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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 4

How I Fell out of Love with the Greens: A Personal Story about the Labor Party

Van Badham

Indulge me. This is not going to be an academic analysis of contemporary Australian politics. It’s not an essay I’d submit to the Guardian. It’s a first-person tale – a memoirette, perhaps – of a failed political romance.

I’ll admit from the outset this story heaves with cliché. The young heroine, disappointed early in her expectations, creates an object of affection from projections of her own ideological fantasy. She defends her wilful imaginings with fervour, but when confronted with an undeniable truth – spoiler alert – she leaves the relationship, a little sadder, an ocean wiser.

I write this for posterity, to share a subjective history that charts one imperfect person’s most imperfect journey from political innocence to experience across roughly thirty years of Australian history, and with an intergenerational inflection. It’s the story of how, after my heart was broken by Labor, I then fell out of love with the Greens. I’ve chosen a personal form for the telling of it because my recent experiences with the subject matter have been all too personal. Three nights ago, at midnight, I found myself on the receiving end of a Twitter trolling attack coordinated by a group of Young Greens, containing a variety of denouncements, including an ‘anonymous’ one (too soon exposed) that suggested I belonged in ‘the KKK’.

My present rejection of the Greens is not due to this behaviour. My own history reveals that rare is the overeager, over-politicised undergraduate who can restrain themselves from punishing a perceived enemy. Rather, the experience was symptomatic of a malaise I can only describe as an ‘awareness sickness’ which stirred again in me six months ago, when Richard Di Natale became leader and the Greens’ subsequently voted with the Coalition government to cut the aged pension. What had attracted me to the Greens was their promise to ‘do politics differently’. The realisation has been nauseating for months that they are – of course – just like everybody else.

* * *

I was never an instinctive Greens voter. My family were Labor – I grew up around my mother’s people who were Irish, Catholic, working class and rusted-on. These were people penniless and, unable to speak English when they emigrated, they worked as itinerant shearers. Then, the family stumbled out of retail jobs and the Erskineville Catholic ghetto and into active service in the Second World War. Our family’s fortune began its transformation with this event; thanks to the War Service Homes Act, my returned grandfather was able to build a fibro clapboard house on the grey soil of a new and dusty Sydney suburb. The rambunctious clan moved in, and this single capital asset facilitated three generations of growing aspiration.

My father assimilated neatly into the shared values of the family sprawl. He was descended from Scots immigrants, who’d escaped the slums around the Glasgow docks where they’d built ships for new lives as retail clerks and shop hands in New Zealand. My father’s father had a talent for sport and it won him a scholarship to teacher’s college – but his aspirations to teach were dashed when he contracted tuberculosis. There was no welfare net to catch my father’s mother; she added jobs in shops to jobs in kitchens and she stayed there. My father’s only memory of his father was through the plastic wall at a tuberculosis hospital where he died when dad was three.

Both sides of my family were well-read and articulate people, who loved newspapers and adored books. It was only economic necessity that forced them out of school to work; Mum went to work in offices, Dad drifted into the world of the track and betting shop. In Australia, my family members were all members of unions, because unions fought for them, and the Labor Party fought for people represented by unions. What my grandparents saw in Curtin and Chifley, my own parents saw in Whitlam, Hawke and Keating; it was the policy determination to equalise social and economic opportunities so families like mine could have any.

Strong amongst all was the generational memory of the past where jobs were rough, poorly-paid and dangerous, education denied or threadbare, healthcare an unattainable privilege. Strong, too, was the desire amongst specifically these people, all their fine intellects thwarted merely by birth into the wrong class, that there would be educational opportunities for their children. Whitlam was more than human to my parents; the introduction of free education illuminated a world of the suddenly possible for their soon-born child. It was a light that did not dim for my parents even with Hawke’s introduction of the deferred-payment HECS scheme.

They trusted a Labor that over the course of their lifetimes had created Medicare, pensions, public housing, the CES, the ABC, no-fault divorce, equal pay, superannuation, the anti-discrimination act, sewered every Australian metropolitan home, withdrawn troops from Vietnam – and so much else. When Mum and Dad were told the HECS scheme would improve the breadth and quality of education, they believed it.

So did I. And I did finish Year 12 at my suburban state school, I did do well in my exams, I did win a place at – oh my god – university. I joined the Labor Party in O-Week, an act of acknowledgment, perhaps, of my Dad’s instruction: ‘Never forget, Vanessa; you owe your education to the Labor Party’.

