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January 12th 2012 print

Frank Devine

Better dead than Green

I’m inclined to think the Greens could do more damage to the party they help to victory, given the price they will seek if they hold the balance of power through accumulation of Senate seats.


First published, as "Green Pollution", in Quadrant, July-August 2004.


Unless they can negotiate outcomes that will hold and have sufficient leadership ability to keep their followers on course, the Greens cannot truly participate in mainstream politics.

Michael Field, 2004 

Probably no Australian knows or understands the Greens as a political party better than Michael Field, a former Labor premier of Tasmania. In the state election of May 1989, the Green Independents (then their name), led by Dr Bob Brown, won five of the thirty-five seats in the lower house. The incumbent Liberals got seventeen and Labor thirteen. Elated, the Green Independents started negotiations with both major parties for an alliance that would give structure to their grip on the balance of power. The Liberals soon withdrew from negotiations, believing they had seen a less complex way of retaining office: a rich and powerful timber mer­chant named Edmund Rouse was subsequently sent to prison for attempting to bribe a Labor member to cross the floor.

Field gained government by entering into an “accord’’ with the Green Independents. It wasn’t a coalition but not far short of it, differing mainly in denial of cabinet office to the junior partner. Less than three years later, in January 1992, Field called an election he felt pretty cer­tain he would lose, rather than continue trying to govern while handcuffed to the Greens. In the event, he lost three seats to the Liberals, who were returned to power in their own right—just as well, I guess. The new premier, Ray Groom, had recently won first prize in a chuck-a-greenie competition at a loggers’ picnic, propelling a “scarecrow-style dummy seventeen metres”. Bob Brown recalls this without apparent animus in his recent memoir/manifesto Memo for a Saner World, but in 1992 he and Groom would have made a couple too odd to be believed.

In 1995, Michael Field had a chance of restoration as premier. All he had to do was link up with the Greens again, and he had his majority. Field couldn’t bring himself to do it. He rejected overtures and left it to the Liberals to suffer from a contentious and dishevelled alliance. Brown writes in Memo for a Saner World of the link with the Libs as a period of triumph, which produced “Australia’s best gay and lesbian rights laws, a suite of magnificent new national parks, and a parliamentary apology to the stolen generations …”

The Liberals, on the other hand, derived so little pleas­ure from the liaison that Premier Tony Rundle joined with the new Labor leader, Jim Bacon, to legislate the number of lower house seats down from thirty-five to twenty-five. Under Tasmania’s proportional representation system this lifted from 12.5 to 16.7 the percentage of the vote in each electorate necessary to win a seat.

The denials of Rundle and Bacon that this was a plot to eliminate the Greens were so pious you could almost hear choirs of angels humming harmony in the back­ground—and the plot almost worked. The Greens were reduced to a single seat in the 1998 state election. But they rallied and won four in 2002—not enough, though, for Labor to need them to achieve government. The Greens hover over Tasmania’s delicate political balance-­of-power manoeuvres “like the shadow of the vampire”, in the subjective perception of an old friend I chanced upon in Salamanca Place, Hobart, on a recent wintry morning.

Based on the 10 per cent share of the national vote most opinion polls currently award the Greens, it is rea­sonable to wonder: As Tasmania has gone, so goes Australia?

The Greens may have in their increased following the capacity to defeat the government with their preferences, around 70 per cent of which go to Labor, whether the Green leadership directs them there or not. But I’m inclined to think the Greens could do more damage to the party they help to victory, given the price they will seek if they hold the balance of power through accumulation of Senate seats.

Mainland Labor’s relations with the Greens stop short of being organic, but a tendency to intertwine has devel­oped beyond the likely anticipation of Graham Richardson and Bob Hawke when they folded the Greens into a cold-hearted embrace to make sure of winning the 1990 election. Well before this, the party’s strategic thinkers had detected signs of Labor’s entering a post-materialist period, in which the concerns of its working-class supporters about jobs and security were being challenged by the interests of middle-class, tertiary-educated men and women of the Left in quality-of-life issues such as law reform, consumerism and civil rights. Gough Whitlam reached out a welcoming hand to post-materialist Labor, but without evidently giving much thought to pre-fashionable environmentalism.

However, thanks in part to Green activities in Tasmania—camera-seductive demonstrations against the subsuming of lakes and waterways, particularly Lake Pedder and the Franklin River, by hydro-electricity developments—environmentalism was by 1990 the epit­ome of quality-of-life fashion. Richo of the Jungle may linger in memory as one of the great comic performances of Australian show business, as the bizarrely-cast Minister for the Environment doggedly trekked old-growth forests. But his cynical sufferings enabled Hawke to deliver his policy speech from the Garden of Eden, cre­ated by back projection onto giant screens of lake and forest, tumbling waterfalls and photogenic fauna.

Hawke endured some mild retribution for his nature-boy masquerade. He had to sit respect­fully for an hour, for instance, while representatives of the Australian Conservation Foundation lectured him on their entirely specious sce­nario for the globally catastrophic outcome of Saddam Hussein’s setting fire to the oil-fields of Kuwait—an arti­ficial winter created by clouds of oil smoke ruining crops across India to the shores of East Asia and, of course, cre­ating an unprecedented refugee crisis.

But the nation suffered worse from Green Labor’s simulated conversion, most spectacularly through the Hawke government’s putting the kibosh on a plan to build a state-of-the-art pulp and paper mill at Wesley Vale, an idyllic vegetable-growing and cattle-raising district in northern Tasmania. The local Greens had cam­paigned fervently against it, on the grounds of the polluting effluent the mill would discharge into the sea. But there was a lot of NIMBY involved. Many Wesley Vale farmers were of the gentleman kind. “You think I’m an undercover agent for the Launceston Club?” an urbane middle-aged chap responded with a grin when I remarked that he didn’t quite fit the scene at a Green election cam­paign cocktail party. Yes, I did.

Asian manufacturers had not at that stage achieved regional dominance of paper production. Alan Wood, the economics editor of the Australian, described the $1.2 billion Wesley Vale project as “the opportunity of a gen­eration”. Nowadays wood chips exported from Tasmania come back as Asian-manufactured paper.

Although helping to block the Wesley Vale mill was one of his bigger victories, Bob Brown gives it only a paragraph in Memo for a Saner World. There’s no men­tion of “Wesley Vale” in the index. If I ever run into Richo or Hawkey I must see how I go at striking up con­versation with them on the subject.

When he replaced Hawke as prime minister, Paul Keating hardly gave conservation activists the time of day. He had antagonised so many groups that it is impos­sible to say what, if anything, Green sulks contributed to his landslide defeat in 1996. In any case, the intertwining of Greens and Labor continued through Bob Carr, Premier of New South Wales. A skilful politician, an engaging man and ardent conservationist, Carr has raised tree worship in his state to a level not seen since the dawn of Christianity. His master plan, though never explicitly stated, seems to be to develop Sydney as the world’s first metropolis in a forest, with the brake kept on un-natural development. Will posterity applaud Carr’s Arcadian vision? You never know. I remember a Green heckler shouting at Michael Field during the 1992 Tasmanian election: “You plan for two years, Field. We plan for 20,000.”

The most consequential side-effect of Labor’s going green in 1993 was that it established Green politics in the mainstream. Not without hubris, Bob Brown had spoken, after the Greens’ early successes in Tasmania, of their being able to govern the state with a majority by 2000. I think the Hawke–Richardson elevation of Green issues played a part in Brown’s decision to run, successfully, for the Senate in 1996. By then, contact with international Green movements had shown him that there was more to Green politics than lakes and trees.

In 1996 Brown collaborated with Peter Singer, the Monash University (now Princeton University) philoso­pher, on a policy statement published as The Greens. In 2004, it may be Australia’s rarest book. Nor does Singer, who failed in his Senate bid, get a mention in Memo for a Saner World.

These were the things Brown and Singer declared the Greens to be against: Cars and highways: Trains and trams are okay but walking and cycling are best. Dams and irrigation: The natural flow of rivers needs to be restored. People having more money than the average person needs: Radical tax reform linked to a “guaranteed adequate income scheme” would fix that. The World Trade Organisation and free trade: There should be no trade on even terms with countries whose industries sys­tematically damage the environment or which exploit labour. The capitalist free market: Unregulated, it is a ruthless force “that sweeps aside all traditional ways of living that stand in the path of a relentless drive for profit”. Too much work: The working day should be of six hours at most, and annual holidays doubled or trebled. This would eliminate unemployment and give everybody time with their families, and time to continue their edu­cation, go for walks and grow their gardens. The United States: It’s a source of evil, from soap operas to greed. Agribusiness: Keeping chickens and pigs in permanent indoor confinement should be banned, and cattle, sheep and other grazing animals removed from arid and semi­arid regions. Psychotherapy: Needed now because people don’t believe in God but unnecessary when they embrace Green ethics.

