Tasmanian Greens and the terror of coalitions


'If my friend cannot ride two horses — what's he doing in the bloody circus?'
Jimmy Maxton, Independent Labour Party

Australian politics is known to have an inbuilt sensitivity to power sharing arrangements from parties across the spectrum. Independents are loathed as ineffectual, seen as mere electoral props. Small parties are considered nuisances who are wooed only because they have to be, and stifled by electoral regulations that limit their influence. Multiparty coalitions (with the exception of the conservative Federal Coalition) are seen as enterprises that are doomed to fail. Diversity is danger.

The delivery by voters of a hung parliament in Tasmania on Saturday jars the sensibility of the political establishment. The political cognoscenti are relieved the same result was not replicated in South Australia, where the Rann government looks likely to hold on to the barest of leads.

In the scrapping Tasmanian state election, Labor and the Liberals have secured ten seats apiece. The resurgent Greens, deemed the true winners in the contest with five, are looked upon with a degree of trepidation.

While it would be normal in a European constituency, or even a New Zealand one, to cast one's hand across the aisle as a helping hand to make pluralist government work, the situation here has been presented as dramatic, radical and disturbing.

The last state elections in Tasmania were blueprints of fear and loathing for the very idea that either major party could work with a minor one. Instability and chaos was bound to be the only electoral product such an alliance might produce. The same political nonsense prevails in the stubborn insistence by both the Liberals and Labor to avoid a power sharing agreement with the Greens, even though this position will be unsustainable.

The Greens leader Nick McKim has so far proven sensible, keen to form an alliance with either party, given the appropriate circumstances.

Analysts and political pundits are gradually warming to the idea that power sharing arrangements between established large parties and emerging smaller ones may become a reality in Australian politics. Consider the view of Norman Abjorensen (Inside Story, 9 November 2009), who considers the scenario after analysing the Labor-Green relationship in the ACT, current since 2008.

'Labor is looking increasingly vulnerable in its inner-seats,' he surmises, pointing to advances by the Greens in the primary vote in Melbourne (23 per cent in 2007), Sydney (21 per cent) and Grayndler in Sydney's inner west (near 19 per cent). On paper, the ACT example may be seen as singular to that territory, with its distinctive, progressive demographic. That is no reason to assume it can't be repeated elsewhere.

Tactics used by the established parties towards their smaller challengers vary, though they all share the common strain of bullying. Allegations of illegality have been mooted against the Green power structure in Tasmania by a Labor Party staffer, suggesting that received donations have not been declared.

Labor election flyers also portrayed the Tasmanian Greens as 'extremists' whose intention to legalise heroin was bound to 'backfire'. Labor officials may have been taking counsel from Queensland Liberal Senator George Brandis, who described the green movement in 2003 as having 'frightening similarities' with 'the methods and values of the Nazis.'

Such attitudes, indicative of a condition that political scientists diagnose as 'cartel behaviour', only enhances the appeal of minor parties. As political scientist Paul Williams explained to the Sydney Morning Herald (16 March), 'The more the major parties do it the more it disenfranchises ordinary voters who are then more likely to go to alternatives out of sheer bloody mindedness because they don't like the tactics.'

Indeed, there is a note of negativity even in some Green circles, with a piece by Tim Burton in the Green Left Online gloomy over 'overseas' examples where the Greens stumbled when in office. 'The Irish and Czech Greens became props for right-wing governments implementing anti-social and anti-environmental policies.'

The example in Germany was even more shocking to the progressive sensibility, when the German Greens decided to sell 'out its support base by agreeing to the continuation of nuclear power'. Power might corrupt, but to have none corrupts even more.

The polls are moving at a rate that will worry the Rudd Government. An arrangement with the Greens may be unavoidable, should Labor wish to retain power at various levels of government. A federal equivalent to Tasmania is unlikely to eventuate for several elections, but it is a distinct possibility. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible.

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures in politics and law at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: binoy kampmark, tasmania state election, greens, labor, liberal, hung parliament, nick mckim



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Existing comments

Bindy Kampmark is either too young or has a short memory. In 1989 in Tasmania Labor entered into an accord with the Greens to form a minority government, to find that the Greens make an agreement to get what they want, then break it. Either Labor or Liberal would be crazy to form a coalition with the Greens. They are a party of religious fervour that does not know how to compromise and would stifle development in a state that needs it.

Kevin Prendergast | 23 March 2010  

Although I'm reading Kampmark's analysis of the Greens' increasing presence in Australian politics with some trepedition, I generally agree with the assessment. Brandis' reference to Nazism when condemning the Greens overlooks the fact that his party's major media supporter, News Limited, would have trotted out their right-wing propaganda in the Germany of the 30s. I often feel, when reading The Australian, that I'm transported back in time to Berlin in the 30s. And the recent revival of dog-whistling politics by his (Brandis) side is the stuff that the Nazis cleverly deployed back in those dark days.

Alex Njoo | 23 March 2010  

Nick McKim just may be a bit different ... but in general Tassie Greens have shown themselves to be blinkered populists, politically correct in a boringly `modern` predictable simplistic but fundamentalist way. Truly awful.

eugene | 23 March 2010  

Australian democracy is lessened and compromised by its majoritarianism, and I have long loathed the inadequacies of the beneficiaries of this arrangement, the major Australian political parties. Whenever I vote, I begin by choosing which of the major parties will be last on my ballot, and which will be second last.

Until and unless the principle-compromising demands of Cabinet solidarity are foregone in Australian parliaments, minor parties would be best served to not enter into coalitions, and refuse the temptations of Cabinet positions.

Until the forthcoming devastation due to changing climate, resource depletion and environmental degradation are apparent, even unto the editors of News Ltd outlets, the Greens would do well to give no more succour than is necessary to keep the so-and-so's honest.

David Arthur | 23 March 2010  

ohh not the greenies

beau | 27 April 2010  

What self-respecting academic would quote a 1993 statement by George Brandis likening the Greens' values and methods to the Nazis? Binoy reveals a frightening ignorance of current Greens policies. He also doesn't seem to know that the Green Left Weekly has nothing to do with The Greens.

Stop sloganizing, Binoy, and start analysing policies in relation to human needs and the environmental and economic challenges facing us.

Bill Hampel | 31 May 2011  

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