What will it take for the Greens to be ‘mainstream’?

realityAfter today’s shock Greens leadership change, new leader Richard Di Natale has been quoted as saying he wants the Greens to be ‘the natural home of progressive mainstream Australian voters’. Fine. I can see where Di Natale is going with this. This is code for ‘I want the Greens to challenge Labor as the left-wing major party’. The Greens have always wanted to replace Labor and now Di Natale is being more straight talking about this than previous Greens leaders Milne and Brown. But what does this mean for the Greens, this new ‘mainstream’ mission? I’ve got a suggestion as to what the Greens will have to do in order to make this statement more meaningful than an election slogan.

Mainstream political parties cannot pretend they are above politics.

From what I can tell, a large appeal of the Greens to Greens voters is that they are not a ‘political party’ in the sense that they eschew the messiness and politicking of the Labor Party and the Liberal National Coalition. Whereas Labor, Liberal and the Nationals are portrayed by the Greens as being full of politicians, who act politically, the Greens like to frame themselves as above all this nonsense, and as real people who really get the electorate and what the mainstream progressives want. However, being a pure, uncompromising, non-negotiating non-politician, and appealing to mainstream voters is not, in my view, possible to do at the same time. Because politics, and more importantly, getting things done in politics is by its very nature, a political process.

Show me someone who’s never had to behave politically and I’ll show you someone who talks a lot but achieves nothing. There is politics in all productive action, from debating, negotiating and compromising with your children about what time they should go to bed to positioning yourself for a promotion at work, to running a large multi-national corporation. It may sound crass, and I’m sorry to break the hearts of the bleeding hearts who refuse to believe the world works the way it does, but the tooth fairy doesn’t exist. Shit doesn’t get done without political nous – and this means giving in to the understanding that achieving something is better than achieving nothing, that sometimes you don’t get exactly what you want, that compromise and negotiation is an inevitable reality of mainstream politics and that, to use the philosophy of Tony Judt, sometimes the best we can hope for is incremental improvement to unsatisfactory circumstances. The mainstream do not want revolution and if you try to push it down their throats, you’ll soon learn just how much they don’t want it. What are some of the practicalities of this reality for the Greens? Here are a few:

  • The Greens need to release a fully costed budget reply that shows exactly how they will fund their policies and what tax will be paid by various segments of the community in order to make all these policies actually happen. The mainstream care a lot about how much tax they pay. Whether you like this or not, it’s inescapable.
  • The Greens need to stop taking credit for policies that they didn’t create. Sure, they can pat themselves on the back for voting for a policy they like, but this is a different concept than actually stealing the credit for Labor policies that Labor has developed, Labor has got through the parliament (through a political process) and Labor has implemented.
  • Related to the above, if the Greens want to be able to take credit for their own policies, they need to implement policies, not just ideas. When I step out my door every morning, I can see Labor policies everywhere. Public transport. Health services. Public schools. Maternity leave. Workers’ rights. Infrastructure. Labor policies touch every aspect of my life. Greens ideas might sound nice, but they amount to little more than soundbites, or thin air if you like, until they are actually implemented.
  • On the subject of policies, a mainstream Greens party will need to acknowledge that a mainstream political party cannot ignore that they need to have a working relationship with business. It’s all very well to wish and hope, as some Greens supporters seem to, that businesses would just pay more tax and not pollute the environment, and not treat their workers badly, and keep creating jobs and keep investing in the economy without political parties working hand-in-hand with them to get the best outcomes for everyone. This is never going to happen. Working constructively with the business sector is a political reality of mainstream politics and if the Greens don’t recognise this, they’re not a mainstream political party, they’re a lobby group or perhaps an activist organisation.
  • Lastly, the inflexible positions that the Greens have taken in some policy areas will need to be more compromising if they are to appeal to mainstream Australians. For instance, it’s not good enough to just say ‘we can solve the asylum seeker policy by just letting everyone come by boat’ and ignoring deaths at sea. It’s not good enough to simply say that there will be a cap on the number of humanitarian visas, and that if that quota, however high it is, is filled up with people who can afford to pay a people smuggler, and are lucky enough not to drown on the journey, who ultimately take the place of someone who may be just as desperate yet can’t afford a boat journey, then so be it. Bottom line is, there is no simple solution to complex policy problems such as the arrival of asylum seekers, and a mainstream political party should be able to discuss this type of problem without being accused of being heartless, murdering, bastards. Are the Greens up for this challenge? Are they ready to stop screaming in people’s faces when they try to discuss achievable solutions?

I guess this advice leaves me with two final questions. If the Greens were able to achieve all of the above, how would they be any different from Labor? And would Greens voters still support them? And I’ll throw in a final question just to keep the conversation interesting: do we, as intelligent, progressive, mainstream voters really think it’s a good idea to use all our political courage, resources, money, support, motivation and energy to split the progressive vote, to fight a war amongst ourselves? If someone could tell me how this stops Tony Abbott winning the next election, I would be interested to hear it.


  1. I agree with many of your implicit criticisms of the Greens, would rather vote Labor but it’s their move to the right on specific policies that has pushed me to vote Green in state elections. First, against the East-West link: I know they finally opposed it but they supported it initially and various MPs made statements hinting at a willingness to support it, even after this, so I didn’t trust them to keep their word. Second, the huge waste of money ($70 mill pa at present) and civic destruction associated with the Grand Prix in Melbourne that increases the wealth of a few robber barons at the expense of the rest of us. Finally, the repudiation of Gonski in the promise that private schools will get 25% of any funding given to government schools, regardless of need. I don’t see that any of these policies are necessary compromises: they explicitly disavow fundamental values of labor. Federal government is different but if Labor moves to the right federally the way they have in Victoria I’ll support the Greens there too.

  2. I wonder if the Greens alleged policy on Copyright is correct – it is said they plan to abandon copyright after fourteen years

  3. It is blatantly obvious that what is needed is a third “middle of the road ” party.
    The Greens do not quite fit this description but are close.
    The LIB /Labs are supposedly at opposite ends of the spectrum but in fact are basically of the same ideology but just have different labels.
    So, it will not take a lot for the Greens to join the mainstream of parties.
    They will have to organize themselves a bit more and possibly change some of their policies but they can do that.
    Labour made some monumental blunders while in government, mainly under Rudd and are now paying the price.
    Meanwhile NLP is continually making even bigger blunders and is still stuck with it’s NeoLib ideology.
    Without a new middle of the road party we are in for “interesting” times.

  4. What would it take for Labor to become moderate, centrist? That is the real question.

    What would it take for Labor to close down the concentration camps; stop pouring money into the American war in the Middle East; start supporting human rights and privacy for citizens; start opposing the TPP and other so-called FTAs; start being an actual opposition party instead of allying themselves with the conservatives on every bloody issue.

    Until Labor at least moves to the left of KAP, there’s no difference between Shorten and Abbott.

  5. […] to be done! When this Greens leadership change occurred, I wrote about what it would take for the Greens to become a mainstream political party. This included the advice that Greens would have to start to develop their own policies and to stop […]

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