Support for the Greens fell drastically at the last election, and their party room is divided, but the power they will wield in the new senate is significant. By Sophie Morris.

What’s eating the Greens?

It was budget eve and Greens leader Christine Milne was determined to launch a pre-emptive strike on the government’s mooted temporary tax on the rich.

It was “phoney”, a “ploy”, a fig-leaf disguising a permanent attack on the poor, she declared at a hastily convened 6pm media conference with her deputy, Adam Bandt, in the press gallery corridor.

The measure had been debated robustly at a meeting of the Greens’ 10-member party room that afternoon, on Monday, May 12. 

Some in the party room questioned why the Greens should so strongly oppose a tax on the rich, but Milne was adamant. She felt it was important to take a stand, even before the budget’s release. “It is a very strong philosophical view,” she later tells The Saturday Paper. “It was so obvious to me that using the terminology of ‘budget emergency’ was justification for a permanent hit on the poor.”

What really surprised and irked some of her colleagues, though, was that she did not confine her remarks to the so-called deficit levy. When asked about the petrol tax, she said the Greens would support a move to increase it.

This measure had also been discussed in the party room, but some who attended the meeting felt there had been agreement that the Greens would not publicly declare their hand so soon.

It is highly unusual for internal Greens’ debates to leak – the party is normally surprisingly disciplined – so the fact these divisions are being canvassed shows there is frustration over the party’s positioning.

Milne’s views on the debt levy and petrol tax are consistent with the Greens’ preference for long-term income tax reform and a shift away from fossil fuels, but can also be portrayed as opposing a tax on the rich while backing a tax on the cost of living.

Since the budget, there has been some confusion as to the Greens’ stance on the petrol tax. But their position could prove decisive. The deficit levy will pass the senate, with Labor’s support, but the reintroduction of indexation on the petrol tax still hangs in the balance, opposed by Labor and the Palmer United Party. 

Thus, the Greens are the government’s only chance to secure senate support for the measure, which is calculated to raise $2.2 billion over four years. Their support is conditional; they want the revenue dedicated to public transport, not roads.

“We will look at the legislation very carefully when it’s released,” Milne says. “It makes zero sense to put what you might raise in fuel excise into roads.”

1 . No backroom deals

Milne is leading the Greens into territory that can be fraught for a minor party, sharing a balance-of-power role with a motley crossbench, including a new party led by a populist billionaire who occasionally veers unpredictably into traditional Greens territory. 

Most of the focus has been on the crossbench and the power wielded in the incoming senate by Clive Palmer, but the government can also pass legislation, now or after July, with backing from the Greens or Labor.

Not that Milne plans to talk to the government. She has met Tony Abbott just once since the election, to discuss Tasmanian forests. “At that meeting he told me one thing and then did the complete opposite,” she says. “You can’t negotiate with someone who is not straight with you.”

Nor will she nominate anyone from the Coalition whom she does trust. It is certainly unlikely to be the government leader in the senate, Eric Abetz. There’s no love lost between the two Tasmanians.

“I just find it somewhat bemusing that she believes that she somehow is the negotiator and the compromiser, when it is always the extreme Green way or nothing at all,” Abetz told ABC Radio on Monday.

Nevertheless, he added that the government would accept Greens votes on issues where there was a “meeting of minds, even if it is from a different perspective”.

Milne says any discussions with the government will happen on the floor of the senate. There will be no backroom chats, no behind-the-scene negotiations, no triumphant joint press conferences on shared legislation as happened with Labor.

This strategy is no doubt devised with a view to avoiding the fate of the Democrats, whose deal with John Howard on the GST in 1999 led to a period of instability in the party, which imploded several years later.

Bandt makes this more explicit when he references and rejects the Democrats’ famous “keep the bastards honest” slogan.

“Our role isn’t to help the government do what it wants, or even to try to keep them honest,” he says. “You can’t keep these bastards honest. You can only kick them out. I think our job is to be the real opposition to the government.”

For Bandt, the Greens’ only lower house MP, it’s personal. During the election campaign, Abbott visited Bandt’s seat of Melbourne to declare a “captain’s call” to preference Labor over the Greens nationally, in a bid to banish them from the lower house. 

