Monash University Publishing | Contacts Page
Monash University Publishing: Advancing knowledge

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

Chapter 7

Which Way for a Progressive Voter in 2016?

Scott Ludlam

Taking on the question of identifying the true home of progressive electoral politics in Australia – Labor or the Greens – runs the immediate risk of disappearing down one or the other partisan rabbit holes, and staying down there. That might be mildly interesting for people who’ve already made up their minds and are just looking for a bit of affirmation, but won’t do much to slow the breakup of the Antarctic ice sheet or get refugee children off the prison islands.

We’ve both got our angry stereotypes of the other, so let’s quickly get them out of the way. See if you can guess which is which:

Party 1: a strident and delusional protest party of dreamy-eyed hippies and bitter trots who promise solar-powered unicorns on every street corner while working to abolish the productive industries that would pay for them;

Party 2: a broken and compromised rolling civil war of union factions and ambitious neoliberal spivs, well into its twilight, whose internal contradictions and loathing average out to produce deep mediocrity rocked by occasional outbreaks of public self-harm.

It’s a fortunate thing that both of these stereotypes are bullshit, and you will be pleased to know that there are good people of good heart in both the Australian Greens and the ALP working late into the night against the odds to try and make the world a kinder and less tragic place. The obvious question which then arises; (‘ffs can you people please just set your partisan differences aside and work together for the good of the planet and its people?’) is a pretty reasonable one.

That actually happens more often than it might look, at the fine-grained level of negotiating Senate motions or collaborating on inquiries, to campaigns like the Perth Freight Link or the way Greens regional groups allocate preference recommendations. In my time in the Senate I’ve worked with Labor MPs on issues as diverse as enabling legislation for the National Broadband Network, infrastructure funding, housing affordability schemes and nuclear weapons abolition, and I like to think that collectively the outcomes were better than anyone would have achieved alone. Those are the days where you raise a late night glass in the office long after the rest of the country has switched off and figure this is what people elected you to actually do. Those are good days.

The exemplar is a story that Christine Milne would tell better than I. After some adept negotiations in the wake of election 2010’s indeterminate result, Christine’s proposal for a Multi-Party Climate Change Committee wrote the template for world-leading climate legislation that wrapped everything from biodiversity conservation, carbon farming, low-income protection, tax bracket reform, industry support and clean energy investment into a carbon price package. Nobody got everything they wanted, but through that process at least the Parliament was operating across party lines to deliver something deeply important.

Labor supporters rest heavily on the foundational achievements of the Whitlam era or the soft-focus golden age of Hawke and Keating, but there are accomplishments closer to home that deserve acknowledgement, despite the vandalism some of them suffered in subsequent years. The National Broadband Network was the real deal – a big picture structural reform; nation building in the original sense. The Gonski reforms, attempting to deliver education funding to children our country otherwise threatens to leave behind. The Living Longer Living Better aged-care package. The National Disability Insurance Scheme – brought forward by none other than Bill Shorten – attempting to throw a vital safety net under the people who need it the most. These are big, important national reforms that should be credited to the people and the party who made them happen.

But here’s the thing: puffed up in the aftermath of the carbon price rollback, Tony Abbott set his sights on gutting the Renewable Energy Target and crashing the clean energy sector for good. Instead of telling him to jam it, the Labor leadership came up with the genius strategy of meeting him half way. With Labor helping Abbott set the agenda on what degree of attack on clean energy companies they would be happy to accommodate, the Parliamentary debate was over before it even started. Polite applause all round.

Here’s another: After a six-year campaign to hold it back, I had to watch Labor sitting on the opposite side of the chamber with George Brandis and Eric Abetz to pass mandatory data retention into law for every device, every man, woman and child in the country. It felt like swallowing broken glass, because I still believe that campaign was winnable. We had seven of the eight cross-benchers with us that night, and if we’d had Labor’s twenty five Senators, that piece of counterproductive authoritarian garbage would not now be law.

Here’s another: After condemning John Howard for targeting Northern Territory Aboriginal communities and cattle ranchers for a national radioactive waste dump during the 2007 election, Labor promptly changed sides and started gunning hard for the Muckaty mob as soon as they won government. It took seven years of dignified resistance by local Aboriginal families supported by seasoned anti-nuclear campaigners around the country, two years of Parliamentary blocking tactics and sharp legal intervention in the Federal Court to kill off that unforgivable attack.

Another: While Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison might have perfected the art of using desperate refugee families for domestic political effect, it was Kevin Rudd who reintroduced indefinite imprisonment on offshore black sites as a method for deterring future arrivals of terrified families evacuating war zones. Rudd may be gone, but the policy lives on in the clammy hands of the stridently incompetent Peter Dutton. Labor MPs still expect a warm welcome and an open mic at refugee rights events, as though the rest of us should just let that appalling lapse go through to the keeper. Some things are hard to forget and impossible to forgive, at least while people are still killing themselves behind razor wire.

Rolling the worst elements of the Northern Territory Intervention forward another ten years. Handing ASIO the power to hack and modify an unlimited number of network-connected devices off the back of a single authorisation. Citizenship revocation laws borrowed from George Orwell’s nightmares. Uranium mines. The ability to prosecute and jail journalists for merely disclosing the existence of certain kinds of ASIO operation. A blank cheque for our next wave of military misadventures in Iraq and Syria. Promoting massive expansions in coal mining, gas fracking and offshore gas extraction while positioning as a party of climate change action.

There are more. Many more, but you get the point. In large part, most of those strands of Tony Abbott’s short but malignant tenure that we’re stuck with in black-letter law are only there because of the enfeebled state of the Labor Party, and its inability to stand up as a party of progressive opposition when it actually counted.