It may have been true, but my gratitude was growing uneasy. At the University of Wollongong, I never made it to a meeting of the Labor club, but I fell into student politics, anyway – and began to develop an ideological vocabulary. The Cold War had ended a couple of years before my enrolment, but state-schooled and ‘first in family’ to study, I developed a class consciousness as fiery as that of any vintage red. While rich kids bought themselves a discount on their HECS fees with upfront payments, and poor kids heaped debt upon themselves that ethical careers would be unlikely to repay, the realisation dawned that the system was unfair.

I had no taste for the campus’s tiny socialist cults, always waving about dogmatic publications with a wan hand. It was with independent vigour I threw myself into environmental causes, the women’s group, the media collective, Indigenous rights campaigns, and whatever other social justice activism was on offer. I ran with a non-aligned ticket in the student elections because they were my friends. We won, and I headed off to debut my participation in the National Union of Students (NUS). It was a conference at Southern Cross University, Lismore, 1994.

I still had my ALP membership card in my wallet when I met the student manifestation of the Labor Party for the first time.

* * *

Growing up, I’d absorbed talk of the ‘NSW Right’ for years. In truth, from Sydney there was a certain local pride in the Sussex-Street-based Labor faction that had built an unassailable machinist grip on the Party and, at that point, the nation, too. I remember as a teenager reading a Fairfax article about the takeover of Young Labor by the Right with glowing profiles of leaders Reba Meagher – now long fled politics – and Joe Tripodi, now exposed for corruption and forever disgraced. Back then, though, they presented as bright and organised, the rising generation of the bold, practical politics espoused by Paul Keating – as well as kids from suburbs just like mine. And if Paul Keating supported it, whatever ‘economic rationalism’ was, it sounded fair.

This was all I understood about factional politics in Labor, on the Left, or at all when I climbed into a car to get to Lismore. A Wollongong friend had organised a ride up there, driven by another non-aligned student from Macquarie and a girl from Melbourne University who, like me, seemed to have half-a-connection to the ALP. The car trip was a political initiation; our driver detailed every political sin of the state and National NUS officers, their campaign inaction on issues of import – like the environment – and their misguided spending priorities. Back in Wollongong, struggling to reorganise our student council in the wake of overturning a corrupt regime, our contact with NUS had been resentful, countering their incessant demands for money we couldn’t find. I was surprised to learn that the NUS leadership who had afflicted us were all from the ALP Left.

That was, until I encountered them. We arrived in Lismore after dark, to find the conference organisers drunk and playing truth-or-dare. This was my first attack of adult ‘awareness sickness’ in a political context. Mostly middle-class, from Sydney University and University of New South Wales, they spilled vodka, pizza and beer on the floor of the Lismore student accommodation that NUS money had rented. Their attempts to recruit me into their ranks were not entreaties to political like-mindedness, but offerings of drinks.

Yes, we were all young – but beware the provincial purist confronted with metropolitan excess; my eyes narrowed like Martin Luther’s towards Rome. The girl from Melbourne University whispered in my ear that amongst the drunken crowd, one had both an aunt who was a Labor MP, and a gold Amex card; I clung to her arm. The boy from Macquarie was running against these people for the NUS Presidency, she told me. By the end of that weekend, I had pledged my votes to him. Rare is the undergraduate, and etc.

The boy’s name was Jamie Parker. He ran against Verity Firth from the Labor Left and, with votes from non-aligned leftish people like me and a deal with the ALP Right, he won. Seventeen years later, he became the first Greens lower house MP in New South Wales, beating the Labor incumbent in the seat of Balmain – the very same Verity Firth.

* * *

I held out for a few weeks after voting for Jamie that the Right would appear to me as some kind of beacon of ‘my people’ in the student movement. Then I watched them march into NUS national conference like a clone army of matching t-shirts and bound voting and I quailed. They defined themselves by defending HECS, they traded votes with – horror of horrors – Liberal students, and their bloc vote in a factional deal denied the National Presidency to the person it as clear to all was best equipped to lead it. He was a Curtin student from WA. His name was Adam Bandt.

