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The Labor-Green Alliance

In the past several days an array of Labor Party heavy-weights have come out in a ferocious attack on the Greens, nominally their political supporters in the House of Representatives on issues of confidence and supply. The charge was led by the Party's NSW secretary Sam Dastyari, describing them as "extremists not unlike One Nation" [1], with backing from the national secretary of the AWU, Paul Howes who wrote "the Greens pose as much of a threat to working people as Tony Abbott" [2]. Others also joined in the fray; Martin Ferguson accused the Greens as not having a focus on jobs, Bob Carr saying they couldn't be trusted on economic management or national security, with chief government whip Joel Fitzgibbon "the Greens stifled any opportunity we had to finding a workable solution to the very serious asylum seeker issue".

More realistically, Stephen Jones claims that they were hard to work with, and the tight-lipped Greg Combet, described the two parties as having "different values and different policies", a surprise hopefully to nobody. In contrast - and it's been a lonely voice against the chorus - left-winger Melissa Parke showed characteristically good sense when she noted that "It doesn't help either of us to be bringing each other down. It's a gift to the Coalition." But people showing such attitudes are within the targets of Labor's powerful conservative wing; as Cassandra Wilkonson argued, "While there may be good arguments for distancing the ALP from the Greens, it is the green cancer at the heart of Labor that urgently needs to be cut out." [5]

To an outside observer, the vitriol of this attack certainly seems surprising. By any realistic comparison, the Green's policies and priorities are hardly extremist - they are merely on the left of Labor. The Greens have been enthusiastic supporters on the financial stimulus which led Australia to dodge the bullet in the global recessions, they've contributed to ensuring that there is a price on carbon dioxide emissions and investment in renewable energy. They support the Mineral Resources Rent Tax and have advocated expanding it. They supported an expansion to dental health care. It is not as if Adam Bant's priorities were unknown [6]. Of the independents in the 43rd parliament, nobody has been more supportive of the Gillard minority government than the Green's sole MP, the first independent to declare support for Labor, and backing the government in 90% of votes - certainly more than Cook, Katter, Oakeshott, Slipper, and Wilkie [7].

If there is a major difference it is with the Greens being steadfast in support of marriage equality, and allowing for onshore processing of refugees - both supported by large sections of the Labor Party. At the last National Conference, the policy decision was to support a so-called conscience vote for marriage equality amidst rather than run the risk of that homophobic MPs would leave the party rather than support equality. With regard to asylum seekers, the change to the platform to allow off-shore processing of asylum seekers was passed 206 votes for (53.5%) and 179 against (46.5%), a very thin margin. The Green's asylum seeker policy, which includes increasing funding to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Indonesia by $10 million, the source of asylum seekers by boat, is supported by Amnesty International, Labor for Refugees, Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Refugee Action Coalition, Refugee Council of Australia, and others [8]. A further issue which looks as if it could wreck the Labor Party in the Northern Territory is the federal government's continued support for the "intervention" in indigenous communities [9].

Initially then, the justification for the attack on the Greens by Labor seems bizarre and self-destructive to many observers. However a counter-argument has been raised [10] that suggests that in order for Labor to win, it must claim the political centre, and to do so, it must jettison the Greens who are significantly more left-wing than the average voter (following an ANU study) [11]. It further makes an empirical argument that whilst many voters have deserted Labor, few have gone to the Greens instead, an obvious fact by reviewing the two-party preferred vote in opinion polls. Further, however, deriving from Anthony Green's research, there's almost nothing to be gained from securing Green preferences anyway - most will eventually flow to Labor regardless. Further, in order to maintain a separate Labor identity, Labor must rule out any form of governing arrangement, formal or informal, with The Greens.

The argument that Labor should surrender government - and see a reintroduction of a Workchoices-style industrial regime, lose the tax cuts for low-income earners, the National Broadband Network, the Mineral Resources Rent Tax, the price on carbon emissions - rather than engage in a governing arrangement with the Greens is just bizarre. The argument that the Greens will inevitably deliver preferences to Labor is likewise a dangerous claim - a more careful reading of Anthony Green's analysis (and others) [12] compares the difference between the Greens directly preferencing Labor, and an open-ticket. Obviously, most Green voters would prefer to preference Labor, but if the relationship between Labor and the Greens becomes so poisoned that the Greens direct preferences away from Labor in favour of an environmentally-friendly liberal the results would be quite different. There is a gentle reminder that Labor trailed on primary votes to win nine seats with Green preferences in the last election. One wonder just how many seats those who would "modernise" Labor are prepared to lose in order to maintain ideological purity.

