The rise of the Greens in contemporary Australian politics should not surprise anyone. It is the only major party, which in recent times has consistently articulated a coherent ideological position.
The major parties of the left and right have largely abandoned their ideological bearings. Labor has given itself over to focus group driven policies and is paying the political price for that. While the Liberal and National parties are enjoying some short-term political gains from merely opposing everything the Government proposes. However, signs are already emerging that this will not alone win them government.
The Greens have eschewed this politics of expediency and have prospered. There is an important lesson in this for the major parties, but they seem oblivious to it.
Now the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate and the support of the one Greens member in the House is vital to the minority Labor Government. The success or otherwise of this Labor-Greens cooperation will be very significant for the course of left-of-centre politics in Australia in coming years.
Cooperation between Labor and the Greens offers a corrective to the loss of electoral support for the Labor Party. This will only happen if the two parties can establish effective means of cooperation within the context of competing for the left-of-centre vote. Some early signs are promising but the real question is whether Labor can make the adjustments needed for such cooperation.
The Greens have already been largely instrumental in the formulation first of the broad policy and then of the detail of the carbon tax. Julia Gillard, having scuttled Kevin Rudd's ETS and then promised there would be no carbon tax, has been forced to adopt it as the price of Greens support.
This is precisely the sort of bold policy initiative that modern Labor appeared incapable of delivering. Left to its own devices it is almost certain Labor would not have introduced a carbon tax or any effective policy on climate change.
Gillard's prescription of waiting for bipartisan support on climate change was bound to continue the political deadlock and betrayed a telling lack of conviction. Thus, the Greens have injected some much needed policy resolve into the Government from which it stands to benefit politically if it has the nous.
The political heat the Government has taken over the carbon tax is entirely of its own making. The Rudd Government had widespread political support for action on climate change but squandered that support by failing to push through with the ETS via a double dissolution in early 2009.
At the start of 2009 the Liberals were split down the middle over the ETS and had just elected a new leader by a one-vote majority who was widely regarded as unelectable. Rudd's position appeared impregnable. But instead of acting he hesitated. This created the space for Tony Abbot to capture the political initiative with his warnings about a great big new tax on everything. This in turn led to a fall in popular support for the ETS, which caused Rudd to abandon it in April 2009.
Rudd's failure to follow through on climate change when he had a clear mandate to do so produced within Labor the political calculation that such action was unpopular and would cost the Government electorally. Labor has thus come via its own political failings to equate effective action on climate change with political unpopularity.
Such unpopularity is not necessarily terminal. As Hawke showed with the capital gains tax and Howard with the GST, a Government can introduce an unpopular tax and survive.
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