Category Archives: The Greens

What would a successful Australian left-populism look like?

I have previously written how I think the desire of some in the Australian Labor Party for an Australian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn is likely to unlikely occur within the current institutional set-up. That desire for an Australian equivalent is not limited to Labor members though.

There are some on the Left outside the major parties who think they could be the beneficiaries of this current populist mood. For example, Senator Lee Rhiannon has been arguing that the Greens should tap into this populist moment by becoming more radical and anti-establishment.

Personally I don’t think the Greens can pull off a populist reinvention, left-populism will only come through a new political vehicle. The Greens aren’t seen as anti-establishment by those disillusioned with democracy and generally disinterested in politics as usual. They aren’t seen as representatives of the people or of the working class. They are more a vehicle of civic responsibility, the exact opposite of radical left-populism.

Furthermore, the belief that the Greens can change some policies to reinvent itself ignores that successful populist vehicles are very much centred around charismatic individuals who people believe are genuine outsiders. I don’t think many would see any elected Greens MP in that way. I would also add that much of the jargon and many of the actions (of not just those in the Greens but also the broader Left) are not what people do, use or talk about, it has no real mass populist appeal.

So what would a successful new left-populist vehicle look like and what would their platform be? I have a few thoughts.

Firstly, it requires some charismatic leaders who people believe are genuine insurgents (even if they are flawed). Successful populist parties are a personification of the leader. The leader would be dominant but the party would need to be seen as very democratic. Primaries would seem to be the obvious method of doing it, riding on the coattails of the leader.

For a platform, I wouldn’t talk about socialism or capitalism or left or right or the political centre. It is irrelevant jargon to most people. If it was me, I would talk about the need to break-up the cartels that control our country and how you don’t really have a voice. Everyone knows what you mean. In most major industries, you can count the main providers on your fingers. Virgin or Qantas, Woolworths or Coles, the big four banks. The rhetoric would be “the cartels have rigged the system and it’s time to give power back to the people.”

Policies could be using the state to take on the cartels that screw over Australia such as by setting up a people’s bank to challenge the big four and building a high speed train line to give people a choice when travelling.

A left-populist would go after people and corporations who avoid tax very hard. The line would be that tax avoidance is theft because every dollar in tax they don’t pay means one less dollar for pensions, one less dollar for Medicare, one less dollar for kid’s education, one less dollar for disability services. Subsidies and tax breaks for corporations that avoid taxes would be cut and CEOs would be jailed for defrauding the public and avoiding tax.

The anti-system stance would emphasise how the classes that control Australia all went to the same universities and they have a different life, detached from everyday people, and they have all know each other for years. If something is wrong for the connected, they can pay people off with favours. Them and “the cartel” need to be cleared out by banning lobbyists, requiring MPs to be accountable for every public dollar they spend, slashing public funding for political parties and restricting political expenditure.

The framing narrative would be Australia can be better than what we have now. It was once a place where you could get a good job, a house with a block of land, you could relax on weekends. It was possible once to have a good life and we can make it that way again but “the cartels” and self-interested political class are stopping it. We need to do the right thing by other Australians because we haven’t been, those in charge have just been doing what is convenient for them.*

That vision would be tied in to rebuilding Australia because those in charge have given up on parts of the country. Rather than focusing on a post-work agenda, there would be a job guarantee so whoever wants to be employed will be and contributing to the community.

The structure, platform and narrative I outlined have their problems but broadly I think it would be necessary for a left-populist party to be successful enough in Australia to get parliamentary representation. Kickstarting it is another question though. The environment currently is conducive to anti-establishment politics but there is no spark (as yet) to set it off and then someone who take advantage of the momentum. It would require some kind of movement to really get off the ground and we have not seen anything like that as yet.

* (This framing narrative is problematic because of the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Australians but a variant of it is needed).

UPDATE: Reinforcing my point that the Greens are not seen as the vehicle for left-populism, Essential polling shows Greens voters are even less likely than Labor supporters to believe the system needs fundamental change. 

