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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 11

Making Progressive Government Happen

Adam Bandt

In Germany, they call it a ‘grand coalition’. No party ends up with a majority in their own right after an election, so their versions of Labor and Liberal join together to form government. In 2016 as this book about green/red relationships goes to print, the world’s fourth largest economy is governed by the equivalent of a Labor/Liberal alliance, a grand coalition with the parties together holding 80 per cent of the seats in Parliament. The role of opposition is taken by the Greens and the Left parties.

Joint government by supposed political enemies (the social democrats and the conservatives) is no mere aberration in Germany. In fact, it may be fast becoming the norm. Between 2006 to 2015, a grand coalition was in place for six of those ten years. For much of this last decade, alternative coalition arrangements would have been possible involving the Greens, the Left party and the SPD (the Labor equivalent), but the parties chose otherwise.

Germany is an instructive example for those interested in the relationship between the Greens and ‘social democratic’ parties at a national level in Australia. Though the first (small ‘g’) green party began in Australia in 1972, the (capital ‘G’) Greens started life in Germany in 1980 and in 1998 they became part of a national coalition government with the Labor equivalent (SPD). Instead of being seen as some dysfunctional aberration, power-sharing governments in Germany are viewed as normal and potentially productive. Indeed, the Greens/SPD government in the late 1990s put in place a world-leading ‘energy transition’, which on a good day now sees Germany generate over three-quarters of its electricity from renewables. Even after Angela Merkel’s conservatives took government with the help of a small free market party in the mid 2000s, and even though the current grand coalition seems to be taking its foot off the accelerator, this energy transition has endured as official government policy.

Because of the energy transition the Greens drove in a green/ red government, the world’s fourth largest economy under a conservative leader generated 78 per cent of its electricity from renewables on a July day in 2015, with its annual average now above 30 per cent. Amazing. In fact, the persistence of these Greens/SPD reforms under subsequent conservative German governments offers hope for those who believe greater cooperation between Greens and Labor in Australia can deliver lasting change. But the German experience suggests something else might happen: Labor may choose to work with the Liberals instead. And my experiences of sharing power in the Australian parliament from 2010–13, which will be considered in more detail in this chapter, suggest Labor may in fact prefer to jump to the right in response to the growing Greens.

Readers may note that I have put ‘social democratic’ in quotation marks when referring to the ALP. I am mindful of Julia Gillard’s strong statement in a 2013 speech while Prime Minister in the power-sharing parliament that ‘I’m not the leader of a party called the Progressive Party, I’m not the leader of a party called the Moderate Party, I’m not the leader of a party even called the Social Democratic Party. I am leader of the party called the Labor Party – deliberately because that is where we come from, that is what we believe in, that is who we are’. Former Treasurer and now Labor Treasury spokesperson, Chris Bowen, claims in his Hearts & Minds: A Blueprint for Modern Labor that liberalism is in fact the defining feature of the ALP:

Vladimir Lenin said in 1913 that ‘The Australian labour Party does not even call itself a socialist party. Actually, it is a liberal-bourgeois party, while the liberals in Australia are really conservatives’. Lenin was right (well, about this question, anyway). Labor is, as Lenin implied, the true liberal party in Australia.

So Labor is not socialist or social democratic or progressive, it is just labour, which is really liberal.

With some in Labor increasingly willing to jettison any baggage supposedly associated with even social democracy, I suggest the Greens could now properly be termed Australia’s social democratic party, but we can leave that fight for another day. It is clear though that the Greens are now the only party in Parliament that won’t shirk terms like ‘progressive’ because we are anchored in the values that define our party’s charter: social justice, ecological sustainability, grassroots democracy, and peace and non-violence. Labor engages in ever-more frequent soul-searching about what they stand for, but that is not something that troubles our party. The Greens’ question at this moment in time is a different one, namely how to change the world in accordance with our values and policies. For progressive politics in Australia more broadly, much may hang on how each party resolves these questions.

