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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 15

Labor or Green: The Left and the Crisis of Politics

Simon Copland

This book asks ‘how do we elect a progressive government?’ I am going to turn this question on its head, instead asking ‘can we elect a progressive government?’ I argue that electing a truly progressive government is impossible within our capitalist political system. Given this, left-wing activism needs to shift away from standard political interventions (elections, lobbying etc) to instead focus on direct political intervention that aims to reabsorb the power of the state back into local communities.

I first got engaged in electoral politics in 2007. John Howard had been Prime Minister for almost as long as I could remember and I was extremely excited about the possibility of him being deposed at the next election. But at the same time I was already feeling betrayed by Kevin Rudd. During the campaign I saw Rudd take the party further to the right – particularly around workplace relations – and that disappointed me greatly.

The Greens therefore made perfect sense. I had great faith in their leadership and ideological positions and was excited to see how the party would grow. I soon joined and threw myself into the ACT Senate campaign.

Over the following years the Greens remained my main focus of political involvement. In 2010, I managed the ACT Greens’ election campaign and was convenor of the ACT branch from 2011–12. After moving to Brisbane, I worked on the Queensland Greens election campaign in 2013.

Throughout this time my main aim was to build the Greens as a viable alternative to our two ‘old parties’. The ALP, as I saw it, had failed. Betrayals on climate change, asylum seekers, industrial relations and welfare payments were all deal breakers. Most importantly, I could never see the party turning back. The ALP had gone too far to the right and there was no chance of change – an alternative was what we needed. The Greens, I thought, were that party.

As I said, I was heavily involved with the Greens up until the 2013 election – after which I have not been involved at all. This partially due to needing a break, but over time it has developed into a changing perspective on how we create progressive change.

Particularly since the election of Richard Di Natale to the leadership, I have become disillusioned with the idea the Greens will ever become an alternative progressive government. Not because I don’t believe the Greens have the capacity to grow, but instead because our system of capitalist governance1 requires such compromise for that growth to occur that any semblance of progressiveness will disappear. Our system, as I see it, will never allow for a true progressive government to actually occur.

Can We Elect a Progressive Government?

What is a Progressive Government?

For many the answer to this is simple – one that invests heavily in public services (health, education etc), defends the rights of unions and workers, invests in clean energy and genuinely tackles climate change, has a compassionate response to refugees and asylum seekers, is willing to give a ‘fair go for all’ (such as allowing same-sex marriage), stands up for civil liberties, and provides adequate support for the poor (through a welfare state). These are the areas that consistently form the basis of progressive campaigns and in turn end up as a yard stick of whether a government is progressive or not.

It is also these issues that inform both the ALP and the Greens. Most MPs and members of both of these parties would likely agree with the list above, something which often makes the rhetoric of the two look almost indistinguishable. Most within these parties, particularly at the grassroots level, are in agreement on our basic values.

Yet, when actually placed into government, or even close to it, these values disappear. In its previous term of federal government, for example, the ALP reintroduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers, cut welfare payments for single mothers, campaigned on extremely weak targets for carbon emission reduction and refused to legislate same-sex marriage. In their latest experiment of government in Tasmania, Greens Minister Nick McKim was responsible for the closing of schools across the state. The moment parties get into government, many of the progressive ideals fall away. Why is this so?

The reason, I argue, is that our capitalist and political economic system is designed specifically to hold any form of progressive governance back. This is an argument that has a long standing within leftist thought, dating back primarily to the work of Karl Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels. Our capitalist democratic system, they argued, was designed by the capitalist class. In doing so the systems were developed primarily to ensure the protection of their interests.