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A deal on asylum seekers would show the limits of the Greens

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

Preference deals are driven by pure politics

Almost on cue, the perennial election issue of a Liberal-Green preference deal has re-emerged with reports of a deal in Victoria. It is an issue that unfortunately sucks up so much political oxygen that I would rather spend on why the Coalition Government needs to be defeated.

The Greens have denied a deal with the Liberals, saying they will never preference the Liberals ahead of Labor. It is a carefully worded statement that allows for an open ticket in marginal Victorian seats in exchange for Liberal preferences in inner city seats. They could rule out a deal with the Liberals on open tickets but have chosen not to.

The fact is that these preference decisions are driven by pure political self-interest and all three parties are playing hardball.

The politics behind the deal

Each party has a reason for their actions and response whenever this issue of a Liberal-Greens deal emerges. Depending on the outcome, they will either win big or lose significantly.

For the Liberals, they have little chance of winning in the inner city, however, their preferences can sow discord between Labor and the Greens. Liberal preferences will tie up Labor resources in inner city seats plus will make it far more difficult for Labor to form government on its own. In the event of a hung Parliament, it will also be more difficult for Labor if it has to rely on Greens as well as other independents.

For the Greens, Liberal preferences will mean they can win other Lower House seats and make it easier to get balance of power in the Lower House. The long-term aim would be to form a coalition and have Ministers with both Richard Di Natale and Adam Bandt talking about future federal Labor-Green governments. The threat of open tickets may also be used as a bargaining chip for Senate preference discussions.

For Labor, the allocation of Liberal preferences to the Greens may result in previously safe inner city seats being lost. The loss of these seats will make it far harder for Labor to form government and divert resources that would otherwise be used in other Labor-Liberal marginal seats. The possibility of a Liberal-Green deal is also an issue which they can use to try to break off some soft progressive voters by portraying the Greens as “Liberals in disguise” for being wiling to deal with conservatives instead of fighting them.

Do preference recommendations matter?

Yes and no.

Less than half of major party voters follow How to Vote cards but enough followed Liberal How To Vote cards that preferenced the Greens in 2010, leading to Adam Bandt’s victory in Melbourne. Green voters are even less likely to follow How to Vote cards.

While Liberal How To Vote cards can be pivotal, the impact of Green How To Vote cards in a compulsory preferential contest are relatively minimal. Antony Green has calculated that based on a Green primary vote of 10%, it makes a 0.3% difference whether preferences are recommended or not.

Labor is wrong to suggest that open tickets will funnel votes to the Liberals. An open ticket by the Greens in this context is not the same as preferencing the Liberals, however, the Greens should hope Labor does not lose those marginal Victorian seats by less than 0.3%. My guess is the Greens probably think that 0.3% in those marginal seats will not make a difference to who forms Government.

How To Votes cards in optional preferential voting on the other hand can have a significant influence. The shift in preferencing at the Queensland election was what brought down the Liberal National Party and open tickets by the Greens where preferential are optional are a big risk for progressives.

Open tickets are small ‘l’ liberal

One of my biggest frustrations has been the misleading talking points on social media that open tickets allow voters to “decide” their own vote. It has been repeated by Greens supporters again and again. The insinuation that a How To Vote card with recommended preferences is the same as the now abolished Group Voting Ticket is absurd. Voters still determine how they preference at the end of the day and can ignore How To Vote cards. In fact, over half do.

There is little difference between a How to Vote card recommending preferences and third party endorsements by unions, environment groups and GetUp! All seek to influence voters to vote in a certain way. Voters don’t exist in a vacuum and competing interests will always seek to influence them. The idea that the individual can rationally make a decision without outside influence is very small ‘l’ liberal and not embedded in reality. It is the logic that sees trade unions as vested interests, is focused on process over outcome and is obsessed about individual choice to the point that it does not believe organisations should spend money on causes without an individual member’s permission.

At the end of the day, all parties are free to preference or not preference whoever they want. What is disappointing is the misleading statements from all sides. It highlights how electorally driven and cynical they can all be. The Greens can be just as bad as Labor or the Liberals and this saga shows all parties are the same in the end once they get a taste of winning office.

