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.