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Labor's fear is that Milne's Greens will lack Brown's pragmatism

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Australian Financial Review chief political correspondent

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New Greens leader sets out agenda

Christine Milne takes a swipe at big business as she settles into her new role as Greens leader.

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The Gillard government's immediate reaction to the departure of the Greens leader Bob Brown and to his replacement by Christine Milne was one of concern.

Since the balance-of-power alliance with the Greens that was imposed on it by the hung parliament, Labor has haemorrhaged political support.

Firstly, the arrangement resulted in Labor putting a price on carbon, which exposed Julia Gillard to the extremely damaging claim she had broken her election promise regarding no carbon tax.

"Milne [front] believes the economy is approaching a tipping point between old and new, and wants to work with what she calls 'progressive business'".

"Milne [front] believes the economy is approaching a tipping point between old and new, and wants to work with what she calls 'progressive business'". Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Secondly, Labor wins no support from the left for this policy or any other green measures. It just bleeds from both ends.

While the Coalition primary vote has become entrenched at or about the 44 per cent it received at the August 2010 election, Labor voters have deserted the government, with 10 per cent of those who voted Labor now opting for the Greens or parking their support in the ''undecided'' category.

Brown entered the Senate in 1996, the same year John Howard became prime minister. While poles apart politically, Howard and Brown were conviction politicians.

This underpinned Brown's success in building the Greens federally to the current peak of nine senators and one member of the lower house.

Brown's reward for conviction was best demonstrated at the 2001 election, which was dominated by the MV Tampa episode. Labor, under enormous pressure, acquiesced with Howard's hard line against the asylum seekers and went backwards. The Greens advanced.

Over the years, Brown also developed a degree of pragmatism. He talked a big game but, especially towards the end of his leadership, accepted that in politics, sometimes something was better than nothing. The greatest example was the watered-down mining tax, with which the Greens were unhappy.

''Our position is that ultimately we are going to have to pass the mining tax because Tony Abbott's Coalition is opposed to it,'' Brown said.

This position caused some frustration within the party given the Greens' ability in the Senate to toughen the mining tax. But Brown knew Gillard would not budge.

The worry inside Labor now is that Milne will not share that pragmatism.

One senior figure said the common view is that an alliance with a Milne-led Greens could damage the government more than the Brown alliance because of Milne's reputation as a policy hardliner and her uncompromising rhetoric.

It was known that Gillard could reason with Brown, saying: ''Bob, we've gone out of our way for the Greens on this issue, can you tone it down on that one?'' And at times, Brown would reply: ''No worries, leave it to me.''

Milne deserves to be given a chance before being judged. She has rejected the hardline tag and has promised a more open party. She has pledged, somewhat pointedly, to be a more consultative leader and stated that Brown's departure means the rest of the Greens team will now have a chance to ''shine''.

But Gillard's warning that she expects Milne and her party to ''conduct themselves responsibly and reasonably'', including letting the government return the budget to surplus, was deliberately sharp.

The first test of how much, if anything, has changed under Milne's tenure will be the Greens' response to the budget.

The government wants a 1 percentage point cut to company tax to be funded by the mining tax.

The Greens, including Brown, have so far refused to support this, saying they will allow the tax for small companies only - those with a turnover of less than $2 million.

They say bigger businesses should receive nothing and the money saved should be spent on worthy national projects such as a dental scheme.

Milne's opening statement as leader included attacking the mining industry as rapacious and the ''old economy''.

Milne believes the economy is approaching a tipping point between old and new, and wants to work with what she calls ''progressive business''. But to do one at the complete exclusion of the other, especially when the other is not yet ready to carry the economy, is obviously risky.

The last time the miners were written off as the ''old economy'' was at the start of last decade when all and sundry slammed Peter Costello for not pinning the economy to information technology by climbing aboard the dotcom boom.

As Costello noted in his memoirs, if Labor and others had had their way, ''we would have got out of mining just when it was about to take off and invested in technology just when it was about to collapse''.

Milne is on the record as demanding that the $2 billion diesel tax rebate the miners receive be cut back harder than the 6.2¢-per-litre reduction planned for the budget and she supports calls to pare back their other tax perks, such as accelerated depreciation.

It has been speculated that if the Greens were to support the company tax cuts in full, then they will demand in return the further reduction of the diesel rebate, which they believe should be phased out.

The government needs the Greens because the Coalition opposes the tax cut on account of the way it is funded.

The miners are angry and alarmed again. On Friday, before anyone knew Brown had quit, they published full-page ads warning the government not to accede to the demands of some ''groups still demanding Australian mining should pay even more''.

Ominously, they reignited the ''keep mining strong'' tagline - the same as in the $22 million anti-mining tax ad blitz that crippled Kevin Rudd's leadership and almost killed Labor.

Phillip Coorey is the chief political correspondent.

