Where to for LABOR?

Labor is waking up from a long long sleep to find its sleeping partner has gone, the house is trashed and the silver has been taken.  With a nasty hangover, it is now looking around and taking stock of the situation. 

I am talking of course of the relationship and the courting rituals between Labor and the Greens. Once the arrangement was regarded as secure.  Now, friends have become foes, and conversations that were once taboo are now being put out for public display, and many are questioning the wisdom of the past relationship.

It all began in the 1980’s when Senator Richardson, the then Federal Minister for the Environment, overruled the Helsham Committee findings into forestry in Tasmania, and on the urging of Bob Brown allocated further ground for preservation.  He now freely admits that his decision at the time was concerned not so much with the environmental issue of saving trees, so much as the political issue of gaining preference votes from the Greens.

For him it was an easy deal to do, to preserve more forest and have a slightly reduced access to a resource in exchange for preferences.  It proved up Labor’s environmental credentials in the eyes of those who mattered, especially in the urban seats of Melbourne and Sydney, and the preference deal was done.  Being the major party, the deal meant more to Labor than it did to the Greens.  Getting Green preferences helped Labor, more than Labor preferences helped the Greens.  And it seemed such a small price to pay.

The tactic worked - Labor won and held on to government federally.  However, the deal had a number of unintended consequences.

First, it encouraged voters who would at one time have voted for Labor to cast their first vote for the Greens.  After all, their vote would return to Labor under the preference arrangement.  So slowly but surely, a number of Labor voters became Green voters.

Second, it gave the Greens a place at the table.  And they exploited this position to the hilt.  Their environmental policies became the de facto environmental policies of Labor.  After all, the Greens were idealistic and caring, and wasn’t that what Labor was also about?

Third, it gave the Greens access to government, and in that regard, exposed them to another policy dimension.  Slowly but surely, the Greens expanded their brief from forests to other issues, and began to take over much of Labor’s social agenda.   It became the repository not only for votes but also for ideas and policy.  For Labor it was easier to play with the trappings of power than it was for them to be concerned with the hard yards of policy development. And in doing so, Labor became compromised

Then the arrangement started to become unstuck.

In Tasmania, the Labor Green Accord, established in 1989 to provide “stable government”, broke down over environmental issues, leaving a lasting legacy of bitterness between the participants.

At that time, the Greens had also commenced to endorse a full ticket of candidates, thereby enabling the vote to exhaust without flowing through to other parties.  This enabled them to not only operate independently of any other political party, but gave them greater clout because it gave them greater options, such as to exhaust or offer preferences.

And the Greens began to use their new-found power and authority by supporting a Liberal government in the late nineties.  Another relationship that broke down.

Their policy positions began to include social issues.  No longer were they the dreamers on the fringes of politics.  They were now not only offering environmental solutions, but running campaigns on the major social issues as well. They argued from a position of high moral principle, and their position hardened.  Impractical it might have been, but it sounded good.

Labor was now in a much weaker position, having lost primary votes to other parties, and had become more dependent on the Greens for their support and votes.  If Labor behaved, the Greens would allocate preferences to them, but if they did not, then the votes would be directed elsewhere.

Labor began to compromise on its social stances.  As Labor became more dependent on the Greens its voter base decreased.  Some, wanting to “save the planet”, had gone over to the Greens.  However many traditional Labor voters had viewed with concern the dalliance and had started to move their vote to the Liberals and elsewhere. 

The warning bells should have been ringing when Tasmanian timber workers cheered Prime Minister Howard during the 2004 campaign.  Their sense of betrayal was palpable.  The then Prime Minister captured the mood, and the drift became known as “Howard’s battlers”.

Federally we have seen the situation surrounding the mining tax, emissions legislation and asylum seekers, where Labor is now taking the odium for compromised policy positions, while the Greens maintain their purity arguing a purely ideological position and remaining intransigent to compromise. And locally, the forestry policy is a mess.

Labor has for too long been seduced by the argument that their one time ally is ideologically pure and caring. Appeasement has come at a cost - to their credibility and their base.  Labor has been bashed around the ears.  It is now waking up to the fact that its one-time friend is now its foe.  What was once benign has now become toxic.  Green Senators are now saying that they are the only party with values, that Labor has no values, and that they will take over from Labor as the progressive force in politics.  Labor’s reputation - its “house” - has been trashed and the voters – its “silver” - have gone.

And yet the real situation is that the Greens present ambit claims that cannot be realized, and promises that cannot be delivered.  It all sounds good in theory, but totally impractical and unrealistic

In Tasmania, we have even seen the strange spectacle of Green ministers choosing when they want to be in Cabinet, and when they don’t.  This image of the tail wagging the dog makes a mockery of the notion of cabinet responsibility, and of the government.

Arguments of balancing the budget or stable government ring hollow to those whose jobs have gone or are under threat. The Greens “high moral principle” actually represents a real threat to the job security of working people.  Being absolutist and pure is one thing – representing the interests and needs of people is quite another.

The recent by-election in the state seat of Melbourne, a contest between the Greens and Labor, was a narrow win for Labor and the latest wake-up call.  It now has a hard decision to make. It needs to win back its voter base.  It can try and win over the Green voters, or it can move back to its traditional base of supporting working people, and the people in need.  It cannot do both.  To do the former will court disaster as it will alienate its remaining support base, and the return to the fold would be minimal.

To follow the latter path will be its salvation.  Whether it be in forestry, mining or manufacturing, health care, education or pensions and welfare support, Labor must rediscover its policy positions and re-engage with its base.