Sunday, July 15, 2012

Labor and the Greens: History repeating?

The right wing of the Labor party has been heaping scorn on the Greens this week, spearheaded by Paul Howes and backed up by many of Labor's parliamentary members. Some commentators have suggested that this is a ploy to drag back wavering socially conservative blue-collar voters from the Liberals by distancing themselves from the Greens. This ploy is doomed to failure as this group of voters is much more likely to be convinced by the pandering to xenophobia that has been honed into a fine art by the Coalition than any Green bashing from Labor's right.

A far more likely outcome can be found in relatively recent State political history between Tasmanian Labor and the Tasmanian Greens. In fact, the parallels between Federal Labor's current policy tantrum at the Greens over asylum seekers and the breakup of the Tasmanian Labor-Green accord in 1992 are strikingly similar.

In 1992, the then Field government was governing Tasmania with the support of the Greens. It was always an uneasy alliance with major disagreements over school closures and forestry policy. However, the straw that finally broke the accord was Labor's "take it or leave it" approach to the Howard (edit: thanks Matthew) Keating government's Forests Industry Strategy, which the Greens had strongly opposed (in fact, the adoption of this policy went directly against the tenets of the accord).

The Labor party assumed that the Greens would merely roll over and accept it because the alternative was to bring down the unpopular Labor government and elect the less Green-friendly Liberals (who had already said that they wouldn't deal with the Greens). The assumption was that the Greens would be equally punished as the Labor party and end up politically much worse off. 

The Greens didn't blink and the election was called. The Liberals won the most seats but were still forced to govern in a minority (with supply being given by the Greens) [Edit: This isn't quite right - Please see Matthew's comment below for more explanation]. Ultimately, Labor's assumption that the Greens were merely an errant left faction that could be pushed around by the party ended up leaving the Labor party out of power but did not affect the Greens.

After their defeat, Labor was fixated on killing off the Greens who they saw as a major threat to their party base. They even conspired with the Liberals to reduce the size of parliament (and thus the quota needed to win a seat) to get rid of them - a policy which has had a devastating effect on the ability of successive Tasmanian governments to effectively govern the State as there are not enough parliamentarians to effectively manage the necessary portfolios. 

The reduction in size of the Tasmanian parliament did keep the Greens out of power for some time, but in the most recent election of the Tasmanian Labor government, the Greens hold the balance of power again.

The current machinations of the current Federal Government are eerily reminiscent of 1992:
  • The assumption that the Greens are merely an errant left-faction of the Labor party,
  • The assumption that they could take a "take it, or leave it approach" to the Greens in the parliament (the CPRS being a case-in-point),
  • The assumption that a parliamentary loss for Labor would be equally felt by the Greens.
These assumptions in Tasmania ended up damaging the Labor party far more than the Greens. The current Federal ALP would do well to look back at this history or, as they say, they'll be doomed to repeat it.


  1. Those final three points do sound very similar. For a decade it has felt like the relationship between the Greens and the federal electorate, and their relationship with other federal parties, is twenty years behind the Tasmanian experience.

    Just a correction - although the final straw in 1992 was related to forest resource security, it had nothing to do with the Howard Government (which was elected in 1996).

    Ray Groom's Liberals won the 1992 election with a majority, but in 1996 lost this majority and Tony Rundle led a minority Liberal Government until 1998 (the election at which the HoA was cut to twenty-five members).

  2. (The Howard Government's RFA did cause a lot of friction in the 1996-98 parliament, though.)

    1. Yes, you're right. I'm conflating two elections there - I put my flaky memory of that era down to all that time spent in the uni bar at that time and the fact that the Groom government was eminently forgetable :). Thanks for the correction.


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