Greens talk left but tack right

By Diane Fieldes

If your only recent source of information about the Greens was media releases coming from acting leader Adam Bandt’s office, you could be forgiven for thinking the party was suddenly moving to the left.

A 27 December brief claimed that the “Greens’ updated policy platform reaffirms our core beliefs, such as making big business contribute a fairer share to fund the services Australians expect, like good schools and a universal healthcare system”. Two days later Bandt issued a further press release calling for a 50 percent tax rate on millionaires, which would raise enough money to reverse the Gillard government’s cuts to single parents benefits that are due to come into operation on 1 January.

The call for millionaires to pay more tax is welcome. But this is window dressing for what has recently transpired in the Greens. The new party platform, which is a product of policy conferences in July and November, actually gets rid of a number of concrete left wing policies. In their place are more loosely defined aims and principles.

For example, while the revised platform supports “redirecting funding from subsidising private health insurance towards direct public provision”, it no longer specifies abolishing the 30 percent private health insurance rebate. It no longer calls for a freeze on Commonwealth funding for private schools, or for the immediate abolition of university fees. It calls for an increase in the mining tax but no longer proposes raising the company tax rate to 33 percent, or ending concessional arrangements for capital gains tax. Support for an inheritance tax on the wealthy has been dropped.

This means Greens MPs will now have “flexibility” in negotiating legislation – just like the MPs of the major parties do. The move further consolidates power in the hands of the parliamentary leaders and their staffers and advisers. This only further marginalises rank and file members of the party.

These changes reflect the Greens’ long term trajectory. The dominant forces in the party are driven by electoralism and an attachment to neoliberalism (or fiscal responsibility, as they prefer to call it). The announcement of the new policy platform itself contained that phrase beloved of those who want to get a say in running the system: “the Greens will go to the next election as the only economically responsible party”. The Greens continue to position themselves as moderates who can be trusted by the bosses with the balance of power in parliament. Fiscal responsibility is code for a commitment to austerity measures when the capitalist class demands them.

This does not mean they can’t shift left on particular issues – as the call to tax millionaires shows. But the real movement is in the other direction.

Previous experience of the Greens’ electoral success has already shown how little weight the wishes of those who vote for them carry. In Tasmania in 2011, Greens’ leader Nick McKim declared: “Just as the Greens supported previous Labor and Liberal minority governments when tough remedial budget action was required, we have rolled up our sleeves to take on a similar responsible role once again…The Greens welcome the move to a new fiscal strategy.”

In 2004 Bob Brown told the Australian Financial Review of the Greens’ previous success in standing up to their supporters in Tasmania when budget cuts required it in 1989-1992, the last time they had backed a minority Labor government there: “there were savage budget cuts. We had Greens’ supporters protesting outside our offices. We went to some very angry public meetings, but we Greens held the line”.

The long term trajectory has not changed. Since 2010 the Greens have devoted themselves to propping up the Gillard government, and their electoral advance has stalled since they committed to three years of “responsible” government and stability at all costs. In the Victorian and NSW elections held at the end of 2010 and the start of 2011 the Greens polled well below expectations. In the Queensland election, after a year of promoting the carbon tax, their vote fell.

Their commitment to stable government made this virtually inevitable, especially in the context of Labor’s right wing agenda. By remaining as virtual coalition partners with Labor they share responsibility for attacks which have included the elimination of 4,200 federal public sector jobs and cuts of $2.2 billion to government departments including welfare, health and education. Not surprisingly, they lost all but one of their seats in the ACT election in October.

Yet the desire to be a parliamentary player overrode any recognition of why this might have been the case. Shane Rattenbury’s primary reason for backing Labor when he, as the sole remaining ACT Green representative, had the balance of power was the offer of a ministry. It was time “for the ACT Greens to play a role in the government”. And in words that have now become something of a Greens’ mantra, the signed agreement between Labor and the Greens confirmed “their commitment to fiscal responsibility and the maintenance of a balanced budget through the economic cycle”.

Alongside this willingness to take on governmental roles and the anti-working class priorities that come with them has been a series of internal battles in the Greens, from abandoning support for the pro-Palestine BDS campaign to the ditching of the inheritance tax – all of them won by the right.

This outcome is not accidental. The more the Greens have electoral success, the more likely they are to bend to conservative pressure on “controversial” positions. In a very honest analysis of the July policy conference, one of the left wing founders of the Sydney Greens, Hall Greenland, reported Bob Brown’s reason for the elimination of the inheritance tax: “It was electoral poison and costing us one or two percent of the vote. That was it. Truly.” No doubt its unpopularity with the rich had something to do with it as well.

Could it be otherwise? The Greens are not an activist party. Electoral success is not about galvanising their members into extra-parliamentary action. It is a substitute for it. In particular, despite the fact of thousands of their members being workers, they are almost invisible as an organisation in the workers’ movement. Their industrial relations policy is well to the left of Labor’s, but they do not organise their members to challenge Labor’s industrial agenda inside the unions.

Nor do the Greens resemble anything close to a genuine reformist-type party. The idea of transcending the system, using parliament simply as a tool of the movement is not part of the Greens’ agenda. With the exception of a tiny minority in the party, the whole orientation is to electoral politics. This electoralism and desire to help run the system rather than attack it means that they have tied themselves to an unpopular federal Labor government. They have therefore been unable to build support among workers and students fed up with Labor’s right wing agenda.

Regardless of the odd press release tacking left, the Greens have just legitimised the neoliberal agenda Gillard is implementing. And as they have done so, they have further accommodated to the establishment.

[This article first appeared in Socialist Alternative 184, January 2013.]