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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 3

Leaving Labor for the Greens

Ellen Sandell

I remember the day I lost faith in the Labor Party.

It was the start of the school year in 2008 and a blistering 37 degrees.

I was a young, optimistic climate change policy advisor, working in my dream job in Labor Premier John Brumby’s Department. For months, I had been working on a policy to put solar panels on every Victorian school, passionately putting in the hours to create something I believed would have a huge impact on our climate.

As I got ready for work one morning, I turned on talkback radio for background noise. My ears pricked up as parents started calling the radio, complaining their kids had to go to school on such a hot day when most classrooms didn’t have air conditioners, but I didn’t think much of it as I got on my bike and rode into work.

As I walked down the corridor towards my desk, still in my riding clothes and brushing sweat off my brow, I saw a piece of paper on my desk: a note from the Premier. I can’t remember the exact wording of that fateful note, but, in so many words, it said: ‘You know the solar panels idea? How much would it cost to put air conditioners in every Victorian school instead?’

I was crestfallen. This 180-degree-turn on policy from the Premier – from reducing pollution with solar panels to increasing energy use with air conditioners – was devastating for a young, idealistic climate advisor. All it took was a handful of parents calling talkback radio and the Premier changed his mind in an instant.

I didn’t know it at the time, but that moment set me on a path to becoming the first lower-house Greens MP in the Victorian Parliament.

I never wanted to be a politician. I always wanted to be a scientist. Growing up in country Victoria, separated from Melbourne by nearly 600km of dusty highway and wheat paddocks, ‘politician’ was not an option the school careers advisor ever offered. I didn’t know any politicians, and nobody in my family had ever been elected to public office (unless you count my dad becoming the Secretary of the local Red Cross branch, and their youngest member by about 30 years).

I, like many Greens members, grew up in a Labor household. We had a Paul Keating magnet on our fridge and my dad was a long-time member of his union. Living in a rural area, there weren’t too many Labor-voting families like ours, but my parents’ strong sense of social justice put their values at odds with the Liberal and National parties, who they believed stood up for the wealthy at the expense of the community and the environment. It was considered normal for mum to throw things at the television when John Howard appeared on screen.

Growing up a stone’s throw from the mighty Murray River, it was impossible not to notice the impact of drought on the environment and the local growers, or the impact of over-grazing on the nearby national parks. It was also impossible not to form a strong bond with, and love for, the natural environment: the red and brown dirt, the rolling sandhills, the Mallee scrub and the big, big sky. But it wasn’t until I moved to Melbourne to attend university that I learnt the long drought I had experienced during my adolescence was not just a one-off, but was potentially the new ‘normal’.

Climate change was the issue that galvanised me to take action – and the issue that put science on a collision course with politics.

While I was at university learning about the dangers that climate change posed to everything I cared about: food, farmland, health, security, the environment and our way of life, I also learned pretty quickly that the barriers to action weren’t scientific or technical: they were political. I still wanted to be a scientist, but we already had scientists telling us about the problem and how to fix it: what we lacked was political will.

When I graduated from university, after a short research stint at the CSIRO, I landed a job in the Office of Climate Change. Working on climate policy was the hottest thing around, as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth lent celebrity status to the issue, and Kevin Rudd signing the Kyoto Protocol gave Australians hope we might finally stop being international laggards. I started the job believing the Victorian Labor Government also wanted to act, but one too many policy backflips dampened my spirits.

Not only were my hopes crushed by the air conditioners incident, but I was constantly confused by the fact that everyone seemed to walk around with blinkers on. My colleagues would work for hours on programs to encourage people to drive their cars a little bit more conservatively to save tiny amounts of CO2, while conveniently ignoring the fact that four brown-coal power plants produce nearly half of our total pollution – far outstripping transport and agriculture. Looking at solutions for phasing out coal was not encouraged.

I have no doubt many people in the Department wanted to do the right thing, but their good intentions were stymied by the stranglehold that vested interests had on the Labor Party, and the fact that dealing with climate change was never going to be as big a priority as keeping Labor in power.

When the Federal carbon price was being debated, a consultant was engaged by the Victorian Government to tell us how badly energy companies would be affected. When the answer came back that energy companies would not be nearly as badly affected as many people imagined, I heard the consultant was asked to change the report and its assumptions, so coal companies could get more compensation than was really necessary. The writer of the report apparently quit in disgust, but nobody blew the whistle and a new report was published.

