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The return of the political wedgie: is this the Greens' GST moment?

By Reece Kirwin - posted Monday, 29 June 2009

The infamous wedgie has returned to Australian politics. While it does not have the nasty overtones of the Howard years where the political wedge was used against Labor on issues such as refugees and anti-terrorism legislation, the wedgie has been employed by the Rudd Government in order to deal with a pressing political problem, namely the unpredictable nature of the current Australian Senate and the need to tackle climate change.

The Rudd Government’s revised climate change legislation is an atomic-sized double wedgie. It has served to separate Malcolm Turnbull from climate change sceptics in his party, and created starkly different positions between the Greens and key environmental groups involved in the climate change debate.

Some mainstream political commentators are describing the double-whammy of the climate change wedge as a political masterstroke, undermining the leadership of the Malcolm Turnbull, and dividing Green parliamentarians from sections of the environment movement. However, this has been somewhat overblown. While there are certainly ideological tensions within the Coalition, the suggestion that the Rudd Government has wedged the Greens from the environment movement ignores the history of environmental politics in Australia.


John Howard, was a masterful executor of wedge politics. He used the divide and conquer strategy against the Labor Party during its years in opposition. Labor was divided for years on issues such as refugees whereby the Howard government’s tough Pacific solution drove a wedge between a progressive urban constituency that was aghast at the Howard government’s treatment of asylum seekers and a cautious traditional middle-class constituency that supported tough border security legislation.

This undoubtedly provided Howard with a winning formula in the very nasty 2001 election. The Howard government also used the infamous political wedge against Mark Latham in the 2004 election with devastating results.

One of the most powerful images of the Howard years is of Howard being greeted as a hero by members of the CFMEU in Launceston after Mark Latham unsuccessfully gambled on Green preferences in the last week of the 2004 election.

The success of Kevin Rudd has been his ability to manage these tensions between the different Labor constituencies and factions in a manner that the explosive Mark Latham and the ineffectual Kim Beazley could not. Kevin Rudd is a smart political operator. He knows the potency of wedge politics, and refused to allow himself to be wedged in the year leading up to the 2007 election. He described himself as an economic conservative: he refused to allow the various factional machinations of the Labor Party to splinter under the desperate terminal onslaught of the Howard government during the 2007 election.

The successful ingredient of any potent political wedge is internal ideological difference. The success of Howard’s formula was to divide the left and right of the Labor Party.

In a similar fashion the Rudd Government’s manoeuvres on climate change have struck the magical wedge politics formula. He has delayed the start-up of the ETS and increased the carbon emissions reduction target to 25 per cent in a bid to cut across the concerns of moderates in the Liberal Party and critics within the environment movement. This has served to highlight the stark ideological differences within the Liberal-National Coalition, and indeed, within the Liberal Party between climate change sceptics and moderates.


As Rudd’s revised policy effectively delivers what Turnbull has been advocating, his inability to bring the various coalition camps together has raised questions about his leadership on both the issue of climate change and as well as his leadership of the party.

The politics of climate change and the pressure that has come to bear on the Greens highlights the new importance of the Greens and the environment movement in Australian politics: an importance possibly not seen since the 1990 election. It represents, in some respects, the evolution of the party from an extra-parliamentary protest force to a new role in federal politics as parliamentary operators and joint holders of the balance of power. The Greens’ prominent position as a voice of the environment movement is going to create tensions with their new parliamentary role. Will they continue to be an activist party? Or, will they evolve into the same balance of power role inhabited by the Democrats? While the two are not mutually exclusive, finding a balance will be a continual problem. These strategic problems are going to come under more scrutiny as Greens have more influence on the outcome of major policy initiatives in the Senate.

As we have seen with the Australian Democrats, small parties take a lot of the heat when their stance on legislation, which is central to the agenda of a driven Prime Minister, poses political problems. The Australian Democrats were placed in an almost insurmountable position when faced with the Howard government’s GST legislation in the late 1990’s. The GST created a split between centrists who advocated modification of the GST to make it more humane, and progressives such as Natasha Stott Despoja who crossed the floor and voted against the legislation. Many have argued that the GST was a catalyst for their eventual decline.

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About the Author

Reece Kirwin is a PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne. He is writing a thesis on the ideological transformation of green parties in Australia and Germany.

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

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