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Perils of the Greens' moral vanity


Standing on a soapboxThe veteran political scientist Malcolm Mackerras, now based in the Public Policy Institute of the Australian Catholic University, recently accused the Greens of what he called moral vanity, predicting it would cause the demise of the party. This is quite different to the claim that the weakness of the Greens is their alleged extremism, an idea Mackerras rejects.

He doesn't define moral vanity, but I take it to mean self-righteousness leading to unwillingness to compromise. This opens up the important question of the balance between steadfastness and flexibility in political life.

If the Greens have peaked because of inflexibility, it makes a contrast with the demise of their predecessor minor party, the Australian Democrats, who did a deal with the Howard Government after the 1998 federal election over the introduction of the GST. They could have refused to support it like Independent Brian Harradine. Led by Meg Lees they tried to improve the tax reform to make it fairer and more environmentally friendly.

There was more to it than that, but it was the beginning of the end. The party's supporters were outraged and the general public believed that instead of keeping the bastards honest they had become one.

The allegation of moral vanity against the Greens relates to the party's general approach to parliamentary politics. A longstanding criticism, recently revived following the failure of federal Parliament to resolve the asylum seeker processing issue, has been that the Greens are inflexible and unwilling to compromise.

Often the contrast has been made with the Democrats, who, it was often said, were willing to negotiate with government to improve policy outcomes. But look where that got the Democrats in the end.

Mackerras' frustration with the Greens has boiled over because they failed to support the Oakeshott-Labor asylum seeker compromise bill. He also accuses the Coalition parties of hypocrisy on that issue. Much earlier the Greens crucially failed to support the final global warming compromise offered by the Rudd government.

But on other matters the federal Greens under Bob Brown have compromised, including on the Gillard mining tax which it thought was pitched far too low.

The question should be whether the Greens have compromised or not at the right moments and on the right issues. It is ironic that the most inflexible party in the current parliament has been the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott. It was Abbott rather than Brown who earned the nickname Mr No. If the Coalition had compromised with Labor over asylum seeker processing the question of the Greens' stance would have been quickly forgotten.

Politics is not just about the art of compromise but about the combination of compromise and standing firm. As a community we value both attributes. In fact in the recent past high praise has been given to so-called conviction politicians compared with others who flip flop or seemingly don't have firm values.

John Howard was one who like Brown was singled out for having that attribute. Whereas Howard actually had both and was willing to deal, as he did with the Democrats, or shift positions as he did when challenged by Mark Latham on parliamentary superannuation. He even tried, too little and too late, to compromise on Work Choices, the policy that brought him down.

The saying that 'Politics is the art of the possible' should not be interpreted as always valuing compromise over steadfastness. All parties, not just the Greens, face such choices. The Greens should certainly search their souls on getting this balance right. But, getting the balance right between flexibility and maintaining what you stand for is an important lesson for Labor and the Coalition too.

John Warhurst

John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Greens, Australian Democrats, Meg Lees



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Existing comments

I watched an interview with Greens leader Christine Milne last night on ABC-TV (No Olympics!) in which she talked about the Tarkine area in north-western Tasmania. Having visited that region last year, I can understand why the Greens want it under World Heritage protection. What a contrast then to have Labor powerbroker, Paul Howes, talk about Tasmania's economy and the need to continue mining in the area. I know where my vote will be going.

Pam | 07 August 2012  

"If you give me out, I'll take my bat home!" Democratic politics works best if there is some acknowledgement that opinions differ and some compromise is necessary. The major parties accept this up to a point - the conservatives have discussions with trade unions; Labor with big business, The Greens, however, want it all their way and seem willing to damage the ALP, whose policies are closer to theirs rather than compromise. And their tactics, deliberate or otherwise. are to denigrate Labor. It's time the Greens grew up.

Bob Corcoran | 07 August 2012  

Before I grew up, the magnificent Lake Pedder in Tasmania was flooded to supply 83 megawatts of electricity for industry. An irreplaceable beauty destroyed. Is that what being grown-up means? I believe the Greens are as imperfect as any political party but they're closer to being children than the other parties. That's why I like em.

Pam | 07 August 2012  

Now it is true we are called upon to be good stewards of God’s creation, and it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of this.

As has been said many times before, The Green Party is like a watermelon, it is green outside but red inside
Their entire environmental/global warming movement is marked by socialism and anti-life policies. the Green movement is universally recognized as synonymous with the leftist agenda. Connections such as this, along with the leftist mindset of most Green leaders cause many to call environmentalists “watermelons”: green on the outside, red on the inside.