In the long term, the Greens are aiming for government in our own right. In the words of former leader Bob Brown, we’re not there to keep the bastards honest, we’re there to replace them. That is how we’ll best implement progressive change. Given that after a handful of federal elections around two to three times as many people now routinely vote for us as for the Nationals, and our vote sits at a quarter to a third of the vote achieved by Labor and Liberal, it is not too difficult to imagine a trajectory that has us soon polling the same as the two old parties. However, an increase in our overall vote doesn’t automatically imply more seats or more power in Parliament and even the most optimistic of us knows it won’t be a quick trip from one seat in the House of Representatives to 76, the number needed for majority government. So what might the next ten or so years look like?

The next decade will matter. Climate scientists have told us we’re in the ‘critical decade’, where decisions we make now may determine whether we can stop runaway climate change. The collapse of the biosphere as we know it, the scientists tell us, is only a matter of time unless we change our ways. In Australia, that means more fires more often, worse droughts and floods, more deaths and a massive threat to our way of life. This country has an added responsibility to act swiftly; being the world’s largest per capita polluter and an exporter of about six times as much coal as we burn at home. Inequality also continues to grow and some basic elements of our social compact, like public health care, public education and welfare, are under threat as government revenues collapse and the old political parties fear a sensible debate about securing the country’s revenue base.

Progressives have a strong and proud tradition of prioritising reason over force, democracy over authoritarianism. But we can also sometimes think there is infinite time to act, to hone our arguments and gather more data, to debate amongst ourselves how best to address a problem. As Bob Brown also says, progressives often feel burdened by doubt because we are smart enough to realise we may not know all the answers, while the right has no such qualms and just gets on with it and acts. Progressives (in and outside the Greens, in social movements and in parliaments) need a plan for the next 10 years. Yes, we need to plan for the longer term as well, but a progressive route map and timetable for the short to medium term is vital. Without it, Australia may wake up in a decade to find we’re living in a hollowed-out uneducated quarry, lonely in a hot world.

This chapter argues that for the Greens to implement the important parts of our platform in the timeframe imposed by the climate crisis, we should aim at a minimum to get back into balance of power in both houses of Parliament and keep alive the prospect of green/red cooperation, but that in such a situation Labor will have an important choice to make and may opt for conservatism instead of progressive government.

A couple of caveats before we begin. This chapter focuses on the relationship between Labor and the Greens at the national level. My colleagues in Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory are far better placed to discuss the experiences in and out of government in their jurisdiction, and our MPs in other Parliaments have their own stories to tell. Also, this piece is attempting to take a step back from the battles and exigencies of Parliament and the way MPs vote on any particular issue to tackle some deeper questions.

The Greens are in the House

In the next decade, there are likely to be four federal elections. What is our party’s trajectory over this period? In the last four elections, we have grown from 2 to 10 Senators. The Greens are now in our third decade of representation in the Senate and we have seen other Senate-focused parties – most notably the Australian Democrats – come and go. During our time there, we have seen the issues we have advanced (such as climate change and marriage equality) moved from the fringes to centre stage, with other parties also moving from rejection of our ideas to their embrace. We are now established as Australia’s third political force.

It is vital that people vote to re-elect all our Senators and then elect more, because that is essential to driving progressive change and protecting hard-won gains from destructive governments. Even if our vote continues to rise at the same rate over the next four elections, though, no-one expects another five-fold increase in the number of Senators simply because of the math of the Senate voting system. But in any event, one fact is indisputable: while our presence in the Senate over many years helped the Greens grow and saw a big increase in votes and Senate seats, the best outcomes for the climate and for implementing Greens policies have been achieved because we broke through in to the House, with shared balance of power in both chambers.

