Can the Greens reach beyond Brown’s legacy?

Bob Brown at Franklin Dam protest.

Beyond the predictable deserved and undeserved accolades that Brown will receive, the real question is whether the Greens can grow beyond the political legacy of Bob Brown — because that is where the Greens need to go to live up to the hopes for real change of their 1.7 million voters…

There is a lot to celebrate in the legacy of retiring Greens leader Senator Bob Brown. Above all, he’s been central to holding together the most successful new electoral party project in Australia that sits significantly to the left of the increasingly politically indistinguishable traditional parties of government, Labor and Liberal-National. 1.7 million out of the 13 million who turned out to vote in the last federal election voted for the Greens.

Brown’s almost Gandhian image — a legacy of his non-violent resistance against the Franklin dam in Tasmania and his unpertubable mild manner in public appearances (no matter the pressure he faced) — has undoubtedly played a role in keeping together a party that holds the diverse hopes for real change of many in Australia. He has the deep respect of many for being an activist who was prepared to be arrested for his efforts and for standing up to nasty personal attacks as a consequence of being Australia’s first openly gay parliamentarian.

But beyond the predictable deserved and undeserved accolades that Brown will receive, the real question is whether the Greens can grow beyond the political legacy of Bob Brown — because that is where the Greens need to go to live up to those hopes for real change.

His successor, Senator Christine Milne, conceded in the April 13 press conference announcing Brown’s resignation and the Greens leadership change that we are living through the “biggest assault on the environment in Australia’s history”.

She put the blame on “mining companies and the major parties that won’t stand up to them”.

The mining boom won’t last for ever, she said, and “we are a society not just an economy”.

Brown has acknowledged the challenge for “the world’s richest country in per capita terms”.

Progressive politics, he told, is in a “stunning and very troubling retreat”.

“It’s being totally eclipsed by the power of the corporations,” Brown is quoted by as saying. “I see this disconnect where people are so frustrated with politics generally that they don’t see that there’s any hope in the political arena whereas there is no hope anywhere else.”

Brown said at the April 13 press conference his greatest political legacy was build a party that had its sights firmly on becoming a party of government.

“The Greens are on a trajectory to being government. We are not out to just keep so-and-so honest,”  he said, seeking to distinguish the Greens from the now vanished Australian Democrats, a party that previously enjoyed the so-called “balance-of-power” in the Australian Senate towards the end of the last century and whose founder, Don Chipp, famously  described his party’s aim as to “keep the bastards honest”.

No minor parliamentary party has ever succeded “keeping the bastards honest”.

The Greens, as former left Greens NSW MLC Sylvia Hale said in her valedictory speech in 2010, the Greens do face a choice between being a minor irritant and taking on the mainstream parties.

The first choice, Hale argued, was resist being just a party of environmental concerns. Despite the origins of Brown and the Tasmanian Greens (which have effectively led the Australian Greens up to now), it has to be said that the Greens have transcended this first challenge.

The Greens have stood fairly consistently again the Lib-Lab policies of support for the imperialist wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, against the racist and inhumane refugee policies of the major parties (which has thousands of asylum seekers – including more than a thousand children – detained without trial and indefinitely in concentration camps around the Australia), opposed the major parties open slather policies on mining and supported the rights of workers. So they have gone beyond a narrow green focus and resisted the pressure to capitulate on the war question as have the German and other European Green parties.

Social movement activists know that though the Greens could clearly do a lot more to help build the movement in the streets, at this stage the Greens are the only party that champions their causes in state and federal parliaments.

Hale said it was “Perhaps time for The Greens to bite the bullet, acknowledge the fact that the electorate and the party’s candidates see themselves as the most left-wing political party of any significance in Australia, and campaign accordingly.”

But the bigger challenge, as Hale acknowledged, is for the Greens to recognise the real class divide in society and neo-liberal capitalist roots of the biggest social and environmental problems., and to embrace challenge of standing up to the Lib-Lab neo-liberal orthodoxy which, as former Labor PM Kevin Rudd put it, is “simply to enforce contracts and protect the allocation of property rights”.

The major parties’ embrace of neo-liberalism is at the heart of the economic and environmental crisis and is now the source of their growing credibility crisis. Hale argued that the Greens want to be a real party of change it needs to reject that course but also move beyond narrow parliamentary politics.

“Voting in many ways is the lowest form of politics. All that is required is to turn up every four years and mark a piece of paper. More than ever, political engagement has become the preserve of a minority. One of the challenges for the Greens is to evolve alternative institutions that would give meaning to politics in a broader sense.”

This is indeed a challenge that has yet to be taken up by the Greens. The party’s focus is overwhelmingly on winning parliamentary seats and working within the existing political representation system.

Further, Hale notes that it is unlikely that the Greens will be able to form government at the state or federal level unless proportional representation is introduced for the lower houses of state and federal parliaments.

As the Greens have increased their representation at local, state and federal levels, the party has come under pressure to support neo-liberal measures such as cuts in social services, outsourcing and privatisation. The Greens have joined coalition governments twice in Tasmania with the Labor party and both these governments have implemented neo-liberal measures. In several local governments, Greens councillors have also supported neo-liberal attacks.

Recently, more left-wing Greens MPs in NSW have come under attack in their party from the right, particularly over the question of Palestine. A NSW Greens position of active support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli apartheid was watered down in the wake of a nasty attack on former Greens mayor Marrickville Fiona Byrnes

So the political legacy of Brown’s leadership is mixed, and his successor, Milne, indicated that she saw the way forward for the Greens in building alliances with “progressive business in Australia”, which she described at the representatives of a more sustainable economy against the “vested interests of the old economy”.

The new Greens leader identified the mining companies as a key part of the “old vested interests” but who are these progressive capitalists she is appealing to?

Only a naive understanding of 21st century could leave out the fact that all sectors of big business are interlinked, at the very least through finance capital that shuffles and channels investment (including some $1.3 trillion in workers’ superannuation funds). Directly or indirectly, all big capitalists have their money invested in what is the biggest ever mining boom in Australian history. So a policy of looking for change by appealing to “progressive business in Australia” is doomed to failure.

Milne’s outlook is not a shift to the right for the Greens. It underlies the Greens’ backflip on the ALP’s second plan to introduce an emissions trading scheme to deal with the global climate change crisis — a crisis that most scientists acknowledge governments around the world have failed to seriously address.

As Green Left Weekly‘s Simon Butler pointed out in its March 24 issue, back in 2009, Milne (then Brown’s deputy leader) said: “The Greens oppose the CPRS [the former Rudd Labor government’s Carbon Pollution Trading Scheme]  as it stands not because it is too weak but because it will actually point Australia in the wrong direction with little prospect of turning it around in the time-frame within which emissions must peak. This is why we say it is not just a failure, but it locks in failure.”

Now, Milne applauds what is essentially the same scheme (preceded by a temporary fixed carbon price to be introduced in July) as “the vital first step towards tackling the climate crisis”.

As a consequence of this backflip and capitulation to the ALP, the Greens demobilised what had until 2010 been a growing mass movement for the radical but urgently needed measures to address the climate change crisis, including a shift to renewable energy in 10-15 years. Most Greens supporters in the movement turned the rallies into cheer squads for the Gillard ALP government’s “carbon pricing” scheme and eventually the movement dwindled.

This is one of the most negative political legacies of Brown’s leadership of the Greens.

The 2012 State of the Climate report by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO projected an average temperature rise in Australia of 1 to 5°C by 2070, long-term drying over southern and eastern Australia and an increase in extreme weather events such as severe floods, droughts and extreme cyclones. The report highlighted accelerating sea-level rises. The global-average mean sea level for 2011 was 210 mm above the level in 1880 and has risen faster between 1993 and 2011 than during the 20th century as a whole but to the north and north-west of Australia the rates of sea level rise are two to three times the global average.

If per-capita-richest and per-capita-worst-carbon-emitting Australia is going to rise to the challenge, as Brown urged in his resignation press conference, then the Greens need to break from Brown and Milne’s political legacy on the ALP’s dodgy climate-change policy.

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