Ben Eltham | Can A Bunch of Greens Take Canberra?


Twelve new senators take their place in parliament this month and four of them are Bob’s. Are the alarmists right? Is Canberra about to go green? Ben Eltham on what we should expect.

First published in New Matilda here.

It is one of the stranger quirks of Australian democracy that the Senate and the House of Representatives run on different timetables. While members of the lower house take their place straight after an election, incoming senators must wait — sometimes for months — before they can enter their chamber as elected representatives. Add to this the fact that senators serve a six-year term, staggered over two elections, and the result can be two quite different versions of the popular will in conflict over crucial legislation.

This time around, it has been nearly a full year since last August’s poll — an election that saw an unprecedented vote for the Greens. The incoming senate includes six Greens senators — one in each state — taking their total to nine and comfortably delivering the environmental party the balance of power.

The peculiar composition of the current parliament gives the Greens more power than any minor party has enjoyed since the heyday of the Australian Democrats. With Adam Bandt in the lower house and the balance of power in the Senate, Bob Brown now has an effective veto on every single piece of legislation Julia Gillard might wish to pass.

And it just so happens that Gillard has quite a lot of important legislation in the pipeline. There’s the mining tax, for instance, in its new guise as the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, the draft legislation of which has now been released. There are a number of bills relating to Labor election promises — such as shifting the threshold for the private health insurance rebate and establishing a student amenities charge for university students — that the government would like to pass, as well as some that it simply needs to pass, like the budget.

And then there’s the carbon tax, the millstone around the Government’s neck. Currently being nutted out in a committee process involving the Greens, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott, the carbon tax — and its transition to a fully fledged emissions trading scheme — will require careful drafting and thickets of accompanying regulations to pin down crucial details (like the definition of who has to pay it, for instance).

Gillard will need every ounce of her lauded negotiation skills to shepherd it through parliament, and the Coalition can be relied upon to continue their campaign of tactical destabilisation via constant censure motions and Question Time antics.

Given the trouble Kevin Rudd encountered with the CPRS, which was voted down repeatedly after he failed to win support for it from either the Greens or the Coalition, Gillard has this time decided to bring the crossbenchers inside the tent. As a result, the final shape of the carbon tax will not just be a Labor proposition; the Greens and the independents have been intimately involved and will not easily be able to walk away from it. Because the Greens voted against the CPRS last time around, they are also under considerable pressure from sections of their own party base on carbon policy. Voting down a price on carbon a second time will be damaging.

Gillard reportedly has a constructive relationship with Brown, in contrast to her predecessor (Kevin Rudd famously refused to meet the Greens leader for many months). The political imperatives for both Labor and the Greens suggest they will cut deals and get legislation passed.

The Greens want to be seen as responsible brokers in what is effectively a coalition government, and also sense an opportunity to pull Labor to the left to achieve greener outcomes on carbon and energy policy, and perhaps social issues like asylum seekers and gay marriage as well. For her part, the Prime Minister desperately needs to get on with the job of governing, and she can’t do that without those critical Greens votes in the Senate.

Given the dire state of current polling, the Government’s only chance of re-election surely lies in passing the carbon tax quickly and then hoping that voters realise that the doomsday scenarios propagated by Tony Abbott and the corporate lobbyists did not eventuate.

As a result, Gillard and Brown will be seeing a lot more of each other for the next two years, much to the chagrin of conservatives, many of whom harbour a special disdain for the Greens as the most left-leaning party in the parliament. Tony Abbott will no doubt continue to argue that Bob Brown is really in charge and that the Greens represent dangerous, extreme and radical policy perspectives, an argument which is sure to find support in many sections of the Murdoch press.

Of course, given the polls and given the six-year term of the incoming Greens senators, there has already been much speculation about the role the party might play in a future conservative government. Bob Brown stoked the fires of that particular controversy with this week’s address to the National Press Club, where he confirmed that he would block any attempts by an Abbott government to repeal the carbon tax.

As Charles Richardson pointed out yesterday in Crikey, all this talk of what Bob Brown would do should Tony Abbott win the next election is just a little bit premature. Quite apart from the hypothetical nature of the discussion, it’s not even guaranteed that the Greens would retain the balance of power in the next Senate. The Coalition controlled it as recently as 2004-07 and could quite conceivably pick up a senator in Western Australia and Queensland to win back the Senate in 2013.

For this term at least, though, the Greens will have balance of power, and that will mean much greater scrutiny of their policies and parliamentary tactics. This certainly poses risks for the party, but it may also prove an unexpected advantage. Many of the Greens’ policies are far more popular than conservatives like to believe, and the party has shown a surprising instinct for the populist on certain issues — such as Brown’s argument that Australian mining companies are 83 per cent foreign-owned — that shows a potential to prise votes off both the Liberal and Labor parties at the next election.

In the shorter term, however, carbon is the main game. Don’t believe the pundits claiming a deal is ready to be struck. I expect the negotiations to drag on for some time. But there is no doubt that the sooner Brown and Gillard can strike a deal, the better for the Government’s chances. There is nothing Tony Abbott would enjoy more than the collapse of the carbon tax policy.

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