In 2010, the people of Melbourne elected a Greens MP for the first time. Very quickly, we found ourselves right in the middle of Parliament, with our House vote essential to the formation of government. We made history by winning in Melbourne and entering the lower house at a general election. But Melbourne also sent a powerful signal to the rest of the country. Seats would start changing hands on the basis of who stood for the strongest action on climate change or marriage equality, who offered the most compassionate and practical approach to refugees and who had the best plan to secure revenue to fund social services. For an election where the old parties ran as far away as possible from compassion, equality and climate action, it was fitting that neither of them won.

So after sitting down with Julia Gillard, whom history will rate more highly than the reception she received while in power, I co-signed an agreement that made a number of things happen. We put a price on pollution. $10 billion was set aside to grow the Australian clean energy industry. A $3 billion authority was established for early stage renewable energy projects. Children were able to get Medicare funded dental services. Democracy and transparency were also advanced, with a new independent Parliamentary Budget Office established to allow non-government MPs to get policies costed and cross-benchers were able to ask questions during Question Time. Private members’ concerns were debated and voted on, which meant even more was achieved by the Greens, from increasing protections for firefighters with cancer to strengthening the rights of the Territories to legislate for their own affairs to advancing the marriage equality debate.

We didn’t get everything we wanted. We tried unsuccessfully to get Labor to adopt a more progressive position on a number of matters, including refugees, marriage equality, the mining tax and industrial relations. And history shows that some (but by no means all) of the advances we did achieve were torn down by a ferocious troika of Tony Abbott, Rupert Murdoch and Australia’s fossil fuel lobby. Nonetheless, the gains that we, Labor and some independents made were groundbreaking. And they made a difference, with pollution in the electricity generation sector plunging, and they continue to drive change, with billions of dollars financing renewable energy. Much of our legacy still remains. And critically, little of it was in Labor or Liberal platforms before the election, with only the Greens advocating for strong action. To put this another way, had we not won that single seat in the house of government, the reelected Labor government’s response to global warming would have been a ‘climate assembly’ of 150 people picked randomly from the phone book, brought together for a talkfest, for that was their election platform.

For all their years in parliament and their achievements there, the Australian Democrats were never in balance of power in the lower house (or indeed there at all) and never struck written deals with any other party. Governments will negotiate their way through the Senate (with varying degrees of success) but they need to get themselves into government in the first place. History suggests that Labor and Liberal like being in government and that they’re often prepared to do a lot to be there. And until we Greens form government in our own right, shared power in the lower house can work because it gives us far greater opportunity to implement our vision than being in the Senate alone.

Constitutionally, there are differences in what the two chambers of Parliament can do. Also, if a Senator wants reform in area A, then unless that Senator is prepared to ‘cross-trade’ by passing unrelated government bill B in return for the desired gain A, then they must simply hope that the government will bowl up something that relates to issue A so that their power can be exercised. But what if the government doesn’t care about Senator’s issue A and never bowls up a bill? Or if the government is prepared to do a quarter of what the Senator wants on issue A, but no more? This point raises important questions about how real climate action can be achieved, in particular. As we have seen, the Greens secured the best climate action when in shared House balance of power, better than in sole Senate balance of power when we were forced to be responsive to the government’s agenda. Is there any reason to think things will be different in the future for those of us who want real climate action?

As well as growing in the Senate, a strong Greens presence in the House is a sine qua non of taking real political action on climate change and inequality in Australia. The Greens are not in parliament just to make up the numbers. We are not a ginger group trying to force another party to change its position. We are not a faction of any other party. Nor are we there only to secure a handful of concessions while other parties get to implement their agendas. So we need to be in the House, especially because the House leads to government, providing an opportunity to exercise power in a very different and important way compared with being in the Senate alone. Until we govern in our own right, we must get ready to be in balance of power in both houses, not just one.

Labor’s First Complaint (or ‘Parties Own Voters, Don’t They?’)

As mathematics affects our rate of growth in the Senate and as the Greens need to expand in the house of government, both to better reflect the will of the Australian people and for our own growth as a political party, the lack of proportional representation in the House of Representatives leaves us no option other than to grow our presence by defeating someone else who wants a particular seat, which may well be a Labor MP or candidate. This will obviously be a point of conflict between Greens and Labor.