Cross-posted to AusVotes2016

Australia won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders but there will be an anti-system response

It’s become a common shtick to ask why Australian politics seems to be very different from the rest of the Western world. Across the world, there is growing disenchantment with politics and existing institutions. Major parties on the centre-left and centre-right are struggling against insurgent challengers on the Left and Right, both internally and externally. It manifests in a common question that gets asked in progressive circles: Why don’t we have the equivalent of Sanders or Corbyn in Australia?

The short answer is that both are products of a particular context. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It does not happen without the broader politicisation that is occurring elsewhere.

Both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn products of particular contexts, cultures and history. Corbyn is the product of a hard left tradition in the British Labour Party no longer exists in the ALP. In part, due to the discipline of the ALP and the emergence of a viable challenger on its left flank in the Greens. Sanders is a former Mayor in a small state, someone who has been outside the Democratic Party for all of his political career, arguing on a platform of democratic socialism as a candidate for Democratic nomination. There is no equivalent for the pathway Sanders took in Australia.

Both took advantage of unique conditions: open primaries in two-party dominant systems combined with a rejection of technocratic centre-left politics by a reshaped party base. It was fuelled by radicalisation that has happened in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, supported in particular by younger votes.

As Jason Wilson has noted, Australia has an outlier to this seemingly global trend of a strengthening Left. His argument is that the economic circumstances is the key difference. A recent Guardian feature on Generation Y seems to affirm this, a graph based on Luxembourg Income Study Database data showing that disposable income for Generation Y in Australia increased over three decades while elsewhere it was flat or decreased.

graph

While there are issues with the data, it does provide a clear picture. Young people in the rest of the world have gone backwards, not just since the Global Financial Crisis but for over a decade. The angers and frustrations expressed have been built up over a long period of time and are directly linked to falling standards of living.

My view is that the radicalisation that has occurred elsewhere will happen but hasn’t yet. There is an underlying dissatisfaction with politics. Young people are particularly concerned about the future, whether they will have a permanent job or be able to afford housing. That undercurrent was shown by the reaction to Richard Cooke’s essay on the boomer supremacy. Income growth has slowed since 2010, the affordability housing is a problem as are difficulties with finding decent secure permanent jobs amongst young educated people. The future they were sold is not appearing. The crunch has not happened and there has not been a catalyst.

Our electoral system, buttressed by preferential and compulsory voting as well as single member electorates, helps to cover up the extent of disengagement and disenchantment. There are anti-system votes for minor parties and support for politicians that seem to buck it but not a systematic challenge. An economic crisis may be what pushes people over the edge. If we do face a full-blown economic crisis, we may see that undercurrent turn into popular anger against a system that represents the state to the people rather than representing social bases.

If does happen here, however, there is no guarantee that it will come through the Labor Party or even the Greens. The closed nature of our parties makes it difficult for that surge to go through any existing well-established party. Furthermore, both Sanders and Corbyn have also been longstanding figures, there is no equivalent in any existing party that could play a similar role.

A new political formation will not be the immediate response. The emergence of social movements and its transmission into politics takes time. It is not immediate. Podemos, Corbyn, SYRIZA, Sanders, the HDP in Turkey, the New Power Party in Taiwan, none of appeared immediately. Arguably it was a defeat on the streets and realisation that they needed to take state power that compelled them to form political parties. It is similar to the decision made by Australian unions in the 1890s after the Maritime Strike. Their success also took years, not months and only gained considerable strength after they seemed like viable vehicles.

If this politicisation does emerge in Australia, it is unclear that it will benefit the Left. The reaction against establishment politics in many parts of Europe have not benefitted the Left but a reactionary Right, particularly in Central, Northern and Eastern Europe. The anti-establishment mood has not taken a left versus right stance but rather a people versus the elites/oligarchs/cartels.

Could we see something more like Trump here? A populist who denounces the corrupt elite but supports public spending is quite possible as Australia has not been immune to those outbursts of right-wing populism – One Nation and Clive Palmer being two notable recent examples. It is hard to predict because national factors play a huge role in how anti-system energies are channelled and barriers to entry are much higher here than elsewhere. Events and the response of strong personalities will play a big role in what happens.