Adam was in the ‘other’ non-Labor left faction to the one Jamie Parker was assembling around people like me. There are clichés of private school Marxists in the student left and that faction heaved with them; the merchant bankers’ daughter who advocated ‘marijuana for liberation’, the shaved-head princess from the expensive Perth school brandishing her ‘first up against the wall’ placard, the transphobic ‘radical feminist’ who went to work for Rupert Murdoch within ten minutes of graduation, a parade of white boys whose sense of entitlement was curiously unimpeded by conspicuous declarations of anti-authoritarianism.

Adam, however, was distinguished by his sincerity. He was passionate, articulate and unifying. Although he was report edly once a member of the ALP ‘in his youth’, he was not second-guessing a Labor career, and said what a generation of student leaders should have been screaming aloud about HECS’ corrosive effect on education and compromising influence upon the universal access to other social institutions. When he spoke, even the Right listened – and they resented him for it.

The leader of the Right, Tim Lyons – twenty years later, brought undone by an unwise attempt to factionally deal himself into the leadership of the ACTU – organised Bandt’s humiliating defeat in a demonstration of the efficiency of Labor’s machine. All Labor’s delegates – and the Liberal students – handed their votes over to be filled in for the Labor Left candidate; I can’t even remember who it was.

I voted for Adam, in defiance of party allegiance, and by doing so, threw my lot in with the unbound rabble of the non-aligned left.

When I got home, I smoked cigarettes in front of my parents for the first time as I detailed the events of the conference and my disillusionment with the Party. Mum was sympathetic. Dad said: ‘if you want to be a fucking communist, go and live in fucking China,’ with a chuckle.

* * *

Disillusion is a hard illness to bear and an even heavier one to shift. Of course, I wasn’t the only one exposed to the contaminating agents, nor was the student movement the only place disease fomented. My story is real but it’s allegorical, too; by the nineties, the Labor party was lazy with power, and its Right machine vindictively gatekeeping it, too. After Keating’s victory in the ‘unwinnable’ 1993 election, Labor decisions – like HECS and privatisation – were considered outcomes of incontrovertible logic, when they shouldn’t have been. When Labor did lose in 1996, their own history of privatisations was what allowed the neoliberal fire sales of public assets engaged in by John Howard. Labor’s Accord with the unions, deregistration of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) and suppression of the Pilots’ Strike weakened the militancy of Australia’s union movement and that energised Howard’s relentless attempts to destroy it. Talented and ambitious young left-wing people like Jamie Parker and Adam Bandt were despised by an apparatus engaged in branch-stacking to promote the likes of Eddie Obeid. Of course they went elsewhere.

I held onto my party card as I rose myself through NUS, but when my membership lapsed I didn’t renew it. Living in Wollongong, I’d watched the loveable, progressive local lefty state member Col Markham improbably lose preselection in his own seat to the deeply unpopular Noreen Hay – who, having won in the Left, jumped straight to the Right.

The promotion of candidates preselected in these worst of ways was reducing both the enthusiasm of the party’s base, as well as its capacity for effective policymaking. New South Wales was a corrupt mess and everyone knew it. Historically, Labor have always struggled with Opposition, and John Howard’s relentless appeals to racism and xenophobia in the electorate were seeded so well because the Labor leadership was confounded in how to confront it at inception. When during the Tampa crisis, Labor leader Kim Beazley – so beloved of the Labor family in the previous government – gave ground to Howard to allow some Australian islands to be excised from the migration zone, it enabled the onset of offshore processing system with electoral support so well-seeded by Howard’s amoral genius and Labor’s clumsiness that it’s been an irremovable noose around the ALP’s electoral neck ever since.

Labor’s failure on refugees even knocked some of the rust off my parents. They were at a barbecue of old friends who were arguing that ‘something had to be done about the boat people’ in the wake of Beazley’s cave to Howard. They stood, horrified, announced they couldn’t brook this talk in Labor voters, and left, collecting another couple or two as they did.

The Greens were the party that spoke out for the ‘boat people’ and my godfather – an old union man – had started voting for them. Frustrated with the ongoing Labor preselection debacles in Wollongong, I had, too.

I’d met Bob Brown, leader of the Australian Greens, in 2000, at the protest of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, an anti-corporate-power event which culminated in the solid beating of me and many others by the Victorian Police. In the context of the barricades and violence, Bob Brown’s calm presence was something akin to a saintly reassurance that I was lined up on the right side.

