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Rise of Tasmania's 'Green devils'

The new Tasmanian Labor government now includes one Green minister and one Green cabinet secretary. The discussion of this development has been too narrow, failing to learn from the ACT experiment of Green support for a minority Labor government. 

This neglects useful ACT lessons, including the current productive relations between the Greens and Labor, as well as the previous effective example of Independent Michael Moore serving as a minister in the Carnell Liberal government.

The discussion also neglects developments elsewhere, including the role of Independent and National Party ministers within the Rann Labor government in South Australia until the last election. Once again this produced stable and effective government. Only passing consideration is given to the Liberal-Nationals alliance in Western Australia which supports the Liberal government of Colin Barnett.

One consequence of these oversights, particularly of the ACT Greens, is that speculation on the likely role of the Greens in the new Tasmanian government has looked back two decades to the failed Labor-Green Accord in Tasmania. This encourages extravagant criticism of the Greens as Green devils. Admittedly Labor's David Bartlett before the Tasmanian election did describe the prospect of working in tandem with the Greens as like supping with the devil. But it is a silly choice of words.

Behind this criticism is an old-fashioned yearning for majoritarian rather than consensus government. It also reflects an unwillingness to recognise the Greens as a legitimate third party, representing not just 20 per cent of the Tasmanian electorate but 10 per cent (12 per cent in the latest Nielsen Poll) of the national electorate.

The party and the people they represent are not going to go away. The major parties and all supporters of majoritarian government must recognise this. Australian politics will benefit when the Greens are better integrated into the system rather than frozen out.

The Greens represent the views of a significant minority of Australians on many current issues, including sustainable economic growth, forestry policy, peace and war, refugees and asylum seekers and climate change.

The Greens can be difficult, uncompromising partners. Moreover many Greens are anti-system on economics and politics. They prefer to stand outside the mainstream rather than to be incorporated within it.

But the time will come when Labor-Green alliances of various sorts will be seen as just as normal as Liberal-National coalitions.

They will not be condemned as unworthy because of the size of the Green vote. National Party deputy prime ministers have held office in Coalition governments for years with a national vote smaller than the Green vote. Senior Liberals have wished the Nationals away, but they go along with the Coalition to maintain political dominance over Labor. Likewise, the Nationals have often bargained hard, just as the Greens have done, in order to secure ministerial posts.

The simplistic argument against such Green involvement is that the conservative parties have more in common with each other. This is an unduly rosy picture of Liberal-National relations, forgetting the many occasions in the past where relations have been extremely tense. It also forgets the distinctive culture and ethos of the Nationals, though that has been eroded over time.

The tense occasions at the national level include the black-balling of William McMahon as Liberal leader and Prime Minister by Country Party leader John McEwen after Harold Holt's death in 1967. This was not just about personalities but about deep ideological disputes over an open economy.

The same is true of Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen's wild foray into federal politics in 1987, which destroyed John Howard's chances at that time. Once again this was not just about Bjelke-Petersen's personality but about deeper issues like rural alienation. Bjelke-Petersen represented an anti-mainstream movement.

At the state level there was an acrimonious history between the Liberal and Country parties in Victoria. This led to the Labor Party supporting minority Country Party governments from the 1930s to the early 1950s.

Observers need to know their history and to get used to the participation of the Greens in the mainstream. Not all Greens will like this development, because it will mean inevitable compromises. But the full inclusion of the Greens will eventually happen.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and Flinders University and a columnist with The Canberra Times. Pictured: Cabinet Secretary Cassy O'Connor and Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim.

Topic tags: john warhurst, tasmania, greens, coalition



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Existing comments

I cannot imagine a more important issue in Australian politics than this one. The Greens frighten a significant number of voters. However this party is now a permanent factor in our civic environment. Much of their platform is alarming; their cavalier approach to abortion for instance.

Conversely, there is also plenty to like and much of it is compatible with Catholic Social Justice principles. There seems room for both groups to wriggle. This could be of mutual benefit. Thoughts such as these of John Warhurst will help begin this necessary dialogue.