Our economic and political system is based on the survival of what we call a ‘strong economy’, and a strong economy relies on placing the interests of the capitalist class above all others. Jolasmo describes this best in their response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party:

Governments, of any political stripe, can act only by wielding the power of the state. To maintain a powerful state, governments need a strong economy, and that means managing capitalism and maintaining a capitalist social order. Different governments can try to do this in different ways, but they’re all bound by the same basic logic, and none of them offer any real hope of a way out of the cycle of capitalist domination and human misery. That is why left wing and socialist governments routinely disappoint us.2

Governments of all stripes are required to ensure the maintenance of the capitalist system or face collapse and complete failure. The state is based in a capitalist economy, meaning that the economy must come first, despite the costs. This is why the ALP spent years in government talking about debt and the surplus despite the political trouble that brought,3 why the new Corbyn Labour leadership in the United Kingdom has already bought into the same conservative lexicon,4 and why the Greek Syriza Government negotiated a harsh austerity package in order to stay in the European Union. Without conforming to these rules these parties, and their Governments, would not have been able to survive.

I don’t state this with the intention to tarnish individuals who enter politics – particularly those on the progressive side of the aisle. I still believe the vast majority of people go in to politics to do good for their community.

The problem is that the political process itself corrupts these often very excellent people. When you enter politics you enter into a bubble or what some call the political class. As a member of this class your focus soon becomes narrowed around the day-to-day mechanics of politicking, which in turn is focused on the values of a capitalist economy. Faced with the demands of upcoming elections and the desire to grow your party you are forced to make important decisions – conform to the rules of capitalism and be taken seriously (hence helping your election chances) or don’t and be rejected. While some manage to stay away the majority don’t. In doing so politicians become disconnected from the very people they are meant to represent.

It is worth considering a few examples of the way this works. How does a capitalist system shape political representation and discourse? For the sake of balance I will take an example from both the ALP and the Greens.

In the middle of 2015, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten came under significant pressure after details of a number of deals he did as the secretary of the Australian Worker’s Union (AWU) came to light. It was revealed that Shorten had negotiated a workplace agreement with Thiess John Holland that cut worker conditions, saving the company millions of dollars.5 At the same time, Thiess John Holland made a donation of $300,000 to the AWU. Further allegations included claims that during Shorten’s leadership Winslow Constructors paid the union $40,000 to cover the memberships of 105 workers,6 and that the chemical manufacturer Huntsman paid the union’s Victorian branch hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure workers ‘didn’t disrupt’ their operations.7

Responding to these claims Shorten came out swinging, stating in essence ‘this is how modern unionism is done’.8 Shorten defended his record, arguing that a more consultative approach where union leaders and employers come together to negotiate agreements is the only way forward.

Here we can see how our capitalist system has shaped Shorten’s and the AWU’s engagement. Key to Shorten’s argument is the idea that capitalism relies on a more conciliatory approach from workers. This means the rejection of what some call the previous ‘militancy’ of the union movement, or what I would call the working class standing up for their rights. This approach to unionism has rightly been perceived as a threat to the interests of capitalism, and in turn has been squashed. Hence we get deals from union leaders that result in cuts to workers’ conditions. Keeping the interests of capitalism alive was more important than defending the working class, making Shorten’s argument come across as completely reasonable even as the interests of workers were eroded.

It’s not just relationships with the capitalist class that shape the problematic relationships that form within the political class. Politics also has a way of reshaping the way in which the political class engages with its own values and those of the general population.

For example one of the most interesting, and at times frustrating, parts of my involvement with the Greens was tackling the idea that we needed to present ourselves as being a more ‘serious’ political party. To build our vote, many argued, the Greens need to drop our radical roots and present ourselves as professional and authoritative. This discourse is particularly strong around economic policy, with many arguing that because our messaging doesn’t fit the standard debate we’ll never be taken seriously. To be taken seriously we need to become like the other political parties.

We can now see these debates play out in real time. When elected to the leadership of the party Richard Di Natale declared he was going to represent ‘mainstream’ progressive values,9 a clear attempt to break from previous leadership. The Greens have since tried to emphasise their ‘new look’ economic team (Di Natale alongside Senator Peter Whish-Wilson and MP Adam Bandt),10 an attempt to make the party look more ‘serious’ and ‘realistic’. At other times Di Natale has emphasised his willingness to work within our political system, whether it was offering to quit politics if Malcolm Turnbull changed positions on key issues,11 or offering himself as a potential Minister in a future ALP government.12

While presenting itself as the more radical left alternative in Australian politics, in order to fully participate in our system the Greens are being forced to make serious compromises. The capitalist state requires parties that fit particular moulds – ones that we can take ‘seriously’. The Greens are increasingly disconnecting themselves from their political roots, and the people they are elected to represent.

