Greens Flex New Muscles in Australian Parliament

SYDNEY — Make no mistake: It was Prime Minister Julia Gillard standing center stage as she unveiled her government’s controversial emissions reductions proposal. Ms. Gillard has pinned her political future, and her Labor Party’s near-term hopes, on getting the deal to tax big polluters through Parliament.

But ask any policy analyst who has had the best month in Australian politics, and you are likely to hear that it was the Greens, the left-leaning party known best for its focus on environmental issues. Four new Greens members who were elected to the Senate last year were sworn into office this month, giving the party 9 of 76 seats and, for the first time in its two-decade history, the role of kingmaker. With not even the governing Labor Party enjoying a majority, support from the Greens is now crucial to getting legislation passed.

Ms. Gillard’s presentation of the carbon tax plan on July 10 was emphatic evidence of the Greens’ new strength, and the concessions they are now able to extract from Labor. Before the election last year, the prime minister had specifically ruled out such a tax as a means of reducing carbon emissions. After the election, with just 31 seats and needing allies, she placed the issue long championed by the Greens at the top of Labor’s legislative agenda.

The Greens’ confidence was on display this week when the deputy party chief, Christine Milne, demanded on Thursday a broad parliamentary investigation into news media ownership and privacy issues after the phone-hacking scandal involving News Corp. in Britain. That demand seemed to go further than the “hard questions” Ms. Gillard had said the Australian people wanted answered over the scandal, and challenges the dominance of print media in Australia owned by Rupert Murdoch’s company. It was not immediately clear whether Ms. Gillard backed such an inquiry.

It is not difficult to see, then, why commentators like the BBC’s Australia correspondent, Nick Bryant, have taken to asking whether Bob Brown, who has led the Greens since the party’s founding in 1992, might just be “the most powerful man in Australian politics.”

“No Greens, no debate on climate change, let alone a major and direction-changing outcome,” Mr. Brown said in a recent interview, referring to the carbon tax.

The carbon reduction plan is widely expected to pass into law when it comes to a vote in October, with the Labor and Green parties counting on the promised support of three independent senators. These three are likely to be the target of fierce lobbying by the opposition Liberal Party, which is against the plan. If even one member changes his vote, the proposal, and possibly the Gillard government itself, could collapse.

It would not be the first time an emissions reduction plan would have contributed to the downfall of a Labor prime minister. Kevin Rudd, who is now foreign minister, was ousted as prime minister in 2010 largely after his proposed plan imploded in the face of criticism from the conservative opposition, who insisted the plan went too far, and the Greens, who said it did not go far enough.

The carbon tax remains hugely unpopular with the electorate. A record-low 41 percent of Australians say global warming is a serious and pressing problem that should be tackled immediately, even if it involves significant costs, according to a recent poll by the Lowy Institute. That is down 5 points from a year ago and 27 from its highest level of support in 2006.

In the 2010 election, the Greens won their first seat in the lower house — a seat picked up from Labor — and gained six new seats in the Senate, including the four sworn in this month, giving them the ability to block, or bless, any legislation in the upper house.

In the interview, Mr. Brown said that his party had been able to peel away support from both Labor and the opposition Liberals because emerging political issues have shifted away from concerns traditionally promoted by the established parties.

“The debate last century was between central control and market control of the economy and, of course, the labor movement was about ensuring that everybody shared in the wealth of the industrial and post-industrial society,” Mr. Brown said. “But it is now about the security of our children and our grandchildren and protecting the ability of the planet to withstand the pressure of rapidly growing consumption and growing numbers of human beings.”

He said the broadening of the party’s platform to include support for social issues like legalizing same-sex marriage and assisted suicide had won backing especially from younger voters. A News Limited poll taken just before the election last year showed Green support at 19 percent among voters aged 18 to 34, compared with 9 percent of voters older than 50.

“I think both the big parties have lost their origins, and the Greens are growing because people appreciate that we are a 21st-century party which, for example, supports equality in marriage and death with dignity, both of which have 70 to 80 percent support amongst the Australian populace but are policies rejected by the big parties,” Mr. Brown said.

Australia has been a two-party game for most of its political life — with Labor and the Liberals dominating national politics for decades, and smaller parties like the far-right Nationals, who usually vote with the Liberals, emerging from time to time.

The Green party was formed in 1992 out of the ashes of the United Tasmania Group. The party was one of the first in the world to run on a predominantly environmental platform, first fielding candidates in the 1972 state election in Tasmania.

That the Greens have been able to get to where they are today in less than 20 years is partly because of their ability to draw away urban voters who may traditionally have voted for Labor, said John Wanna, a political science professor at Australian National University in Canberra.

“They’ve been riding a wave, really, left open to them because Labor is dominated by the unions and the unions aren’t very environmentalist,” he said.

Although Labor and the Greens might appear to be natural allies given their similar stances on many issues, like strong support for trade unions and action to address climate change, relations between the parties are uneasy, because they are fighting over a narrow electoral pool, Mr. Wanna said.

“The closest parallel would be the Tea Party with the Republicans” in the United States, he said. “They’re fighting for the same electorate.”

But while some newspaper opinion writers have linked the Greens’ rise to Labor’s decline, Mungo MacCallum, a veteran political commentator, says the Greens have a long way go before they become a serious third force.

“Only if the trades unions desert Labor en masse is this likely to change, and so far the threats to do so have been sporadic and somewhat ego-driven,” he said in an interview. “I’m sure the Greens are far too radical for most of Labor’s traditional support base.”

Michael Fullilove, director of the Global Issues Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, agrees.

“The Greens are up on their hind legs at the moment, but I’m dubious that this means they will soon be the leading force on the left of Australian politics,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The major political parties are remarkably resilient organizations.”

The Greens now have to deal with the unfamiliar tasks that come with no longer being just a party of protest, he said, like balancing competing priorities or appealing to a broader constituency.

“Let’s wait and see how the Greens manage it before making predictions about their future,” he said.

By MATT SIEGEL, Published: July 22, 2011

07/22/2011 – 12:00


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