Speech to Sydney Institute - Green Light for Senate Chaos

The Senate post 1 July 2011, its implications for Australia, and the Greens as a political party

As of the 1st of July Australians will be relying on the House of Representatives to block the excesses of the Senate … Who would ever have thought?

I am sure our Founding Fathers never envisaged such an outcome. Nevertheless it is a good reminder how a bicameral system provides vital safeguards.

With a Labor-Green alliance running the Senate, it will fall to the House of Representatives and, in particular, the four independents to determine our fate.

It is a worrying time for our nation and for our Federation.  The uncertainty alone will impact on our economy if the Tasmanian experience is any guide.

That is why it is opportune to have an occasion such as this (kindly provided by the Sydney Institute) to expose, examine and explore the ramifications.

On the 1st of September 2010 Australians witnessed the spectacle of Ms Gillard and Senator Brown seated at a table signing a document with wattle sprigs in their lapels and an adoring ‘bridal party’ behind them witnessing the occasion.  The scene was suggestive of a civil marriage – albeit one of convenience.

The published photograph of the event did hold my fascination … On studying it I could not help but note its orchestration. The bowed heads and folded hands of the witnesses. Some smirking. But also the wary faces of the leaders.  And the uncertainty suggested by the large doors behind, as if everyone could somehow go back inside and have another configuration emerge.

I believe that picture tells us a lot about the alliance itself.  And for this reason it has been so commented on and reproduced. 

But away from the photo – the deal itself has implications for our nation that are extremely worrying.

So tonight I want to pose two questions.

  1. With whom are we dealing?
  2. With what are we dealing?      

With whom are we dealing?

Hailing from Tasmania and having served in the Senate for slightly longer than Senator Brown, I have been in a unique position to observe the Greens and their Leader for over three decades.

Until now, their simplistic 15 second grabs, extreme policies and personal hypocrisies have been treated at best with indifference, or at worst with gushing endorsement.

Here are a few examples which together build a picture of the Greens:

Whilst in themselves, individually, they may be overlooked, together they paint a picture of inconsistent behaviour, and a misplaced sense of moral superiority.

Here are some that I have recalled. It seems:

  • Gagging Parliamentary debates is to be condemned as a fundamental abrogation of the Parliamentary process…that is unless the Greens want to gag the Coalition.
  • Missing votes in the Senate is indicative of a Party that is a rabble and a matter deserving media exposure...that is, unless it is the Greens leader who misses a vote.
  • Bad behaviour and verbal insults in the Parliament are to be condemned…unless they are in furtherance of a “justifiable” (Green) cause.
  • All Parliamentarians should be transparent and accountable…that is unless you want to receive donations to a personal bank account, then file late returns and identify many donors simply as “anonymous” in furtherance of the cause.
  • Receiving large donations taints political Parties…that is unless you are the beneficiary.
  • Receiving donations from a particular source with an agenda prejudices a party’s policy making….that is unless you receive even larger donations from the CFMEU.
  • Senators need to have a dress code determined by the Senate…that is unless you lose the motion and ignore the will of the Senate anyway.
  • The use of timber for energy and biomass should be condemned...that is unless you want a log fire for your personal use.
  • Championing “National Go Home On Time Day” is such an important principle that it demands a motion in the Senate…but later that very same day your Party moves an extension of Senate sitting hours to try to ram something through!.    

These are just a smattering of the inconsistencies, minor in themselves, but very illuminating in that their frequency establishes a pattern of behaviour.

Any other party and its leader would have been hounded for such double standards…as they should have been.  Not so the Greens. That is until very recently.

I am gratified that the Greens are at last being given the scrutiny they deserve. 

For too long the Greens have flown under the radar.  The major parties, community leaders, business leaders and the media have, with a few exceptions, allowed this to happen. 

Until now, simplistic and extremist policies and double standards have been overshadowed by the Greens’ image of being well meaning ‘tree huggers’.

This “new paradigm” of scrutiny appears to come as a shock to the Greens.

First we had Senator Brown labelling News Ltd the “hate media”. Next was the disclosure that he repeatedly complained to ABC Managing Director, Mark Scott, about the ABC’s 2010 election coverage – something I found astounding, given that only 5 out of 982 complaints about the ABC’s election coverage related to anti-Green bias and all had to do with inadequate coverage.

Most recently Senator Brown threateningly declared that he will take on the media which has “crossed the line”.[1] 

The truth is that the Greens have crossed the line – from the political margin into the mainstream – and after 30 years of largely uncritical media coverage they are finding it difficult to adjust to the scrutiny some of us have had to deal with from day one.

The illusion we are dealing with a benign group of people, naïve in the ways of the world, needs to be debunked, and the quicker the better.

No, the Greens are not a group of benign environmentalists.  Nor are Koalas, threatened species and habitat top of their agenda.   That is their cuddly facade.

Too many of the organisers and activists within the Greens are simply unreconstructed, old guard lefties.

That is why the description ‘watermelons’ is still so apt – a green layer covering a substantial red core.

From your local senator elect, Lee Rhiannon, or the Member for Melbourne, Adam Bandt, the Greens stand for uncompromising old style, left-wing politics.     

The Father of the Senate, Senator Ron Boswell, recently provided the following perceptive insight:

Australia needs to work out very quickly that the Greens are the One Nation of the Left.  Bob Brown is the socialist Pauline Hanson. The big and alarming difference between them lies in the public’s perception. The danger represented by the extreme Right position of Hanson and One Nation was clear from the very beginning; the flip side, the left-wing extremism of the Greens, is still largely under the radar.  The Greens are still far too widely perceived as a benign political force.[2]

Indeed, in Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s intolerance of controls on illegal immigration we see the flip side of her namesake’s view that boat people should be turned away.  

Senator-elect Lee Rhiannon is the epitome of the Red Green – an uncompromising, inner-city, Left-wing, activist who as a member of the Socialist Party of Australia towed the Moscow line after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. 

The communists are said to be the dominant faction in the NSW Greens.[3]  Adam Bandt is a former industrial lawyer and partner at Slater & Gordon, who as a student communist at Murdoch University opined that the only way to influence the Government’s agenda was to support the Greens.[4]

(One should note that Ms Gillard, who came to politics via the Socialist Forum and Slater & Gordon has a not dissimilar political pedigree to Lee Rhiannon and, in particular, Adam Bandt. This undoubtedly assisted in cobbling together the Alliance).

But now it is no longer just conservatives labelling the Greens “extremists”.  Ms Gillard has found it necessary to do so as well.   Six months into their relationship she is claiming that:

…the Greens will never embrace Labor's delight at sharing the values of every day Australians, in our cities, suburbs, towns and bush, who day after day do the right thing, leading purposeful and dignified lives, driven by love of family and nation.[5]

My colleague, Senator Barnaby Joyce, hit the nail on the head when he said, “It’s like walking down the street holding your lover’s hand and yelling out, ‘this relationship is a farce’”.[6]

Be this as it may, the Greens-Labor Agreement is clearly already shaky. It was driven, from the Labor side, by the fact that after the 1st of July 2011 the Greens will hold the balance of power in the Senate.  And from the Greens side, by the knowledge that the Labor Party was the best vehicle for implementing their left-wing agenda.

From the 1st of July the numbers in the Senate will be 34 Coalition, 31 Labor, 9 Greens, 1 DLP (after an absence of 36 years) and Senator Xenophon – giving Labor and the Greens a majority of 40 out of 76 seats, and giving the Greens a veto over any Labor legislation opposed by the Coalition.

Given this power the Greens do need to be held to account. Prior inconsistent statements need to be probed. Their policy programme needs to be understood.

So, with what are we dealing?

The three areas Ms Gillard nominated as priorities in her first week as Prime Minister – illegal immigration, the mining tax and climate change - are all still a mess.  Her Citizens’ Assembly and East Timor processing centre were simply chimeras.

By October 2010 an Ipsos Mackay Report found that many people surveyed felt Ms Gillard stood for nothing, or very little other than holding onto power.

New heights of vacuity were reached when she outlined her 3 year, 5 point plan to a Special end of year Caucus meeting.   Her plan (1) a stronger economy (2) a more sustainable environment (3) a fairer society (4) governing for all Australians and (5) keeping Australians safe at home and strong in the world – all motherhood statements absolutely confirming that her Government was bereft of any agenda.

They tell me vacuums aren’t a natural state. They tend to get filled –especially in politics. The Greens have observed this and are busily filling the agenda vacuum with their own.

The first product of the Greens-Labor Agreement was the breaking of the vow made to the Australian people, in full prospect of a hung Parliament – that there would be no carbon tax under a government led by Ms Gillard. And recall the media conference.  No Treasurer – despite it being sold as a vital economic reform. Instead, 2 Labor, 2 Greens, and 2 Independents.  All three groupings represented as equal partners.

And who dominated the Conference – the Greens. There they were telling us how they got this policy position. And there have been others:

Other Government cave-ins to the Greens’ redistributive and social agendas have included decisions:

  • to introduce a progressive flood levy;
  • to re-ignite the debate on gay marriage;
  • to have a week long debate on Afghanistan;
  • to give the Territories the right to make their own laws on gay unions and euthanasia;
  • to means test the private health insurance rebate;
  • to quietly dissolve the Work for the Dole scheme;
  • to restore $100m in funding for solar and rental assistance schemes
  • to restrict FBT concessions on company cars;
  • to apply $20 million to an implementation study of a high speed rail network; and
  • to pursue independent contractors

The recent Budget exemplified Labor’s paralysis.  Despite Labor claiming its Budget was “tough”, Departmental officials confirmed at Senate Estimates that the Government was saving less than half a cent in every dollar over the forward estimates. 

Meanwhile the Government has surreptitiously introduced legislation to raise the debt ceiling from $200 billion to $250 billion.

And despite Labor dancing to the Greens’ tune, Bob Brown had the chutzpah to telephone Ms Gillard on budget day to complain that the relationship between the parties was too one-sided.[7]

The Greens are now on a mission to “improve” the Budget in the parliament.[8]

The main issues at stake are now - the price on carbon - along with the income ‘cut-off’ level for carbon tax compensation.  Both issues give the Greens the opportunity to press their redistributive agenda.

Ominously, on June 29 Senator Brown intends to outline the Greens’ balance of power agenda at the National Press Club.  According to Brown, the Greens will deliver stability in government, while backing, “a whole range of issues that might be on the agenda now that otherwise would have been buried”.[9]

So post 1 July, we can expect plenty of Greens exhumations in the Senate.

Bob Brown, who has spent his life lying in front of bulldozers, will now be able to drive one through the Australian economy.   This is what the Greens’ carbon tax and mining tax policies will do.  Meanwhile Senator Milne gives every indication she would go even further.

Policies the Greens will push include:

  • higher, punitive mining taxes;
  • bringing in death taxes and expanding the capital gains tax;
  • increasingly progressive personal taxes;
  • cutting funding to independent schools;
  • increasing company taxes and introducing “ecological taxes”;
  • a complete ban on all live exports;
  • pulling Australia out of ANZUS; and
  • establishing tough restrictions in vast new marine parks.

Let me turn to my portfolio area.

The Greens’ Workplace Relations policies

Recently Adam Bandt noted that the Greens views on employment and industrial relations would receive “greater prominence.. . after 1July”.[10]

The Greens have already led the charge to abolish the Australian Building and Construction Commission, which sought to restore the rule of law in the construction industry. 

Apart from that gem the Greens’ workplace relations settings include:

  • a 35 hour working week;
  • a mandatory minimum of five weeks paid annual leave for all employees;
  • ‘Green bargaining’ between workers and employers;
  • enshrining unions’ right to prosecute employers in national OH&S law;
  • repealing the secondary boycott provisions of the Trade Practices Act;
  • protecting unions and workers from common law actions;
  • abolishing the requirement for secret ballots;
  • introducing national industrial manslaughter laws; and
  • allowing casual workers the right to challenge their termination.