These examples, and the broader issues above, highlight the problem with the question of ‘how do we create progressive governance?’. This question is impossible to answer because our current system is not designed for progressive governance. A system built and based on the interests of capitalists will never truly be able to be progressive.

What Role for Politics?

Given that we are unable to elect a truly progressive government, we must then turn to the question, ‘what role for politics?’

I see two key ways in which the left should interact with the state, which I am aim to illustrate through some current key issues. These strategies are: (a) drag the state left when opportune; and (b) repudiate and reabsorb the power of the state. Both of these approaches require a repudiation of standard political engagement (elections, lobbying etc) and instead a focus on direct intervention with the state only when strategic.

Despite my critiques of the state, I’m not saying we cannot work to make government more left wing. Whilst I critique the power of the state, I acknowledge its existence and its capacity to do good. I do for example believe that governments should invest more heavily in health, education and other social services. I also see the capacity for governments to help fix major problems such as climate change, whether it is investing in renewable technology or regulating dirty polluters to help see their demise. The state can play an important role in advancing progressive ideals.

Our interaction with the state however has often focused too heavily on a search for it to be a leader on all issues, rather than using our own leadership to drag it in the right direction.

The perfect example of this is climate change. Climate change is an issue of huge concern for the Australian population, with a majority wanting serious action.13 Climate change has often been a vote-turner, responsible, at least in part, for the collapse of five Australian political leaders – John Howard, Brendan Nelson, Malcolm Turnbull (as opposition leader), Kevin Rudd (the first time) and Julia Gillard. The issue has also helped to stimulate a significant political movement, which has interacted with successive governments in a number of different ways.

The climate movement has spent large amounts of time and energy campaigning for leadership from government. Initially climate groups demanded governments implement emissions trading schemes, but are now turning towards mass direct intervention in the economy. This shift has been led by the ideas outlined by Naomi Klein, who in her book This Changes Everything argues world governments should engage in a mass economic reengagement similar to the size of the New Deal or Second World War economic programs.

This call for government leadership has shaped all elements of the climate movement. Even with the election of Tony Abbott to the Prime Ministership many activists turned to government for ‘leadership’. Former head of the Australian Conservation Foundation Don Henry headed up Parliamentary negotiations to create a ‘grand bargain’ on the Abbott Government’s direct action policy, seeing the very existence of a government policy on the issue as important in and of itself.14 Government, according to this theory of change, had to be a ‘leader’ no matter what that leadership actually looks like.

These strategies however have failed time and time again, with each call for political leadership being met with weak or even dangerous alternatives. Across the world emissions trading policies have failed to stop emissions and handed billions to polluting companies. The push for a ‘Green New Deal’ in response to the Global Financial Crisis was met with a mixture of surplus policies that promoted mass consumption on one hand and austerity policies that crush the poor on the other. Pushes for mass investment in renewable energy have failed in most states, with governments often using ‘renewable’ policy as a way to promote dirty alternatives. Each push for political leadership has hit a wall when faced with the realities of capitalism.

But it is in climate change where we can see the birth of new and different forms of political engagement, which have much greater capacity to create change. Learning in particular from the failures of campaigns for emission trading schemes, in recent years the environment movement has turned to new tactics.15 These tactics have been twofold: fossil fuel divestment and the targeting of new and existing fossil fuel projects, largely through non-violent direct action.

These campaigns are important for a couple of reasons. First, they have actively bypassed politicians as decision-makers, instead going after the source of the problem – fossil fuel companies. Having been involved in the movement for a number of years this came from a direct recognition that politicians were not going to take the action needed on the issue, and that we therefore needed to take it ourselves. This has resulted in significant progress – whether it is the hundreds of people who took direct action at the Maules Creek Coal Mine, or the thousands who have been involved in divestment campaigns across the country, and world.

