New Greens Leader: The Christine Milne Approach

Christine Milne in action

Like him or loathe him, Bob Brown has made a remarkable achievement in leading the Greens from their origins as a protest movement to an organised and successful political party. He leaves the Greens holding 9 Senate seats and 1 House of Representatives seat federally, as well as having political representatives in State and local government levels around the country.

Once again, whether you like him or not, he is gone, and Christine Milne is the new Greens leader. It will be interesting to see what impact she has economic and political debate in Australia. The Labor party only just have the numbers to lead a minority government, relying on the support of one Greens MP and a couple of independent MPs. This, together with the fact that the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, means the Greens are in an unprecedented position of power and influence.

Somewhat ironically, Christine Milne has begun her leadership by attacking the government and the opposition on their economic credentials; she has chided both major parties for putting a “political imperative”, the long-promised surplus, before sound economic management. What might leave even more people scratching their heads is that business groups and the majority of economists agree with her.

The consensus is that achieving a surplus by slashing approximately $40 billion dollars out of government spending could push non-mining sectors into recession. Allan Kohler wrote an article imploring Treasurer Wayne Swan, albeit somewhat tongue in cheek, to “please use smoke and mirrors” to achieve a surplus instead of raising taxes, cutting benefits, and firing public servants by the thousands.

So what is going on here?

Simple. This is a case of an ‘unholy alliance’ whereby by the goals of the Greens and Business groups are both best served by trying to stop a politically motivated fiscal contraction, and thus avert the risk of a recession. However this does not mean they are in agreement on fiscal policy overall, in fact their ideologies are still very much opposed.

The Greens favour high taxation and regulation, so as to create a more equal society at the expense of personal wealth. They are also against many business practices that have adverse impacts on the environment such as mining and forestry.

Business groups and the other political parties feel that the Greens’ approach creates a disincentive for hard work and risks high unemployment. Their argument, which most economists agree with, is that an economy with lower taxation and less regulation has lower unemployment, attracts more investment, and creates strong economic growth. This lifts the entire country’s wealth, making everyone better off, even if some do better than others.

The disagreement between all these groups centres around what the ‘right’ balance between equality/fairness and efficiency is, which at the end of the day is a subjective question.

So, new leader… what’s new?

Senator Milne has nominated rural constituents as the target for an expansion of the Green support base. Having grown up on a farm herself, Senator Milne claims to understand the bush, saying that in many instances farmers and the Greens are natural allies. She aims to win over large swathes of the rural vote by taking a stand against the Coles-Woolworths duopoly, coals seam gas exploration, and the ever expanding coal mines.

This move appears to be heralding a wider strategy of achieving Green objectives by appealing to the self-interest of stake holders, rather than attempting to convert them into environmentalists. One such example is Senator Milne’s proposal to increase farmer support for renewable energy facilities, such as wind farms, by ensuring farmers are able to obtain a financial benefit that not only compensates for land lost and negative impacts such as noise, but also provides a share of the profits from electricity generated.

However the proposed Greens’ push into rural territory will not go uncontested. The National Party, which has historically dominated rural politics, has already come out on the defensive. The National’s Senate leader Barnaby Joyce has said that the Greens tend to block regional development, and cannot be considered rural-friendly, given they oppose live cattle exports, dams, coal mining, coal seam gas, and want to reduce water extraction from the Murray Darling basin for irrigation purposes. Senator Joyce has even gone so far as to question her right to identify as a ‘country person’ given that she lives in a city, and coastal city at that.

Leaving aside the debate as to what qualifies as sufficient ‘country person’ credentials, the very arguments Senator Joyce is making against the Greens are exactly why the National Party should be worried. Rural areas are by no means homogenous; there are many farmers who share the Greens’ dislike for coal seam gas exploration, the encroachment of mines onto prime agricultural land, the degradation of the Murray Darling basin through over exploitation etc. There has also been a shift in the demographic of many rural areas as more ‘city refugees’ are moving to the countryside for an alternate lifestyle. The nationals are going to have a hard time trying to hold together diametrically opposed constituents, and this is where the Greens could make some significant gains.

However the Greens are not without a delicate balancing act of their own. The Greens’ constituents span from hardcore activists who vehemently oppose any compromise of their principles, all way to leftward leaning former Labor voters who want action on environmental issues and steps towards a more equal society but would find the radical ideas of the far left extremely unpalatable.

Bob Brown was able to keep the movement together and even get all members to accept compromises that are against core Green beliefs such as not having the carbon tax extend to fuel and allowing subsidies to polluters etc. It is arguable that he was only able to do this through virtue of his godlike status within the Australian green movement; he led the protest against the Franklin Dam, took it all the way to the High Court, and won. Also, having done jail time and even starved himself for environmental causes. He is undeniably a genuine conviction politician, a factor which significantly contributed to the Greens’ ability to expand their base, particularly amongst younger voters.

This will be a tough act to follow. The question is will Christine Milne have trouble keeping the Greens from imploding? And is adding an entirely new group of constituents rocking the boat just a little too much?