Being wrongly labelled is one of the dangers of political life and a threat to future political success, but we tend to forget that certain labels can work in a parties favour if it helps to conceal their true purpose. The Greens are routinely marked down as the radical left, wannabe revolutionaries and advocates of modern day socialism. The transition from Bob Brown and Christine Milne to Richard di Natale demonstrates the evolution of the party away from its radical environmentalist roots into a party that defends the interests of the socially liberal professional middle-classes.
The origins of the Greens were certainly radical and included many escapees from Marxism, such as Hal Greenland and Lee Rhiannon, as well as the former leader of the Nuclear Disarmament Party, Jo Vallentine. The Tasmanian branch of the party was steeped in environmental protests and radicalism but we can see a discernible difference in the style of then and now. The new generation of leaders have highly polished personas, tend not to have radical pasts and come from highly respectable professional backgrounds. Di Natale is a general physician, Peter Whish-Wilson worked for Merill Lynch, Adam Bandt was a labour lawyer and Larissa Waters an environmental lawyer.
The Greens success in modern Australian politics is explained not by the departure of the left within the ALP (a common argument) but their usurping of the base of the Australian Democrats. The Greens do not tend to threaten sitting Labor MPs in Western Sydney or outside of inner city Melbourne. They are most concentrated in the same areas where the Democrats recorded their best results. Indeed, many prominent Democrats have jumped ship to the Greens including Andrew Bartlett, Janet Powell and Arthur Chesterfield-Evans.
The Democrats voters were very different from the original Greens supporters and party founders, more middle-class professionals, centred in non-working class inner city suburbs and less prone to political radicalism. Both groupings tended to be university graduates, though the Democrats constituency probably looked more conservative in terms of lifestyle and family finances.
It is often forgotten that the Democrats were themselves defectors from the Liberal Party of the late 1970s. Though non-labour, white collar and with a certain elitist predisposition, the Democrats emerged as the middle-class Australians that voiced rejection of the economic reforms of the 1980s. Like the Greens, they weren’t all that popular with the working class electorate that was treated to the harsher edge of the recession in the 80s and 90s. Opposition to the Hawke-Keating reforms was largely a populist tactic and perhaps the first instance of an anti-politics movement in Australia. In retrospect it appears to have been a cover for a specific agenda beneficial to the supporters of the Democrats that was transferred to their political successors.
Though they live in comparatively high income electorates and have higher than average wages, the Greens supporters are very keen on a raft of government programs tailored to their benefit.
Although they are often couched in terms of universal benefit, the programs that the Greens are most keen on tend to be things that disproportionately make their (and their target voters) lives more comfortable. Public transportation, subsidies for solar power and greater university funding all translate into greater government assistance for Australians already in generally prosperous conditions.
Their opposition to lowering corporate tax and high personal rates or the abolition of the carbon and mining taxes is designed to appear egalitarian and that they accept paying more tax themselves. But they expect the revenue from these measures, which have little effect on their lives and expenses, to flow back to their core supporters through subsidies for things they find congenial.
This makes the Greens rhetoric on tax evasion opportunistic and hollow. They can accept high electricity prices through the carbon tax or the closure of coal-fired power stations so long as their solar power and energy efficiency measures come with generous state support. What that means for lower income Australians more exposed to higher electricity costs remains unanswered, and likely accounts for the Greens inability to cut through to such voters. When you analyse the Green vote you will see that in the nation’s poorer electorates, Page, Hinkler, Lyne, Watson and Fowler, the Greens vote is quite low. Whereas in the conspicuously wealthy neighbourhoods of inner Melbourne and Sydney the Greens perform better. Similarly electorates in western Sydney and eastern Melbourne that are more racially diverse don’t go much for the Greens either.
Two particular changes are emblematic of the new Greens demographic. The 2012 decision to ditch estate duties (inheritance tax) is a sure sign of their awareness that they have a wealthier support base whose economic interests they must defend. Their shift from opposing Australia’s population growth to supporting large scale immigration demonstrates their disregard of poorer lower wage voters. High levels of immigration disproportionately create competition amongst those in the lower wage bracket, while providing cheaper services, restaurants and childcare for middle-income Australians. Demonstrated by di Natale’s assurance that he was paying his nannies ‘above’ minimum wage, as any egalitarian would. Refugees, student radicalism, military spending, uranium and the IMF are all issues that speak to the radical edge of the Greens base but that are not the things that sustain the party election after election. Libertarian political parties are fantastically unsuccessful because they tell people up front that their fundamental purpose is to not provide the services states normally do. The Greens do not make this mistake or the mistakes of the radical left. They are uniquely effective at acting in the interests of their supporters while appearing to not be doing so.
The only comparison could be the Tea Party in the United States which rails against ‘big government’ and ‘socialised medicine’ while being firmly in support of the existing health and social security guarantees expected by future retirees.
Parties after all are vehicles for advancing the economic and social interests of their supporters; the Greens are no exception. If they were truly radical and revolutionary they would be about as successful as the Communist Party or the Australia First Party. It just so happens that the Greens are already among the most fortunate, yet want more state support – for themselves and their children.
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