The true imponderable in both the quickly approaching ACT elections and the more distant federal ones will be the appeal of the party known as ‘The Greens’. Has it run its course, or are there more gains to be made? Third parties tend to do well when the major parties are in strife, but are the early victim if the traditional party battle heats up again.
What makes its electoral support imponderable is the fact that the Green political party is a little craft floating on a lake of ‘environmentalism’ that has many islands, currents and shores. There may be nothing that all environmentalists agree on, other than that the environment is really important, and that we need to look after it better than we are doing. Which bits are most important? Ah, well that is a tricky one. For some it is trees, for others it is water, for others still it is the air, or the mountains, or recycling. For quite a bunch it is about global warming, or ‘climate change’. At the religious end there is a spirit called Gaia; at the crass material end some are fuelled by a proposal to build something on a patch of land where one likes to walk the dog.
And for nearly all, the problem is man – well, not the speaker, but others, who are greedy, or short-sighted, or ignorant, or all three. Those people need to be dealt with. The Greens are great regulators. Some in the movement think that there are too many of us anyway, though they do not propose doing away with themselves. Another lot are, perversely, in favour of immigration, while others still think it is a menace.
The sheer range and fluidity of the views that could be described as ‘environmental’ have two consequences of interest here. The first is that it is all too easy to caricature environmentalists as single-minded obsessives out of touch with the real world. A guest at lunch the other day told of a green who had decided that the football finals would lead to an unnecessary increase in greenhouse emissions on the part of fans travelling interstate. But there was an obvious solution: the Storm should play Hawthorn in Melbourne, while the Bulldogs should play the Swans in Sydney. The fact that the electoral heartland of the Greens seems to be the inner-city electorates aids that perception.
The second problem is that any political party trying to represent this melange of views and interests has a huge problem in front of it, because while nearly everyone in a country like Australia is aware of the need to recycle, conserve and leave light footprints, for most these are secondary consideration to the need to have a job, a roof over one’s head, and food on the table.
So the Greens have to have policies about these mundane matters too, and in the nature of things their policies won’t be very different to those of the other parties. And the major parties have, as they always do, come to terms with the environmental movement by proclaiming their own green virtues. If the Greens now want to make clear that they are different they have to be careful what green issues they push hard, because these may lose as many votes as they gain.
The Greens are naturally opposed to the Liberal Party if only because it seems to them to represent the interests of business, and ‘capitalism’ is seen to be indifferent to the needs of the environment. Since the end of the Soviet Union, moreover, the far Left has gravitated into the environmental movement. Paradoxically, the big NGOs that typify the Greens globally, like Greenpeace and the WWF, have incomes that are measured in hundreds of millions of dollars.
At election-time, then, the Greens and their likely support are something of an unknown quantity. Those who get elected have a lot of learning to do. I have watched the ACT Green MLAs with interest and some sympathy, and feel that they used their four years well. But what do they offer than Labor does not? At the federal level I thought that Bob Brown had become a formidable politician, as Senator Brian Harradine, another Tasmanian, had been at an earlier time. But he put me off, rather than attracted me.
I grew up in a household that wasted nothing, grew its own fruit and vegetables, recycled everything, made many of its clothes, and gardened extensively. Those experiences live on in me, but I am no Green. Their certainty about so much that seems uncertain to me does not help, and they want to occupy the moral high ground too much for my liking. The planet does not need saving, in my view, while humanity always has to learn through experience, though our accumulated knowledge helps.
My feeling is that the Greens will not do as well in either coming election as they did last time. They won’t disappear – not at all. But I sense that they have peaked, at least for the moment. The global warming scare is fading, while the other parties have done what they can to accommodate popular Green concerns within their own policy frameworks. Green preferences will still go mostly to Labor, but there will be fewer of them.