Thursday, December 09, 2010

What is the real agenda of the Australian Greens?

A while back I prompted some vigorous debate when I asked whether the Australian Greens were anti-Christian. Many Christians are attracted to the Greens' emphasis on ecological responsibility (which stands head and shoulders over the other parties). This concern resonates with many strands of scriptural thought such as the goodness of the created order, the community of creation, care for animals, justice for the poor and vulnerable, human humility and the full choir of God.

Recently, I have had a couple of Christian friends contact me to say that they are deeply worried about the real priorities of the Greens. There is a perception that the ecological concerns are the bait used to lure in potential voters, who are then unwittingly signing up to a radical social agenda. Now the Greens do indeed have a radical social agenda and make no secret of it. Some parts of it I like; others I don't. Many Christians are concerned about Greens' policies on social issues such as abortion, euthanasia, drug decriminalisation, same-sex marriage or access to public schools for Scripture classes.

In any case, an email from the Greens today (pointing to this article) gave me an idea of one way to test the Greens' political priorities. I receive semi-regular emails from four or five different political parties and perhaps a few dozen NGOs and advocacy groups. I usually just skim headlines as there is far too much to read all of it. I thought I'd trawl back through a few years' worth of correspondence from the Australian Greens making a note of each time a topic came up and see if any patterns emerged.

Of course, this is not the only way to measure priorities. One could also look at official policy documents, public statements, voting records, Hansard, membership surveys and various other things. But I thought it might still be worth doing nonetheless. And I may have missed some references, so this was not a highly rigorous investigation.

Below are the results arranged in alphabetical order. See if you can pick any trends or possible priorities expressed by the Greens to their support base (and interested onlookers):
• Abortion 0
• Climate change 23
• Deforestation/wilderness protection 5
• Decriminalising drugs 0
• Dental care 4
• Donate 4
• Education 2
• Energy future/Renewable energy 5
• Enroll/volunteer/vote/election 5
• Euthanasia 0
• Green jobs 1
• Indigenous reconciliation 2
• Mental health 1
• Paid parental leave 1
• Parliamentary process 2
• Pollution 1
• Refugees 6
• Same sex-marriage 3
• Scripture in schools 0
• Taxation 2
• Tibet 2
• War in Afghanistan 1
• Water management 1
• Whaling 1
• Workers' rights 2
Total references: 74
References to same sex marriage: 3
References to abortion, drugs, euthanasia or scripture in schools: 0
Total references to ecological/energy issues (including climate): 37 (=50%).

The conclusion seems clear enough: the Greens' priorities are, well, green. Some emails mentioned more than one topic. If I'd been giving weighing to the numbers of words, then I suspect the results would have been even clearer.

I am not saying that only ecological issues matter, or that Christians ought to vote for the Greens (or that voting is the heart of political responsibility). Like all parties, the relative weight of various attractive and repulsive policies and principles needs to be considered. But this ought to be done soberly and without caricature. I hope this little exercise might contribute in some small way to that task.
Image by ALS.

PS A little more research has revealed the Greens' true agenda, based on the parliamentary record of Adam Bandt MP. Bandt has so far proposed two amendments to existing legislation: one stopping banks from changing exorbitant fees and one requiring parliamentary approval for any overseas service by the ADF (i.e. shifting the decision to conduct overseas military operations from the executive to the parliament). See ##3&4 here. Since they target the ease of war-making and the unrestrained profiteering of huge oligarchies, the Australian Greens are clearly antithetical to evangelical Christianity.

17 comments:

Anthony Douglas said...

Byron, I'm afraid this is a pyrrhic victory for you.

As soon as the new federal parliament got to work, the Greens were publicly saying euthanasia was their top priority. And yet they forgot to even mention it to their supporters??

The survey demonstrates exactly the point which you suggested it refuted. They talk green, as bait, but then follow a much broader agenda.

The closest recent example I can think of - which is not a great parallel, but still related - is the behaviour of Meg Lees and the Democrats when it came to the GST. They publicly opposed it, got a decent share of the vote, and then revealed afterwards that it was a 'non-core promise'. And that was the end for them.