In recent years unions like the CFMEU, ETU and AMWU have given the Greens over $600,000 in donations.  Usually this money would have been destined for Labor’s coffers. This in itself provides another front for disharmony between the Alliance partners. 

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­A Tasmanian precedent

As a Tasmanian I trust you will forgive me for harking back to Tasmania’s Labor–Green Accord.  After the 1989 general election resulted in a hung parliament, Liberal Premier Robin Gray had 17 seats.  Michael Field’s Labor had 13.  The Greens won 5 seats, giving them the balance of power.  Two of these five Green MPs were Bob Brown, their unofficial leader, and Christine Milne.  

But, when state cabinet announced its adoption of the Federal Government’s Forest Industry Strategy in 1990, the Greens terminated the Accord.  It had lasted only 409 days.

The memory of this instability still casts a shadow over Tasmania and its capacity to attract much needed investment.

Field later compared the relationship between Labor and the Greens to a “forced marriage” which ended in a “very acrimonious divorce”. [11]

The similarities between the Labor-Greens Accord in Tasmania 20 years ago and the current Greens-Labor Agreement should not go un-noted. Especially given the presence of Senators Brown and Milne.

Under the present Agreement, in return for support, Labor has given the Greens a commitment to a Carbon Tax, a pipeline into Government policy formulation and the prospect of achieving advantage through electoral reform.

And while the Agreement states, as a Goal, that the parties will work together to “agree that this Parliament should serve its full term”, at the same time it states that the Parties agree to work together to pursue policies which promote the national interest and allows the Greens to move no-confidence motions.[12]

While Labor may from time to time be humiliated by the Greens and Liberals siding together, as recently happened to establish an inquiry into our mandatory detention policy and to condemn Labor’s Malaysian solution, what will occur if the Coalition sides with Labor against the Greens on an issue the Greens consider is in the ‘national interest’?

Earlier this year Bob Brown was piqued when Labor and the Coalition wrote to the President of the Senate, to harmlessly recall the Senate an hour or so earlier than scheduled, so as to mark the Christchurch earthquake at the same time as in New Zealand. Even though efforts had been made to contact Brown it wasn’t good enough.

This behaviour must be worrying for Labor. What would the Greens do if Labor and the Coalition voted in the Senate to thwart something the Greens really wanted?

Already the Labor Right has split on a Senate report on the Territories legislation which would have advanced the Greens social agenda on gay marriage and euthanasia and there are similar strains within the Labor Left on its Malaysian solution.

All this suggests there could be plenty of brinkmanship in the Senate post 1 July.

Despite Senator Brown telling Australians that they won’t have an early election, it should not be forgotten that Senators Brown and Milne have already brought down one government.

Already strains between the Parties are showing. The Greens have already moved the first motion to condemn the Government’s Malaysian solution.

It is not a huge step in political terms to see the Greens deeming the Malaysian solution, counter to the ‘national interest’ – a key principle of the Greens-Labor Agreement. 

Now let’s remember that the Greens rejected the Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2009, because it didn’t go far enough. So, it is even possible the Carbon Tax could still prompt such a move.

Policy differences will deliver Government stagnation.

Age, ambition, direction and control in an enlarged Greens Party room

While Labor is tearing itself in two on the policy front internal stability is also faltering with open talk about another coup.

Internal stability is also a problem for the Greens.   

Despite claiming he would be around for decades Senator Brown has said he hopes there will be a bit of “jostling” for the leadership when his parliamentary party numbers increase in July – thereby making a virtue of the unavoidable.[13] 

Senator Brown will turn 67 this year. Although he is not too old to be Leader, the drums are beating it’s time to go.

Simultaneously the switch to Canberra by Lee Rhiannon, who herself turns 60 this year, has led to speculation of a confrontation.  My colleague, Senator Michael Ronaldson has noted that Rhiannon wants the leadership and no one will stop the ‘Lee for Leader’ train.[14]

Brown’s putative successor is Christine Milne. But the four incoming senators appear to owe no allegiance to Milne.

Last September Senator Hanson-Young challenged Milne for the Deputy’s position.

Lee Rhiannon is the embodiment of the old guard leftie Green that Bob Brown has sought to harness and hide at the same time. 

It is not hard to envisage a scenario where the extreme left-wing Senators - might test Brown or Milne.

Small party dynamics in the Senate are volatile. The Democrats imploded amidst fighting between the young and the old; the Party room and the party organisation; and over the Party’s direction, centrist or leftist – the very same factors latent in the new Greens Party room.

These internal divisions evident in the Greens’ party room do not suggest political stability for our country.

BDS will be an internal fault line

An obvious fault line in the Greens Party Room will be the NSW branch’s support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. 

Lee Rhiannon’s reaction was to simply argue that more time should have been spent building support for BDS.[15] 

For this she was publicly slapped down the same day by Senator Brown.[16]

Then on the 4th of April Senator Brown emphatically told Lateline that the NSW Greens support for BDS had been rejected by the Australian Greens National Council in 2010 and said that he also rejected this policy.[17]

However, on the 14th of April Rhiannon told Sky’s The Nation program that she continued to support the BDS campaign against Israel, saying, “...we have that position in NSW and I support the NSW position. But it’s not something we’re taking to the Federal Parliament.”[18] 

Two days later at a meeting at the ANU, staged by the Green Institute, Senator Brown argued passionately for a move from a federalist to a national Party structure - the spur being the NSW branch’s BDS policy.  According to one source quoted by the Canberra Times:

…mismanagement of the Israel boycott issue had spooked some inside the Greens because it made the party look like a bunch of radicals who were happy to fight with each other…Bob is genuinely concerned about Lee Rhiannon going into the Senate… He doesn’t want to see everything he’s worked for collapse and he knows there is one or two of his federal team that could be vulnerable to people like Lee.[19]

Now, in a hitherto unnoticed blog on the 16th of May, titled “Greens NSW and the campaign for Palestinian rights”, Lee Rhiannon has delivered her riposte: 

She noted remarks by Bob Brown about tolerating diverse opinions and then, pointedly, stated that, “as a confederation of parties that make up the Australian Greens sometimes our work on national policies will vary”. (emphasis added)

She then threw down the gauntlet to Brown, saying:

It is not accurate to say that the Greens National Council rejected a BDS proposal:

The Australian Greens did not reject BDS; there was no vote to reject it. A less stringent boycott was supported…

While the Greens NSW support for BDS is an expansion of the Australian Greens 2006 position it does not contravene the national position…

…Despite the intimidation, misinformation and abuse in recent months directed towards the Greens NSW… I will not step away from speaking out for Palestinian human rights….

… Supporting human rights for Palestinians will be part of my work as a Senator.[20]

This is not Bob Brown’s so-called ‘hate media’ inventing this.  It’s his very own new colleague’s work.

The above clearly shows there is a power struggle between Rhiannon and Brown.

Senator-elect Rhiannon has nailed her colours to the mast, and she would likely be backed by Senators Hanson-Young and Ludlam in her anti-Israel efforts.

I should observe that BDS is also splitting the Labor Party in two, with Mr Rudd unable to back Coalition motions condemning this anti-Israel campaign – something which would never have happened under Bob Hawke.

The future of the Greens

With their rise in influence the Greens are now finally attracting critical attention.

Nationally the public is rejecting the Greens’ prescriptions for climate change and wising up to how Greens policies have driven up their water and power bills. 

To quote Paul Kelly:

The green agenda has corrupted Labor values. It has seen Labor governments embrace fiscal irresponsibility, regressive income re-distribution and treat their supporters as too dumb to understand they were being played for mugs. For too long the idea that any green scheme was a good scheme was sanctified as a compliant media cheered such initiatives… Climate change, once Labor’s dream issue, has become the nightmare issue on which Labor has wedged itself.[21]

These issues and the political environment are allowing for a more robust approach to the Greens. 

