It seems to me that Labor has three choices for dealing with the Greens:
- what would work but I hope they don’t do;
- what I’d hope they do, but would require a total readjustment of their approach to politics; and
- what they’re doing now, which will just give the next election to the conservatives.
Starting with the latter. The ALP can smear the Greens whilst simultaneously working with them to pass legislation. The Prime Minister can call the Greens every name under the sun, and then absorb those criticisms for her own party by linking it with those she’s just portrayed as lunatics. She can give the Liberals a massive free kick by presenting herself as either a liar, who doesn’t believe what she’s saying; or someone who is selling out Australia to people she calls extremists.
It’s an utterly moronic strategy, and if Gillard keeps it up, she’s very likely to put Tony Abbott in government. She might drag some Labor voters back from the Greens (although quite possibly encourage more to defect to the Greens), but the devastating overall effect will be to send more Labor voters to the Liberals.
The second option is the principled one. It recognises that Labor can’t simultaneously appeal to both those on its right and those on its left – not without being two-faced and tricky and really representing neither. So this option would involve the ALP choosing to represent what it seems to see as its core constituency – lower to middle-class economic moderates, I guess: whoever those people in the party are who are appalled by the actual left – and working to wrest them back from the Liberals, whilst leaving its lefty base to continue its move to the Greens. It would require Labor to reconcile itself to being a genuinely democratic, but somewhat smaller party, that would then form coalition governments with the Greens. It would no longer have to tie itself in knots trying to appeal to fundamentally opposed voters – the Greens could advocate for one lot, and it could advocate for the other. It’s kind of the Liberals v Nationals situation: the Liberals let the Nationals represent the country voters while it gets on with the task of representing big business. The balance of power in the Coalition varies depending on support from each party’s voters – country voters, in a good year, can ensure they get a much bigger say in what the Coalition advocates than, say, the Liberals’ moderates, who don’t have their own party.
Sadly, however, this will never happen. In reality, Labor wants a majority in its own right, and doesn’t really mind whether it actually represents any particular voters or not. It wants power with as few checks as possible. It hopes it can continue to drag a wide net of voters to reluctantly support it as “not as bad as the Liberals”, many of whom it can then ignore. It will only take this option when forced to – by lefties continuing to vote Greens.
So that leaves the third option, and it’s one I hope Labor doesn’t take. This is the John Howard vs One Nation option. What you do, is you portray the smaller party as total nutcases. You take every extreme position any member holds or has held, and you go to town. You’re bigger, the media will help. You tear them to pieces. You put them last on your ballots. You ignore all their fairly mainstream progressive policies, and exaggerate the minor and more easily demonised ones. You take Niki Savva’s advice and put them absolutely last.
And, simultaneously, while you’re bashing them loudly and publicly, you adopt one or two of their more palatable policies, to win their voters back. That ten to fifteen percent of the population is supporting the Greens because they’re offering them at least something progressive, that they’re simply not getting from the ALP. So, if you’re the ALP, you tear strips off the Greens but then, at the conference later this year, you endorse marriage equality and, say, a full public dental health care plan. Point is, you give the progressive Greens voters a reason to come back to you – now that their party is destroyed. To conservative voters you have chops as the party that destroyed those EXTREME GREENS. (The Australian would even call it being “principled”.) To lefties, well, they might accept the trade-off of their party for a small number of their policies being implemented.
That option doesn’t appeal to me at all, because it’s taken more than twenty, thirty years to build the Greens up to this point and I don’t particularly fancy the left having to start all over again. Nor do I trust that, without the Greens on its left shoulder, the ALP would do anything else for progressives for a very long time.
It’s essentially the same thing a big supermarket chain does to squash the little one that’s sprung up to compete with it on price. It takes on some of the qualities that attracted the shoppers – cheaper prices, better service – until the competitor is no more. Then it jacks everything up again and treats everyone with contempt until someone is foolhardy enough to try again, knowing what the end result will always be.
It’s the same in politics – which, let’s be honest, has even more significant barriers to entry than the most newcomer-unfriendly commercial field. You don’t have to give the punters much to undercut the competitor, and it’s a long time between challengers, but that’s the way to crush them and end the threat.
The point is, that it works. Oh, it works alright. (God help the lot of us.)