Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Beware the true extremists in Australian politics

George Pell famously labelled Green politicians watermelons – green on the outside, red on the inside. Nobody, I presume, was very surprised at the time that an arch conservative would hold such an outstandingly silly point of view. It has, after all, been a longstanding parlour game of Liberal politicians to outdo each other in their portrayal of the Greens as a bunch of loopy commie pinkos (funny how those last two idioms don’t get much of an airing these days, isn’t it?) Rather a lot of sting has been taken out of such charges since the Greens’ remarkable ascendency which began in earnest in 2007 and has continued – Bob Brown’s departure notwithstanding – since. The Greens’ central role in the current hung parliament has seen the party acquire a certain measure of respectability – and a considerable dilution of their status as a nutty fringe organisation – that would have seemed unfeasible a decade ago. Equally as importantly, many environmental issues have transitioned from the fringe to the mainstream of national and political discourse in the past few years and it remains the case that both major parties have refused to meaningfully acknowledge the new reality.  
            It is just as well then that we still have people around like Paul Howes and Sam Dastyari to remind us that if the Greens aren’t quite as scary as the NKVD, they are at least as scary as One Nation. This extraordinary claim was made by Dastyari, NSW Labor’s general secretary, in an interview in (where else?) the Australian on the weekend. Dastyari is planning to move a motion at this weekend’s NSW Labor conference which will implore Labor to consider giving preferences to the Greens last at the next election. Howes, national secretary of the Australian Workers Union, has backed Dastyari’s assertion that the Greens are extremists, as has Bob Carr. Even the Prime Minister has given tacit support to the idea, pointing reporters towards a speech she made in April last year in which she said that ‘the Greens will never embrace Labor’s delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians... who day after day do the right thing... driven by love of family and nation.’
            I had expected, possibly naively, that Dastyari’s bizarre comparison of the Greens with One Nation would be met broadly with the derision it deserves but it seems the idea has hit a chord (albeit a rankly tuneless one). Last night on ABC’s The Drum, a consensus was reached on the panel (with the honourable exception of Crikey’s Stephen Mayne) on the question of extremism and the Greens – that Dastyari was right. One panellist, a member of a conservative Australian thinktank, suggested that the Greens were extreme because some of their policies would result in job losses. Huh? By this argument, every political party in Australia could be labelled extreme. He also argued that the Greens’ extremism had manifested itself in the recent parliamentary debate on the asylum seeker issue, and that it was their refusal to compromise which had scuppered any chance of an agreement being reached. Was it not, in fact, the Liberal party who were the greater obstacle to progress – and hence more ‘extreme’ – because they would not support Labor’s proposal not because they oppose offshore processing but because, trivially, they think it should happen somewhere else?
            The debate on ‘illegal’ immigration raises another acute problem for Dastyari and his supporters. However we might define extremism in politics, it seems to me that the policies which Tony Abbott’s ‘turn back the boats’ mantra represents are far more radical than the Greens’ position on asylum seekers which consists, broadly, of no mandatory detention, an end to offshore processing and temporary visas, and an increase in immigrant numbers in line with international levels. These things are, after all, what most other countries in the world do. What, indeed, could be more extreme than the refugee policies under Howard (and which Abbott is proposing to reinstate) which saw countless innocent men, women and children locked up behind razor wire in the middle of the desert and subject round the clock to both physical and psychological torment? It is not an extreme position to criticise these policies, unless you want to argue that the United Nations, Amnesty International and many other humanitarian NGOs are extreme organisations.
            What else are we to make of the substance of the argument that the Greens are an extreme political party, fundamentally out of step with ‘ordinary’ Australians? It scarcely requires pointing out that the Greens’ position on climate change has always been in synch with the global scientific consensus (about 95% of relevant scientists support a theory of anthropogenic climate change) whereas the leader of the opposition once famously declared he thought the whole thing was crap. Abbott is necessarily more circumspect these days, but that hasn’t stopped other Liberals like Barnaby Joyce from voicing their scepticism on the issue whenever the opportunity arises. Most scientists think human-induced climate change is happening and that we should do something about it, and so does most of the Australian electorate. To deny the reality of climate change is to adopt a position which is unarguably extreme.
Labor, too, is far more meaningfully out of step with the Australian people than the Greens on two other issues which remain of high interest to both blue- and white-collar voters: the war in Afghanistan, and marriage equality. Polls consistently show that Labor’s support for the continued deployment of Australian troops in Afghanistan, and opposition to marriage reform, do not reflect the will of the Australian people. (Nor did the Howard government’s decision to join the US’s war against Iraq, which was not only opposed by most Australians but by most of the governments of the world).    
            It is bizarre enough that Labor party members are now taking it upon themselves to launch unprovoked and unsupported attacks on a party that is not only an entirely legitimate alternative political force, as well as one that helped them secure power in the first place and continues to enable much of Labor’s legislative agenda. It almost defies belief that Dastyari’s attack likened the Greens to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. The stupidity of the comparison is obvious enough, but I think it’s worth fleshing out in a little detail. The first point which needs to be made, of course, is that in character Hanson’s One Nation party had far more in common with the Coalition than any other political group. Howard’s silence on the rapid rise of One Nation, rightly condemned at the time in many quarters, was telling. That he did not immediately move to denounce One Nation’s overt racism suggested, at the very least, some sympathy with Hanson’s deranged xenophobia. Hanson went on to write in her autobiography that ‘the very same policies I advocated back then... are being advocated today by the [Howard] federal government.’ One might add that the policies Howard advocated back then are being advocated today by Abbott’s opposition.
One Nation never enjoyed the kind of support the Greens have seen since 2007 which culminated in almost 12% of the vote at the last election. One Nation’s peak in 1998 saw them secure 9% and, whilst support for the Greens continues to hover around 10-12%, Hanson’s former party got less than 1% of the vote at the last federal election. To compare them, then, to the modern day Greens is to present a radically distorted picture of contemporary Australian politics and to fundamentally mischaracterise the current parliament.
If people like Paul Howes and Sam Dastyari have genuine criticisms of the policies of the Greens, then they should be clear about what those criticisms are and not simply sling mud from behind inaccurate and inflammatory labels like extremist. Christine Milne was correct to call into question the values of the Labor party in her response to Dastyari’s comments. There is no substance to claims that the Greens are extreme, just as there was no substance to Julia Gillard’s tiresomely parochial speech last April. Her party, it seems, can do nothing more than pitifully lash out at those around it as it continues to roll out the red carpet for the Liberals ahead of next year’s election. Dastyari will not find the roots of Labor’s current crisis in its partnership with the Greens, but within the party itself. If only he, like the rest of us, could figure out what the hell they stand for any more.
Finally, the characterisation of the Greens as an extremist party carries, I think, a further, deeply troubling implication, and one that goes beyond Australian politics. That is the implication that left wing politics are, prima facie, harmfully radical, and that conservatism – no matter how demented in its application – cannot by nature be a force for extremism. The GFC and the ‘war on terror’, probably the two defining socio-political events of the 21st century so far, have demonstrated that this could not be further from the truth. Jeff Sparrow, in a piece for New Matilda, has articulated this point beautifully, and I want to finish with his words:

Who would have thought... that in the twenty-first century we’d have an Australian opposition leader advocating the return of floating prison hulks to house asylum seekers and a US President claiming the right to secretly assassinate American citizens? [Labor wants] to ensure that certain ideas (invariably on the Left) remain beyond the pale, even as memes from the far Right creep increasingly into common usage. That’s why it matters, irrespective of what you think of the Greens themselves. 

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