Whatever does occur, it won’t be the same as North America or Western Europe. There is no guarantee that the established Left or the Right will benefit from anti-system energies. We won’t have a Corbyn or Sanders because our recent experience has been considerably different but like elsewhere a people versus oligarchic elites narrative is likely to dominate.

Labor and the Greens

The recent Victorian election has been seen as a historic breakthrough for the Greens in the Lower House, winning two seats. The Greens now hold Lower House seats in five out of nine jurisdictions and have held a Lower House seat in every jurisdiction bar the Northern Territory.

The upcoming New South Wales election will be another big test. Will they hold Balmain and win Newtown? It seems quite possible that they will continue to hold at least one Lower House seat and will increase their Upper House representation to six.

While unlikely that the Greens’ vote will come close to the Labor Party any time soon, Labor supporters must realise that they are not going away. Though their vote has not significantly increased since 2010, their vote is likely to stay around 10% and the concentration of their vote inner city areas has strengthened (on the back of heavily resourced campaigns). They also have not had the baggage associated with government at a state level in NSW or Victoria. In Victoria, any unpopular decisions by the new Labor Government may mean further seat losses at the next election.

The question is how to manage this divided centre-left bloc of voters. Labor and the Greens see one another as competitors, fighting over the same votes, particularly in the inner city. The nature of our electoral system combined with compulsory voting tends to mean that it is a zero sum game. However, not all Labor or Greens voters would prefer the other party. It is worth remembering that at least 10-15% of those who vote Green wouldn’t vote Labor which can be important in close contests (as shown in Prahran). In a sense though, they both need each other.

With Labor’s declining primary vote, they are increasingly reliant on preferences from parties like the Greens and the more outlandish ideas from the Greens also allow Labor to position itself as far more moderate and centrist. The Greens, on the other hand, rely on Labor being in Government to achieve reforms and to chip away at their vote to build their own.

Some suggest that they should work together more often as greens & social democrats do in Europe, however the experience has been that both Labor and the Greens take a hit when they are in coalition or have a formal agreement. Results in Tasmania, the ACT and the federal sphere all have shown this. Each sees more to gain electorally in going alone.

Overseas, social democrats have accommodated green parties. Both Sweden & France have red-green governments, as do many states in Germany. However in Australia, the Greens are treated more like the post-Communist parties than the green parties of Europe. For example, critics of the German Greens have described them as “neoliberals on bikes” and many segments of the radical Left perceive them to be a bunch of eco-capitalists. While there are radical left critics of the Greens, this critique is far less widespread. The lack of a “Left Party” with the Greens taking on that role of a Left oppositional party (especially in NSW) is a partial explanation.

A regular formal alliance of Labor and the Greens is unlikely in the short-term, unless necessary in parliament, but the two different experiences of Labor-Green Governments in Tasmania and the ACT illustrate the conditions needed for constructive co-operation. Shaun Crowe has highlighted that resource extraction and social issues as the two big divisions. The lack of industries such as mining and forestry as well as the socially progressive nature of Labor (across Left and Right) has meant that clashes between Labor and the Greens have been relatively minor in the ACT. It makes the ACT an exception rather than the rule.

The reality is that a competitive relationship is likely to continue, encouraged by our electoral system, with any co-operation at a parliamentary level on an issue by issue basis. While Labor should treat the Greens as an electoral competitor, it needs to rethink how it reacts to them. The antagonistic way that Labor treats the Greens won’t help Labor in the long-run. Attacks on the Greens as small l-liberals in disguise, NIMBYs or “watermelons” may dissuade a few voters from the Greens and make Labor supporters feel better but for many these critiques do not resonate and in the longer run will alienate many more. Victorian Labor MP Kelvin Thomson was right when he said:

…our attacks on to the Greens is short-sighted and counter-productive. It dismays our supporters and delights our opponents. It elevates the Greens to equal billing with us.

Rather than continue with its current strategy for dealing with the Greens, it might be good for Labor supporters to heed Thomson’s advice that:

…if we seriously, genuinely, want to…return to a time when we didn’t need to talk about the Greens at all, much less talk about them as an existential threat, then we have to be tough enough to wear a certain amount of childish name-calling from our political opponents, and humble enough to give the voters what they want.