That does not mean however that government is completely removed from the process. Instead the movement has used standard political avenues more strategically. In 2015, for example, Green groups successfully won a legal challenge to the approval of the Carmichael Coal Mine in central Queensland.16 Seeing faults in the state’s decision-making process environmentalists built on the strong on-the-ground movement to make a direct intervention. Whilst the government has recently re-approved the mine, the action brought with it significant attention and delay, which are likely to have a long-term impact.

Government in this strategy is secondary, with political interventions being used only as a way to drag the state to the leadership we have already shown. Whilst the strategy of using the courts for example accepts the existence of the state and its institutions, it is not one based on asking the government for all the answers. Instead of looking to government leadership, or lamenting the lack of it, this strategy is based on using direction intervention – whether it is non-violent direct action at the coal source or exposing the failures of successive governments to put the interests of the community first.

Unlike many of the campaigns of the past, these strategies have seen significant success. The divestment movement has become an international phenomenon, with billions of dollars being removed from the fossil fuel industry. Anti-fossil fuel campaigns are leading to genuine success with the closure and cancellation of fossil fuel projects across the world. And politicians are being dragged along as well – whether it is Barnaby Joyce speaking out against the proposed Shehua Coal Mine in the Liverpool Plains, US Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton arguing against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, or the Chinese Government announcing a three-year ban on new coal mine approvals.

This leads me to the second area of political action. When not dragging Governments to the left, progressives should be doing all we can to take back power from the state and instead place it in the hands of local communities. Here, I turn to recent debates around same-sex marriage.

In August 2015, the Tony Abbott Government was thrown into turmoil after the Coalition party room decided to block a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. In response Abbott publicly suggested a plebiscite on the issue, framing it around being about a ‘public vote’ versus a ‘politicians vote’. Polling has shown that a people’s vote is extremely popular,17 and under pressure from his conservative base Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has continued to pursue the policy.18

Many marriage equality advocates however have reacted strongly against the idea,19 arguing it is not up to the public to vote on ‘our rights’. This got to the point where former Prime Minister Julia Gillard publicly changed her position on same-sex marriage, particularly targeting the plebiscite. Gillard stated that the ‘only foundation stone for the idea of a plebiscite or referendum is an appeal to the all-too-popular sentiment that politicians are inadequate, that their decision-making is somehow deficient’.20 Pushing aside the irony of this coming from the Prime Minister who once suggested a ‘Citizens Assembly’ on climate change, the message was clear – it is up to Parliament to decide and the people should have no role.

This represented a failure to grasp an important opportunity. Whilst I fully appreciate and understand the concerns of many within the marriage equality movement, a plebiscite offered an important opportunity to highlight exactly what Gillard was concerned about – that our politicians are far behind the general population when it comes to LGBTIQ rights.

Much of the marriage debate has been focused heavily on standard political engagement. Marriage activists have worked mainly in two areas – political lobbying and attempts to influence election campaigns. In turn the campaign has lost much of its community spirit – fights happening in the halls of Parliament rather than the streets of our cities and towns.21 All the power to fight homophobia has been largely given to Parliament, and taken away from local communities.

A plebiscite has the capacity to change this. It would put the fight back on our streets, empowering local communities and community leaders to be advocates for change. On an issue like anti-queer prejudice, this couldn’t be more important. We fight prejudice street by street, not through wielding the power of a state, which largely has little power to do anything anyway (even when changing legislation).

It is here where I see the second form of political action. The state has become too powerful. As John Harris states:

The state comes to the rescue of banks while snatching away benefits. It strides into sovereign countries, and commits serial human rights abuses. It subjects doctors, nurses and teachers to ludicrous targets. It watches us constantly via CCTV, and hacks our email and phone data. It farms out some of its dirtiest business to private firms.22

For Harris the left has become too silent on this ‘clunking power of the state’, arguing that an ‘arrogant and centralised state is as big a problem as the out-of-control market’.