Contrariwise, one can also ask whether how "moderate" the Greens will become in order to gain votes; will they run open tickets, as they have done in a widespread manner so in the past? Having abandoned an inheritance tax on the extremely wealthy, will they also abandon other methods of income redistribution in an attempt to acquire more promising political donations? When Labor left figures such as Stephen Jones and Doug Cameron [13] engage in criticism of the Greens for their intransigence, and their refusal to engage in responsible policy making they certainly have a point. Almost invariably, the Greens have never had to suffer the problems of actually governing; as such they act like a pressure group trying to extract concessions, which they are very good at. Rarely do the Greens have to worry about the responsibility of governance; however if they are to become a party of governance they must start acting with such responsibility.

The argument that Labor must chase the ethereal political centre in order to gain majority support also requires closer analysis. As the ANU research paper makes clear, and should be obvious, the political centre is a moving target and is moving leftwards, quite quickly too. Indeed, if the trends are right, the Labor Party is right on the political centre at the moment. Any attempt to recapture Labor voters by moving towards the Coalition in terms of policy direction will actually drive more existing Labor voters towards the Greens. The problem with Labor is not that with its policies (contrary to Tony Abbott's ranting on the issue), but rather they are not grounded. Whilst Labor is perceived as providing good managers of the nation, and excellent political negotiators, as Jack Waterford points out nobody can clearly articulate what Labor actually stands for [14].

Endlessly chasing the political centre as is as about as effective as chasing the dragon, and about as addictive as well. As with the relationship between moral principles and situational ethics, the latter is the context-bound decisions that one makes that requires consistency with the former. The Labor Party, at the moment, is behaving like a skilled manager who constantly seeks what is the ethical average, but with no moral justification other than acquiring popular acceptance. People like that are not considered the preferred friend by many; at best they are a tolerated psychopath who is respected for their specialist skills. Of course, it doesn't have to be this way. Labor and the Greens can both articulate the principled political positions and adapt those positions as practical policy in specific contexts. Where those policy decisions can reach an accord, a principled alliance can be made.

Part of this has to do with strategic thinking as well. In war, politics, or even the corporate world, it is virtually impossible to win from a minority position when you're fighting an effective opposition on two fronts. Sure, in a world where Labor and the Greens had infinite resources, they could slug it out. But in reality that's not the case; either Labor joins with the Coalition to crush the Greens, or the Greens and Labor work together to defeat the Coalition (the third possibility, of the Greens and the Coalition working together to defeat Labor, is quite unlikely, but not entirely unimaginable). At the moment, the stousch between Labor and the Greens looks remarkably like any similar contest between the Liberals and the Nationals. In such circumstances, Labor would find a comfortable chair, a large bucket of popcorn, and enjoy the show; that's exactly what the LNP are doing now.

The comparison with the National Party is not without further correlation. Claims that the Greens are just another historical manifestation of left-wing challenges to Labor's electoralist agenda are simply wishful thinking [15]. More realistically, as Scott Steel has pointed out, the Greens not only have demographic advantages; their voters are young, inner urban, technical and professionals, and rural-coastal counter-cultural types. They also have a long-term advantage insofar that environmental concerns are simply not going away [16]. The Greens in this regard are quite unlike Lang Labor who were time-bound with the Depression, or the Australian Democrats who never had a strong demographic or ideological base in the first place. They are also unlike, from a conservative perspective, the tirade of minor parties that raise their head from Queenland, whether it is manifested in the white-shoe brigade of "Joh's Nationals", Pauline Hanson's One Nation, or Katter's Australian Party.