“Well, it’s game on, captain,” says Bandt. “Some may say we should be trying to cross-trade and that we run the risk in the new parliament of legislation getting through because others are willing to deal with the government. I think the better course for us is to say: ‘Here’s what we believe and we stick to it.’”

In other words, the Greens are opting for purity over potency and calculating there are greater gains from opposing the Coalition government than dealing with it, Democrats-style. 

Their success in the West Australian senate election rerun in April, after Scott Ludlam lashed out at Abbott and then secured an impressive 15.6 per cent of the primary vote, supports this strategy. It’s quite a shift from the party’s position in the previous parliament, when they backed Labor to form a minority government.

A paradox for the Greens resulting from the previous parliament is that even though working with Labor led to the achievement of their key goal – the introduction of a carbon price – voters did not reward them. 

About 500,000 fewer voters gave the Greens their first preference in the senate in 2013 than in 2010, in a sign that their appeal is primarily as an opposition or protest party, rather than a party that can deliver on its policies. Still, they held on to all their seats and picked up an extra senate spot in Victoria.

Milne cites saving the carbon price as the “biggest opportunity” in the new senate and says this will be her focus in the months ahead.

“I’m keen to use this opportunity between now and July 1 and immediately following July 1 to keep the carbon price and keep the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and maintain – if not increase – the renewable energy target over time,” she says.

She knows that the four senators-elect aligned with the Palmer United Party provide the only hope for achieving this. Surprisingly, she has not sought to make contact with them. Instead, she delivers a public warning to Glenn Lazarus, Jacqui Lambie, Zhenya “Dio” Wang and Ricky Muir that they will “lose all credibility in this parliament” if they vote with the government to repeal the carbon tax, arguing they should abstain, as Palmer did in the lower house, citing
a conflict of interest. 

“They will just be seen as the puppets of the coal billionaire, delivering for the coal billionaire and for the personal financial benefit of the coal billionaire,” she says.

Rather than working on a parliamentary strategy to save the carbon price, her focus will be a grassroots campaign as the party seeks to re-energise its base. Milne is about to hire a full-time campaigner to drive this.

The uncompromising rhetoric from Milne and Bandt does not bode well for many “meetings of the minds” with the Coalition in the senate. Yet there are some policies where there may be common ground.

Milne says the Greens will block “the overwhelming majority of these cruel budget initiatives”, including GP payments, university fee deregulation and changes to the pension and dole, but the party is considering supporting proposals for tighter means testing of family tax benefits.

Since the election, Bandt has twice met Abbott’s chief-of-staff Peta Credlin to discuss paid parental leave, a signature policy for the prime minister. As with the petrol excise, the Greens provide his best hope of securing its passage.

Potential parents should not hold off on reproducing in anticipation of the generous scheme being legislated, however. Bandt told Credlin that the Greens’ support would depend on Abbott demonstrating sufficient backing within the Coalition for it to pass. He also said it must be fully funded by business, which would require further compromise from the PM, either through increasing the levy on big companies or lowering the rate of payments to parents. Bandt suggests to 90 per cent of their income for six months.

2 . Life after Bob

For the Greens, the biggest change in recent years has been in the party’s leadership. The retirement of long-time figurehead Bob Brown also led to the loss of some seasoned strategists, notably Ben Oquist, who clashed with Milne and left her office after the election.

In the two years since Brown retired, Milne says she has taken a “cabinet-style” and “inclusive” approach as leader, allowing members to develop their own profiles. She insists the party room is united and all her steely resolve and determination is on display when asked whether she intends to stay on as leader.

“I’m not going anywhere soon, I can tell you,” she says. “Having worked so hard to secure the carbon price, to actually get action on climate change, I intend to stay here and secure it and make sure we expose Direct Action [the Coalition’s climate policy] for the absolute joke and sham that it is.”

She claims the Greens will have the upper hand in the new senate, as the party with the most experience of balance-of-power politics. But while nothing can be ruled out, it will take more than a grassroots campaign to prevent the abolition of the carbon price come July.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 31, 2014 as "What’s eating the Greens?".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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