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155 comments

  • Alternatively, if theory was the Great Big Problem, poor old Julie would have her hands full with a Ferocious Porky Pyne.

    Commenter
    Geronimo
    Location
    Yippee Yi Yo
    Date and time
    April 16, 2012, 7:44AM
    • Forget your own porkies, the evidence is that Julia is more likely to have trouble with Milne. Rather than co-operating with Labor as she claims, Milne's track record is one of making bizarre allegations against Labor in Tasmania:

      "GREENS senator Christine Milne has told the Senate there is no independent police force in Tasmania.

      Senator Milne said the police force is acting as Premier David Bartlett's "private militia".

      "There is no independent police force in Tasmania," Senator Milne said.

      "It is directed and used at the behest of the Government"

      Possibly Milne will eventually come to the conclusion that Julia has her own private army, air force and navy..

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 9:51AM
    • I would prefer to wait until judgement is made on Christine Milne - I think we may be surprised at the difference she makes. She comes from a dairy farm and understands farmers and will likely expose the flaky policies of Abbott and the three stooges. I think the Nationals should be worried - once she explains the three card trick that the LNP is trying to sell to the farmers they may look differently at the Greens see http://www.climatespectator.com.au/commentary/greg-hunt-s-carbon-illusion?utm_source=Climate%20Spectator&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=26ec820b9e-CSPEC_DAILY. I'm sure she will also endeavour to support the farmers against Coal Seam Gas exploration and extraction, something that most farmers dislike especially the fact that they get $1 for every $1000 made by the miners will also be exposed.

      Commenter
      n720ute
      Location
      North Coast NSW
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 10:41AM
    • I'm sure Milne will be more than happy to regulate farmers and food production, just like every other part of the economy she wants to see regulated. Of course it will all be done in the interests of 'sustainability' (as if three thousand years plus of agricultural hasn't already proven the concept is sustainable). Once you get passed the smilie face environment facade, what The Greens are really on about is a centralised command economy (Kulaks included).

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 11:15AM
    • SteveH - if you think agriculture is sustainable because it has a long history, then consider all those fertile areas now uncultivatable because of man's activities - Mesopotamia, Easter Island for a couple.

      If you want food security, you won't get it by digging holes in the ground because that land will never produce again.

      The farmers and the Greens are natural allies. The farmers and the miners are not.

      Commenter
      Ross
      Location
      MALLABULA
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 11:49AM
    • n720ute - Milne will not change her "hard-line" attitude. How ironic that a Greens supporter is trying to accuse another party of "flaky policies". Please explain again how the carbon tax will make any iota of measurable difference on global warming while it handicaps the Australian economy?

      Commenter
      hbloz
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 12:14PM
    • Ross I can't speak for farmers, but I doubt many of them will enjoy being told what they can and can't grow, what they can and can't export, or whether they can use diesel.

      As for your claims about the decline of arable land in Mesopotania/Iraq I think that there are other facts involved, not the least a population in access of 31 million and a series of disruptive military campaigns and rebellions:

      "In the late 1950s, Iraq was self-sufficient in agricultural production, but in the 1960s it imported about 15 percent of its food supplies, and by the 1970s it imported about 33 percent of its food. By the early 1980s, food imports accounted for about 15 percent of total imports, and in 1984, according to Iraqi statistics, food imports comprised about 22 percent of total imports. Many experts expressed the opinion that Iraq had the potential for substantial agricultural growth, but restrictions on water supplies, caused by Syrian and Turkish dam building on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, might limit this expansion."

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 1:04PM
    • I grew up under Soviet communism in the old Poland. The State told my father that he had to grow sugar beets, even though wheat was more needed for bread. They then paid him almost nothing for the sugar beets, only to make him grow the same the next year.

      So it is with the Greens and their environmental controls of farmers. Lee Rhiannon of the NSW Greens must be positively bursting with pride as hshe sees Stalin's plans being realised on the farms & farmers of Australia.

      Commenter
      krystyna
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 1:31PM
    • SteveH - the farmers can grow what they want if they give up their subsidies - pay real fuel prices, stop bothering with cotton, reduce cattle and other hooved animals that hammer their own land & just, in general, stop capitalising their gains & socialising their losses..

      Farmers can well be sustainable but where they cannot be they should not be propped up.

      Nice quote but it is unsourced as far as I can tell?

      "Hitler was a great guy, just misunderstood" - it does not mean much without who said it..... (yes I am bringing up Hitler but not in a Godwins law way!).

      Commenter
      BadSax
      Location
      Erko
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 1:36PM
    • Yes Bad Sax I suppose similar logic is that parents can what they like with their kids if they give family benefits, except of course thats how it works is it. Everything is governed by law and regulation, regardless of how little government assistance.

      As for the quote happy to oblige:
      http://www.themercury.com.au/article/2009/05/14/73155_tasmania-news.html

      Commenter
      SteveH.
      Date and time
      April 16, 2012, 2:34PM

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