By this stage, I’d been protesting the Tory excesses of Howard’s government for years, with dwindling belief the ALP was likely to get its own shit together enough to fight back. Brown was in the thick of the action, and as the party that was defined by its participation in environmental causes, slowly registering in the world’s policy consciousness, the Greens had the glow of future vision. I believed the Greens were a left-wing party; many old communists were certainly helping them out, while the Australian Democrats, who were the larger party in the Senate back then, were a present and obvious means of a centrist comparison.

When a sudden by-election in my home seat of Cunningham in 2002 provoked another murky Labor preselection skirmish, my friend Michael Organ was the Greens candidate and I devoted myself to his campaign. So did many other locals who – like Michael – came from the same working-class background that I did but were resentful and angry at Labor’s aristocratic sense of entitlement to the seat. When Michael won, there were fewer Greens members at his victory party than there were people like me, cheering his victory as an affirmation of the left-wing and progressive values we no longer trusted Labor to deliver.

If I am honest with myself, voting Greens was never about voting Greens; it was about registering an electoral message of discontent with Labor. The source of that discontent was symbolised in the person of Kevin Rudd and everything that befell Labor in the wake of his leadership; the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd mess was Labor’s machine eating itself, and Rudd himself personified the small-target strategy of appeal to the right that abandoned the left – what went with it, of course, was Labor’s most energised base. Amongst it all, people like me – default-voting Green to seize at a moral oasis of uncompromised smug.

To be fair, Bob, and then Christine, made voting Greens an easy left-wing choice. Bob was – and remains – an activist, while Christine ran the Greens in the senate – with support from Adam Bandt in the house – as a visible, legislative left-flank. The enormous passage of progressive legislation by the Gillard government was a triumph of positive collaboration between Labor and Greens on the political left. Even when the Greens diverged from Labor on the proposal to process refugees in Malaysia and on Rudd’s first attempt at an emissions trading scheme, the divergence could be explained – and I realise this position is contentious – as disagreement on the left.

But since the end of Christine, the rise of Richard Di Natale has forced me to reappraise what I thought I knew about the party I’d voted for. When soon after Di Natale’s leadership was conferred, the Greens chose to vote with the Coalition to cut the part-pension, the public justifications exposed to me the ideological divide between my old-left values and the new Greens reality.

I return your attention to the house my grandfather built after the War that my family has lived in for three generations – a single asset shared by many, a house that’s housed unemployed family members looking for work, family units relocating cities, university students as they’ve completed study and was transacted to my mother in return for her full-time care of my grandmother into old age. The lack of understanding of the interdependent economic reality of working-class families was demonstrated by the Greens’ depiction of part-pensioners as some kind of property-hoarding kulaks, providing cover for Liberals who pursued the cuts entirely in line with their ideological commitment to erasing the remnants of the welfare state. Forgotten while the Greens praised themselves for a measly $15 a week increase in the pension for full-pensioners was that the part-pension was introduced by Howard as a compensation for the increased living costs of the GST.

A simple mistake? Not when the head of the Greens ‘economic team’ that made the decision is Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, the former merchant banker praised by the Liberal Senator Sean Edwards last year as someone who would ‘would fit quite squarely in the Coalition with a lot of his positions’. As recently as 2013, Whish-Wilson was demanding a ‘bigger national discussion’ about penalty rates, which he described as ‘outdated’.

And he’s no outlier. His Greens comrade, newly-minted Milne-replacement senator Nick McKim from Tasmania, praised the Uber model of labour deregulation in his maiden speech of September 2015, suggesting Uberisation’s extension to labour hire and childcare, pledging that the Greens would be ‘advocating for more support, less protectionism, and the lightest possible regulatory touch from government’. And in December, Adam Bandt – Adam Bandt! – spoke in favour of a Greens/Liberal deal agreeing to ease the threshold at which multi-million dollar corporations are obliged to publicly disclose their taxation arrangements.

The result is my ‘awareness sickness’, my oasis of smug now sunk – and my public admission of such both an invocation to the youthful pack who attacked me online the other night, as well as, contemplating a repeat of such an outcome, my reticence in committing this personal history to print. As it’s personal testimony, I can but admit to what I’ve seen, what I’ve felt, and the shifting paradigm within. I will be returning my vote to the Labor party at the next election, and not because my politics have shifted, nor my illusions traded places back to Labor from the Greens. It is a clear-eyed assessment of the reality that is the progressive achievements, however imperfect, of Labor in power and the realisation, too – that in competition amongst neoliberal sellouts with machines that are vicious and whose policies let me down, Labor is the party that I most trust to look after my ageing mum.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer