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Australia’s Greenslide

Same-sex marriage is back on the agenda now that social radicals have the balance of power.
Michael Cook | 24 August 2010
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Senator Bob Brown

Expectations of stable majority government in Australia have been scuppered by a remarkable “Greenslide” in Saturday’s national election. Neither the Labor government nor the conservative coalition won a clear majority, so it is not clear who will be leading the country – the incumbent Labor Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, or the Liberal leader Tony Abbott. A week of intense horse-trading with a handful of independent MPs lies ahead. It will be Australia’s first minority government in 70 years.

It was a dispiriting result for Labor, but the Greens are ecstatic. They won one seat in the House of Representatives and four in the Senate. Because of an eccentric provision in the Australian constitution, the new Senators do not take their seats until July next year. But then the Greens will have nine senators and the balance of power. “There is a new light on the hill and it's powered by renewable energy,” says one of the new parliamentarians.

What will this mean for Australia?

Interpreting the stunning Green gains in this election is difficult, but it is more than a protest vote. The Greens’ leader, Senator Bob Brown, a dour, lanky Tasmanian, told the media that it was a new birth in Australian politics – like the whale calf which had just been born in the waters lapping suburban Hobart, Tasmania’s capital.

The Greens have steadily gained ground over the past 20 years, first capitalising on concern for the Tasmanian wilderness and then on disillusionment with the left-leaning Labor party. And as it grew, policies which had nothing to do with saving virgin forests or protecting endangered species stuck to the Green snowball.

In an address to the National Press Club last week Senator Brown highlighted three policies which his party would pursue. The first two were environmental boilerplate: a hefty tax on the mining industry and the introduction of an emissions trading scheme. But the third was the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Senator Brown is gay himself and to underscore his commitment, he brought his partner along for some carefully scripted photos.

What does gay marriage have to do with saving whales? Not much, but the Australian Greens have wandered far from their conservationist roots. Their opposition to capitalism attracted radicals who were left without a cause after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Their stand on moral issues pandered to pampered Chardonnay socialists of the inner city. Championing of causes like a free Tibet and asylum-seekers enthused idealistic young voters.

If there is an intellectual inspiration for the movement, it is the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, a theorist for the animal rights movement and a radical utilitarian who supports voluntary euthanasia and infanticide for disabled infants. Singer was one of the founding members of the national Greens and in 1996 he even ran unsuccessfully for the Senate as a Green candidate. He co-authored a book on the Green movement with Bob Brown.

Unfortunately, it’s likely that many voters are unaware of the “socially progressive” side of Green policies. Of all the other parties, only the odious (and insignificant) Australian Sex Party, which represents the pornography industry, may have more destructive policies on social values. The combative Catholic Cardinal George Pell scathingly describes them as watermelons, green outside and red inside. He claims that their policies are “thoroughly anti-Christian”.

In his regular column in one of Sydney’s newspapers Pell wrote: “Naturally the Greens are hostile to the notion of the family, man, woman and children, which they see as only one among a set of alternatives. They would allow marriage regardless of sexuality or gender identity. We all accept the necessity of a healthy environment, but Green policies are impractical and expensive, which will not help the poor. For those who value our present way of life, the Greens are sweet camouflaged poison.”

Legalised euthanasia and gay marriage are sure to be at the top of the agenda in an era of Green politics. Since the last election in the state of Tasmania, the Greens have been sharing power with the Labor Party in an uneasy coalition. One of their first initiatives has been to propose a euthanasia bill.

However, radical social change could eventually be their undoing.  

Political pundits point to the Greens’ predecessor as the vanguard of social progressives, the Australian Democrats. In 1999 they, too, had nine senators in Canberra. But when they reached the zenith of their influence, they imploded. Under the pressure of having to make deals in Federal Parliament, they began to bicker and split. Now they have all but vanished.

Much the same could happen to the fractious Greens. Bob Brown has been an effective spokesman but he is 65 and he could retire in three years’ time. There is no obvious successor amongst his green and untested colleagues. Playing a responsible role in Parliament means compromises and compromises could disillusion and alienate the party’s grassroots supporters.

Furthermore, their political opponents are sure to attack them as a party of well-heeled privilege out of touch with average voters. Of the 20 electoral divisions with the poorest education in the country, more than half recorded votes for the Greens of less than 9 percent. Of the 20 best-educated electorates, more than half recorded votes of more than 17 percent. As one pundit remarked, they are the party of “post-materialist cosmopolitans”. “Doctors’ wives,” sneer Labor traditionalists.

The Green gains in Australia may not transform the country immediately, but they are a warning sign that social values are changing radically. The greatest danger is that a weakened government will capitulate on same-sex marriage in order to pass legislation. Once that happens, it will be almost impossible to reverse, even if the Greens eventually disappear.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

MORE ON THESE TOPICS | Australia, Greens
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