It will be interesting to track the fortunes of the Greens over the coming years. Sadly, I'm afraid that their radical agenda is a bit too cool, and people will be happy to go with them.

Now, if one of the other parties made environmental issues a huge priority, so that the Greens were only left with radical social policies...

(oh wait, they did, and then reneged. Reminds me of Meg Lees again!)

Twiggy said...

I agree with Anthony, what the Greens don't say speaks more than what they do.

Prior to the last Federal election the Greens refused to respond to 18 out of 24 questions put to all parties by the ACL on issues of concern to most Christians. See ACL's media release of Aug 2010 at http://www.australiavotes.org/ (currently on front page).

phil_style said...

The same criticisms have been levelled at the greens in NZ, giving rise to the comparisons to watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside. . . .

byron smith said...

Anthony - Immediately before, during and after the election and during the whole negotiation process and the start of parliament, the Greens were publicly saying that climate change was their top priority many more times than euthanasia (I could include a flood of links, but don't have time). Indeed, even the one quote from Senator Brown you're presumably referring to (on 19th Sept) did not say that euthanasia was the top priority, but that restoring the NT ability to legislate for itself was the first legislative priority. Both these changes are significant. First, this (for the Greens) is as much or more about their second fundamental principle of participatory democracy as it is about their stance of euthanasia. Of course, this issue presents a synergy between the two, but note how Brown phrased it and how it was criticised by the Greens at the time of the federal government legislation to remove the NT powers. The critique offered is first about a perceived abuse of federal powers (whether or not this is actually an abuse is of course open to debate, but according to Greens' principles it was) and second about compassion for those who wish to die. This distinction is important, not simply because it was emphasised so strongly by Brown during the very discussion you referred to but also because "The present Labor administration in the Northern Territory has no plans to re-introduce euthanasia".

And second, Brown nominated it as a legislative priority. The overall Greens priorities are clear from countless quotes, from their statement of principles, the Hansard record and from the deal struck with the ALP:

• A Climate Change Committee
• A full parliamentary debate on Afghanistan
• A commitment to work with the Greens on dental health care investment
• Completion of a $20 million High Speed Rail study by July 2011
• Legislating for truth in political advertising
• A Leaders' Debate Commission
• Establishing a Parliamentary Integrity Commissioner
• Establishing a Parliamentary Budget Office
• Restrictions on political donations
• A move toward full three year governments
• Specially allocated time for debate and voting on private members bills and a fixed and fair allocation of questions for Independent and minor party members in Question Time
• Referenda for constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians and Local Government
• A commitment for reform to provide above the line voting in the Senate
• Better processes for the release of documents in the public interest in both Houses of Parliament
• Access to relevant departments, including Treasury and Finance & Deregulation for Greens election policies.

Now, if one of the other parties made environmental issues a huge priority, so that the Greens were only left with radical social policies... (oh wait, they did, and then reneged. Reminds me of Meg Lees again!)
You're kidding right? How green are the parties? Even if the ALP had delivered on its proposed ETS, their score would have only risen a few percent. Other parties greenwash. Only the Greens actually have ambitious and wide-ranging ecological policies. See also here.

byron smith said...

Kathy (Twiggy) - Like all political parties, the Greens ought to be trusted about as far as they can be thrown. That said, I personally doubt that the ACL omissions were any kind of conspiracy aimed at hiding the Greens' policies. They make no secret of them and they are readily available on the Greens site,* as are their four core principles: ecological sustainability, grassroots participatory democracy, social justice and peace and non-violence. I suspect that the omissions from the ACL questionnaire probably had more to do with either (a) lack of resources during the campaign to allocate enough time to answering all questions and so they picked the ones they cared most about and/or (b) suspicion reciprocated towards the ACL and their motives. This latter point is quite important, I think. My own feelings about ACL are quite ambivalent. This isn't the place to go into a full critique of their questionnaire, so let's just say that the selection of the issues they believe are of significance to Christians was quite narrow, their framing of questions even narrower. The claim that the Greens were the only party to not answer all questions is simply false, as can be seen from a quick scan of the site. The singling out of the Greens for an attack piece days before the election is precisely the kind of behaviour that makes it less likely for the Greens to believe the ACL are acting in good faith in the future (and this hasn't been the first run in). I'm not laying all the blame with either ACL or the Greens here, but I take most of what ACL say (and what the Greens say as well) with a grain or three of salt.