I wonder how much of this Mark Latham, prospective Labor prime minister, was able to cover when, in an early action as party leader, he went walking in an old-growth Tasmanian forest with Bob Brown. Does Mark know what he’s getting into?

Michael Field is a trim, handsome, calm man of fifty-six. Retired from politics, he lives quietly with his wife beside the sea near Hobart. Characteristically, he speaks with touches of wry affection for his old bête noire Bob Brown. Field finds him personable and polite, with an unusual capacity to be comfortable as the odd man out:

Most of us in politics, a hard game, look for the approval and support of the group—sometimes a bit desperately. Not Bob. He’s a closed character, clever, not concerned about being isolated. These are qualities that have helped him in politics. He’s capable of acting like a prick one day and then, unlike the rest of us, who scuttle back into the cover of the group, acting like a prick again the next day. He’s a skilful exploiter of issues.

Field was at first disconcerted when the five Greens with whom he was in accord regularly bucketed in the media legislation he thought they had agreed to. But, pol­itics being politics, Field recognised the Greens’ need to distance themselves from Labor, which was on the nose from the start because of the austerity measures it took to reduce an inherited budget deficit.

But it gradually dawned on Field that an agreement with the Greens was not really an agreement. “They would pocket concessions and use them to create brand new benchmarks,” Field sourly remembers.

It wasn’t, he realised after a while, that Brown and his colleagues were acting with planned deceitfulness. They mostly meant what they said when they said it. But they were captives of the extreme radical elements in their party, for whom the Green movement was not essentially a political cause but a spiritual one.

“The moral certitude of the radicals was awesome,” Field says:

They were constitutionally incapable of compromise. The parliamentary Greens went along with the radicals because they knew if they didn’t the radicals would splinter the party. They didn’t give a damn about the party. Bob and the others would lose their power and influence. Bob grew pretty desperate. He never ruled out denying us supply. The unspoken threat was, “Do what we want or we’ll bring you down.”

The final showdown came over a Forest Industry Agreement Bill introduced by Field. He had hacked through a lot of underbrush to get general agreement on its content from the timber industry, the unions and, Field thought, the Greens. The bill guaranteed access for log­ging to some forests for an extended period and substantially increased areas of protected forest.

Politics being politics, Field thought he might not even need the Green vote, since the Liberals had aggres­sively supported the agreement. But the Liberals had noted some restiveness among the Greens and, eager for office, shocked Field by joining them in a no-confidence motion. Not slow on his feet, Field immediately withdrew the bill and then persuaded the Governor that the no-confidence vote against him, being based on a bill that no longer existed, had ceased to have force. He also made an agreement with the Greens not to re-introduce the bill, which he didn’t—more or less. Instead he put up the Public Land Administration and Forest Bill, which dif­fered very slightly from the Forestry Industry Agreement.

Brown says he was double-crossed. Field says the Greens leader was aware that the new bill was coming and was of a mind to let it through. But when pressure from the devout in his ranks changed Brown’s mind, Field threw up his hands and called an election—though the Libs had promised him a three-month grace period before joining another no-confidence vote. Better dead than Green.

Field’s position may get a kick along from Appendix 1 in Memo for a Saner World, consisting of a “10-point plan for future prime ministers”. HECS must go, prime minister, and free public education from pre-school to university be provided for everybody. A universal public health scheme must ensure access for all to doctor, dentist, mental health professional and hospital. Australia must become a world environmental leader. Long-term detention centres for illegal immigrants must be aban­doned. So must the USA–Australia free-trade agreement and “subservience to the White House”. Our troops must come home from Iraq. Aboriginal land rights legislation “abandoned by Bob Hawke” must be “rekindled”. We must become a republic—and “lead a global effort” to divert to better causes some of the “$US1 trillion annual weapons budget”.

Or else?