Labor sometimes complains that the growth of the Greens in the lower house is solely at the expense of ‘good’ Labor MPs. But no political party or MP owns a seat. The people do and the people of that electorate can vote for whoever they damn well choose. This ‘taking for granted’ of voters, where Labor arrogantly believes it can shift to the right as much as it wants but that people must still vote for it, reflects much of what is wrong with politics. Also, Labor’s complaint is no longer borne out by the evidence, with the Greens at state level now winning seats formerly held by the Coalition. And if Labor is so concerned about the fate of these ‘good’ MPs, surely they can move them into other ‘safe’ seats to replace some of the dead wood in their ranks. And will it really make a difference anyway, given that after decades of ‘good’ Labor MPs supposedly fighting on the inside of their party, Labor still has fundamentally conservative positions on many issues that matter? Perhaps most persuasively, if recent history suggests that one Greens MP in the lower house can have a far more catalysing effect on changing Labor’s position than had a Labor MP been elected in that seat, surely the progressive cause will be aided by having more than one.

In any event, if Labor really believes their complaint valid, they would do well to take a farsighted approach and support a system of proportional representation, which would allow progressive parties and independents to jointly expand their parliamentary representation at the expense of the conservatives. A ‘one vote one value’ system would also see Greens voters receive their fair share of parliamentarians, with 10 to 15 MPs in the House instead of a solitary one. (Here we need to underscore the difference with Germany’s voting system, which will affect how Labor and the Greens can relate here at home.) But even sticking with the electoral system we’ve got, minority parliaments are becoming more likely and Labor will need to work out what to do about it. The old parties may try to mask their structural decline through a weighted voting system (that saw Tony Abbott’s Coalition in 2013 get 46 per cent of the vote but 60 per cent of the seats), but things are changing. From the time that Menzies was first elected to when John Howard took the helm there were usually no cross-benchers in the House and on the rare occasions some broke through, the number never passed two. During the Howard and Rudd (Mk 1) eras, each Parliament averaged just under three cross-benchers. But in 2010 the number was six and in 2013 about a quarter of the population chose not to vote for Labor or the Coalition and five crossbenchers were elected, a resounding rejection of any idea that the alleged tumult of a minority Parliament had turned people off new parties and independents.

The crossbenchers are coming.

After 2010, Should Greens and Labor Cooperate or Compete?

After the experience of the 2010 parliament, the question of how the Greens and Labor (and indeed independents) relate to each other is no longer a minor debating point. The fate of governments will hinge on it. In the aftermath of Tony Abbott’s sweeping victory in 2013, some have even claimed that there should be no further agreements between Labor and the Greens.

Tony Abbott was no Angela Merkel or David Cameron, each a conservative leader accepting the reality of climate change and willing (certainly in theory, and sometimes in practice) to back renewable energy and pollution cuts. Abbott’s campaign was premised on rolling back what the Greens had achieved in minority parliament. Progressive forces thus needed to hold the Senate in 2013 to keep the climate gains we had made in 2010. With the Liberals accepting the public offer of Labor MP Michael Danby for him to preference the Liberals (under Tony Abbott!!) ahead of the Greens in his seat of Melbourne Ports, in return for the Liberals preferencing Labor ahead of me in my neighboring seat of Melbourne, a joint Liberal/Labor deal to force the Greens out of the House of Representatives, we needed to make history (again!) by winning the seat of Melbourne in our own right.