The management of Victoria’s native forests was another contentious topic where industry spin, rather than scientific rigour, dominated the debate inside the bureaucracy and political circles. I couldn’t have been more excited when I was tasked with writing the chapter on forestry for the climate change strategy. I put in long hours, poring over the latest peer-reviewed research from the Australian National University that indicated we should protect our native forests as carbon stores because they are some of the most carbondense in the whole world. Once drafted, my chapter was sent off to another Department for checking, and returned completely covered in red text, with the scientific references replaced by forest industry spin. Bureaucrats and politicians were so close to the forestry industry that they believed the spin more than they believed the peer-reviewed science from one of our top universities.

These demoralising experiences led me to three important realisations.

My first realisation was that vested interests have an incredibly strong influence over the old political parties, including Labor. I saw this play out many times during and after my stint in the Department – from the blatant direct influence of reports being changed, to the political donations from the fossil fuel industry and property developers, and the soft-power plays of industry leaders drinking with politicians in Parliament House after hours.

My second realisation was that the Labor Party is set up to deliver small, incremental change, but to essentially protect the status quo. Climate change is never going to be a higher priority to the Labor Government than jobs, or the economy, or votes in marginal seats, despite it being clear that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of our environment, not the other way around. Climate change, however, needs a fundamentally different approach from the status quo, because we’re about to hit the tipping points that might make it impossible to avoid devastating consequences.

My third realisation was that traditional Labor and Liberal politicians rarely lead the community, but are led by pressure from the community or from vested interests, whomever is the loudest. Ultimately the game has become about staying in power no matter the cost.

I learnt that while we did need good bureaucrats, what we really needed was people pushing our politicians in the right direction, and to drown out vested interests. We needed to make it harder for politicians to stay with the status quo, and easier for them to act on important issues.

I finally understood that I could be powerful if I joined with other people to pressure politicians on climate change, so I left the Department and started working for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), where I would go on to become the CEO. Our mission was to create a movement strong enough to change policy on climate change and protect our future.

During my time at the AYCC, we grew to over 100,000 members across Australia. We educated tens of thousands of school students about the impacts of climate change, ran programs in the Pacific to raise the voices of those on the front-line of climate change, sent delegations to the UN climate talks, gained commitments to repower Port Augusta with solar energy, helped put climate change on the agenda during federal elections, and more. We advocated strongly for a price on carbon to curb emissions and make big polluters pay to clean up their act. Throughout my time at AYCC, I saw significant policy shifts on climate change, such as a price on carbon and $10 billion invested in clean energy through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

These changes didn’t happen because Labor or the Liberals woke up one morning and decided to do the right thing. They happened because strong, sustained community pressure showed them the cost of inaction, and the biggest gains happened when the Greens held balance of power in both houses of Parliament.

My theory that politicians act when the community pressures them to do so, and when they’re scared of losing seats, has been born out many times since I left the Department.

For example, in 2010 John Brumby committed to a phase-out of Australia’s dirtiest coal power station, Hazelwood. He could have done it years before, but instead he announced it during an election year, after a strong campaign by environment groups, and when the Greens looked like winning four inner-city seats from Labor.

In 2014, I was part of a similar campaign to stop the East West toll road. A strong community campaign combined with the threat of losing inner-city seats to the Greens saw Labor change their position on the toll road and promise to rip up the contracts, just months before the election.

While some people in Labor will say that they always wanted to implement these policies, and no doubt there were good people inside Labor who worked hard on them, the reality is that it wasn’t until they risked losing seats that they actually acted.

I’ve also seen this dynamic play out in the current Victorian Government. The threat of the Greens introducing legislation to ban smoking in outdoor dining areas and for an inquiry on voluntary euthanasia led to the Labor Government putting these issues on the agenda when they otherwise had no plans to do so, or would have done so at a much, much later date.

These experiences have proven to me that the Greens are an incredibly powerful force in Australian society, and we won’t achieve enough progressive change with just Labor alone.

In the short-term, pressure from the Greens can make Labor better, which is a good reason in itself to put more Greens into Parliament. The Greens can use our clout to make important issues – like climate change, refugees and public transport (or voluntary euthanasia and smoking) – a public priority, and force Labor to implement policies or talk about issues they otherwise wouldn’t.

As Greens Leader Richard Di Natale has said, the challenges of the twenty-first century are challenges the Greens were set up to tackle. Addressing the challenges of climate change – equality and how to build prosperity for the public good not just private interests – are in our DNA. These are the reasons the Greens were set up in the first place.

