Federal Politics

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It's too easy being Green

How do you brown off the Greens? Put them last on the ballot paper.

FINALLY it appears some in the Labor Party have woken up to the Greens. One benefit of this awakening is that some in the media are now prepared to give the Greens at least a modicum of scrutiny.

That they have escaped it in the past is perhaps understandable. After all, they are in one sense a minor rump on the Parliament.

For example, when Senator Sarah Hanson-Young took her young daughter into the Senate in June 2009, she insisted it was not a stunt and was simply because she wanted to have a few minutes with her daughter before she went home to Adelaide. But did anyone ask the senator why she hadn't organised to have this time earlier in the day? Did anyone ask if she had considered how upset her daughter might be if the standing rules were applied? What an easy life it must be when proper scrutiny just passes you by.

An accident of voting outcomes has given these few people the balance of power in the Senate. These few people who have no hope of holding the responsibility of government have ended up being the arbiter between the two major parties.

It's hard to imagine that many Australians would answer ''yes'' if you asked them: ''Would you like the Greens to arbitrate between Liberal and Labor?'' Certainly not a majority. Yet our system has given the Greens this power, and I think that alone merits them being under close scrutiny.

The recent spat between the Greens and a number of senior Labor people was quite revealing. It doesn't say much that is positive about the Greens that one of their mantras during this tussle was that they were the only thing standing between Tony Abbott and the Lodge. Is that all they stand for? Why not promote their policies?


Even more interesting was Hanson-Young's comment that ''the Greens have values and the Labor Party doesn't''. The glaringly obvious question is: ''Will you tell the Australian people why you support Labor being in government if you think they have no values?'' Do the Greens also think the Liberals have no values? Do they really think that in a pluralist society like ours, they are the only ones with any values? Or do they just not like Abbott as leader?

In any event, the Greens were happy enough to squeeze whatever they could out of the situation. They made their demands to Gillard and now both she and the Labor Party are paying the price.

Of all the things that are valuable in life, and public life in particular, credibility is one of the most important. Without it you're just another spruiker taking up air space and interrupting the peace for no good reason. You become a parody. Incredibly, Gillard gave hers away in her post-election deal with the Greens. Power was more important to her than her promise to the people not to introduce a carbon tax.

Not only has this damaged her, perhaps irrevocably, but it has damaged her team. It now seems to the electorate that before team Labor can tell you what it is going to do, it has to have permission from a few people outside the team. The government we elected kowtows to people we did not elect.

These outsiders do nothing to help govern. So when there is a difficult problem, they have no need to worry about policies that Australia can afford, no need of policies that will work. They are free to draw on their whiteboard so far removed from the real world with which any government has to deal.

Take the issue of unlawful arrivals by boat. It is easy to engage in a healthy dose of conspicuous compassion; so easy to just say ''let everyone in''. It sounds so caring, and you're glad because you want the world to see you as the good guy.

But in government, in the real world, playing little Miss Pollyanna is not an option. The budget bottom line dictates that you can only do what you can afford. You have the responsibility to make hard choices.

Hanson-Young should be asked what she thinks is the limit of what Australia can afford in unlawful boat arrivals. She should not be allowed to evade giving an answer, a number. Then it can be costed and the public can really judge whether her ideas are feasible.

She should also be asked if she would save any of those refugee places for the poor unfortunate people who wait in camps. Or would she just open the door through Indonesia and let those who wait in camps keep waiting?

Once she has faced the reality of a limit on what Australia can afford, the senator should be asked to tell us what she would do when people, unable to get in from Indonesia under her quota, came by boat anyway.

And, when she seeks to calm a wary electorate by asserting that those who are found not to be refugees should be sent home, she might outline a few ideas on how that could be done. History shows us that whoever is in government finds returns are extremely difficult to achieve. Easy to say, not so easy to do.

I hope the major parties act sensibly and refuse to preference the Greens ahead of many others.

How do you brown off the Greens? Put them last on the ballot paper.

Amanda Vanstone was a minister in the Howard government.

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