*I actually think they used to be laid out more clearly last time I checked a few months' ago. But they are still all there.

Phil - "Now the Greens do indeed have a radical social agenda and make no secret of it." The "red" is not hidden away. It is plain to see.

byron smith said...

These comments raise a crucial question, which is the relative weight placed on ecological justice in the evaluation of policies. Faced with a choice between an Australia with both serious climate legislation and same-sex marriage and/or legalised euthanasia and an Australia without either, I know in an instant which I would prefer. Is this as clear for anyone else?

byron smith said...

Speaking of politicians changing their spots, what do people think about Julia Gillard's abandonment of the rule of law now that she's become PM?

byron smith said...

What the US thinks of Brown.

Jonathan said...

Byron, I have to agree with Anthony that your exercise in itself exacerbates the particular accusations made about the Greens, rather than helps. Having said that, same-sex marriage certainly wasn’t hidden during the campaign – as far as I can tell, this really isn’t about hidden agendas at all, but the inevitable need to prioritise between the many policies held by each party.

There’s more to it than the choice you present, though. Take the massive media beat-up about euthanasia as a priority. Clearly, there’s a difference between their most important priority and the chronologically first priority for legislation. Of course someone is going to put up a relatively black or white bill that they had already prepared years ago faster than any legislation on other issues which require serious negotiation with the government to have a hope of getting anywhere.

I also get the impression that a Greens MP has more room for a personal voice than their major party counterparts. My gut feeling is that this is a good thing, but it is more likely to lead to the situation where we’re not sure we’re going to get what it says on the tin.

This all matters to the voter. As you’ve suggested before, don’t we need to weigh up how likely they are too succeed with each initiative along with its importance? Of course, we might say that even a relatively ineffective voice on ecological issues is worth it however much they succeed with things we’re not so keen on, but the less effective, the more other approaches need thought. When it comes to tactics, there’s also the fact that where the Greens are serious lower house candidates, the alternative is usually someone likely to push a much larger, more caucus-bound party towards the Greens’ positions on things like same-sex marriage.

Going back to the euthanasia bill, I was/am a bit uncomfortable with the use of federal powers, but I’m also uncomfortable approaching the issue on in those terms – it seems a bit of a cop-out. How do you start to weigh up concerns about the issue with concerns about the process?

byron smith said...

Jonathan - Sorry for not replying sooner. And thanks for a thoughtful comment.

I still don't see how my little exercise exacerbates the accusations. The point was to show that the Greens are doing much more than is generally reported in the media, and at least half of it is directly related to ecological matters (and significantly more than to other matters that most Christians might well find important, such as matters of economic justice, democratic procedure, the humane treatment of refugees and so on). The priorities in the emails is not radically different from the activities of the party as a whole (though it might not match the media reporting of the party).

I also get the impression that a Greens MP has more room for a personal voice than their major party counterparts.
That is a correct impression. It is official Greens policy that every vote is a conscience vote.

My gut feeling is that this is a good thing, but it is more likely to lead to the situation where we’re not sure we’re going to get what it says on the tin.
I think this is a good thing because we ought to be electing people whose judgements we trust rather than people who mirror what the majority of people say they want in opinion polls. I do not think that a representative democracy such as ours exists to directly implement the will of the majority. Our elected representatives are to make good decisions, not popular decisions. I know I'm fighting a losing battle on this matter (since the majority of Australians do understand their democracy in this way, and most MPs play on this belief when it suits them without attempting to correct it), but that is no reason not to keep making the point.