Distinctions between Labor and the Greens should come from a more sophisticated class and ideological basis, rather than an assertion of relative positions on a one-dimensional political continuum. Recognising that the Greens are a professional and counter-culture party with a social liberal and enviromentalist ideology means that if Labor should find a different class and ideological foundation from which "product differentiation" can be achieved through a strategic gap analysis which concurs with Labor's history; the obvious position is a working-class and trades demographic with a progressive democratic socialist ideology. Because of the rising demographic in areas where the Greens are increasingly dominant, this means that over time it is absolutely inevitable that Labor is going to lose some of its traditional heartland seats, simply because the Labor demographic has moved to more suburban environments (likewise, the Greens can also make inroads in inner-urban Liberal seats). Labor should come to an agreement with the Greens over such locations, and, with Green support, take the resourced political fight to those suburban marginals with policies that encourage income, employment, and welfare to the marginalised.

In other words, Labor should form a lasting strategic alliance with the Greens in the same way that the Liberals have formed such an alliance with the National Party. The right-wing of Australian politics understands the need for two parties of divergent demographic and ideological foundations to form a coalition; why shouldn't the left? As such the opportunity begins today to establish such a group with the interest of promoting both independence, dialogue, and mutual agreement. Launched with this document the Labor-Green Alliance [17] seeks to strengthen ties between the two great progressive political parties in Australia to prevent the election of a destructive and reactionary LNP government. We invite you to join us.

[1] Peter van Onselen, "Labor's 'faceless men' target Greens without consulting PM", July 07, 2012
[2] Paul Howes, "Labor must turn on the Greens and destroy them", The Sunday Telegraph, July 08, 2012
[3] Michelle Grattan, "ALP-Greens war escalates", Sydney Morning Herald, July 10, 2012
[4] Michelle Grattan, "Greens put interests ahead of lives: MP", Sydney Morning Herald, July 11, 2012
[5] Cassandra Wilkinson, "Labor called and it wants its base back", The Australian, July 10, 2012
[6] Ari Sharp and Tom Arup, "Profile: Adam Bandt", The Age, August 23, 2010
[7] "How the Independents have voted in the House", Hawker Britton Occassional Paper, 11th June 2012. Craig Thomson is excluded from this analysis as his membership to the Labor Party remains suspended.
[8] Australian Greens, "We can save lives from today", June 28 2012
[9] Matt Peacock, "Indigenous leaders urge protest vote against Labor", July 14, 2012
[10] Tim Watts, "The End of the Party? What Labor's History Can Teach Us About the Rise of the Greens and the Future of Australian Progressive Politics", 2012.
[11] Ian McAllister, Juliet Pietsc, 2011 "Trends in Australian political opinion: results from the Australian election study, 1987-2010", Australian National Institute for Public Policy, 2011, pp32-33
[12] Anthony Green, "Does it Matter if the Greens do not Direct Preferences to Labor?", November 07, 2011
[13] "Tensions mount as Labor takes swipe at Greens", ABC News, July 10, 2012
[14] Jack Waterford, "Doomed eye cabin boys", Canberra Times, July 11, 2012
[15] Tim Watts, op. cit.
[16] Scott Steel, "Class, voting and broad left demography", April 15, 2010. See also Anthony Green, Green "Support by Polling Place at the 2011 NSW Election", November 10, 2011
[17] Labor-Green Alliance Facebook page:


I though you guys were a bunch of anarchists. Why should you care if Labour and the Greens tear each other apart.

The sort of anarchism that the Isocracy Network promotes does not mean avoidance from the democratic political arena. It is a difference between ourselves and those we consider close allies (e.g., social anarchists). It matters to us that the major left-of-centre political parties put together a united effort at preventing the election of a reactionary Abbott-led LNP government.

Apparently some people think Labor is under threat from the Greens in Batman.

"And if the Greens party did a preference deal with the Liberals, like they did in the seat of Melbourne,"

Except The Greens gave Labor their second preference in Melbourne.

There's a certain amount of frustration watching this train wreck in slow motion.

The right wing of the party, in their mad grasp for power, is acting completely contrary to public opinion and will be responsible for putting the Tories in power, and the so-called left of the party is stupid enough to think their enemy is the Greens.

Here's how a working alliance between Labor and the Greens could work: Labor doesn't run in Melbourne, the Greens don't run in Batman and now both parties have significantly additional resources to campaign against the Coalition.