Labor and the Greens in Australian Politics

Author: Kelvin Thomson MP is Member for Wills

The first point that needs to be appreciated is the depth of the resentment felt by many Labor MPs and Senators at the conduct of the Greens in the Parliament in June following dozens more deaths at sea among asylum seekers headed for Australia. The Australian people were expecting action from their Parliamentarians to put a stop to the deaths, and to do something which would deter boats from undertaking this inherently dangerous journey.

The Liberal Party response to this crisis was shamelessly and shamefully opportunistic. They refused to vote for Rob Oakeshott’s Bill, which would have enabled asylum seekers to be processed in Malaysia. They said that the reason they were voting against the Bill was because Malaysia has not ratified the United Nations Refugee Convention, and that they could not in good conscience countenance asylum seekers being sent to a country which had not ratified the Refugee Convention. Let us take a moment to examine this proposition and test if it is in any way genuine.

First, during the entire period that the Howard Government was sending asylum seekers there, Nauru had not signed the UN Refugee Convention. Nauru has now done so, which I think is good, but at no stage while the Pacific Solution was in operation was Nauru a signatory, and yet the Liberal Party did not regard this as an obstacle at the time.

Secondly, Tony Abbott says an Abbott Government would ‘turn back the boats’ to the countries they’ve come from. That clearly means Indonesia, but has Indonesia ratified the UN Refugee Convention? No it has not. So it turns out that the horrible thing that the Liberal Party cannot do, send asylum seekers to a country that hasn’t ratified the Refugee Convention, is not so horrible after all.

Indeed if the boats come from Malaysia “turn back the boats” would see asylum seekers returned to Malaysia, which they say is repugnant to them! And thirdly, Christopher Pyne gave the game away in July when he said that the next election “will be an election on who is best to defend our borders from what currently is a deluge of asylum seekers”.

So there you have it. The Opposition does not want the boats to stop. They do not want the problem solved. They want it to be an election issue next year.

They believe it is a vote winner for them. It is a contemptibly opportunist attitude.

This issue needs to be solved now, before more people drown. It should not be an election issue in 12 months time, because this Parliament should have taken some action about it.

But given the Opposition’s contemptible opportunism on this issue, Labor MPs and Senators are mightily unimpressed with the Greens intransigence on this issue, which simply plays into the Liberal Party’s hands. The Greens say their refusal to countenance offshore processing is a more moral and humane position. I used to agree with that. But the facts suggest otherwise. We all have to be willing to rethink our positions if the facts don’t support them. There is nothing morally superior or humanitarian about a policy which leads to people drowning. Drowning is not an accidental consequence of these sorts of boat journeys, it is an inevitable one. When I was at the United Nations last year I heard that during the Libyan conflict some 12,000 people took to the Mediterranean to escape the conflict. It was estimated that 1,200 of them – 10%! – drowned. Nor is there anything morally superior or humanitarian about a policy which deprives people in UN Refugee camps, who have been waiting for years for resettlement, of a place because others have got in ahead of them by boarding a boat.

Nor is there anything morally superior or humanitarian about people who have money – I’m told that to get a place on a boat you have to pay $5000 – getting priority over impoverished families waiting in camps. There are 2 billion people in the world living on less than $2 a day – they don’t ever make it on to a boat.

So the Greens conduct in the Parliament over this issue, aiding and abetting the Liberal Party and claiming a moral authority which is totally bogus, has upset and angered many Labor MPs and Senators.

But in my view to turn our attacks on to the Greens is short-sighted and counter-productive. It dismays our supporters and delights our opponents. It elevates the Greens to equal billing with us. What is the value in doing that?

And while I know there are differences between our relationship with the Greens and the relationship between the Liberal and National Parties, who in most places are in Coalition, think about the impact of the Liberal Party deciding it would improve its position politically by launching attacks on the National Party.

The progressive side of politics would be delighted.

In my time as Chair of the Parliament’s Treaties Committee the Committee has brought down unanimous reports in a range of controversial areas such as Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament and the Anti-Counterfeiting Treaty.

I have had no difficulty working with the Greens Senator Scott Ludlam on difficult issues. And in my view attacking third parties only gives them oxygen.

When I became the Labor candidate for Wills at the end of 1994 I had to beat an incumbent independent, Phil Cleary, who was politically to my left. Facing opponents to both left and right, I felt the best approach was not to spend much time or energy attacking them, but to concentrate on promoting myself and my vision and putting forward Labor policies in a positive way. I’ve continued that approach as a Federal MP, and I admit to being crestfallen whenever, before election day, my campaign gets delivered election bunting and posters featuring Peter Costello or some other right-wing politician we are wanting to frighten the voters with. Generally my campaign team simply doesn’t use that kind of material, and I have the third strongest Labor vote in the country.