The contagious effect of directly electing the party leader

Earlier today, the ABC reported that the Tasmanian Greens are considering a series of reforms to democratise their party.

The Tasmanian Greens are notorious as the least democratic branch of the Greens. With no rank-and-file input into preselections, the Tasmanian Greens make the Labor Party look like a vibrant participatory democracy. This is in contrast to almost every other Greens branch where One Member One Vote rank-and-file preselections are the norm.

Amongst the reforms is a proposal for party members to directly elect the leader and have the ability to remove them. While no detail has been provided about the proposed model, the fact that they are proposing this change is important.

In their 2012 book, Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders, William Cross and Andre Blais point out that almost all the established parties that have democratised leadership selection after a disappointing electoral result, something the Tasmanian Greens have just experienced, and that there is a contagion effect “inducing parties to converge in the way they select their leader.”

At the time, Cross and Blais concluded there was no clear indication of a contagion effect in Australia and New Zealand while they identified one in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Australia was cited as an example of the contagion effect in reverse with many politicians interviewed citing the example of the Australian Democrats as a reason why direct election would not be adopted.

This however seems to be changing. New Zealand Labour adopted direct elections last year while federally and all states (bar Victoria and South Australia to date) have adopted the direct election of the Parliamentary Labor Party leader.

The coming debate within the Tasmanian Greens about the direct election of leader suggests there is a contagion effect at play in Australia. The success of Labor’s direct election after a disappointing election result has meant that the idea of direct elections is being seriously considered across party lines.

If the Tasmanian Greens do adopt direct election of the leader, it is likely that other state branches will follow. It may also only be a matter of time before the Coalition joins in and directly elects their leader but it will all depend on electoral results and grassroots pressure.

UPDATE 15/9/14: I have been informed that other than federally, in Tasmania and in Victoria, there is no formal leader. It may be that direct elections are intertwined with the creation of a formal leader role in other states.

A lack of trust is the greatest barrier to Left unity

Despite harbouring some doubts, I spent last weekend at the National Left Renewal Conference, organised by the SEARCH Foundation.

The stated aim of the conference was to build greater unity amongst the broader Left and there were participants were from a broad range of groups including left-wing unions, parts of the environmental movement, the Labor Left, the Greens as well as some far left groups.

While there were some good sessions (hearing from Kosta Isychos of SYRIZA was a highlight) something bugged me throughout the Conference. No one actually addressed the biggest obstacle to any Left unity: a lack of trust.

During the final plenary, many speakers spoke about how “the Left” could agree on a programme and that we needed to create framework to unify the Left against Abbott and the Coalition. The proposal of a network to help create an alliance to co-ordinate the Left was raised. Personally I am sceptical that a network will emerge, let alone co-ordination, without addressing this fundamental issue of trust.

Trust is the starting point for unity. If you do not trust someone, it is hard to work with them, even if you agree on many things. Without trust, the Left cannot be united and there was no evidence of any trust during the Conference. There were digs at the Greens, an inference that it would be great if the ALP collapsed like PASOK, shopping lists about how terrible Labor is and how they were barely any difference from the Liberals. My impression was that many participants seemed more interested in talking at each other than having any honest and uncomfortable conversations.

A major cause of the lack of trust between Left groups is electoral. Doug Cameron pointed out the difficulties in creating unity when growth either comes at the expense of Labor or the Greens. It is a zero sum game that fuels a lot of the tensions. Anything less than greater proportional representation is unlikely to change this situation. However, even where proportional representation does exist, such as in local councils, it is no guarantee that the antagonism will disappear.

Trust does not happen overnight and will not happen in six months. There are, however, some hopeful signs for the longer term, most notably co-operation between Labor Left, Greens and broader Left activists on campuses. It is those kinds of working relationships that will be the basis of any future Left unity, not some framework that an outside organisation tries to establish.

I haven’t yet concluded whether the Conference was a wasted opportunity or at least the beginning of a conversation that many need to have about pluralism on the Left. I guess only time will tell.