It is not the job of the Australian Greens to provide political cover for these repetitive unforced errors. Where common ground exists – and there’s plenty – we work together and we get good stuff done. But when Labor in Government goes after the tertiary education sector as they did in 2013, we will link arms with student organisers and tertiary education unions and fend off the assault. When Labor in opposition deftly changes sides and positions itself as the natural champion of tertiary education, which it is doing right now, we will respectfully decline to join them in pretending that 2013 never happened.

I’ve seen this phenomenon played out often enough that I feel like just calling it out for the brazen political gaslighting that it is. The Labor Party shows different faces to different constituencies and hopes that nobody compares notes. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it’s a disaster. Consider the 2014 senate by-election in Western Australia. It would be hard to imagine two more different candidates than Louise Pratt and Joe Bullock. A woman who spent her career as an outspoken advocate for LGBTI rights, for refugees, for climate action. A man who stood shoulder to shoulder with Tony Abbott in university politics and has stayed aligned with Abbott on keystone issues for the remainder of his political life. The Western Australian public were asked with a straight face to accept that these two polar opposites embodied the same values because the Labor Party is a ‘broad church’. It was excruciating, and it cost the ALP dearly.

What the ‘broad church’ phenomenon means in practice is that a handful of good-hearted Labor MPs are free to go out and campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership despite the fact that the ALP leadership has already decided they are going to support it when push comes to shove. The church is broad enough to cultivate climate change campaigners to join the ALP, while throwing the full weight of state institutions behind Adani’s attempts to disembowel the Galilee Basin coalfields. It is a church that did everything it could to block marriage equality when it was in government, only to succumb to a series of revelatory changes of heart from the safety of opposition.

It’s not so much that the Labor Party routinely attempts to walk both sides of the street; it is that the rest of us are apparently meant to pretend that it just isn’t happening.

When I say that there are people of good heart working hard inside the Labor Party, people I trust and count as friends, I mean it, and I presume things would be a lot worse if they weren’t there. But the net effect of working for ‘change from within’ is this endless sequence of compromises and stumbles that has left people with very little idea of what the modern Labor party actually stands for. I am sure there are legitimate reasons why you’d go into the Labor Party and try and resuscitate it from within, but ultimately, these efforts seem futile by definition. ‘Change from within’ may have merit if the platform just needed tweaking around the edges. But a party in thrall to the coal industry in the age of climate change, that sent its soul to reside with children in offshore concentration camps, is not in need of a minor tweak. It needs to work out who it actually is.

The deepest problem with the ‘change from within’ strategy is that to a jaded party strategist, a vote 1 marked next to the ALP candidate by a voter desperate for something better from Labor is indistinguishable from a number 1 endorsing the sad status quo. Every electoral success on the back of a ‘slightly less awful than Tony Abbott’ policy platform makes it that much less likely that the platform will meaningfully change.

A Labor Government signed Australia up to the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, and yet they are still backing unregulated fossil fuel exports. Cowed by the force of the Abbott/Morrison assault, Labor fatally compromised itself on protection of refugees and now wears equal responsibility for the horrors unfolding in the camps. Given multiple opportunities to put a check on Abbott’s frightening lapses into authoritarian surveillance laws and foreign military incursions, Labor blinked over and over again.

It is entirely pragmatic for Labor to adopt these policy positions if they think it will help capture some imaginary political ‘centre’ as defined by the collapsing influence of the Daily Telegraph or a tiny handful of talkback radio hosts. But they can hardly expect progressive movements to keep pretending it isn’t happening, or imagine that this serial surrender qualifies as leadership. For Labor campaigners baffled by the rise of the Greens or offended by the idea that the centre of gravity for progressive politics long-ago swung away from the grinding internal contradictions of the Labor Party, I respectfully draw your attention to this dismal record. Various left factions may be willing to be crushed over and over again on matters of valiant principle, but the rest of us have run out of patience.

Until recently, Labor had slowed the rise of the Greens and other parties by deliberately obfuscating peoples’ understanding of Australia’s preferential system, and using fear of conservative governments to label smaller parties a wasted vote. Their success allowed Labor to campaign on major national issues with undeserved credibility as sole agents of change. But that credibility will continue to erode in the interconnected world, where friends and family are the most trusted news source and Labor’s contradictions and capitulations are just a few mouse clicks away.

The way forward for the Greens is much clearer. All of our policy positions emerge from four pillars that were set down as the foundation of our party nearly three decades ago. If they haven’t already come across them by the time they join, new Greens members are introduced to the concepts of Ecological Sustainability, Participatory Democracy, Social Justice and Peace and Nonviolence. Internal debates are as fiery and well informed as I imagine occur in any party, but they are at least focused on how to enact those core philosophies in the real world. The principles stand uncontested, and that’s a key reason why we’ve continued to grow as a political movement while other minor parties have fallen apart.

The situation is always more complex than the angry stereotypes allow, and it would be foolish to pronounce on the demise of an institution as complicated and storied as the Australian Labor Party. The blunt facts are, in the immediate future neither party will hold an absolute majority in either house of Parliament, as increasing numbers of Australians throw their allegiance to minor parties and independents or opt out of the electoral process entirely.

Where goodwill and common cause allow, the urgency of our challenges demand we all work together for the good of the planet and its people. If the Labor Party resolves some of the conflicts that have it handcuffed to the wrong side of arguments of fundamental importance, they know they have a powerful ally in the green movement. But increasing numbers of people have given up hope of this ever happening, and this is beginning to show on electoral maps as new generations of voters enter the field and older generations run out of patience. Time’s up.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer