Why the Greens in Power is a Good Thing

Yes, the title of this post is somewhat provocative. I mean it to be. Don’t get me wrong: there’s very little chance I would vote for the Greens, and I take issue with many of their policy positions, as well as the broader ideological foundations of the party. The title of this article, therefore, should almost be seen as tongue-in-cheek.

Almost…but not quite. You see, I think there is one very real reason why the Greens having some measure of power in the current Federal Government is a good thing – and it’s not because we now get to see a lot more of Bob Brown. Rather, the Greens in power means that they no longer sit on the sidelines of political debate; they are now in the gladiatorial arenas known as federal and state politics, where a party’s position is out there, naked, in the public square. And this means the Greens are now coming under the often-searing spotlight of media and public scrutiny. For a party whose policies are recklessly naive or perniciously dogmatic, this is no bad thing.

Before the ascendency of the Greens at a national level, they could remain content with casting themselves as the party of innocence and purity, unsullied by the politicking, compromises and collusive behaviour of their bigger brothers. The Greens portrayed themselves as a noble and compassionate group – a paragon of justice and undiluted moral commitment (which was always in contrast with the larger parties). And for a time, that image worked, largely because the Greens had no real power and their stance on a whole raft of issues would not be seriously examined. Indeed, the Greens could afford to develop utopian, impractical or dangerous policies, since there was little chance these policies would ever have to be implemented, or that the party would ever have to worry about trying to moderate its positions if it won some measure of power. Bob Brown & co. could forever be the party of protest, offering an idealistic package that escaped the scrutiny of a media that was only interested in pursuing those whose policy positions would actually have consequences in this country. Much of the voting public was the same, supporting the Greens out of an ignorant environmental moralism. As one commentator stated, “…they voted Green with the knowledge that the Greens would not win government. They probably assumed, too, that a successful Greens party would, as leader Bob Brown recently admitted, be more ‘realistic’ than promised” (Mike Nahan, “Greens’ Policy Lacking Proper Scrutiny,” Adelaide Advertiser, January 8th, 2003). Even after a number of years of blessed political fortunes, the questionable nature of some of the Greens’ policies has escaped notice.

Until now. An example of the unmasking of the darker side of Green policies may help to highlight the evolving media and public reception to the Greens. Many may have heard of the ruckus going on in NSW, in the wake of the recent elections in that particular state. Fiona Byrne, the Greens candidate for the Western-Sydney seat of Marrickville, was caught out supporting a boycott of products made in Israel, in response to what she and other Green party members saw as the deeply unjust treatment of the Palestinian people. She has since backed away from those comments, but it seems that this was indeed the position of the NSW Greens, judging by some leftist media outlets (“NSW Greens: Boycott Apartheid Israel!”, Green Left Weekly, 8th December, 2010). The mainstream media – including The Age and The Australian newspapers – have heaped criticism upon this particular strain of Greens policy thinking, and the barrage has become so great that Bob Brown has had to come out and distance himself from this position (“NSW Greens Israel Boycott Damaging: Brown”, The Age, 1st April, 2011). Welcome to the hustle and bustle of real politics.

Now, I don’t want to get into a complex debate regarding the Israel-Palestine question. Nor do I wish to offer an uncritical defence of every action undertaken by Israel in the course of its struggle with the Palestinians and others. But in the final analysis, it is a small Jewish nation surrounded by countries that were all, until recently, unrelentingly and unremittingly opposed to its existence. Even now, it is still confronted by forces – such as Islamist Iran and terrorist groups, Hezbollah and Hamas – that remain implacably and violently committed to its destruction. Whatever one might say about the security measures Israel has taken in its efforts to remain safe, it ought to be easy to understand why this might be so. As far as I can see, only a commitment to a radical and dogmatic ideological position – one which you often find percolating on university campuses – could lead someone to deny these basic facts, and contribute to the further alienation of a country (the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, by the way) that possesses the unenviable distinction of being perhaps the only state whose neighbours are formally committed to its destruction. And this, from a party that claims to be the new force in Australian politics, and is in a formal power-sharing relationship with Federal Labor.

This is not an isolated example of a policy position that can be charitably described as “eccentric”. Not so long ago, The Institute for Public Affairs, a think-tank, published a working paper analysing many of the party’s policies. It makes for interesting reading. For example, the Greens have been dogmatic in their opposition to GM food, despite evidence suggesting their benefits. They want to institute discredited economic policies that would befit an old-style, centrally-planned economy. And they seek to give all things to all people, conveniently forgetting the old adage that “money doesn’t grow on trees” (if it did, the Greens wouldn’t let us touch it anyway!). During the last Victorian election, for example, the state Greens promised public transport infrastructure for Melbourne – 40 stations, 10 new rail lines, 550 new trams – that made a mockery of financial responsibility.

“Why, then”, you may ask, “is all this a good thing”? In one sense, it’s clearly not: we don’t need policy suggestions that support a ban on Israeli products, for example; that way lies a shameful moral equivalency, which is made even more offensive by the fact that such suggestions are being made by a party that is seriously vying for power (amidst the tirade against Israeli sins, there was no mention of the various Palestinian groups that specifically target Israeli citizens). But in another sense, the newly found power of the Greens may turn out to be the beginning of the end for them. The above issue, significant in itself, is also the tip of the iceberg. It may have created an opening for fresh questioning of the Greens and their policies. Now that they share power at a Federal level, and have made some inroads at a state level, the Greens can no longer hope to evade media and public scrutiny.

The “boycott Israel” incident seems to be unprecedented: I can’t remember the Greens coming under such sustained criticism from media outlets before now. Now that they are in the middle of the political arena, the Greens can expect to see their every move examined and interrogated in excruciating detail. This did not happen when they were merely the party of protest; as I said before, the media concentrated on the larger parties, whose policies actually affected the makeup and direction of the country. A minor party that began as a Tasmanian environmentalist group seemed destined to sit on the political sidelines for the foreseeable future. Consequently, it did not elicit much attention. The political landscape, however, has changed, and given their position of influence, the Greens are now coming in for greater examination. Hopefully, as that process continues, many of their policies – and indeed, their entire ideological platform – will be exposed. They can no longer claim political purity, and can no longer count on immunity from the media spotlight. And once their policies are exposed to the same public glare that has fallen on the major parties for so long, the Greens will either have to moderate their position on a whole raft of issues, or suffer the curse of political irrelevancy. This, I submit, is the paradoxical benefit of having the Greens in power.

Maybe I’m being too hopeful. Maybe I’m being too glib. Maybe people will continue to vote Green, in ever-greater numbers, despite their policies being exposed and interrogated for what they are. But there is a reasonable case to be made that, ironically, the very success of the Greens may well mean their ultimate failure in Australian political life.