Political action should therefore be focused on breaking down this entrenched power, treating the state with just as much suspicion as neoliberal markets. The left already engages in this sort of activity, whether it is nurses and doctors refusing to release children from hospitals so they are not put back in detention centres,23 to Greens’ Senator Scott Ludlam publicly publishing information on how citizens can avoid data retention.24

This sort of non-violent direct action is an important way for the left to repudiate the state but we need to do more. If we want true representative and progressive governance structures we should not just be looking to repudiate the power of the state when it is being used for evil, but aim to do so in all cases. While marriage equality can technically be done through a bill in Parliament a plebiscite is significantly more powerful. It highlights the deficiencies of the state and our conservative parties, whilst empowering local communities at the same time. In turn it promotes actual grassroots democracy, something the left often promotes, but rarely actually tries to implement.

We can therefore see the alternatives available to us other than our standard political engagement. With an acknowledgement that the capitalist state will be sticking around at least for the short term the left needs to rethink how we engage with it. Instead of turning towards the state for leadership at all times (which despite some alternative trends is something that is becoming the norm at least within mainstream organisations), I argue we should instead emphasise the leadership of local communities instead. This means dragging governments left when we have the capacity to do so, but more importantly it means working to re-absorb political power back into our communities. This is a more direct form of intervention, one that places faith in our local communities and does everything it can to empower communities to take action of their own rather than relying on government to do it for them.

Labor or Greens?

If standard political interventions – in particular the pursuit of electing a progressive government – are a failure, then how should progressives engage with elections? What party should we support, if any at all?

There is a lot of tribalism in progressive politics, some of which I have shared. On reflecting on this essay though I am increasingly of the position that our political engagement should be far more flexible, supporting the party or parties who can best play a role in the political strategies I’ve outlined above.

Over the past decade or so I believe the Greens have been the party which has best played this role. This is why I remain a member of the party – although an increasingly wary one. The Greens have advanced radical strategies in two ways.

First, unlike the ALP, the Greens are less focused on the ‘realities of government’ and more on using political interventions to drag politics left. Whilst many of the Greens, including the current leadership, have fallen in to the trap of thinking of government as the agent of change, a significant faction of the party still sees the world differently. The Greens are both actively willing to challenge the growing power of the state (see for example data retention) and to spend more time presenting social movements as the agents of change rather than ourselves.

Building on from this the Greens are more willing to spend their energies on breaking up the standard political order. Despite his negotiations with Labor Prime Minister Julia Gillard, Bob Brown was the typical anti-politics politician: a man who refused to stick to the games of the political class and gained support from this. The best example of this was Brown and Senator Kerry Nettle’s disruption of George W. Bush as he spoke in federal Parliament – an act that caused significant controversy. Whilst Brown’s successor Christine Milne was often weighed down by the deal with former Prime Minister Julia Gillard, I believe she significantly learnt the lesson from that experience, and worked internally against the idea of future deals. Milne focused her 2013 campaign on the idea that ‘we live in a society not an economy’, trying to challenge the idea that a ‘strong economy’ is the sole indicator of a good government. Of the major political parties the Greens do the most to disrupt standard politics, challenging both the way politics is done, and the power it uses to do so.

But it is here where there is cause for concern, and the need for flexibility which I have described. Recent months, particularly since the election of Richard Di Natale to the party leadership, have seen significant shifts away from these agendas. As noted above Di Natale has not just shifted the party to the right, professional and serious end of the political spectrum, but he has also placed significant faith in the leadership of politics to create change. Di Natale comes from a highly technocratic political background,25 one which values ‘evidence-based policy’ as the solution to our social, economic and environmental ills. This not only lacks any form of ideology, but disempowers local communities through placing power in the hands of experts, scientists and unfortunately politicians.26 In doing so I believe Di Natale has the potential to shift our party away from its anti-political roots and into becoming a highly technocratic and political one.

To me these shifts are extremely worrying. At the same time however they seem inevitable given the way progressives engage in our political system. This is the outcome of the drive to find a ‘progressive government’ in a system that does not allow it. Whether it was the ALP of the past, or the Greens of the future, an obsession with parliamentary politics warps our capacity to create progressive change. It is only natural that as the Greens become entrenched in Parliament and gain more power that they would head down this direction.

I remain a wary supporter of the Greens, hopeful that recent shifts will be resisted and end up being temporary. But I do not believe that will be the case unless we reshape progressive engagement to parliamentary politics. The question of Labor vs Greens therefore seems moot. It is not about which party is better, but about how we should engage in political processes. That is what the left needs to change.