For the Greens coming out of a shared power Parliament, 2013 was a tale of two elections. In Melbourne, our vote went up by more than 18 per cent on the previous election’s results. This was reflected in surrounding seats like Batman and Wills, where we bucked the national trend and lifted our vote. Across the country, however, the Senate vote collapsed, dropping 34 per cent, with a similar national drop in our House vote outside of greater Melbourne. Had the Greens vote increased in the rest of the country in the same proportion as in Melbourne, there could well be at least two extra Greens from Qld and NSW sitting in the Senate, possibly more, and Greens voters’ preferences may have tipped the balance against minor conservative parties in other tight races. Speculating on Senate results is a dangerous sport with many moving parts, but if the Greens got the results in the rest of the country that we did in Melbourne, then in the 2013 Parliament the Greens and Labor may have been able to block any climate repeal bills proposed by the Abbott government, setting the scene for an enduring climate legacy akin to that achieved in Germany.

Instead, outside of Melbourne the Greens’ national vote slumped and the Abbott government was delivered enough conservative Senators to repeal the price on pollution (though strong campaigning did keep the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Climate Change Authority). Of course, much more was going on to shape the 2013 election result beyond the Greens’ own campaign, not least of which was Labor’s internal turmoil overshadowing much of the election year. Critically too, once the anti-carbon pricem campaign built up a head of steam, Labor ran away from talking about climate change at all and desperately tried to change topics, which was a huge blunder. But the brutal reality remains that the failure to run an effective progressive campaign outside of Melbourne in 2013 may have played a role in costing the country the carbon price, especially when the swing in Melbourne shows us what might have been delivered elsewhere. Given the high stakes for climate change action and the progressive agenda generally, we must understand why. Part of the explanation, I argue, lies in the question of how the Greens relate to Labor and progressive voters. And we need to thrash this out if we are to avoid repeating our failures.

Three factors distinguished the Melbourne campaign from that run elsewhere. First, it was people-powered. On the weekend before the election, for example, 584 supporters knocked on over 10,000 doors. We reached out to over 60,000 voters directly during the whole campaign. And this wasn’t me doing it as a paid MP, it was an amazing collection of people from all walks of life, Greens members and non-members, getting involved in politics in every way conceivable. This ‘Melbourne model’ of campaigning is now being rolled out elsewhere in the Greens. Secondly, we addressed head-on one of the biggest fears of progressive voters in 2010: Tony Abbott. We made it perfectly clear that not only would we not support him in the event of a minority parliament, but that we would be the real opposition to him. Unlike Labor, who would vote with him to keep refugees in detention and turn back boats, or for measly five per cent pollution cuts, we would stand up to him. Sadly, this was not a prominent feature of the national campaign. (We did get a chance to remedy this when some lost ballots in Western Australia allowed a rerun of an election for the Senate where it was declared that we had lost a seat. Faced with repeating the national campaign or instead adopting a people-powered campaign with a strong candidate and a focus on taking the fight up to Tony Abbott, we did the latter and achieved an incredible result.)

Thirdly, and especially relevant to the questions being explored in this book, we were proud of the agreement with Labor. Instead of disowning it, we reminded people in Melbourne of the powerful things they had achieved by voting Greens. Further, this addressed one of the most powerful objections people sometimes raise to voting Greens, namely that as a newer party we won’t be able to achieve anything: here was demonstrable proof of precisely the opposite. Moreover, we were able to achieve it by holding true to our values, an indication of how politics ought to be. Many progressive voters see the likes of Tony Abbott as the greater threat to the values we hold dear and were thus pleased to see Greens and Labor cooperating; disavowing the agreement would have sent a confusing message to those voters whose main goal in 2013 was to stop Tony Abbott. (After the 2013 election, when we did in fact stand up to Tony Abbott and played a key role in helping to stop his agenda in the Senate, our vote recovered in the polls.) When the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, and former Victorian Premier, Jeff Kennett, feel compelled to weigh in to condemn you and announce the Liberals would be preferencing the Greens last, you know you’re having an impact. Instead of distancing ourselves from the arrangement reached with Labor, in Melbourne we owned it and the change it drove for the country and the progressive agenda.

