Some personal context: at the time of writing, I am not, nor have I ever been, a member of a political party, nor have I campaigned for one (unless you include my writings on this blog, and if you do that you’d be equating mere opinion with political campaigning). I think and write independently of any political party’s political interests. I intend to perpetuate this state of affairs.
That said, I do care about what political parties say and do. I’ve noticed a bipartisan anti-Greens position, or brand, being forged in federal politics in the last few years. It came easily to the Coalition, of course. You may recall that the 2010 Victorian state election saw them preferencing Labor above the Greens, in a break with tradition. (Strategically, the major parties usually feature last on each other’s how-to-vote cards — a move that is tactically sound but ideologically questionable.)
But Labor has since been partly goaded, partly embarrassed into joining their arch-enemies over the party that has supported them in minority government. Perhaps it was the indignation of having to negotiate the passage of legislation with someone other than the true guardians of democracy — the NSW Right. (Our current Treasurer Chris Bowen apparently thinks that, though the Labor-Greens deal wasn’t actually a mistake, it should never happen again. Presumably he will be righteously refusing any offers to form government in the event of a future hung parliament. I can’t properly comprehend the reasoning behind this. If the Greens have the balance of power, it’s either a Labor-Greens coalition or another election, and what are voters to make of a party that refuses to form government?)
This joint position on the Greens is one whose adherents speak in grim, vacuous generalities about “extremists”, a term that seems intended to de-legitimise the Greens by association with the most radical of ideological hard-liners. People who advocate wholesale violence against ethnic minorities are called extremists. People who support terrorism, or who are terrorists themselves, are called extremists. What have the Greens done to deserve the same label? Endorsed the Whitehaven coal mine funding hoax, rudely drawing our attention again to climate change1? Advocated for the human rights of asylum seekers2? We’re all entitled to disagree, perhaps vehemently, but let’s please keep some perspective.
For all that the Greens have been condemned for being hard-liners, compromise must work both ways, and the Coalition has hardly been a picture of moderation and open-mindedness. Labor has shifted its own objectives quite a lot, but mostly in a vain, clumsy effort to outflank the Coalition, rather than in pursuit of the greater good. Ultimately, the Labor, Liberal and National parties have their own established interests, and naturally resent having others take up space at the table. It is an observable truth that the Greens do make compromises. How could they not? To fail to compromise, for a minor party, even one supporting a minority government, is to deal yourself out of the game. Do the Greens compromise enough? Many would say no, but we could haggle over that forever. There is no objectively correct amount of compromise, just a lot of heated opinion.
As inferred from the first paragraph, I am not associated with the Greens in any capacity. I emphatically disagree with them on genetic engineering and nuclear technology, where I find their policies to be naïve and simplistic. These technologies have manageable risks, and oft-ignored but very real benefits, and the more we learn through scientific endeavour, the more manageable the risks will be, and the more beneficial the applications.
Nevertheless, when it comes to the ballot paper, I tend to rank the Greens above both major parties. They don’t always come first in my estimation of the lesser of various evils, but, in effect, as long as I rank them above Labor and the Coalition, I’m supporting them. I couldn’t possibly do this without Australia’s preferential voting system, which grants us all the opportunity for fairly nuanced expression of our political beliefs.
Partly this is a kind of tactical support. I’m a former Democrats voter, and parliament needs its crossbenchers to occasionally inject some constructive criticism. We need a diversity of opinions, over and above the perpetual war of words between uncritical government MPs and unconstructive opposition MPs (which party holds government being irrelevant to this state of affairs). Independents and other minor parties can also fulfil this role, of course. Were there to be only two parties in parliament, the competence of that institution would be diminished, and we would all suffer for it.
Policies do matter as well, but minor party policies are not the same kind of animal as major party policies. A minor party really only has a wish list of things it believes in, some of which it might be able to persuade the government to partly implement at an opportune moment, if it gets lucky. One should not vote for, or against, a minor party on the expectation that everything it desires will come true.
By contrast, a major party’s policies are a largely complete statement of what it, as the current or future government, will strive to implement by itself. A major party expects to implement its agenda mostly unhindered, or not at all. It has much greater responsibility for coherent, costed policy development than minor parties. It owes this responsibility to the fact that it controls the budget — such power as minor parties can only dream of.
The Greens would not be averse to becoming a major party, by winning greater public support (however unlikely that may be), and in so doing acquire this power and responsibility for themselves. At that point, we should demand that the Greens exercise fiscal prudence. However, until they do — without the power to make budgetary decisions — such demands make little sense. Fiscal prudence, when exercised by a minor party in policy development, has no real-world consequences. It is entirely symbolic and mostly ignored.
In essence, it’s power that creates responsibility, and the need to hold political parties to account. The Greens certainly have some power, even if the extent of it has been wildly overstated.
However, to merely shout “extremism” at the Greens invites questions as to one’s own capacity and willingness to engage in informed debate. Without a point of reference, the word “extreme” is meaningless, and does nothing to inform the electorate. If you think the Greens are wrong, then by all means make your case. If you want the Greens to be held to account, articulate your criticism and challenge them and their supporters to provide their own reasoning and evidence. We might all learn something from the ensuing discussion.
But even when and if the Greens are wrong, does that in itself make them “extreme”? Consider the frequency with which the major parties make their own colossal mistakes. Consider the magnitude of the damage when the government gets it wrong, and compare that to the problem of minor party naïvety. It is not “extreme” to simply be wrong, and even if you are wrong, your contribution to the debate can still be constructive, by compelling others to justify themselves. It seems to me that we have little to fear from this.