Although conserving nature seems a noble crusade, one cannot turn a blind eye to the movement’s darker agenda of the true goals of contemporary environmentalism:
“To expunge as many human beings from the planet as possible ... through the devices of population control (i.e. abortion, sterilization, euthanasia, same sex marriageand destruction of traditional marriage and families, and induced crisis such as economic collapses or depressions;

Trent | 07 August 2012  

I wonder if Professor Warhurst has had the experience of dealing with a recalcitrant child, who having been set generously and successfullly on the right road, then obstinately takes the road that leads to disaster. So it is with Labor and its 'boat people policy'. Labor trashed the Howard government's successful policy and now has come forward with absurd suggestions like the unacceptable'Malaysia Solution'. Tony Abbott's response to the Labor juveniles, has and should be, in the words of that great left-handed Australian opening batsman: You dug the hole - you fill it'.

Claude Rigney | 07 August 2012  

The Australian Greens do not, and will not "compromise" and support off-shore "processing" for our fellow human beings, because it is illegal under our international obligations as signatory to the UN Convention on refugees.This is backed up by the High Court. It is cruel and inhumane, and has comprehensively failed when it was Howard's Pacific Solution - ie: offshore mental illness factories. Greens alternative, legal, comprehensive and humane poicies are freely and easily available for anyone who truly wants to understand them for themselves.

I no longer vote for the ALP, because they have "compromised" themselves (along with the progressive values it once espoused, which I hold dear) into a slightly paler version of the born-to-rule conservatives. Both major parties, in practice, have disgracefully, shamefully, renounced the UN Convention on Refugees, but won't admit it - yet. Like "Pam", now more than ever, I know where my vote is going, as do 1.6 million-and-counting other ordinary Australian voters, who will not vote for a party they cannot trust to uphold their truly progressive values on social justice, respect and protection for the environment and subsequent action on climate change.

Michelle Goldsmith | 07 August 2012  

"Moral vanity" is an envious and cynical term for "integrity" - something sorely lacking in a political arena where you have a self-pronounced Catholic Opposition leader wanting to turn the boats back, an atheist Prime Minister who opposes same-sex marriage - just because I said so - and conservative church leaders telling people it's wrong to vote Green because they are pro-abortion - ignoring the fact that they have no influence on these laws whatsoever.

AURELIUS | 07 August 2012  

Warhurst and other bloviators make the mistake of thinking that refugee laws can be turned off and on at will.

They can't and the Greens got it right.

Marilyn | 07 August 2012  

And MacKerras has seen the error of his ways.

Marilyn | 07 August 2012  

I have been in discussion with developers( local councils in disguise) where the issue of compromise has been on the table. They talk of compromise. The facts are that they have already taken 90% of the resource and then have the cheek to sit down ever so reasonably asking for compromise. So we are to split the last remaining 5% each way!! That is their idea of compromise. To my way of thinking, and I belong to one of the most conservative institutions on earth, we should simply not compromise any more with destructive and greedy agendas.

graham patison | 08 August 2012  

Compromise should only be agreed on if the result is fair and humane. The off-shore processing of refugee applications is not fair and humane.

I also believe that Christine Milne is the best contemporary political leader in Australia because of her higher standards of moral and ethical behavior.

Mark Doyle | 10 August 2012  

I think they suffer from both so-called moral vanity and extremism in some cases -- although not so much on key Federal issues but on other campaigns they run -- even though they are very often right about an issue, they are failing to sell it to the general public, and the activists on board are no good at marketing and don't understand why the general community doesn't grasp what they're saying. Labor on the other hand is just a brand selling itself with a hollowed out membership and no principles. Liberals are just beyond the pale, of course, so no use even starting with them. There is still room for a principled party and conviction politics out there, and the Greens will always attract the vote of honest folk.

Sean | 11 August 2012  

What a game is democratic politics! There are some core rules like:
all citizens over 18 can vote;
anyone, provided he/she does not have a criminal conviction, can stand for election;
people can organise themselves (form political parties) in order to more easily gain the votes of the eligible voters;
the party (or coalition of parties/individuals) which wins a majority of the votes/electorate areas wins;
and can form government.
For some candidates their core value is "Win at any cost" for others their core value is "Fight tough, but fight fair."
Once can detect these values (and others in between) in the way politicians speak and act.
Whatever conclusion one may come to regarding the morality of any behaviour by a politician or a political party, one should ask oneself what game are they up to.
Nobody likes someone who cheats in a game of football or cricket, or worse still someone who deliberately loses.
What relevance would moral vanity have in such games? None I venture to say. So let it be with politics.

Uncle Pat | 11 August 2012  

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