This all matters to the voter.
As I said, that may be true, but it doesn't make it right.

don’t we need to weigh up how likely they are too succeed with each initiative along with its importance?
Yes. Though as you point out, there are different kinds of success. Some of what the minor parties do is to try to keep some issues on the public agenda, and hope to win or shift the public debate, that is, to change the wind. So it is worth asking: since their creation, how effective have the Greens been at putting ecological issues on the national agenda?

And then, you assume that they are relatively ineffective on specific pieces of legislation. This may often be true, but there are a number of very significant legislative victories (or improvements) that can be directly attributed to the Greens over the last few years in particular. Indeed, if you compare the Greens' legislative successes on ecological matters to social matters, I think you'll find the former quite significantly outweigh the latter.

In other news, I received another email from the Greens recently, which laid out three priorities for 2011: "Three of the great policy challenges for 2011 will be saving the Kimberley's James Price Point from a gas hub, permanent protection for Tasmania's high conservation value forests and getting a decent carbon price for Australia."

byron smith said...

where the Greens are serious lower house candidates, the alternative is usually someone likely to push a much larger, more caucus-bound party towards the Greens’ positions on things like same-sex marriage
An interesting point, and one I hadn't really thought much about. It is certainly true in the electorates with which I'm familiar. I guess your point here is to ask which is worse: one more lower house Green voting for same-sex marriage in a parliament where the two major parties vote against, or one more ALP member voting in the (much smaller) ALP caucus for changing ALP policy towards same-sex marriage? From the outside, it sounds like the ALP decision on this matter might be a fairly close contest at present.

However, I guess the same may well be true about ecologically-minded ALP candidates (Tanya Plibersek, MP for Sydney, for instance, seems to be above average amongst the ALP on such matters). Certainly, that was Peter Garrett's judgement: better to work at reforming the ALP from within, even if progress is painfully (painfully!) slow.

As David Suzuki says (and said to Bob Brown), it would be better in the long run for there to be no Greens party, since it would be better for "green" priorities to be such non-brainers in all major parties that there is no need for particular representation. However, the same could perhaps be said for workers' rights (ALP) or the benefits of liberty (Liberals).

Going back to the euthanasia bill, I was/am a bit uncomfortable with the use of federal powers, but I’m also uncomfortable approaching the issue on in those terms – it seems a bit of a cop-out. How do you start to weigh up concerns about the issue with concerns about the process?
A poor process to achieve a good outcome will always come back to bite you, since that poor process will later be abused to achieve worse outcomes.

So, my position is that it is not a cop-out to be concerned with process, and nor need it rule out a position in which one might support the re-institution of the Territorians' ability to self-determine while also campaigning that they might change their minds on this matter.

byron smith said...

Within hours of posting my last comment, I received an email from Tanya Plibersek about Tasmanian forests. Nice timing, Tanya.

byron smith said...

Bright Green Scotland: Interesting analysis of Irish Greens on a Scottish Greens blog. What does this have to do with Australian Greens? Quite a bit, since it is about the opportunities and dangers of coalitions with neo-liberal parties (such as the ALP).

byron smith said...

Some background on the Irish Greens situation.

byron smith said...

Australian: Founding fathers turn on urban Greens. I'm aware that the Oz has its own axe to grind on this and is keen to neutralise the recent Green rise. Still, I think many Christians can sympathise with some of the sentiments expressed here. Notice that Brown and Milne are singled out for praise on this front.

byron smith said...

SMH: It's not extreme to be Green. A wide range of Greens policies are supported by significant majorities of Australians, and often enjoy wider support than the position of the major parties.

byron smith said...

Guardian: Greens (along with Senator Xenophon and the Coalition) are getting close to a small step forward on palm oil labelling.

"A 2007 report by the UN found that 98% of natural rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia could disappear by 2022, with palm oil production seen as a key driver of the destruction that sees the equivalent of 300 football pitches of forest wiped out each hour."