This book asks the question, ‘how do we elect a progressive government’. In this essay I’ve argued that in a capitalist society this is impossible. We therefore need to turn our attention away from the state, and in particular stop relying on it to be the solution to our society’s ills. We can do this in two ways – through showing community-based leadership that drags the state in a progressive direction, and through fighting against the increasing power of the state through reabsorbing this power into local communities.

We live in a time when this strategy could be extremely successful. The general population is turning sharply against politicians and we have the opportunity to harness that energy to help create deep social movements that reabsorb political power into community power.

When it comes to electoral politics I believe the Greens remain the best avenue to do this work. However I state that very warily, with a concern that this reality may soon be coming to a close. It is up to the party to stay true, to disrupt, and to challenge the power of the state.


1    When I refer to capitalist government I am discussing what most would call ‘liberal democracy’. Whilst capitalism is usually discussed solely as an economic system, modern liberal democracy is just as important for its survival. The two – economics and government – are inherently interlinked, making a ‘capitalist government’ synonymous with a ‘capitalist economy’.

2    Jolasmo, ‘This is not our victory. Red and black Leeds,’ 9 November 2015,

3    S. Copland, ‘Surplus debacle a problem of leadership,’ 2 January 2014,

4    J. McDonnell, ‘Jeremy Corbyn would clear the deficit – but not by hitting the poor,’ The Guardian, 11 August 2015,

5    B. Schneiders, R. Millar, N. Toscano, ‘Bill Shorten’s union took hundreds of thousands from building company,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 2015,

6    ‘Bill Shorten attacked from both sides over deals done while union secretary,’ The Guardian, 14 June 2015,

7    ‘Firm allegedly paid Bill Shorten’s AWU to ensure workers “didn’t disrupt” operations,’ The Guardian, 17 June 2015,

8    J. Bennett, ‘“Entirely possible” companies paid AWU fees, Shorten says,’ ABC Online, 21 June 2015,

9    B. Siebert, ‘Revealed: Greens’ Senate candidate report cards,’ InDaily, 20 August 2015,

10  G. Hutchens, ‘Meet the new Greens economics team preparing to shake up Australian politics,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 26 June 2015,

11  M. Farr, ‘Di Natale outlines price for Senate peace to the PM,’ News., 30 September 2015,

12  Massola, ‘Richard Di Natale eyes cabinet post’ (see chap. 1, n. 8).

13  2015 ‘Lowy Institute Poll finds rapidly shifting attitudes on climate issues and strong views about solar,’ Lowy Institute for International Policy, 2015,

14  L. Taylor, ‘“Grand bargain” may secure enough support for Direct Action to pass Senate,’ The Guardian, 22 August 2014,

15  S. Copland, ‘Turning values into (direct) action,’ Inside Story, 24 September 2013,

16  J. Robertson and O. Milman, ‘Approval for Adani’s Carmichael coalmine overturned by federal court,’ The Guardian, 5 August 2015,

17  ‘Decision on same sex marriage,’ Essential Report, 22 September 2015,

18  D. Hurst, ‘Malcolm Turnbull holds the line on climate policy and marriage equality plebiscite,’ The Guardian, 15 September 2015,

19  ‘Gay and lesbian rights lobbies’ community survey rejects marriage equality public vote,’ Sydney Star Observer, 8 September 2015,

20  S. McDonald, ‘Gillard says she supports same-sex marriage, condemns referendum,’ ABC Online, 26 August 2015,

21  S. Copland, ‘The “new” marriage equality strategy is bound to be a failure,’ 15 October 2015,

22  J. Harris, ‘The left is too silent on the clunking fist of state power,’ The Guardian, 5 January 2014,

23  P. Hatch, J. Ireland and C. Booker, ‘Royal Children’s Hospital doctors refuse to return children to detention,’ The Age, 11 October 2015,

24  S. Ludlam, #StopDataRetention, 2015,

25  T. Tietze, ‘The Greens after Milne: Running out of options?,’ Left Flank, 8 May 2015,

26  S. Copland, ‘Against experts,’ Overland Journal, 3 October 2014,

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer