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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Greens: new politics or deputy administrators? By Tim Anderson

It might be tempting to simply defend The Greens from recent attacks by the Murdoch Media, one of the most ferocious, neo-fascist propaganda machines in the world today. Yet the Murdoch gang has drawn attention to a real split within the Green on some matters of substance and approach.

I suggest it is a better time for those of us sympathetic to The Greens to examine some of the dangers in their own internal trajectory. I say this because I believe (1) left debates should not be determined by the corporate media (who, as Marshall McLuhan pointed out the 1960s, have less power in telling us what to think than in what to think about), and (2) that the party has seen a major and mostly unremarked change in recent years.

The division within The Greens, it seems to me, has a lot to do with whether the party is about trying to create some ‘new politics’, to use their parliamentary positions to introduce new ideas, or whether it will be content to function as ‘deputy administrators’ of the existing system, reforming and amending law and policy.

The latter approach, led by Bob Brown, seems to assume that greater acceptance by the big powers (the corporate media, the major parties, investor groups) will enable them to consolidate their electoral position and create a vehicle to ‘moderately’ influence various aspects of policy and practice. We could call this a sort of ‘centre-left realism’.

This is similar to the approach that the Australian Democrats used, from the centre-right; but remember what happened to them? At the peak of their 'success' in amending major policies (such as on workplace relations and the consumption tax) they were seen as a type of deputy to the party from which they had split (the Liberals).

What new and distinct political ideas did the Democrats present in their final years? They certainly didn’t capture a disillusioned electorate’s imagination. The Democrats rapidly disappeared almost completely from the electoral scene, after 25 years as the third force in Australian politics.

A similar problem lies in the ‘deputy administrator’ approach, seen most obviously in Green support for Labor’s ‘carbon tax’ proposal. There are three problems here: first the substance of this proposal is deeply flawed; second, it represents a strategic surrender of initiative by The Greens on what should be a leading green issue; and third, backing this ‘carbon package’ represents a major departure from ecological principle.

Let me explain these points.

The traditional Labor-Liberal fight over the ‘carbon tax’ has probably confused things. Behind and dominating both major parties is a small, powerful group of investors which has a very clear strategy. Their approach does not have to do with ‘beliefs’ on climate change. The coal companies, to take the obvious example, probably have far better information on human-made climate change than the average person.

However, just as the tobacco companies were the first to get on top of the dangers of smoking, the coal companies (and others) know about the problem but are determined not to pay for any change in policy. They will resist as long as they can and then they will eventually back some sort of ‘market mechanism’ (as Al Gore, the pseudo-hero of the climate change story, had planned for them at Kyoto). The Liberal Party, if and when it is in government, will also back some sort of trading system, in due course.

Labor’s ‘carbon tax package’, contrary to Liberal Party hype, is not really about tax. That is just a preliminary step. According to PM Gillard’s statement, the carbon tax ‘will be replaced by an emissions trading scheme from July 1, 2015 … Price ceiling and floor to apply when trading starts.’

The package is aimed at creating yet another neoliberal scheme which will allow companies to milk yet another fictitious bubble economy. And The Greens have joined in.

Why are they doing this? Somewhere in the middle of The Greens’ otherwise quite reasonable policies on climate change (which include public investment in renewables, removing subsidies for coal companies, new standards and regulation in favour of sustainable industries) there was indeed reference to ‘market based’ mechanisms. But joining in the Labor package meant that the initial tax and the future trading system took centre stage. The Greens allowed their ‘tail’ to wag their ‘dog’, on this matter.

How have they explained this decision, to subordinate good policies to a neoliberal scam? Bob Brown has already complained that the initial tax was ‘too low’ to fund items on his wish list. The bulk of the ‘carbon tax’ money seems to have been snaffled up in corporate compensation – well surprise, surprise.

We have seen this all before, many times. Costs get passed to consumers, large corporations get most of the public subsidies and the possibility of ‘price signals’ influencing the investment decisions of these companies is minimised. Very little, if any, technological change.

Senator Christine Milne tried to mention the other measures, but by reference to the central ‘market’ logic:
- ‘once a carbon price is in the market’ investors will understand the need for wider change
- ‘Starting with a rising fixed price gives us the chance to get Australia moving, sending a signal to the market, while keeping the flexibility to lift our ambition significantly as soon as we can get political agreement…’
- limits of international trading were needed ‘once the carbon price was set by the market’

So her idea seems to be that once they have ‘sent some signals to the market’, The Greens will seek to regulate and harmonise this ‘market’ with their other policies. But ‘markets’ (i.e. large financial companies) do not like such backtracking.

Of course this trading system will lead to ‘offsets’ and international scams; who doubts it? They are already out there. Deforestation and oil palm monocultures are already attracting carbon credits in Indonesia; fictitious forests are being financed. Just do a Google search on REDD scams.

One serious consequence of this will be that, when the ‘carbon trading’ system is exposed as a corrupt and ludicrous ‘solution’ to climate change, The Greens will have to wear their share of the blame.

What is worse, while those scams were being created, the whole issue was not being addressed with new and distinct ideas. The neoliberals were given centre stage. This draws attention to the second problem set up by the ‘deputy administrator’ strategy. Despite the record numbers of Greens parliamentarians, there is a loss of voice. They have hitched their wagon to Labor, and it will take time to un-hitch.

John Kaye has boldly defended Labor’s ‘carbon tax-trading’ package as ‘a prelude to real action’; but ‘first steps’ down the wrong track should not be looked at so kindly.

If this scheme takes several years to unravel, they will be several years in which The Greens have not presented new and bold ideas, nor denounced the fraudulent ‘market mechanism’.

There is also a philosophical flaw in the ‘deputy administrator’ approach, a departure from ecological principle. Focusing ecological concerns around the price of some new, invented ‘commodity’ is the sort of reductionist and economistic nonsense that ‘small-g’ greens would have ridiculed not too long ago.

Rachel Carson, the great North American biologist, pointed out in the late 1950s the hollowness of attempts to solve social problems (e.g. crop disease, agricultural productivity) through single issue, quick fix solutions. Her book ‘The Silent Spring’ was a foundation stone of the new ecological science, warning of the need to consider the human and natural environment in its totality.

Now we are told that a commercial price on notional ‘carbon’ will help fix one of the most profound of our ecological crises. Yet, even if a carbon price could help scale down the high carbon-emitting industries, and scale it down in a timely way, a series of problems remain.

First, carbon emissions are not everything to do with global warming and climate change. There are other greenhouse gases. Second, climate change is not the only ecological problem. The exhaustion of fossil fuels is a related but distinct problem, which has its own demands. The problems of deforestation, desertification and water contamination similarly cannot be reduced to the simple functions of a ‘counter global warming’ agenda.

The Greens have undermined their high moral ground, and their independent position, by subjecting many of their important ecological policies to (let us say, kindly) the ‘uncertain future’ of a carbon tax. They have seriously undermined their platform to retain an independent voice and spruik new ideas which, to my mind, is the main point of any minor left party being in parliament.

What are the alternatives to this sort of ‘deputy administrator-ship’? Stay outside ‘constructive engagement’ with Labor (or any other administrator; the reader should know by now why I do not say ‘those in power’), and be called spoilers, or rat bags? Well yes, of course, that is the price of creating some new politics. Bob Brown knew it once, when he was being arrested in defence of Tasmania’s rivers and forests.

Imagine if The Greens had rejected the carbon tax and any sort of trading system, stood against the major parties and for their other decent policies: public investment in renewables, removing subsidies for coal companies, new standards and regulation in favour of sustainable industries. They would cop abuse for a few years but would get credit for changing the debate and ‘sticking to their guns’.

There may be a heavy price to pay for backing a major loser, giving up a distinct strategic voice and abandoning ecological principles. Surely this ‘deputy administrator’ approach deserves reconsideration?

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