The Australian Greens achieved unprecedented success at the last federal election, gaining their highest ever number of parliamentary seats after putting forward a left-wing platform calling for including dental and mental health in Medicare, the wiping of student debt, 1 million affordable homes, free child care and income-support increases.
Party leader Adam Bandt described the result as “a massive mandate for action on climate and inequality”. The final Senate results confirmed as much: the Albanese Labor government needs the Greens’ votes to pass any legislation opposed by the Liberal-National Coalition.
Nine months on from the election, what has come of the Greens’ electoral success? How have they used their mandate to bring about changes that their voters want?
From the beginning, the party was clear that, like the rest of the left, it wanted to get rid of Scott Morrison’s Liberal government. Its orientation was to win as many seats as possible and then bring progressive pressure to bear on a new Labor government. The argument boiled down to: if the Greens hold the balance of power, good things will happen. It was up to the ALP to choose, in Bandt’s words, a path of either “confrontation or cooperation”.
The problem is that Labor is hostile to a program of left-wing reforms. After all, this is the party that has for decades overseen sweeping attacks on workers and the privatisation of public assets. It even went to the federal election promising to maintain the Liberal Party’s tax cuts for the rich.
Nothing was more emblematic of Labor’s hostility to “cooperation” with the Greens than the very first piece of legislation moved in the new parliament: the climate bill. It not only set an inadequate emissions reduction target of just 43 percent by 2030 but did not provide any enforcement mechanisms or concrete plans to achieve the goal. The target didn’t even account for Australia’s coal and gas exports, which keep climbing. The entire point of the bill, as Jerome Small explained last year in Red Flag, was to “keep stacking up the cash while the planet burns”.
Labor threw down the gauntlet. It was well aware that the best way to wrong-foot the Greens was to dare them to “make the perfect the enemy of the good”, as the asinine phrase goes. A deluge of finger-wagging, tut-tutting opinion writers and talking heads reiterated the view that, finally, we might see “an end to the climate wars” if only the Greens would sign off on Labor’s bill.
The Greens capitulated. Despite their own criticisms of the bill (that it was the equivalent of “bringing a bucket of water to a house fire”), Greens MPs voted for it with only minor amendments. The legislation has acted as a soporific to the climate movement—precisely what the ALP wants while it is in government.
Faced with an unpopular opposition led by Peter Dutton, Labor has thus far gotten pretty much everything it wanted through the parliament. The Greens, meanwhile, with their “cooperative” parliamentary approach, have extracted precious little in return.
Indeed, under the ALP, with the mild-mannered Greens by their side, the fossil fuel industry is booming, real wages have dropped precipitously, and the housing crisis has become much worse. The Greens can’t be blamed for all this, of course. But the question has to be asked: how is their strategy going?
Far from seizing the opportunity to work with the Greens, Labor’s approach to the climate bill set the terrain for subsequent clashes. Take the housing bill currently before the parliament. Parliamentary Library research, seen by Guardian journalist Paul Karp last year, estimates that there is a shortfall of more than 500,000 public housing dwellings and that this is going to rise to almost 700,000 within ten years. Yet the bill will add just 20,000 social housing units. Labor’s “plan” is for more people sleeping in tents and homeless encampments in Australia’s major cities.
The Greens have rightly argued for a minimum spend of $5 billion a year on public housing. Labor has responded by castigating the Greens for “voting with Peter Dutton” and again accusing them of “making the perfect the enemy of the good”.
The same accusation is being levelled in regard to Labor’s proposed “safeguard mechanism”, legislation that, while purporting to make concrete steps to reduce emissions, gives big business easy loopholes to escape any actual reduction by purchasing “carbon credits”.
The past year has shown that Labor isn’t interested in cooperating to make its legislative agenda more favourable to working-class people. This creates a dilemma for the Greens. Their strategy of cooperation has failed. Is there a plan B?
Their trump card is the ability to block bad legislation. But to do this, they would have to be prepared to weather a storm of indignation from the Labor Party and its backers in the press. They would have to become a genuine opposition.
If they continue down the path of capitulating when push comes to shove, many of their supporters may well ask: what is the point of the Greens?