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Greens enter the main game but at what price?

By Gary Johns - posted Friday, 13 August 2010

It seems likely that Labor will be returned with a reduced majority at the Federal election on Saturday, August 21, 2010. It is also likely that the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate, and an outside possibility, the House of Representatives. What is likely to happen should the Greens hold the balance of power? Four elements of this question come to mind - workability, longevity, policy, and institutional change.

In terms of arrangements for working together, the Greens suggest that the Labor/Green experiment in Tasmania would be a model of constrained and stable government. The present Labor administration in Tasmania consists of two Green MPs, Nick McKim, Minister for Human Services and Climate Change and Cassy O'Connor, Cabinet Secretary. The newly formed government has yet to exhibit signs of discord, let alone collapse but it is highly unlikely that Federal Labor will need to govern with the Greens. Nevertheless, the Greens may be in a strong position to insist on an alliance reminiscent of Tasmanian experience. Tasmania has experienced two Green-supported minority governments (Labor Green Accord 1989-1992) and (Liberal Green Alliance 1996-1998), the former based upon a formal agreement, the latter upon a less formal undertaking. Both alliances ended with a shortened life of the government and with the major party being harmed at the subsequent election.

The longevity of any such arrangement federally will depend on the maturity of the Greens leaders and the extent to which the new and enlarged Greens team can jell. Comparison is warranted with the Australian Democrats, who under Cheryl Kernot played a constructive - play to the crowd, screw some taxpayer’s money and let the legislation pass - role. Once Cheryl left (for Labor), however, the leadership was thrown open to more ideological players, whose management subsequently lead to the Democrats demise. Indeed, it may be an omen that Green candidate for Brisbane is former Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett.


The new team will consist of experienced Green leaders: Senators Bob Brown, whose political origins are the Wilderness Society forest campaigns, and Christine Milne, the Wesley Vale Pulp Mill campaign.

But they may be joined by the ex-socialist Lee Rhiannon NSW MLC founder of AID/WATCH, recently denied charity status by the Australian Taxation Office for its wholly advocacy based objectives, eschewing any actual charity work for the poor. She is more reminiscent of the Labor Left.

If the ACT candidate former president of the Australian Council of Social Services Lin Hatfield-Dodds succeeds, she will represent a big slice of the welfare activist vote. That vote is up for grabs given Labor’s increasingly stringent mutual obligation regime.

Larissa Waters is the Greens Senate candidate in Queensland and is an environmental and human rights lawyer, a good match for Sarah Hanson-Young, South Australia, who was Campaign manager (SA/NT) for Amnesty International.

Rachel Siewert is a Greens WA Senator who ran the WA Conservation Council and interestingly, and is seeking re-election to join fellow WA Greens Senator Scott Ludlam who was her electorate officer.

Already the Greens are showing signs of the internal recruiting that plagues the major parties. The player of most interest is Adam Bandt, barrister and “public interest campaigner” who could steal Melbourne from Labor with the retirement of Lindsay Tanner. In retrospect, the preselection of Peter Garrett for Labor some years ago may forestall losses to the Greens in Sydney, although how long Garrett remains Labor is problematic.


This spread of interests suggests a broader base of issues and a broader suite of policies to manage. The longevity of the party will depend on positioning itself to resist policy creep from Labor and the Coalition and on keeping the Green egos quelled.

As to policy, the Hawke government paid fairly dearly for the second preference strategy to the Greens in 1990. Among other things it locked away and folded into Kakadu national park a gold, platinum and palladium mine at Coronation Hill, which former Green candidate Clive Hamilton admitted denied Australia $1.5-2 billion in economic benefit. It also moved to list the Wet Tropics as World Heritage status, closing off opportunities for Aboriginal people (as is incidentally the Bligh government with its Wilderness Society inspired Wild Rivers legislation in Cape York). These costs, however, are miniscule compared to those surrounding climate change responses.

Clearly, pricing carbon is an important goal for the Greens, but it is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate Green goal is to deny Australians access to non-renewable energy; coal, gas and uranium. The Greens and others’ fascination with “boutique” energy sources such as wind and solar will not solve the “climate change” problem. Such energy sources will not replace base load electricity generated from coal or gas or nuclear (renewable sources require non-renewable back-up) in any time frame consistent with the Greens own deep belief in human induced climate change. This means that Labor, which has for at least the next term walked away from pricing carbon emissions, will need to spend a huge amount of money investing in renewable energy that will have no impact on carbon abatement.

Nevertheless, Labor will happily pay the price for holding the Treasury benches and keeping the Greens quiet, up until the point that the climate change abatement response either disproves itself, at which point governments will have to admit there is not a thing they can do to abate carbon at a rate sufficient to make a difference, and adaption becomes the strategy, or the whole anthropogenic climate change theory collapses in a farcical heap as temperatures continue to fail to keep rising.

Last, but by no means least, the Greens will demand a place at the table of Australia’s premier economic advisory bodies - the Productivity Commission, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics. Indeed, if the animal rights faction (Peter Singer end of the spectrum) gets their way, they will challenge the primacy of human rights, insisting on animal and biota rights and infiltrating the Human Rights Commission. That may make the comfortable leftist enclave of the Human Rights Commission squirm.

The real impact of the Greens holding the balance of power may be in embedding Green thinking in premier institutions. This would be by far the most destructive part of a Green price of power. Bad advice can be very expensive.

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About the Author

Gary Johns is a former federal member of Parliament and served as a minister in the Keating Government. Since December 2017 he has been the commissioner of the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission.

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