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Precautions for and against change

By Adrien Stewart - posted Tuesday, 26 July 2011

"It should be borne in mind," Machiavelli tells us, "that there is nothing more difficult, more doubtful of success, and more dangerous to carry through than initiating changes." He was referring to constitutional change but the caution applies to any significant political change. The Greens will be wise to bear this in mind.

Now they have real power they will, at some point, be confronted with the democratic tugs of Australian society. The powerful interests that drive its economic engine. The Greens must fulfil the practical requirements of parliamentary power.

The choices they make and the way they do it, will decide whether they are a 21st century political force or a curious historical chapter. They will need to make their compromise with the system. And they will have to do so, I suspect, over the corpse of Bob Brown's political career.

Mr. Brown has created something. He knows this. And the old saying about the corrupting nature of power, applies to him as to others. To be the "Founder Of Something New" is a role rife with ego-hazards and predestined martyrdom. The Greens' leader has a habit of making proclamations of dreamy hyperbole. His utterance that the Greens' fate is to replace the ALP as the Australian 'party of progress' was simply the last. He appears overly proud of the electoral success of his party, perhaps even charged on the power. I wonder, did he ever read The Prince?

I don't have anything against Bob. As a teenager I found his obstruction of destruction in the Tasmanian wilderness noble. I still do. I share that vision of a future more at balance with nature, not so destructively wasteful. I believe that clean energy sources should replace fossil fuels. But the Greens' plans to achieve a clean energy economy are not practical because they have been developed with an ironic disregard for nature.

I do not mean that the Greens don't care about nature. I mean that in their habits of action and in their policy prescription, they disregard the natural flow of human relations. The Greens believe they can make new these relations by laws and public expenditure. They think they can re-sculpt the economy by design.


This is not necessarily a conscious ideological program, as it was with the self appointed proletarian vanguards of one hundred years ago. It is a traditional habit of thinking, which treats as immaterial the basic facts of human motivation.

I will illustrate with an anecdote: I was with the Greens a short while: meetings, speeches, letterbox-drops (sorry everyone). And one night it came to a branch meeting's attention that the 'backroom' of the party was male-dominated. The 'party power structure' was, in the Greens, a boy's game. The instant solution was an affirmative action program mandating a minimum number of women on these committees.

One objection was raised. The individual who did so was a highly qualified woman (PhD; hard science) who thought it demeaning to her accomplishments. This was met with a moment of stern silence followed by a change of tack.

An observation was made that there was no effective 'glass ceiling' problem amongst the Greens. Murmurs were followed by the re-assertion of affirmative action. No one challenged it, everyone agreed. The Greens work on the basis of consensus which means that everyone agrees. At that branch meeting there was agreement because there was no debate. In the Greens I saw no debates.

The affirmative action policy was useless. Rules aren't good at making people want to do something. Mandating a certain percentage of women in this or that club does not make women want to participate. Affirmative action is used to force groups to relinquish exclusivity. It only works where the boys want to keep it a boy's club and the girls want in.

The Greens' backroom problem was not a sexist debarring, but lack of interest. Still, to argue the reasons why, might mean you were no longer welcome. This is natural among groups. There's an unspoken code of conduct and conversation, a group dynamic in which everyone is the same.

But for consensus to work the group must be small. Inevitably, the larger the group the more differences will emerge. What has worked for smallish activist collectives with a sole objective will not do for a parliamentary party.

This culture of consensus is born of opposition to the adversarial, excessively factionalized nature of mainstream politics and the pursuit of power in itself. The Greens want to do it in a better way. But consensus is not a better way. No one agrees about everything, sometimes compromise is impossible.

This is why the unpleasant ritual of argument and numbers, is deployed by other parties. It is a solution to a problem of human nature, the wilful, disagreeable monkeys that we are. Replacing it with consensus goes not forward but backwards. It makes it much more difficult to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. Stronger personalities always win.

This is potentially fatal and more than merely anecdotal. It's at the very heart of the Greens program. For example, the Greens aim to "develop a plan to assist affected communities in the transition from dependence on coal mining and coal-fired power stations." They believe that "global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably reduce the demand for coal." They are confident that no one will want coal as a result of global efforts. What efforts would these be? Well, the first thing the Greens plan to do is "take a leading role in negotiating a multilateral emission abatement treaty."

This was tried at Copenhagen where the Peoples' Republic of China, in accordance with its interests, ensured it came to nothing. The Chinese want coal. They want oil, they want nuclear power, solar, wind; anything that keeps the lights burning, the traffic moving, the money going round. In China hundreds of thousands of people leave their medieval peasant lives each year seeking out a bleak lower rung in the modern world. They want to live like us. Neither treaty nor law will abate this desire. And the emerging economies will endorse neither unless forced to it. What 'leading role' can we play?

The Greens' answer is that Australia must become a paragon of sustainability. The slogan: The equitable transfer to a clean energy economy. The plan is for compulsory targets, universally binding agreements and large amounts of public expenditure facilitating this and easing the pains of those negatively afflicted.


Senator Brown wants the coal industry phased out. But the energy resource industry currently drives growth in this country. How do we make up for the loss in export earnings? His answer: We export renewable energy. At the heart of the Greens' policy document is an assumption that renewable energy will provide both the Australian population's power requirement and replace revenue lost by the termination of the coal industry.

One cannot export sunlight, wind or magma so he refers to new technology that exploits these resources. Will the resultant industries provide jobs for every miner now unemployed? He thinks so but how can he know? A gaping assumption indeed, especially considering the only measures on offer assisting the growth of these now-marginal industries are subsidies, research grants and rules that kill off the competition. If this goes ahead will the lights still be on? And if they are not, will people want to remain in the dark?

More problems may emerge in the unlikely event that Mr Brown's party should acquire a massive mandate in both our Houses, as global warming will not abate.

There are not enough Australians to have an effect. And the rapid swelling of China, Brazil and India continues uninterrupted. Others follow. Nothing we do will quell these rising giants' hunger for fossil fuels. The marketplace agrees. BHP Billiton buys out Petrohawk Energy in Texas. Indian steel manufacturers look to buy our coalmines.

No Australian law or regulatory body can compel these multinational firms to stop trading in fossil fuels. Yet the Greens' plan is to write rules. Rules with which few agree; rules that will not work. To the significance of all this Brown seems oblivious. He is insufficiently aware that his vision is simply that.

Senator Brown was born in 1944. Most of his colleagues were born in the early 70s. The difference is significant. My generation was raised in uncertain times and tends to be less prone to idealistic hubris than those with fond memories of the 1960s. Still, Green ideology as distinct from its longer-lived socialist current companion is a creature of that now mythological decade. Senator Brown is a genuine old school member of the breed. Now that it's serious, a reckoning between idealists and pragmatists is inevitable. The Greens' survival depends on victory for the latter.

Brown will no doubt lead the idealists. Founders of political movements are invariably idealist. Those that follow are inevitably more pragmatic. The Greens have a lot of technocratic expertise for a new party. When the Labor movement asserted itself, it did not run many doctors and lawyers as candidates. Greens' members are second only to the Liberals on the socio-economic scale. They should be smart enough to know that their policy document is not practical.

Change is hard because you create committed enemies of whoever benefits from the status quo. Change is precarious because of the disparity between objectives and outcomes. These are well-tried maxims articulated by political progressives of centuries past.

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About the Author

AC Stewart has been a journalist, a speechwriter, a film critic and a copywriter. He currently sells art for a living and tries to write something worthwhile for a change.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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