Date: July 09 2012
There's a tale of the humanist, atheist and philosopher Voltaire lying on his deathbed when a Catholic priest, hoping to reclaim him to the church, came forward and asked him whether he renounced Satan, and all of his works and pomps. ''Honestly, father,'' Voltaire is said to have responded. ''Do you think this is a time for me to be making fresh enemies?'' It's a tale worth bearing in mind as, over the weekend, the Labor organisation began wondering aloud about whether they should be putting more distance between themselves and the Greens. Some of the party's electoral geniuses in the NSW branch, indeed, are suggesting that Labor ought to put the Greens last in preference distributions. Some other senior strategists, such as the AWU's Paul Howes, a one-time Trotskyite who turned into a hard man of the NSW Right overnight, accuses the Greens of political extremism, openly seeking to crush the jobs of hardworking Australians that support our national prosperity. The Greens, he says, pose as much of a threat to working people as Tony Abbott.
This is taking things some distance further than ever has Julia Gillard, who has sought to define - even emphasise - fundamental differences between Labor and the Greens, but without vituperation, or seeming to appear to be on a crusade to destroy the them. Labor, after all, would seem to need the Greens, and not only in Tasmania and the ACT, where arrangements or alliances with the Greens have Labor in power, but also in the federal parliament, where Ms Gillard's prime ministership turns on the support of a Greens member, as well as the vote of independents. It is true - as a recent debate over refugee policy underlined - that Labor cannot take the support of the Greens for granted, and that it must compromise either with the Greens or the Liberal Party in order to get its legislation through the Senate. Yet it is of the essence of the argument of those who insist that Ms Gillard has been in practice a political achiever, good negotiator and compromiser, with a formidable record of legislative achievement, that she has generally been able to make deals with the Greens. If this has sometimes led to concessions, she has not wasted much time on regrets or on abuse.
Labor also has to remain conscious that support for the Greens amounts to about a third of the anti-Coalition vote, which, right at the moment, tends to languish at about the 45 per cent mark, suggesting a landslide towards the Coalition at the next election. It is quite true that a good deal of the support that the Greens are getting comes from alienated and disappointed former Labor voters, and that, historically, their preferences have flowed fairly automatically towards Labor. For several reasons, however, that cannot be taken for granted. First, a habit of withholding a first preference from Labor is now well-established, operating through at least four elections over 11 years. An increasing proportion of Greens supporters no longer have any natural attachments to a pragmatic Labor Party which has let them down on a host of issues, including the treatment of refugees and Aborigines, a supine approach to the American alliance and reflex economic liberalism. The gap between the parties has widened, the more so since Labor has almost ceased to be a membership party, or any sort of academy of ideas and ideals. Put simply, there are many members, or supporters, of the Greens who have no reason to think that Labor is the less worse alternative government.
All the more so when the Greens themselves now openly imagine that they could be a government in their own right. Increasingly, they have policy positions in most areas of government activity, with clearly and tactically staked out policies in areas calculated to improve their support - and not only at the expense of Labor. The party already has a broad umbrella - with some representatives still primarily focused on environmental issues, others taking up ground that was traditionally taken up by the Labor Left, including positions on feminism, human rights, and anti-discrimination laws as well as state interventionist ideas about transport, infrastructure, education and healthcare.
To some of their critics, a good deal of the appeal of the Greens is focused in inner and trendier suburbia, rather than in core Labor aspirant and working class constituencies in the outer suburbs. That found a good deal of the abuse. Yet the problem for Labor is that it has no more of a hold in its ''traditional'' constituencies than in inner suburbia.
Too much abuse of power - not least by those now preaching turning on the Greens - has these areas leaning strongly towards the Coalition. It is entirely typical that Labor shrinks at taking the battle to the Coalition, and concentrates on suicide.
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