I also commend the approach of Ben Carroll in the Niddrie By-Election earlier this year. I know the demographics of Niddrie and Melbourne are different, but Ben had no Liberal opponent and therefore the Greens were his main opponents.

Ben was very polite to the Greens, basically never mentioned them, campaigned aggressively against the Liberals in absentia, talked a lot about his local community track record of involvement and his plans for Niddrie, and won by a mile.

And as for this idea of preferencing the Greens after the Liberals, I won’t be recommending it for Wills and I think it has little to recommend it elsewhere. No doubt they love it in the corporate boardrooms – that’s probably where the idea came from – but its short-term consequence could be the election of extra Liberal or National Party Senators, with all that means for Australian workers, and its long-term consequence could well be the alienation and further erosion of Labor’s membership and supporter base.

Some Labor supporters and voters are very hostile to the Greens, and would prefer to vote Liberal than Green, but a majority do not, and would be nonplussed being asked to hand out or follow a How-to-Vote card which put the Liberal Party ahead of the Greens. In any contest where our preferences could be meaningful, it would be a PR disaster of massive proportions.

The fact is that we have been witnessing in the last 20 years what amounts to a Labor Party split. No-one calls it that because there has been no exodus of high profile Labor Party personnel, but at the Branch level, and particularly among young people, it has definitely happened.

It may be that the Greens have peaked. The departure of Bob Brown may prove to be significant. When I went to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, it was pretty quiet for the first few days, then Bob Brown arrived, and within hours there was a placard-waving protest outside the building, and at the head of the protest, being interviewed by the world’s media, was Bob. I realised I was in the presence of a rabble rouser of international proportions.

The Greens have built a strong organisational base and are not going to fall in a heap, but he will be a hard act to follow. Just as noteworthy, the Greens have morphed from being a party with the environment as the priority, as their name suggests, to being a global social justice party, as their open door asylum seeker policy demonstrates.

Sarah Hansen-Young’s seriously suggested answer to the problem of boats is that we should put anyone who wants to make a claim to live in Australia on a plane and bring them here to have their claim assessed!

This kind of policy will win some votes, but it will also lose a lot of votes. Let me observe at this point that it is much easier to chase after 10% of the vote than it is to chase after 50% of the vote. There was a clear demonstration of that during the Melbourne By-Election, when the Catholic Education Office decided to use the By-Election to attack the Greens policy on funding of non-government schools.

Now the Greens policy on funding of non-government schools might travel well enough when you’re trying to get 10% of the vote, but it doesn’t travel so well when you’re trying to get 50% of the vote, and the Greens started backtracking once the Catholic Education Office applied the blowtorch.

This is an example of what I think is a broader problem for the Greens. I don’t believe they are getting much support from newly-arrived migrant communities.

Many in these communities have quite strong religious convictions, and they do like to send their children to non-government, religious schools. I was interested to see that one of the candidates in the Melbourne By-Election was Berhan Ahmed, an African community leader who I know quite well and who was Victorian of the Year in 2009. A couple of elections back he was a candidate for the Greens, but in the By-Election he was an Independent Candidate, and 80% of his preferences went to Labor.

But while I think the Melbourne result was quite meritorious, given how the Greens, with a lot of media assistance, had talked themselves up a storm, I have not come here to suggest there is any room for smugness or complacency.

Quite the opposite.

In the past five years Labor’s primary vote has fallen from over 50% to at times under 30%. It might recover over time, but there are no guarantees in life and in politics. The urgent, pressing task for Labor is to improve our primary vote. If we did this successfully we wouldn’t have to worry about preferences – either giving them or getting them – and we wouldn’t be worrying about the Greens.

Personally I don’t think it requires the ability to land a space craft on Mars to work out that the way to restore our primary vote lies in doing what the voters want.

For the last 3 years I’ve talked a lot about population and migration, and I think it is a classic example of the problem. Polling consistently shows 2/3rds to 70% of the population think our present rate of population growth, and our current migrant intake, to be too high, but we think we know better and ignore the voters. I have set out my views on the politics of population growth in detail in two speeches – The Witches Hats Theory of Government, which I gave last year, and The Burden of Durable Asset Acquisition in Growing Populations, which I gave earlier this year. They are available on my website and I won’t go through them in detail here, but I do commend them to anyone with an interest in this issue.

But in brief, rapid population growth is impossible for governments to successfully manage, and it causes the voters to get annoyed with them and throw them out.