Some have argued that the Greens’ result at the 2013 election suggests the arrangement with Labor is why our vote collapsed. From this they draw the conclusion we should be wary of future agreements with Labor. However, if there were to be a reaction to the agreement with Labor, surely that would have been felt most strongly in the seat that required the agreement with Labor in the first place: my seat. After all, the only reason an agreement with Labor was reached in the first place was because of the situation in the House of Representatives. Without the seat of Melbourne going Green, there would be no agreement (and no carbon price). There is simply no empirical evidence to suggest that progressive lower house MPs who signed written agreements for a minority government suffered electorally as a result. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

One lesson we can draw from the 2013 spike in the Melbourne area and slump elsewhere is that at a national level, many progressive voters actively want the Greens and Labor to share power to achieve progressive outcomes, including by striking agreements to form government where appropriate. And this is part of the reason why we should be aiming to do it again as a means of making progressive change happen, if – and it’s a big if – Labor is up for it. And only if – again, a big only if – any deal is good enough, because we Greens would be better to stand alone than sign up to something substandard. We should always be prepared to walk away from a bad deal, because power for its own sake is no power at all.

Further, working with Labor only happens to the extent necessary to achieve progressive social change. It is a question of tactics and strategy, not a question of identity or power at all costs. We must fiercely retain our independence. There are thus very strong arguments against going into a formal coalition with Labor the way the Nationals have with the Liberals. For the Nationals the trappings of power come at the cost of being able to exercise it. An agriculture minister who can’t stop a coal mine on farm land in his electorate; MPs who routinely vote against the right of farmers to lock the gate against mining and fracking on their land; a party opposing any push to wind back the powers of the supermarket duopoly. Ad hoc arrangements about how we will vote on particular matters in particular parliaments are appropriate and can ensure stability (as we agreed in 2010, promising in writing to vote to ensure confidence and supply) but although it would fall to our party to make any such decision if and when it arose in the future, it is fair to say that none of us is currently clamouring to give up our separate identity under the banner of a ‘coalition’. And unlike the protectionist arrangement ensuring sitting National MPs aren’t challenged by Liberals (and vice versa), elections in particular will of necessity be a time of ferocious competition between all parties, including between Greens and Labor, as discussed above.

Competition at election time so we can grow, cooperation during power-sharing Parliaments if we can make change.

Labor’s Second Complaint (or ‘Why Red/Blue may be Next Year’s Fashion Colours’)

I spoke above of the ferocity with which the Labor/Greens/ independent arrangement was attacked by the conservatives. Perhaps less remarked upon, and certainly less analysed, is Labor’s internal conflict over having to work with the Greens. Most commentary on Labor’s ‘killing season’ and the return to Rudd before the 2013 election has focused on the personalities and the machinations. However, it is relevant that Kevin Rudd’s efforts at carbon pollution reduction involved choosing to negotiate with the Liberals instead of the Greens to develop the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (‘CPRS) (better known as the ‘continue polluting regardless scheme’), which would have driven negligible pollution cuts in Australia and made it virtually impossible to increase ambition as the science demanded. By contrast, because we were now in the House, Julia Gillard chose to work with the Greens and to formalise that arrangement, including – and I underline this – by doing things that would have an impact on Australia’s fossil fuel sector. For this Julia Gillard deserves praise, but that’s not how some of her colleagues saw it.

Many in Labor’s right wing became increasingly furious. Two things stuck in their craw: that Labor would formalise an agreement for government with the Greens; and that this would involve hurting coal. Labor should not be working with the Greens and others on progressive issues, they argued, because it would not be well received amongst the party’s apparently conservative voters. The implied next step was fairly clear: that if Julia Gillard had to be removed or written deals reneged upon (such as the agreement with independent Andrew Wilkie over pokies reform) to reassert conservatism, then so be it.

