As some of those close to me will know, I have recently resigned my membership in the ALP and joined the Greens. Although it might seem a sudden move to some, it has been a long time coming and was not an easy decision or one taken lightly. I’m still new to the party, but I have learned enough to know that I have definitely made the right decision. If you’re curious as to my reasons and experiences, please read on.
Why I joined the Labor Party
I don’t have a background in student politics – I came to political involvement much later in life. I joined the ALP when I lived in California. My political consciousness, while probably not underdeveloped compared to the average voter, was prodded by the continuing outrages of John Howard and George Bush. By the time the Tampa affair, Iraq and Guantanamo Bay were all unfolding, I felt something had to be done – if for no other reason but to feel a little less powerless.
Only one organisation could unseat John Howard, of course – the ALP. I don’t come from a family of rusted-on Labor voters; in fact, my parents and step-parents have at some point all been members or organisers for the Liberal or National parties. So I carefully studied the ALP principles, and they made a lot of sense (and still do). For instance, among other planks:
The abolition of poverty, and the achievement of greater equality in the distribution of income, wealth and opportunity.
Social justice and equality for individuals, the family and all social units, and the elimination of exploitation in the home.
Equal access and rights to employment, education, information, technology, housing, health and welfare services, cultural and leisure activities and the law.
Recognition and protection of fundamental political and civil rights, including freedom of expression, the media, assembly, association, conscience and religion; the right to privacy; the protection of the individual from oppression by the State; and democratic reform of the Australian legal system.
I had no problem endorsing these principles, and I still don’t. Before the 2007 election, on issues from Kyoto to David Hicks to Temporary Protection Visas, the ALP was making a lot of the right noises. And on that day in November 2007 when Howard lost to Kevin Rudd (and Maxine McKew), it did feel like Frodo had just tossed Sauron’s ring into Mount Doom. I was ecstatic and looking forward to a better Australia.
Since then, though, things have changed a lot, both in the direction of the country and my own thinking. Several factors have combined to lead me to make a change.
The challenge of sustainability
Two or three years ago I had the “oh shit!” moment about sustainability and climate change. I’d always been more conscious than the average citizen about environmental issues, sustainable living and certainly climate change. As I read more on the subject, I reached some sort of critical mass where the trajectory of the species and its almost unstoppable momentum came into sharp focus. The coming problems of peak oil, environmental destruction and climate change can’t be dismissed, but every aspect of our society is based on processes that exacerbate these issues, and that is a scary thing. When you read about worst-case climate-change scenarios that actually render the atmosphere unbreathable, it makes you think; but even the near-certainty of war and famine affecting hundreds of millions should be enough to scare anyone.
Since having my epiphany, sustainability has informed every aspect of my thinking. I have tried and change my habits in ways that make a difference, like avoiding the car, buying green power running an office-less company. But it’s hard to be optimistic; the lack of a global response to the looming problems represent a massive failure of imagination, and it’s hard to see what will change that in the short term. Clearly, too few of us have had that “oh shit” moment.
The same is true, by and large, of the body politic. If the importance of sustainable living had sunk in, things would be very different. The “great moral challenge” of our age would have lead to a wartime mobilisation, not a timid debate on compensating coal-fired power producers. The Rudd Government’s recent retreat on the ETS is the obvious example of this disconnect, but not the only one. No major-party politician would even considering endorsing something like the 350ppm target – even though the science says it’s the safest route for humanity.
It would certainly require a major shake-up of our way of life to live sustainable. The tragedy of the whole affair, in my view, is that we could actually achieve this shakeup without a major sacrifice. I grew up in the 1970s, and life was ok. If we had to reduce our standard of living to 1975’s to avert catastrophe, wouldn’t that be a no-brainer? In fact, the sacrifice we would have to make to take serious action would merely shave a fraction of a percent from our GDP growth, perhaps delaying the time until we double our output by 6 or 12 months over a few decades. We’d hardly notice!
Global catastrophe or minor economic shakeup? Seems like an easy choice. Why is nothing happening? Climate change and sustainability have been relegated to the laundry list of voter issues, nestled snugly between elective surgery waiting lists and new roads.
Of course, there is one political party that is willing to give sustainability the look-in it deserves. Given what I said above, it should be obvious that the issue is big enough to start a political movement all of its own. With hindsight, I was surprisingly slow to cotton on.
The secular religion of economic growth
“The main job of the government is to manage the economy and ensure continued prosperity and economic growth.”
Do you agree with this proposition? If so, you are in good company. Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott would both agree with this statement, and have said so. I would say that this notion is, at the present time, very uncontroversial.
But I have another idea, and it is this:
The main job of government is to help foster a society in which its citizens can justly live happy and safe lives.
It’s neither profound nor original, but I like my description of the role of government more than the first one. Who wouldn’t? Certainly, economic prosperity and growth are important, insomuch as they help people live better, happier lives, and they do. Poverty and ignorance are evils that can indeed be cured by a healthy economy.
But only to a certain degree. The wealth has to be justly distributed; GDP is a meaningless number if it is growing without improving the lot of most of the citizenry. Yes, growth is a good thing; improving our standard of living is a good thing. But can you see a problem with a plan for the country and the world that involves exponential growth that continues forever? Unless we start colonising the galaxy really soon, the resource limits on our planet will put paid to this plan at some point whether we like it or not. History tells us that we are unlikely to appreciate this fact until too late, but I’d like to think there’s hope for us yet. And economic prosperity without social justice pays no dividend for the people.