Terry Oberg | 27 April 2010  

This is a great article and really good points made. The Greens are not going away and the sooner the media in Australia realizes this the better our democracy will be. The right wing media in Australia are constantly trying to freeze out the Greens and ignore them as ratbags that have no idea.

They have very good costed and sound policies that would take Australia into a cleaner direction that has been lacking from the major parties for years.

Daniel | 27 April 2010  

I was against any supping with the devil, but I can see a possible advantage of the Greens having a proper role in Australian politics. Eureka Street and the media in general might stop their love affair with the Greens, and subject them to the same critical analysis and scrutiny as the major parties.

Kevin Prendergast | 27 April 2010  

"cavalier" ???

geoff | 27 April 2010  

Yes, I'm sure that big companies that want massive subsidies for renewable energy schemes and the right to sell emissions permits will find common cause with those who want us all to reduce our 'carbon footprints'.

Nathan Socci | 27 April 2010  

Sharp & timely. I used to live in Waverley (NSW) where a coalition of Labor & Greens worked on the whole smoothly. There are now equal numbers of councillors from both parties.

Tim | 27 April 2010  

But have the Federal Greens shot themselves in the foot by allowing Kevin Rudd to justify putting off the ETS for a year by the fact that they would not compromise. Numerically their Senate votes would not have been enough but they have left themselves open to being put in the same bin as Abbott and Minchin.

Frank | 27 April 2010  

At the grass roots of political life I can see the Greens having a role to play. Where better to start saving the environment and showing results than in local council issues. But as one moves up through the body politic issues of greater complexity and moral ambiguity have to be faced. While it is good that a distinctly green voice is heard on such issues it is not always practicable or acceptable to the general mass of people. Compromise is a fact of life in a democratic pluralist society. Even within the major political parties many policies are the result of internal party compromise. The Greens need to learn to practise the art of compromise.

Uncle Pat | 27 April 2010  

As a Green, I don't see ALP as a 'natural' ally at all. They are far too pro-mining, far too pro-overpopulation, far too pro-anyone who'll give them money to be anything other than a deception machine for delivering votes.

You lie with dogs, you get fleas.

Other than supporting the rights of women to manage their own fertility, the Greens are far closer to Catholic Social Justice Principles than any member of the LibLab Party.

David Arthur | 28 April 2010  

From David Arthur "The Greens are far closer to Catholic Social Justice Principles than any member of the LibLab Party" So Catholic Teaching is Pro-Abortion, Pro-Euthanasia, Pro-Same Sex Marriage and Pro-Illicit Drugs. Gee, we learn something new every day.

Ron Cini | 28 April 2010  

Therefore pro-euthanasia becomes the right of people to die with dignity; pro-same sex marriage becomes the right of people not to feel excluded or marginalised by antiquated social constructions; and pro-illicit drugs is the right of people to put into their own bodies whatever they want, regardless of how it will affect them and anyone around them.

Loosen up, Ron, and learn the art of spin!

Patrick James | 28 April 2010  

A good aticle John, but you assume that the Greens would still be the Greens if more mainstream, when such a move, in isolation from a significant shift in public attitude (which is way behind the science) would only result in a conservative or mainstream Green party, one that speaks more about the economy and less about the environment. Notice how much the environment was mentioned in the Tasmanian election - not much, and global warming, not that I recall, which is why a swing was recorded. All governments will be Green in future, in much the same way all governments are conservative (or centre-left at best) at present, but it will regrettably be to late. Change here needs to be quick, and a conservative is by definition slow to change. The ETS is a compromise for those without the stomach for revolution ... we can change while staying the same! But alas, even such a conservative proposal with a protectionist bent was too much for Abbot. In the future we will have, not a Labor-Green coalition, but rather a Green-Labor party rebadge much like New Labor.

David Akenson | 29 April 2010  

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