Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Greens – and their better selves

Post by Hall Greenland
Port Jackson Greens, NSW.

There can be no doubting the moral and political courage of the federal Greens MPs after their magnificant stand on refugees two weeks ago and their resistance to unrelenting mass-media hysteria ever since. So it appears to be a surprise that these same MPs led such a determined charge to drop the inheritance tax from the party platform at the Greens’ National Policy Conference in Adelaide last weekend.

The “party room” (as the federal MPs are called) moved for the deletion of the plank in an abbreviated debate – about ten minutes – in which Bob Brown seized the mike to spell out the reason for the elimination: it was electoral poison and costing us one or two percent of the vote. That was it. Truly. (Incidentally, the policy in question was a commitment to an inheritance tax on estates above $5m, with family home, family farm, small business and bequests to spouses excluded.)

The only votes cast against the dropping of the tax came from the entire NSW delgation. The move was carried 65-12 - an unrepresentative majority, aproblem I will return to.

On the face of it, the move – and the arguments used to ditch the policy - appear to confirm the Tietze-Humphrys thesis that the federal Greens leadership, not to mention the Greens membership as a whole, are veering to the right, driven by electoralism and an attachment to neoliberalism. They are, to coin a phrase, “neoliberals on bikes”.   

A few hours earlier in a special plenary session called to farewell Bob Brown, both he and his successor, Senator Christine Milne, laid out the strategy of an alliance with what might be dubbed “the green bourgeoisie”, but which is usually referred to as Green businesses. The thinking is that there are firms out there with a real interest in an ecologically sustainable economy and that they can be split away from the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group to form a capitalist base for the Greens. As one of the leaders said – I think it was Bob Brown – this new alliance will also “afford us new funding opportunities”.

In that context, the dropping of the inheritance tax – and much else in the new economic platform – makes sense. The Greens don’t want to be scaring off those new Green allies. The other leg of the new party-room electoral strategy is to woo regional and rural Australia, which appears to be unobjectionable at this stage.

What this two-pronged strategy leaves out – and this is a silly oversight for an electoral strategy – is those areas where there are most votes: the western suburbs of the great cities. It is here that the Greens should be devoting any new energy we have, especially if we are to fulfil our dream of a dynamic mass presence leading on to the great transformation of existing society.

But it is unlikely the Greens can win the working class of the western suburbs if they are going to abandon tax strategies that attack great inequalities of wealth. Ironically, no sooner had the Greens abandoned the inheritance tax, than Labor MP and academic Andrew Leigh, published his latest research into income and wealth distribution in Australia. And sure enough, things are becoming more unequal.

The removal of this tax also reflected the very point of the rewriting of the Greens policy platform that is taking place this year: to pare it down and to remove as many concrete commitments as possible. According to one member who did a word count, in 2009 the Greens’ platform was 40% the length of the Labor Party’s, but the new draft platform published earlier this year was less than 20%.  

This savage pruning was the work of the party room’s staffers who outnumber national office staff by a ration of 20:1. In Adelaide – the venue for the first of the two policy conferences being held this year – there was some pushing back and NSW was not alone in advocating restoring and adding material. It is difficult to judge what the results of this push-back have been as policies were amended and finalised in workshops and final drafts are not yet available.

Despite the loss of the inheritance tax, most of the NSW delegates believe that delegates from other states (and the party room) are still interested in a more egalitarian distribution of income and wealth, and that it is just a matter of finding the right mix of policies and they will swing behind it. One or two of the NSW delegates were more pessimistic, although they undoubtedly hope the optimists (or illusionists) are right.

The optimists are right that the picture remains mixed. For instance, the industrial relations policy adopted at the conference – based on informal reports - upholds the right to strike and pattern bargaining, supports the lifting of restrictions on solidarity industrial action, calls for portable long-service leave and a shorter working week, a better deal for apprentices and insists on the right of workers to have a voice in setting their own hours and work arrangements in order to get a better life-work balance. The economics policy also calls for – thanks to the NSW delegation’s advocacy - democratic control of the economy and public ownership of natural monopolies and essential public services. How much of this has been diluted and contradicted by illusions about markets, corporations and tax reforms, that have also been added, is the subject for another analysis.

Switching to other matters, a major disappointment of the policy conference was the initiative to drop from the platform any reference to particular countries (like Tibet, Palestine, East Timor and West Papua) and instead develop specific off-platform resolutions on these matters. This issue will be further thrashed out at the November policy conference but it is likely that NSW will be the one dissenting state.

Which brings me to the unrepresentative nature of the conference. Under the formula for delegates what we get at Greens national conferences is more or less equal numbers from each of the states. It’s more Senate than House of Representatives. So NSW, with over 30% of members, has approximately 15% of delegates. Victoria is in the same position.    

