there was none more successful than the development industry. Paul Keating became involved in 2006 saying that New South Wales (NSW) property developers were sending a wall of money to the planning minister. Of course is wasn’t only in NSW, West Australia (WA) was the home of the infamous 1980s “WA Inc.”, referring to corporate deals with government under Premier Brian Bourke. WA Greens Senator Ludlam would know this from the findings of the WA Corruption and Crime Commission report.

    All of this makes it surprising that Senator Ludlum , when speaking in parliament[1] about the Transforming Perth Study (a joint study by the Property Council of Australia, the Office of Senator Scott Ludlam ) would state:

    “ It has been an unexpected joy working with the Property Council and a cohort of developers that they brought in to keep our feet on the ground. My thanks go to William De Haer and to Joe Lenzo, the Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia, for their committed work in bringing this report to fruition…”

    Although this plan, ‘Transforming Perth’, did include provisions for light rail, cycleways and green ways, and aimed to stop urban sprawl by utilizing existing infrastructure, it was still Urban Consolidation, a term that has become synonymous with ‘Sardine suburbs’ and is now replaced with a less confronting name –‘Smart Growth’. But when you consider that developer-related corruption in NSW recently saw 11 Liberal politicians resign or stood down in just 9 months, 8 councils sacked in 5 years , 19 corruption inquiries by ICAC that led to 14 prosecutions, then Senator Ludlum’s gushing endorsement of developers suggest he is at best naïve. He is also at odds with some of his Green colleagues, like David Shoebridge, who argued that:

    “ the Greens continue to press for community need to be put ahead of developer greed at this most grass roots level of government”

    During his speech Senator Ludlam went on to say:

    “This new study was commissioned… to take a long, hard look at what has happened in Australian cities in the last 50 or 60 years… Perth does have a good public transport network, but it simply has not kept pace with the growth of the city…”

    Well what happened in the last 50 or 60 years was that the population of Australia grew from 7.5 to 24 million. Perth now contains over 2 million with a growth rate that reached 2.5%, the fastest in the nation, adding 346,000 more people in the decade since 2001. This explains why the transport system was overwhelmed. NO major city in Australia has been able to keep up with the extra infrastructure demand created by explosive population growth. Advocating, or even accepting accelerated population growth as a norm is tantamount to endorsing the unsustainable growth economics of the major parties, whose policies create all the environmental mayhem that the Greens deplore. As an example the water flow into Perth’s dams has slumped by 80% since 1970 and is predicted to decrease even more in the future. Desalination plants, re cycling and underground water supplies help but are energy intensive and cannot supply cheap water to manufacturing, let alone agriculture.

    Preventing urban sprawl is of course essential because we cannot afford to lose our best agricultural land, native forests or open spaces to endless housing. But Perth’s sprawl has now extended in a strip 240kms along the coast. This has occurred because people want to live near the beach, where it is cooler. Temperatures across the world are rising due to climate change but in cities they have climbed much faster due to the Urban Heat Island effect – the heat retention created by roads and buildings and loss of vegetation which is more prevalent in regions with higher density housing.

    But the most alarming section of Senator Ludlam’s speech was the scale of the proposal:

    ”The Transforming Perth study identified more than 1,500 hectares of land along seven high-capacity transit corridors in Perth and showed that if you built medium density dwellings, …..along these corridors-of four or five storeys, you could potentially fit between 94,000 and 250,000 dwellings along these corridors…”

    Using the lower figure of 94,000 dwellings that equates to about 200,000 to 300,000 people and will require employment for around 100,000 in a state with sharply declining opportunities. The term ‘Smart Growth’[2] was coined as a way of convincing sceptical residents that putting more people into their suburbs was the right way to go, that it would utilize existing infrastructure and cut transport problems. But it hasn’t worked out like that because existing suburbs lack the infrastructure for such increases in population. There will not be enough schools[3] or hospitals, water, sewerage or power facilities. Furthermore their construction will be more expensive because of the higher land prices, because land prices increase in proportion to population density. Medium density housing is not, in fact more affordable because prices are a function of supply and demand. Nor is it a ‘green’ solution since it does not reduce the human footprint (currently estimated at 6.25ha./person in Australia). Instead, medium density adds to the Australian footprint since higher densities provide less opportunity to collect enough solar or water. They are unfriendly to vegetable gardens, they don’t permit outdoor clothes-drying and they are more reliant on air conditioning. New house construction also adds to Greenhouse emissions. A two bedroom house creates 80 tonnes of CO2 equivalent. Our economic dependency on housing has left us with high personal debt – totalling $1.8 trillion with one of the world’s highest debt to GDP ratios, setting Australia on a course of reduced personal wealth for the bulk of Australians and the prospect of ever rising greenhouse gas emissions.

    On the plus side Senator Scott Ludlam received the Planning Champion Award for his collaborative work with the Property Council and AUDRC “Transforming Perth”. It is a plan which will cater for population growth (of which more than half is government-engineered) for perhaps 10 years. After that, well perhaps we go to 10 stories? And after that…?
    NOTES

    [1] The full speech can be read at ”Housing and sustainable cities”.
    [2] Outsmarting Smart Growth: Population Growth, Immigration, and the Problem of Sprawl.
    [3] $11 billion school funding shortfall raises prospect of shortage of classrooms for thousands.

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  2. Gary Lord

    Hi Geoff, I saw this article at IA and followed to your blog. With John Howard now starting to promote his upcoming ABC TV shows about Menzies (see today: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2016/aug/31/john-howard-rise-of-trump-shows-need-to-buttress-middle-class?CMP=soc_568 ), I was particularly intrigued by your comment that Menzies policies were closest to the Greens.

    Would you please consider publicly releasing an extract from that part of your book before Howard’s series goes to air? I am sure it would help to inform public debate. Perhaps IA would publish it, or even Fairfax? We really need to push back hard against this Neoliberal bullshit.

    Best regards.

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  3. Geoff Davies Post author

    Thanks for the tip off Gary. Yes I could make an extract. Perhaps Canberra Times (I’ve been there occasionally) or Guardian (never cracked it). Or IA. More from our Liberal Party’s ABC. Too bad they’ve shut down most commentary, including their own.

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