The ACT, which recorded the lowest swing to the Greens in 2010, saw the Liberals run an aggressive anti-Greens campaign, targeting the Greens’ policies on independent schools.  The Greens buckled, inventing new policy and contradicting themselves. 

Since then in state elections in Victoria and NSW the Greens haven’t performed as well as expected.  In both instances cases of hypocrisy by Greens’ candidates has been exposed but, more importantly, Greens policies have been exposed.

In Victoria it was the Greens policies on private health insurance and death taxes.  In NSW the Greens’ policy on boycotting Israel overshadowed their campaign and counted against them.

In Victoria, the ‘put the Greens last’ preference strategy was very successful – moreso than NSW’s open ticket strategy.

It seems the public are beginning to focus on what the Greens really stand for.  As a result their relentless march has been slowed.

Conclusion – The Future

Now, as far as the Parliament is concerned, Labor will not be able to rely on the Coalition to protect them.

The suggestion that the Coalition should support legislation we oppose, to stop even worse legislation that the Greens might demand, is to misunderstand our principles and resolve.

We will for example neither support Labor’s attempt to neuter the Australian Building and Construction Commission, nor the Greens’ attempt to abolish it.

Labor will be judged and held accountable each time they break an election promise or introduce bad legislation.  The “new paradigm” excuse won’t wash. 

Labor willingly signed up with the Greens in a grab for power and can’t expect the Coalition to protect them from their own alliance partner.

So, one scenario may be that Labor ‘hard heads’ call an early election, so as to stem the damage being caused to their base by their alliance with the Greens.

Federal Labor might just think it is better to lose now, than in 2 years with a complete wipe out.

Given all the factors at play – the instability, the uncertainty, the policy stagnation and extremism is it too much to ask for the Coalition and Labor, at the next federal election, in the ‘national interest’, to put the Greens last?

In the meantime, ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelts as we are about to hit some political turbulence.

[1] Bob Brown and the media: "I'll take them on...they've crossed the line", The Conversation, 2 June 2011

[2] "Australian Greens", Senator Ron Boswell, the Senate, 16 November 2010

[3] "Labor, Greens coalition 'viable'", The Australian, 29 August 2010

[4] Post by Adam Bandt, 4 March 1995

[5] Speech to the Inaugural Whitlam Institute Gough Whitlam Oration, Julia Gillard, 31 March 2011

[6] "Abbott mocks Labor over ties to climate 'extremists'", Sydney Morning Herald, 18 March 2011

[7] "Greens see red over 'one-sided' relationship", SMH, 13 May 2011

[8] Budget Reply, Senator Bob Brown, 13 May 2011

[9] "Greens prepare for Senate power role", SMH, 25 May 2011

[10] "Sustainable Workplaces in a Sustainable Australia", Adam Bandt, MP

[11] "Minority Government", Stateline Tasmania, 10 March 2006

[12] The Australian Greens and The Australian Labor Party ("The Parties") - Agreement, 1 September 2010

[13] “Greens prepare for Senate power role,” SMH, 25 May 2011

[14] "Can the Greens survive when Bob Brown heads off?" The Daily Telegraph, 6 May 2011

[15] “Are the Greens Ready for Hard Ball?”, Antony Loewenstein, New Matilda, 30 March 2011

[16] “Greens Leader Bob Brown slaps down Lee Rhiannon on Israel boycott policy”, The Australian, 1 April 2011. 

[17] Lateline, ABC, 4 April 2011

[18] Sky, The Nation, 14 April 2011, at 45.30

[19] "Brown bid to bring Greens into line", The Canberra Times, 7 May 2011

[20] Lee Rhiannon, blog, 16 May 2011

[21] "Labor wedged on climate change", The Australian, 18 May 2011

About Eric

Eric Abetz has been a Liberal Senator for Tasmania since 1994 and has served in a range of Leadership, Ministerial and Shadow Ministerial roles.

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