A more representative set-up – and one that would involve the members – is to have local groups send delegates (the numbers of delegates from each group to be based on their membership) directly to the conference. This probably won’t fly nationally, but not to worry too much; it is the basis of NSW conferences which are now called upon to take the lead in policy development.

Finally, what was in many ways the saddest session of the conference, was the discussion introduced by Christine Milne about the need to kick-start climate change activism. Despite the triumphalism about the introduction of the “price on carbon” package, Senator Milne acknowledged that the community movement was still needed if the derisory target of a 5% reduction in greenhouse gases was to be increased. Regrettably, however, the steam has gone out of the extraparliamentary movement.  

Whether it has occurred to her, or anyone else in the party room, that over-selling the victory of a carbon tax, and associated measures, may have contributed to the demobilisation, was hard to tell. Perhaps in the early hours of the morning some of the federal MPs awake and realise that the huge tasks confronting us will only be solved by policy boldness and the sort of courage the asylum-seeker debate has revealed they possess.    


  1. Thanks Hal (and Tony) for posting this comprehensive account of the recent Greens policy conference. To have such concerns raised by someone who has been involved with the Greens for so long, eloquently illustrates some of the points I raised here:

    Walking away from progressive policy, in the quest for mythical donations should be shocking to all Greens members.

  2. Interesting and measured I have been thinking for a while that NSW SDC is overloaded with admin burden and it is time to start a NSW Greens annual conference designed to deal with policy and issues, but is forums, talks and debates and separated from any resolutions except possibly constitutional amendments.

  3. Thanks for the analysis Hall. The conservative bent of other state parties is certainly worrying.

    I feel NSW's low representation in federal forums is unfair given that federal funding contributions are not worked out in the same manner. That is, NSW contributes a large amount, proportionate to our number of members, to keeping the national party going.

    Having said that I think we have to avoid the temptation to write off Greens parliamentary representatives and their staff with cliched labels - 'green bourgeoisie' etc. Does this really help? The left in the Greens don't have a monopoly over virtue - everyone is pursuing what they see as the best course for the party and to progress what we stand for.

    I think we need to do is keep doing what our NSW policy representatives have done so well to date - putting in the hard work, making the arguments, trying to convince others and build support.

    And show in NSW that a left Greens party can also achieve electoral success.

    Caroline, Inner Sydney Greens

  4. Hi Caroline,

    The Greens NSW are already an excellent example of electoral success. Just take a look at the past couple of years:

    We increased our state parliamentary representation by 50 per cent in the 2011 state election, going from 4 to 6. We also reclaimed the NSW Senate spot in the 2010 state election, without benefiting from the $1.6 million donation from Graeme Wood that all the other states benefited from. Our statewide vote continues to grow at a measured rate, consistent with the idea that we are attracting voters for the long haul, not just a bunch of swingers.

    In the current political environment, that's a pretty impressive achievement if you ask me.

    Mark Riboldi
    Marrickville Greens

  5. Part of being an activist group is to stand by an unwavering commitment to your point of view through thick and thin. Part of being a representative political party is to represent the view of people across the country even if they did not vote for you. I think that you need to accept that the Greens are no longer an activist organisation and their role in the Australian political landscape has changed. There are other great activist organisations that are taking over the role that the Greens once held and perhaps you should think of joining one of them. Its Sad i know, but unfortunately inevitable. Beware the war between states, this looks like its could easily become like the labour party but instead it is the NSW left faction that is splitting the party apart. Come on the Greens are better than that.

  6. The key argument for the dumping of the inheritance tax that this article doesn't cover and which I understand is what swayed the policy conference is a claimed lack of effectiveness.
    Whether this is true or not, this is what delegates were weighing up - its effectiveness as a tax, versus the electoral damage it does to us. Personally I would have preferred to see us keep the tax in our policy, but I understand on the basis of what people were considering why it was removed.
    As a values driven party seeking electoral success we are unavoidably in the space of being pragmatic idealists, and its valuable to choose our battles carefully. Treating asylum seekers humanely, and campaigning and policy for action on climate change that reflects what the science says is necessary are battles worth fighting. So is working for a much more egalitarian distribution of income and wealth, but I can live with the removal of this mechanism from our policy platform when we've got many other ways of achieving that outcome.

    Janet Rice
    Greens Vic Senate Candidate

  7. Needless to say I hope Janet is right [although this is not what was said in the short debate at the national conference]and that abandoning the inheritance tax was a precursor of adopting and pursuing a suite of effective egalitarian tax measures. This would certainly put paid to my point about the abandonment being part of a political orientation that was both strategically and electorally ineffective

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  9. Janet's argument that a Paris Hilton Tax (inheritance tax) is not "effective", whatever that means, is bunk. Andrew Leigh, an economist (and now Labor MP) wrote fairly comprehensively on just this topic, calling for the reinstatement of the inheritance tax:

    More here:


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