In any case, “economic growth whatever it takes” is not a political philosophy I can get excited about.
Progressive politics and social justice
There’s room for both prudent economic management and a commitment to social justice in the same party. A commitment to progressive principles does not mean open class warfare, punitive taxation or wanton spending as the traditional conservative straw man would have you believe. It does, however, require principles and a willingness to take political risks.
“You can’t do anything from opposition” is a phrase I heard many times while in the ALP. It’s certainly true, but taken to its logical extreme, you can’t do anything from power either, paralysed as you are with fear of offending the mythical swinging voter. How far can you take this pragmatism before you lose your soul? The ALP, in government, has come perilously close with its decision to play the game of refugee chess with the Liberals.
I don’t in fact agree that that the ALP and the Liberals have become indistinguishable; a Labor government will always be preferable to a Liberal one when it comes to issues of social justice. Nor are they so far apart. This is perhaps inevitable in a long term battle between two parties; both must drift towards the center where the battle truly rages. But if the only pressure on the ALP is the half of the electorate that lies to the right of it, where will it ultimately end up? Can’t a government provide leadership on social issues, dragging the electorate with it, as much as it can allow the electorate to lead it by the nose in another direction?
Fortunately, there is a limit to this “practicality” before voters cotton on, and they appear to have done so. I suspect Kevin Rudd will actually dig himself out of the current malaise with more practical politicking and conservative economics, but how many former Labor adherents will it cost him?
Experiences as a party member
So much for political philosophy. As a sustainability-obsessed lefty with a commitment to social justice, it’s no wonder I have no quarrel with the Greens Charter. Politically and philosophically, the Greens are an excellent match.
However, a political party is not just an embodiment of a set of ideals. There’s more than policy and principle to being a member of a political party – they are institutions unto themselves, composed of other people, and being an active member involves interacting with both.
As for the ALP, I was never a “true believer” as the cliche goes. Not being steeped in union politics or a Labor household, I supported the ALP as a means of achieving a better outcome for Australia rather than celebrating the Party itself. This was in contrast to many of the other members I met, who had been involved in for decades through thick and thin and had great affection for the party. Unfortunately, the longer I was a member of the ALP, the less affection I developed for the way it functioned.
Certainly, I had some very positive experiences. As a branch member and later branch president, I met a lot of rank-and-file members who were genuine and enthusiastic. With Labor as the federal opposition, we fumed and cursed at what Howard was doing to the country and banded together to make our contribution to ousting him. Many people were friendly and passionate. Being involved this way was rewarding, and I met people a nerd like me would be otherwise unlikely to interact with; recent immigrants, retired factory workers, taxi drivers and community activists of various stripes and backgrounds. We had one of the most active branches in the state. The members were very supportive.
Since Labor came to power federally, and always at the state level, we spent an awful amount of our time fighting against our own leaders. It was a little dispiriting to be struggling against our own MPs for real change. Since 2007, we wrote just as many letters expressing complaints and disappointment to Kevin and Julia as we did to Howard and Ruddock.
We also spent time fighting within the party. Factional warfare is a constant feature of ALP politics. As somebody with no plans to make a career of ALP politics, I found this tiresome; it was hard work. I don’t know if factions are evil in and of themselves – after all, political parties are themselves factions of a wider community – but personally I had no stomach for the ALP factional system, although I did stay in touch with the Independents. This meant that a significant portion of my energy was spent campaigning as or supporting the few independent ALP conference candidates in the region and state, with the goal to be getting one independent on the Party’s 30-member Admin committee, in order to bring a bit more transparency to proceedings. What a lofty goal! My energy was focused there, but my thoughts were on the bigger picture.
As for the wider ALP community, with its warlords, hacks and stackers, I don’t have much to say. I met a lot of people, including MPs, who were talented, likable and had integrity, both inside factions and without. Many others didn’t fit into that category. The former don’t always have the upper hand.
Politics fun again
So while I became disillusioned with the Party’s policies, I also realised that while I felt genuine affection for the branch members, my enthusiasm for being active in the ALP was no longer there. Once I admitted that I was already going to vote Greens, I felt like a bit of a hypocrite going to the meetings as usual, but I suspect I was not the only one. In the meantime, I’m moving to the city, forcing me to quit the branch anyway, and given what I have written here, it’s no surprise I decided to go the whole hog and leave the Party as well.
In the meantime, I’ve met a bunch of Greens who are without exception passionate and committed, focused on national and global outcomes, and a lot of fun. Before, one of my main drivers was the desire to get rid of Howard. Now I’m driven by a more positive agenda – a sustainable and just future for the planet – and it’s a good feeling. Politics is fun again – everyone on the same team, focused on achieving an exciting outcome for the country. As for advocating for change from without rather than within, it seems to suit my personality.
I’ve also been privileged to meet some of the Greens candidates running for office this year including Richard Di Natale in the senate, Adam Bandt for the Federal seat of Melbourne, and Brian Walters in the state seat of Melbourne. I’ve been impressed – they are all smart, passionate candidates and would make great MPs. I’ve been left with no doubts that the Greens are a credible political force. I’ll be doing whatever little bit I can as a volunteer to help these campaigns.
Here’s a story from last night’s 7.30 Report which does a great job of capturing the mood for change and the grass-roots enthusiasm I have witnessed. Hilariously, by attending a campaign training session on Saturday morning, I got myself into the story – so my defection to the Greens is now well and truly on the record. I wouldn’t have it any other way.