Everyone, no-one, or the people who voted for you

Aron Paul, a former national president of the Australian Democrats, giving the Greens some advice in today’s Crikey:

History abounds with cautionary tales for the Greens. Yet there is an even more important example of minor party success to which the Greens should now look for inspiration. This is the rise and success of the Australian Labor Party.

In Australia’s first election in 1901, the Labor Party won just 18% of the vote and 15 of the 75 seats. Labor was third after the more established blocs of Protectionists and Free Traders. The elected Labor MPs, however, were not in parliament to tinker with the legislative agendas of the major parties of the day. Nor was the Labor Party organisation content with playing a support role to its MPs. Rather, the new MPs saw themselves as representatives of the social movement that had delivered them into parliament. Their role was thus not to be honest brokers but rather to achieve the change demanded by their constituents.

Thus their first leader, Chris Watson, achieved what he could with Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin’s liberal Protectionists by cross trading on legislation to achieve the social reforms his voters desired. Unlike the Democrats or today’s Greens MPs, Labor was not shy of making demands for its support, and in bringing down the government as they did in 1904. On that occasion Watson also demonstrated to voters his party’s willingness to lead when he formed the first short-lived but ground-breaking Labor government in the world even as his party held a minority of seats in parliament.

It’s an interesting challenge for growing parties in representative democracies – particularly established ones that have long since abandoned much that would actually justify the name. On the one hand, you’ve got people advising you to represent no-one: you should simply play the “honest broker” role between the two largest parties. On the other, you’ve got those advocating that you try to represent everyone – that you grow by abandoning those principles that alienate potential voters, and try to pull the major party trick of pretending to represent a majority of the populace.

The problem is that although most parties go one way or the other (the Democrats according to the former, the major parties according to the latter), neither of these options actually involves representing the voters. None involve clearly establishing a set of approaches to issues of governance in a way that gives voters an actual voice in parliament. The Democrats – who knows whether their voters were slightly liberal Liberal voters, or slightly conservative ALP voters. The Liberals? Who knows whether on any given issue they’re going to represent the big business lobby or the social conservative lobby? The ALP? Are they going to represent conservative unionists or progressive lefties? (Well, the answer to the latter is clear: conservative unionists. But they’ll pretend to care about the progressive lefties at election time.) If you can’t tell, if you don’t know what they’re going to do with your vote, then why would you give it to them?

The Greens have an opportunity we haven’t seen in a long, long time in Australian politics – an opportunity to actually represent their voters’ voice in parliament. Because they know what it is. The ALP and the Liberals, the “broad church” parties, can have no idea on any particular issue how their vote breaks down. Because, contrary to the fiction on which they rely to rule, you can’t actually represent both sides of an argument: if you’re going to accurately and honestly represent your voters, you have to be clear with them before an election which side of an argument you’re going to take. Then you have a clear mandate to stick to that side. The honest, representative way you grow your base is not by caving to the people who disagree with your supporters; but by persuading them that what your base advocates is actually the best course of action.

The Greens have, so far as I can see, made it clear that they will represent socially liberal policies (marriage equality, secular government), economically progressive policies (public transport, public health, public education), and environmentally sustainable policies.

If you don’t agree with those positions, then that’s of course all part of our rich democratic tapestry. But, if you ultimately cannot be swayed, and would only support the Greens if they weakened their policies – then I’d rather you voted for someone else. I don’t want the Greens to try representing both – and ultimately, neither – of us. The day they do that is the day we need to start all over again.

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7 responses to “Everyone, no-one, or the people who voted for you

  1. baldrickjones

    Rather my way or the highway isn’t it?

    Why do the greens have such responsible policies such as no internet filter yet also advocate the banning of all uranium mining? I believe that they are really not sure of what they stand for in terms of having a “progressive” bent but also a fiercely “green” bent. If a party has a policy that I absolutely and catagorically disagree with, even if it is their only policy I totally disagree with, then they won’t get my vote – simple, won’t happen.

    I’m in a bind. I will not vote for Labor whilst it advocates mandatory internet filtering, I am not confident at all about the current coallition, and the Greens have several ridiculous policies that I also couldn’t support. I’m of a conservative bent but I can’t see myself voting directly for any of the main parties. First time I have had this dilemma. Why shouldn’t the Greens membership advocate for the more ridiculous policies to be put to bed?? If you don’t want to change your absolutist position in order to get a compromise, then you are nothing but idealists. Most people accept that compromise is inevitable in politics.

  2. The Democrats are certainly an example to keep in mind for the Greens.

  3. galleryagain

    And here I am studying when there’s such a good post to work with… so how about some instinctive and reactive thoughts, that may change with more time to think. And my 21-day trial ran out yesterday so I can’t read the article (and I haven’t yet had time to read single article emailed to me)

    – This appears to be true believers of the cause versus those closely aligned to the cause. True believers are the all or nothing crowd while the closely aligned will give and take to achieve small steps.

    – It is usually acceptable to accept short-term losses to achieve long term goals.

    – A relatively large support base is required to form a stable government. The larger the support base the more widely divergent are the views of the members.

    More reasoned thought to come when I’ve finished studying.

  4. “Rather my way or the highway isn’t it?”

    More “don’t crash our party and make us start AGAIN”.

    “Why do the greens have such responsible policies such as no internet filter yet also advocate the banning of all uranium mining?”

    I suspect it’s because uranium mining is unsustainable. And the consequences of its use can be devastating. I don’t think that’s a “ridiculous” policy at all.

    It’s not the main reason I vote for them, however. I vote for them because I think the balance of private/public provision of services like education, health and transport has gone way too far to the private side. I vote for them because I’m sick of the control-freak authoritarian religious nuts getting government to tell us what we can and can’t see, or who can and can’t get married, just because of their belief in a friend in the sky.

    What were the other Greens policies you thought were “ridiculous”/you like?

    “If a party has a policy that I absolutely and catagorically disagree with, even if it is their only policy I totally disagree with, then they won’t get my vote – simple, won’t happen. “

    Isn’t that all the parties?

    “If you don’t want to change your absolutist position in order to get a compromise, then you are nothing but idealists. “

    If the position you’re representing is what your voters believe, then you are entitled to represent that view with the full strength of however many people voted for you.

    Compromise may well be part of politics, but if you’re compromising your voters’ fundamental principles then you deserve them to kick you out and find someone who will represent them.

    “A relatively large support base is required to form a stable government. “

    But that’s the point: representative democracy does not require the fiction of 51% of the population being represented by a single party. You can have minority governments, where the parties align and realign depending on the issue in question. On some issues progressives and libertarians agree; on others they’re completely opposed. This majority domination system we’ve got now doesn’t actually resolve these conflicts, it just smothers them undemocratically.

  5. galleryagain

    “More “don’t crash our party and make us start AGAIN” ” is completely invalidated by http://greens.org.au/join, but at least you’re stating it as an opinion (” then I’d rather you voted for someone else”) instead of a commandment.

    “if you’re going to accurately and honestly represent your voters, you have to be clear with them before an election which side of an argument you’re going to take. Then you have a clear mandate to stick to that side” is very true, but the open invitation to join and participate does not require new members to believe the ‘holy bible’ of existing policy without wanting to make changes (“every member can have input into key decisions”).

    Excluding the large quote from the article I can’t read, the main post comes across as an explanation of why The Greens are good (which they are on the surface), followed by a faith based argument that their policies are the word of The Flying Spaghetti Monster and can’t be changed under any circumstances. Which completely removes your version of The Greens from the very charter of the Australian Greens. “a) To increase opportunities for public participation in political, social and economic decision making.”

    I can’t help but hear you cry into the darkness “… its my party and I’ll cry if I want to …”, but the truth of the matter is, its not your party. You can cry as much as you like, but . . .

    – The Greens are asking me to join
    – they have policies that are close to what I’m looking for (but poor implementation in many areas)
    – are chartered to give me the opportunity to participate in public policy making (which means I can improve the implementation of their policies).

  6. What I’m objecting to is them weakening their major policy positions in order to appeal to voters who fundamentally disagree with their base.

  7. Wisdom Like Silence

    Compromising is how things are done. If you want a seat at the big kids table you have to stop throwing food and talk it out.

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