A substantial section of the Labor Party would rather side with the Liberals than with the Greens, just as they routinely do in Parliament. This isn’t simply about particular personalities in the Labor party: it goes to structural conflicts within Labor. On a whole swathe of key issues that help define the Australian political landscape – fossil fuels, the mining sector, refugees, debt, national security, levels of government spending, neoliberal economics in general – most Liberal and Labor MPs agree and regularly vote together in Parliament. To be sure, there remain important differences between the old parties. But the points of agreement are strong. Draw Liberal and Labor on a Venn diagram and much of the two circles overlap. Rather than break away and chart a course for the new, many of Labor’s powerful would rather stay on the same page as the Liberals and have ever-diminishingly small squabbles over the old.

Some within Labor are confronting this issue head on. Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews went out of his way during the 2014 election campaign to announce that he would not strike any deals with the Greens in the event of a minority parliament. Chris Bowen, in his same ‘blueprint’ for Labor referred to earlier, writes that ‘Labor and the Greens are not different shades on the same continuum; we are different parties that believe in different things’ and that there should be no further agreements for government between the two parties. I suspect a polemic against the Greens written from the backbench in the immediate aftermath of a failed leadership challenge might not end up being the considered view of a Labor Party that can sniff the treasury benches in a future hung Parliament. Nonetheless, it shows the issue for Labor is not just a tactical question about how to relate to the Greens at any given moment in time, but rather a fundamental philosophical and existential question about what their party believes in.

So, what does this boil down to? It is not the Greens that have to choose between Labor or the Coalition. It is Labor that has to choose between the Coalition or the Greens. And if the world’s fourth largest economy can routinely be governed by grand coalitions, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine a ‘red/ blue’ alliance here either. It is a side-effect and not an aim of our growth, but the rise of the Greens will increase the pressure on Labor to decide where it stands.

What to Do When Everyone Else Loves Coal

Labor’s slow creeping over to the Liberal/National position on social, environmental and economic matters serves to highlight how truly different the Greens are. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said coal was ‘good for humanity’; new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and his ministers likewise declared a strong moral case for coal. During debate in the Senate, Coalition Senators proudly wore hivis vests embroidered with the logo ‘Australians for Coal’. And infamously, a gloating cabal of ministers – including the Minister called the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt – hugged each other in the chamber upon the world’s first ever repeal of a price on pollution. Meanwhile, Labor’s current resources spokesperson, Gary Gray, was an executive for massive fossil fuel company Woodside. Labor’s last long-serving energy and resources minister, the Left’s Martin Ferguson, left his post to head-up the peak fossil fuel lobby group APPEA, the self-described ‘voice of Australia’s oil and gas industry’. And even the Labor Left’s former climate change minister Greg Combet, who worked with us to achieve many good things in the minority Parliament, now says ‘I have always been a fossil fuels man’ and spruiks for one of Australia’s big fossil-fuel based electricity companies, encouraging coal-seam gas.

However, activists know there is something significant about Labor that doesn’t apply to the Liberals. Many in Labor consider it a party of the left and there are strong connections with many unions and community groups. Labor has internal groups who want greater action on climate change. Labor still wants to appeal to a constituency that is progressive, rational and therefore in favour of taking the kind of climate action the science requires. As such, Labor is at least partly conflicted and open to some form of pressure from below. At the moment, the campaigns run to change Labor’s position appear to be having some success. And the pressure points that do exist – for example, in the numerous Greens/Labor marginal seats that exist around the country – give opportunities for civil society to push for Labor to take a better position. There are more places for campaigners and the public to push Labor on, say, climate change than there are the Liberals. And the number of these pressure points looks set to increase.

Labor may be in the thrall of the fossil fuel sector, but they are also capable of being pressured to take a different position in the way that the Liberals currently don’t seem to be. The Greens’ job is not to be this ‘pressure group’. But we have always understood that successful change won’t come through Parliament alone, rather only through strong social movements working together with Parliamentarians. As such, the Greens have a unique capacity to push in the same direction as broader civil society, including by providing political ‘pressure points’ in lower house seats. When to this is added those in Labor who want their party to adopt more progressive positions, there is an array of forces capable of making real change. Given the political economy of Australia, it is difficult to discern what the corresponding strategy would be with the Liberals, a party that seeks to electorally pander to climate denialists while shilling for the fossil fuel sector.