In Melbourne it has fuelled traffic congestion, rapidly escalating electricity bills and council rates, residents losing their say over planning issues in their street and neighbourhood, and our sons and daughters being unable to afford a house anywhere within cooee of where they grew up. It cost the Kennett Government, it cost the Brumby Government, and it’s already starting to cost the Baillieu Government.

Nationally rapid population growth has driven hostility to asylum seekers, leaving the Government highly vulnerable to attack over border protection. It has also driven electricity price rises far in excess of the rate of inflation, leaving the Government more vulnerable to attack over the carbon price than would have been the case had electricity prices been stable. There is no doubt in my mind that our vote would increase if we moved to stabilise the population by returning migration to the levels we used to have recently as the 1980s.

Foreign ownership is another area where I think we are out of touch with public opinion. I am not at all surprised that Tony Abbott has latched on to this issue. I will be surprised if his policies, or actions should he become Prime Minister, amount to anything more than window dressing, but I think it is noteworthy that he has latched on to this issue. I know that the Government is saying this is not an important issue, but I think that’s a sign that we are out of touch with the voters.

I also think we are out of touch on animal welfare issues. I, and I believe my colleagues as well, get more emails about the live animal export industry than about any other issue. And yet we have not been able to even make it mandatory that animals are stunned before they are killed, let alone do as the New Zealanders have done and have no live exports but export chilled beef instead. This is value adding and creates both more jobs and better animal welfare. It’s also what the voters want. We ignore issues like this at our peril.

I am pleased to see the Prime Minister talking about electricity prices. In 2010 I pointed out that electricity prices in Melbourne and Sydney had doubled in the previous decade, growing at twice the rate of inflation. I suggested at the time that electricity prices for domestic consumers be pegged to the rate of inflation – this would be much fairer for pensioners and low-income earners.

I have a further suggestion to lift our primary vote. Get rid of HECS, now euphemistically called HELP, and re-introduce free university education and free TAFE courses. Norway has it and it works for them. We used to have free university education and it worked for us. When HECS was originally introduced by the Federal Labor Government of the 1980s, one of my mates who worked at a University said to me – “This is our Vietnam”, meaning, this will cost us a generation of young voters, just as the Vietnam War had cost the Liberal Party a generation of young voters. The theory behind HECS at the time was that it would generate money for more tertiary places and that it was reasonable for people who had profited from their higher education to put something back.

Whatever the merits of the theory, in practice it has not worked out that way. The Howard Government essentially flat-lined the number of Commonwealth subsidised University places for domestic students between 1996-2007.

Furthermore it substantially reduced the income threshold at which HECS cuts in, so that instead of it being about affluent professionals giving something back, it has become a burden for quite modest income earners, and a yoke around the necks of young students. Nor was this about the Government switching resources from tertiary education to trades training.

Between 1997 and 2006 the Commonwealth contribution to vocational education and training costs declined by over 20%.

What would it cost to get rid of HECS? In 2010 the Australian government paid about $2 ½ billion in HECS-HELP payments to universities and students paid $500 million in upfront payments. This means $3 billion would need to be paid by Government to universities and not recovered from students.

For the same reason that it would be desirable to get rid of HECS, it would also be desirable to get rid of student fees and charges in the Vocational Education and Training Sector as well. In 2010 the revenue from students’ fees and charges from all students was about $320 million. So the total cost of abolishing student fees and charges in both tertiary and vocational education is roughly $3.3 billion.

We could find this money by abolishing the Baby Bonus, which is inconsistent with moving to stabilise our population, and costs $850 million per annum, by abolishing the 38 cents per litre fuel tax credit for the mining industry, which would save around $2 billion each year, and by grandfathering Family Tax Benefit A for third and subsequent children, and the Large Family Supplement, that is continuing to pay them where is an existing entitlement, but not paying them for new children unless they are the first or second child.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for taxpayers to fund students indefinitely. But if we’re serious about building skills and being more than a mining boom one trick pony, we should pay for everyone’s first three or four post-secondary education years, so everyone with the capacity gets the opportunity to get a degree or other post-secondary qualification under their belt.

As the money came in from phasing out the Large Family Supplement and Family Tax Benefit A for third and subsequent children, we should consider forgiving some of the HECS debt that our present generation of young people have been saddled with. I think we could treat them better than we have done. I know that one or maybe all of my proposals will be dismissed as populist or even worse – The Australian newspaper has described opposition to live animal exports as stupid, and opposition to Enterprise Migration Agreements as xenophobic!

But if we seriously, genuinely, want to return our primary vote from 33% to the 50% we had back in 2007, and return to a time when we didn’t need to talk about the Greens at all, much less talk about them as an existential threat, then we have to be tough enough to wear a certain amount of childish name-calling from our political opponents, and humble enough to give the voters what they want.

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