THE news that the Australian Greens are ”softening” their positions on official party policy should not come as a surprise. This is merely the course of action any serious progressive party would take to secure its future on the eve of an election year and in the face of a largely hostile media.
In reality, the policy changes are mainly cosmetic. They are more about removing heavy-handed and largely symbolic wording from a policy document that provided too many red rags to media bulls and attack dogs hell-bent on destroying the party.
Policies such as supporting death duties, abolishing the private health insurance rebate, freezing Commonwealth funding for private schools, and raising the company tax rate to 33 per cent are more telling of an idealised philosophical position than realistic policy settings.
While the Greens no doubt remain committed to public health, public education, corporate social responsibility and individuals’ responsibility back to society at the end of their lives through death tax – the cut and thrust of parliamentary democracy will provide the moments for these goals to be incrementally fought for.
The Greens have only achieved less than 15 per cent of the national vote so these are not policies they will ever be able to legislate into law – so why keep them in an election year in which scrutiny of the party will only increase?
A public policy document is not the place for unattainable and controversial political posturing.
This year was a particularly tough one for the Greens. Not only did they lose elder statesman and long-time leader Bob Brown, they also found themselves under constant scrutiny and all-out attack from a hostile media.
Despite the dire predictions of some that the party will go the same way as the Democrats after the departure of their founding leaders – what many commentators fail to recognise is that (unlike the Democrats) the Greens were founded on a grassroots community support base that continues to grow as disenchantment with the old parties increases.
Also, there is a strong sense that the Greens are a party of their time – they are here for the long haul, not the quick fix. The environmental imperatives that underpin the Greens are becoming more acute in voters’ minds as climate change and rapacious resource depletion produce more alarming impacts on the global environment.
Since taking over the party leadership in April, Christine Milne has proven herself to be a tough, razor-sharp and sophisticated player in federal politics, despite her sometimes school-mistress exterior and lack of the charisma displayed by her predecessor.
Milne immediately appealed to the centre from the day she was elected – the policy changes we are seeing today are merely an extension of that leadership change.
She reached out to ”progressive business leaders” and rural constituents. She distanced herself from the Israel boycott rhetoric that had landed her New South Wales colleagues in hot water. She brought a more nuanced and sensible exterior to a party that has always been the target of bitter attack from the radio shock jocks and conservative columnists.
In Australia, at a time when the Labor Party has delivered some good environmental outcomes – including a highly contested carbon tax, national marine reserves and a heritage listing for the Kimberley – the Greens are often most vocal on other progressive issues such as refugee policy and gay marriage.
Julia Gillard is increasingly isolated on the issue of gay marriage in particular, so the gay vote could become crucial in coming months as we gear up for an election. If they can lose the label of being the ”loopy” left party and speak directly to more centrist ALP supporters who are sympathetic on these key issues, they will prosper.
Over at The Australian, a paper that has openly stated its desire to destroy the Greens, it seems to be in the job description of reporter Christian Kerr to provide a relentless and viscous commentary of almost every move the Greens make. The Greens have been labelled everything from ”undemocratic” to ”communists” to ”watermelons”.
It’s not altogether different from the trajectory of the German Greens in the 1980s which ultimately led to the party splitting into the ”Realos” (the more pragmatic wing led by Joschka Fischer) and the ”Fundis” (the more hardline faction formerly led by the late Petra Kelly). History shows it was the pragmatic wing of the Greens that survived in Germany and Fischer went on to become foreign minister.
Likewise, to survive, the Australian Greens know they need to change.
They need to become more sophisticated in reaching out to a broader electorate and not providing easy targets for ridicule and media grenade throwers.
The largely symbolic move away from rigid, untenable policy positions will help to put the Greens in a better position to tackle what might be their most challenging federal election year to date.
(published in The Age December 28, 2012)