Whilst some might wish to entertain the thought of advancing Greens policies by striking a deal with the Liberals, we forget salient lessons from the 2010 and 2013 elections at our peril. Many progressive people are moving from Labor to the Greens precisely because Labor too often sides with the Liberals. Further, many progressive people actively want Labor and Greens to cooperate where policies coincide. We can and should speculate on what the Greens might do if a more enlightened Liberal party started a bidding war with Labor on climate change policy, but when even Malcolm Turnbull is happy to go to global climate talks in Paris to advocate Tony Abbott’s policy, that day seems far away. While the 2010 arrangement had its flaws, it is difficult to imagine this level of climate ambition being negotiated with the Liberals. Provided Labor doesn’t choose red/blue, then green/red is the best of the scenarios for tackling climate change and inequality until the Greens can govern in our own right.

Does that mean the Greens can just be taken for granted by Labor? No, it doesn’t. For when Antony Green’s chamber graphic on election night shows a healthy dose of Greens sitting in the middle of Parliament, the message we’d send would be loud and clear. We may aim to strike an agreement with Labor for stable, effective and progressive government, but if Chris Bowen’s mantra that ‘We must govern alone, or not at all’ prevails and Labor refuses to deal, then all bets are off and don’t count the Greens in either column on questions of confidence and supply. If Labor seriously wants to turn down government with us, then send Labor back for further discussions with their soul mates in the Liberals. And we Greens too will then have an obligation to speak to everyone again. If that fails, then all things being equal, that sounds to me like a great basis to go back to the people and seek another electoral mandate. We should be unafraid to fight a new election called because Labor wouldn’t accept a reasonable proposal from the Greens for stable, effective and progressive government. For fundamental to the argument of the anti-Green forces within Labor is an assumption that the Greens have ‘nowhere else to go’ other than to support Labor. It’s the same contempt with which they have treated Labor voters for many years. But those voters have found somewhere else to go. And it hasn’t yet dawned on these Labor heavies that the Greens are not a faction of the Labor Party and will not fall into line whenever the going gets tough.

Progressive Government Needs a Plan

Some may protest that this approach is going too far and that the Greens should aim only at growing our presence in Parliament and eschew arrangements with others. Such is the lack of fundamental commitment of Labor to the things we believe in (or even that the public wants, such as politicians that aren’t corrupt, as the New South Wales experience reminds us), they may argue, that we ought to maintain a very great distance. To them I say three things: first, we’re different parties and will remain so, because working with someone should never mean joining or becoming them; secondly, yes, we should always be prepared to stand alone; but thirdly, what is the alternative strategy to get the climate action we need in the time the science demands? Ultimately, a government will have to do something in the next decade, and I am gravely worried that without Greens in (even shared) power, it just won’t happen. I’ll happily jump straight to 76 seats in the House of Representatives, but given that even the Liberals struggle to do this more than once in a blue moon without leaning on the Nationals, something needs to happen in the meantime. Disagree with the strategy, but given the urgency it’s time to start laying alternative theories of change on the table.

What might future green/red power sharing look like, if Labor comes to the party? Should we repeat the 2010 agreement or do something else? Maybe. Maybe not. Everything should be on the table, from taking ministries to staying on the cross bench, from detailed policy changes to parliamentary reform, from guaranteeing supply sight unseen to wanting to help craft Budgets. These are decisions that will have to be made by the parties at the time, depending on the circumstances, and we should not be wedded in advance to any particular kind of agreement.

However, if we accept that government is one of the few places left that can make the big changes needed in the time the climate science requires, then we are obliged to work backwards from that goal and ask how best to get there. In Germany, the Greens drove a plan that combined industry support, national energy independence, community-led renewables, jobs and climate change, got the social democrats on board, got into government and explicitly asked the public to help pay for and support this energy transition. And, by and large, the plan endures. It is time we worked out how to do the same here too.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer