How Green was my ALP

I took the photo above in 1989.  The person addressing the ALP Green Network Conference on the left, is a youthful Lindsay Tanner. Before he became a member of Parliament.

Lindsay was instrumental in setting up the Green Network in the ALP.  The network consisted of  ALP members who were concerned about the environment and didn’t want to get involved in joining a faction or getting elected to policy committees.  It provided an opportunity for Rank and File members to lobby together the Party and its ministers on environmental matters.

And of course one of the reasons the very capable Lindsay Tanner started such a group was because he saw the mood changing even in 20 years ago.  As he wrote much later in 2010, when the Green horse had bolted:

”The Greens are harvesting growing support from a particular demographic that first emerged as a key part of Labor’s support base in the late 1960s”.

The rising Green vote was a product of increasing tertiary education, he said, with their support concentrated among ”tertiary disciplines that are focused on much more than just making money”.

”Unlike most Australians, these voters tend to be secure and comfortable enough to be able to put aside immediate self-interest when assessing their political options. Unfortunately for Labor, their viewpoint is increasingly at odds with the perspective of Labor voters who aren’t tertiary educated. On issues like asylum seekers, gay marriage, forests and civil liberties, such differences can often be stark. It’s these differences that the Greens seek to exploit.”

Because it was a network, and not a faction, it didn’t seek any position or participate in power plays, and as such it created a certain amount of unease amongst some ALP apparatchiks that couldn’t handle ordinary members organising themselves and pushing ideas outside the usual framework of conferences and numbers.  The members that started the Green Network were inspired by similar groups in grassroot movements like feminists, social justice and of course the environment, where people came together and worked together without much of a structure. No ‘president’ or ‘secretary’.  People just did stuff.

The Network started in Melbourne, and while some ALP members started similar groups in Sydney and Tasmania, it strength was principally in Victoria.  Those were the times of the Cain government and were heady days.  That government instituted landmark legislation  such as the Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988.  A concept pushed by Green Network member Philip Sutton.  And of course there were battles regarding the preservation of native old growth forests in East Gippsland.

The existence of the Green Network and the fact that there were enough members motivated to create it and work for environmental policy in the ALP, shows how different the Party and the political landscape was then.  I would suspect that most people interested in the environment now would not bother joining the ALP and work to push for environment policies, but would join the Greens.  And it is regrettable that many Greens now either are unaware or purposefully ignore the environmental gains of Labor Governments.

In time, as many groups that rely on volunteers to get going the Green Network whittled away.  I left the ALP in 2001.  Partly because of the feeling of a lot of rank and file members that we weren’t taken seriously and only seen as hand to vote card volunteers at election time.  Partly because I did feel that the ALP moved too much on the right (the fact that initially Beazley acquiesced on Tampa was a factor) but also because my life sort of moved on, and I wanted to do other things.  However, unlike may ex-ALP members I did not have that anger towards the Labor Party that some ex-members that moved to the Greens seems to have.  I recognised that the ALP, to go into government not does need to capture some voters who have views on issues such Asylum Seekers, or the environment which are very different from voters from Fitzroy or Balmain.

It also seemed to me that the Socialist Left, who was the left soul of the ALP,  has been absorbed the centrist/right Labor fold (after all Gillard was a leading member of the SL – I know as she was in the same branch I was).  And while at least some left voters saw people at least fighting for left ideas this doesn’t seems to be as prevalent these days.  As the Labor Party scrumbled for the so call ‘Western Sydney Battler’ vote, it has taken the inner suburban voter for granted and therefore left it open for the Greens to advance.

Greens and Labor – Any possibility of a win win situation?

As I write the Greens and Labor are in a bitter battle for the Victorian seat of Melbourne.  Some left people view this fighting with some alarm.  They fear that while the two centre-left/left parties of Australia fight amongst themselves, the attention will be diverted from the common enemy: The ‘Tea Party – USA Republican’ style party the Coalition has become.

It was suggested that Labor should form a lasting strategic alliance with the Greens in the same way that the Liberals have formed such an alliance with the National Party.  Personally I don’t ever see that happening.

A major section of the Green membership and support is from what I can call ‘pissed off ex-ALP supporters’ which are sometimes quite vitriolic about the ALP. If the Greens were ever going to go in coalition with Labor this group would feel even more betrayed.  On the other end of the spectrum the ALP Right would go into apoplexy at the prospect and internal tensions would make the Rudd  – Gillard relationship like a love fest in comparison.  I think that it is unrealistic.

Politicians are politicians, even Green ones.  Once you are placed in an electoral contest you have to compete. No prices for the nice guys.  However what about the supporters and the Rank and File?  Surveys and polls have shown that the values and beliefs of ALP and Green supporters are very close.  The Greens would benefit from an ALP that was dragged more towards the left and supported their policies, while a more energised left leaning membership ALP would re-establish some of the left soul the Socialist Left used to provide.

I would argue that instead of concentrating on structures and coalitions and going to a top approach I would start at the bottom.  Interested Green supporters/members and ALP supporters/members could create a network, not dissimilar from the Green Network of all those years ago.  Avoid politicians, advisors and tactical strategists.  Just people who are interested in progressive politics.  People who can work for a common purpose without compromising their allegiance to a party.  Take it from there and see what happens.

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1 Comment

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One response to “How Green was my ALP

  1. Appreciate the comments Guido, and of course the reminder of the Green Network (I distantly – in time and space – remember that group being formed all those years ago). I think your general argument has merit; especially the quote from Tanner, who is spot-on. One thing that it points out quite clearly is that the Greens do represent a particular demographic and they’re not going away.

    Whilst it is of course valuable to engage in extra-parliamentary activist groups such as what you’re advocating, however for any reform to succeed it requires advocates inside and outside those doors. Ultimately it is, in a representative democracy, the politicians that legislate, not the people (we can discuss the problems of such a system with Dr. Joe Toscano).

    Whilst Labor and the Greens are at loggerheads in those areas which have a strong Green-voting demographic, that is resources poorly spent. Yes, I know I keep going on about this like a broken record, but in the longer run it will become increasingly obvious. Every minute and dollar spent on Labor and the Green campaigning in the same seat is resources that have not been spent campaigning against an anti-worker, anti-environment, Abbott-led LNP government. What appears “unrealistic” in the short-term I suspect will become inevitable in the longer term.

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