While we’ve seen the two major parties’ ideologies gradually converge over the past few decades, the Greens are emerging with real alternatives.

But the Greens aren’t just in Parliament to be activists, asking Labor to act for us, or to raise issues for other parties to deal with. In the longer-term, we have ambitions to form government and implement our policies in full, and I wouldn’t be in Parliament if I didn’t see a prospect of us doing so.

The first, and very achievable, step down this path is gaining balance of power in both houses of Parliament, at a Federal and State level.

The prospect of the Greens gaining this type of power is understandably scary for the Labor Party. While the Liberals are their opponents, the Greens are an existential threat to Labor. One day soon we might replace them.

The way Labor has responded to this threat is instructive. In some cases, it has led to Labor adopting a more progressive stance on policy, and even adopting some of the Greens’ policies, like cancelling the East West toll road contracts and finally starting to talk about getting rid of unfair tax concessions on superannuation. In other cases, this fear of being replaced has led Labor to some strange behaviours that are counter-productive to the progressive cause.

My friends and supporters are shocked when they watch me give a speech in Parliament, where two grey-haired male Labor MPs are often placed strategically in the chamber to howl me down so I cannot be heard. These men laugh as they trade ‘shouting duties’ with the most right-wing Liberals and compete for who can put me off my game, tag-teaming when one of them runs out of insults to yell. I’ve been subject to the dirty tactics and online trolling of Labor staffers as they put all their energy into bullying and trying to trip me up, rather than fighting the real opposition of vested interests and conservative politicians who seek to widen the gap between the rich and poor and block action on climate change. I’ve introduced Bills into Parliament (such as banning donations from property developers to politicians, and making Alcoa’s coal operations subject to the same FOI laws as other companies) only to see Labor take the unprecedented move of voting them down at the first reading. Even though it was sensible policy, Labor did not even allow a debate, just so the Greens wouldn’t get ‘a win’.

I used to believe Parliament was a place for genuine debate and ideas. Then, when a Labor member yelled out across the chamber ‘it’s not your ideas we hate, it’s just you’, I realised just how entrenched the tribalism of the Labor party has become, and just how personally they take it when the Greens take a seat from them. They’ve lost sight of why they’re in politics in the first place (surely to make change, rather than just to win the contest?).

Before the election last year, Victorian Premier-to-be Daniel Andrews held a press conference at his father’s farm in Wangaratta and declared he would never do a deal with the Greens in Victoria. 

It was a short-sighted move. After the election he found himself with the Greens in shared balance-of-power in the upper house and he now has to get used to negotiating with us.

It’s only a matter of time before Labor finds themselves with the Greens in balance of power in the lower house as well. In that scenario, if they want to form Government they have two choices: work with the Greens or work with the Liberals. I know which one their progressive voters would prefer.

Faced with the rise of the Greens, the Labor Party can choose one of two approaches. They can take the approach of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Labor Party, who have realised that they have more in common with the Greens than with the Liberals, and if we form an alliance, we can keep the right-wing conservatives out of power for decades and create real progressive change. Or, the broader Victorian and Federal Labor Party can entrench their stubborn refusal to work with the Greens, even when we agree on many policies.

The public will be better served if the Labor Party realises that the Greens aren’t going anywhere, and in order to achieve progressive policy in this country, we must work together. It might not be a formal coalition like exists between the Liberals and Nationals, but perhaps an election-by-election agreement to form Government together or achieve specific policy aims, as was done with Adam Bandt during the Gillard minority Government.

The Greens have shown our willingness to work with Labor, as evidenced by Greens MPs taking ministries in the Tasmanian and ACT Labor Governments, and working closely with Julia Gillard’s Government to deliver a productive government that helped her pass more legislation than any other Prime Minister in Australia’s history. In that government, the Greens negotiated important reforms that Labor would not have implemented on their own such as the introduction of an effective carbon price, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the Parliamentary Budget Office for accurately costing election promises, and free denticare for kids. With those outcomes, we know the achievements of Greens in balance of power can be substantial, practical, responsible, and transformative for our country.

Now the ball’s in Labor’s court. Will they let go of the view that the Greens are the enemy, and put progressive policy above a desire for unbridled power, as they have in the ACT? Or will they dig their heels in, and continue to fight the Greens, to the detriment of their vote and the detriment of good policy?

Ultimately, it’s a question that can only be answered by Labor.

I sincerely hope they choose to work with the Greens, rather than against us, because our country and our community will be stronger for it.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer