Discussion about the relationship between Labor and the Greens has continued into a second week with suggestions in The Australian that the Greens are open to changing their refugee policy to do a deal with Labor. Richard Di Natale responded to these reports saying the Greens won’t compromise on their policy to close offshore detention centres.
Reading between the lines, as Labor’s unlikely to change its policy, it seems to rule out a deal where the Greens alter their policy. My guess is the Greens hoped to win improvements without being locked into supporting Labor’s policies. The model they want is likely to be the one used by ALP-led governments in SA, TAS and the ACT that allowed non-Labor Ministers to “opt-out” of Cabinet solidarity. Given recent rancour between the two parties and Labor’s defensiveness about being outflanked on the left, I doubt Labor would accept such an arrangement.
While most of the focus on the politics of refugee policy tends to be about Labor tearing itself apart, attempting to negotiate improved refugee policies raises some big questions that most Green supporters appear not to have not grappled with. In particular, it highlights limits of what the Greens can achieve on their own and raises questions about what they are willing to trade off. Richard Di Natale has spoken about using a hung parliament to push for changes to refugee policy but he has not outlined what changes and what are acceptable trade-offs.
A genuine question yet to be debated is whether such a deal would be acceptable if Greens can vote against the current asylum seeker policies even though the outcome would be the same and offshore detention and turnbacks remain? It may be aimed at preserving the idea the Greens have not sold out but wouldn’t that just show the Greens are just as hungry for ministerial positions as the other parties? It would make the Greens the inner-city version of the Nationals, raising a fuss every so often to differentiate but getting rolled most of the time.
Personally I don’t support the ALP’s policy and have massive issues with turnbacks and offshore detention centres. The problem is that unless either the ALP or the Liberals change their policy, it doesn’t matter what the Greens’ position is. Unless one shifts, activists will spend the rest of their lives being angry about an issue with no possible resolution.
Support for the Greens may help drag the Overton window to the left on refugees but you can’t just create the space, you need to push the majority of the public in its direction to make the change permanent. Recent Essential polling showed that despite a plurality (39%) thinking conditions at Manus Island were poor, almost half (48%) opposed bringing asylum seekers to Australia even though respondents were told it was ruled to be illegal. Immigration may be less of an issue currently but it is still rated as one of the three most important issues in Australia today. It will not go away as a political issue.
The fact is if the Greens compromise on refugee policy, it will destroy them. They framed refugee policy as a black or white moral issue, far more so than climate change. The complexities of climate change allowed a fudge, there is no such room on refugees. Labor may budge on aspects of its refugee policy but it won’t adopt anything like the Greens’ position unless public opinion changes significantly. The experience of coalition government in Tasmania caused a lot of internal dissatisfaction during its term and even splits afterwards. Refugee policy is just as contentious federally as forestry was at a state level and one can imagine something similar occurring if the Greens compromise.
Luckily for the Greens there is no other viable party that opposes the offshore detention of asylum seekers but there is no guarantee of that into the future if a viable social liberal party emerges. Furthermore, compromising will challenge the belief that the Greens are not like every other party but unless it does so, any improvements are unlikely. It can be brushed over while the Greens’ influence is limited but if they participate in government it is far harder to avoid.
For all the talk of an ALP-Green government by Richard Di Natale and Adam Bandt, it seems the Greens doubt it will happen, which is why the conditions of a change in asylum seeker policy they set is most likely unachievable. If any arrangement does occur after the election, it would probably be a supply and confidence arrangement or abstaining on forming government. It will kick the can further down the road but the limitations of their strategy is an issue the Greens will eventually have to grapple with if they are serious about exercising power and ever forming government.
Cross-posted to AusVotes2016