Thoughts of a green/left voter in Oz, March 2013
It’s a time of heightened anxiety – anxiety that Labor has blown it and we are facing the prospect of a conservative coalition government lead by the ‘mad monk’, social reactionary Tony Abbott. To a voter of green/left political hue, the prospect is daunting. We already have conservative state governments in NSW, Vic, Queensland and WA; so there is a high likelihood that most of the big political decisions in Australia will soon be made by people with values opposed to mine. Major conservation and social equity gains of recent years may well be reversed.
Federally we have had two years of the minority Gillard Labor Government supported by (but increasingly unhappy in bed with) the Greens and a few independents. Julia Gillard was Australia’s first female Prime Minister, but opinion polls suggest that she is very unpopular with the electorate. Much of her unpopularity seems to stem from how she got the job – in a party coup she displaced Prime Minister Kevin Rudd one year into his elected term. This followed his poor showing in opinion polls and deep unpopularity within many in Labor who had to work with him. Gillard has also been painted by the opposition as untrustworthy for introducing a carbon tax after saying she wouldn’t in the days before she knew she needed the support of the Greens. From this unpromising beginning, and given the ‘tightrope’ nature of minority government, Gillard and her treasurer Wayne Swan have a number of significant achievements: weathering the global financial crisis better than most other countries, introducing the carbon and mining taxes and the National Disability Scheme and national broadband, to name the bigger ones. However there has been a long list of mistakes and political miscalculations, from the roofing insulation scheme fiasco to the embarrassment of being out-manoeuvred by the big miners to introduce a poorly performing mining tax. It’s easy for minority governments to appear gutless, especially when hounded by a vindictive opposition, and something similar has happened with the introduction of a relatively weak carbon tax. Although the carbon tax scaremongering by Abbott has proved to be just that, the catalogue of mistakes makes Labor look incompetent, deservedly. For my money, having a Labor government influenced by the Greens and a few strong independents like Andrew Wilkie has been close to ideal. Without the Greens it’s unlikely we’d have had a carbon tax or a mining tax, both inherently worthwhile initiatives, and the same could be said of the NDS. If a wealthy country like ours can’t show some leadership in the face of international paralysis over climate change, what hope is there for the planet? Taxing the enormous profits of the big miners seems a perfectly reasonable way of funding social initiatives, and sharing the benefits of the mining boom among all Australians – not just already well off executives and shareholders.
If as looks likely Labor is decimated on Sept 14, they may take years to recover, and many Labor/Green initiatives may be reversed. Under Abbott one can safely assume that the rich and the ‘big end of town’ will get even richer and more influential. The Gina Reinhardts and Clive Palmers will make plutocracy more obvious and explicit, despite Abbott’s recent attempts to appear less rabid, more statesmanlike. On the other hand, poorly performing governments may not last long, as the now likely demise of the Liberals in Victoria after the failed leadership of Ted Baillieu has shown. An Abbott government should unite and energize opposing progressive forces, and Abbott may be unable to control ambitious opponents in his own ranks. He will rescind the carbon tax; having vowed to so often, how could he not? It’s quite likely the other associated big conservation projects will go too. Abbott has been a climate change disbeliever; however the current ‘angry summer’ of record temperatures, bushfires and floods may through public opinion curtail his ability to junk the lot. The mining tax is something else; both it and the carbon tax are even more unpopular in WA, the big mining state where the Liberals have just got back in a landslide.
All of this raises questions about the Australian electorate and its apparent volatility as deduced from the opinion polls which both sides of politics seem to place great store on, and as influenced by the tabloid media. It seems that a leadership challenge is only as distant as a few bad opinion polls, in either of the two main parties. My own take on this is that the Australian electorate is relatively uninformed, unsophisticated and apolitical; hence easily influenced by campaigns around inconsequential issues, and susceptible to the machinations of political spin merchants. Thus Gillard’s unpopularity relates to the removal of Rudd, which has happened often in politics when a leader is unpopular or performing poorly, and to her changing her mind on the carbon tax; this latter may just as easily be seen as a sensible, legitimate policy change to fight the biggest challenge of our generation, and as a pragmatic response to the unexpected outcome of minority government with the Greens – but that’s not how it has been portrayed in the tabloids.
And what will happen to the Greens? Are they likely to suffer a big electoral loss with Labor, or will progressive voters reward them for being the only true progressive party of the left? And how many progressive voters are there anyway? They are a quite different group of punters from the swinging voters, who seem to be more a manifestation of that large number of poorly informed, apolitical folk more likely to vote on a ‘What’s in it for me?’ basis. The departure of Bob Brown, an iconic and respected figure, is likely to be significant, even though his successor Christine Milne is publicly impressive. It’s another feature of a modern, volatile, uninformed electorate that leader personality, profile and popularity is so important. Then there are the right wing loonies and small far right parties like Bob Katter’s Australia First, Family First, and high profile racists like Danny Nalliah and Pauline Hanson. These latter do better when the level of dissatisfaction with the big old parties is high. The spectre of such groups or individuals holding the balance of power is even more alarming than an Abbott landslide.
So it’s an anxious time for green/left voters contemplating a return to the political wilderness of the Howard years, with little effective representation of our own values and the loss of key reforms brokered by the Greens. I’m contemplating rationalizing all my green/left donations and channeling them all to the federal Greens until after the election. It would give me the feeling of doing SOMETHING, and reduce that sense of alienation and powerlessness when in a minority grouping facing big losses.