Date created: 7/11/04
Last modified:7/11/04
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John Quiggin

Demonising the greens

Australian Financial Review

19 September 2004

In an election campaign, it’s usual to see vigorous negative campaigning, with each side combing the other’s policy statements for clauses that can be attacked, if necessary with the aid of misquotation and creative interpretation. What’s surprising in the current campaign is that the conservative attack seems to be directed primarily at the Greens rather than Labor.

The scale of the attack on the Greens has been impressive, including repeated statements from the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, hostile editorials in the Murdoch press, denunciations from right-wing think tanks, and a string of vitiriolic opinion pieces.

But the tone has been even more striking. Members of the government have accused the Greens of being Nazis and Communists,kooks, and more. The opinion pieces have been similarly strident,referring to the Greens as revolutionaries, anarcho-syndicalists and so on.

The extremism of this rhetoric is surprising given that in the late 1990s, a Tasmanian Liberal minority government held office for three years, relying throughout its term on Green support. Labor did the same thing in the late 1980s. In view of policy differences, mainly over forest issues, these were uneasy alliances, and both broke down in the end..

But if the Greens were the totalitarian fruitcakes described in the recent attacks, a minority government relying on their support could not have lasted three weeks let alone three years. And surely it ought to be possible to point numerous concrete instances of policy extremism rather than relying on a scare campaign.

What is the factual basis for all these scares ? Much of it is pure invention or misrepresentation. The Greens have been accused of wanting to make vegetarianism and cycling compulsory, and wishing to force farmers off their land. When pushed to justify these claims, critics point to general statements about the desirability of sustainable land use or increasing the share of commuter trips undertaken by bicycles. Such statements can be found in the publications and policy statements of State and Federal governments of both political persuasions.

In other cases, the Greens are being attacked for policies that command the support of most experts who have studied the question. For example, the Greens propose to restore the capital gains tax system introduced by the Hawke-Keating Labor government,

The Productivity Commission, scarcely a hotbed of left-wing activism, recently identified the concessional capital gains tax system introduced by the current government as one of the factors contributing to the unsustainable boom in housing prices, and the corresponding decline in home affordability. The cut was introduced on the basis of spurious arguments during the dotcom boom, and has been deplored by many economists.

Far from being irrationalist kooks, the Greens are defending rational, evidence-based, policy against populism and pork-barrelling.

What is really puzzling, though, is the political motivation for such an all-out attack. If people are scared away from voting Green, they will presumably return to the major party that would otherwise have got their second preference. In most cases, there will be no effect on the final outcome.

There have been some ineffectual efforts to paint Mark Latham as the captive of the Greens on his left. But on the whole, the demonization of the Greens only emphasises the extent to which Labor has become a centrist party.

It has been suggested that the strategy is focused on the Senate. But given that there are 18 long-term government Senators and four Democrats, the the Greens could hold the Senate balance of power in the next Parliament only in the event of an electoral disaster for the Coalition or a merger with the Democrats. The Greens will probably hold the balance of power after 2007, but it’s hard to imagine that this prospect is exercising the minds of Coalition strategists right now.

The Greens only real chance of exercising significant power is that they might win some inner-city seats from Labor. Given a hung Parliament, they could then form the support base for a minority Labor government. As Tasmanian experience has shown, this would not be a disaster.

In any case, it is entirely within the capacity of the Liberal Party to preclude such an outcome. As long as Liberal preferences go to Labor ahead of the Greens, no Green candidate can win a Lower House seat. If the government believes its own rhetoric, it would be utterly irresponsible and immoral to give preference to the Greens. However, the Liberals have done so in the past, and will probably do so again this time.

John Quiggin is an ARC Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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