Depending which poll you read, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the Australian electorate intends to vote for neither major party at this election. The net approval ratings of both Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese are negative, as is trust in government in general.
Pundits and the public alike lament the lack of big policy ideas or real choice between the major parties, as well as the negativity and trivialisation that marks contemporary politics. People may be preparing to change the government, but without any great hope that much else will change if they do.
No one expressed the fatigue at the pettiness of Australian politics better than the leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, early in the first week of the campaign. His three-word opening line when a young reporter challenged him to nominate the current wage price index will go down as one of the best of the campaign: “Google it, mate.”
The audience responded with laughter and a smattering of applause, but Bandt was angry. Such trivial questions, he said, talking over the protesting reporter, were one reason people were turning off politics. These questions were all that was left when the contest was between “a government that deserves to be turfed out and an opposition that’s got no vision”.
“Elections should be about a contest of ideas. Politics should be about reaching for the stars and offering a better society. And instead there’s these questions that are asked about – can you tell us this particular stat or can you tell us that particular stat?”
His frustration was understandable. He had just spent half an hour giving a speech replete with policy ideas. Yet that reporter chose instead to ask the gotcha question, hoping to catch Bandt out as Anthony Albanese had been. The question wasn’t just trite, it was evidence of a refusal to engage seriously with the Greens’ big, radical ideas.
The Greens have been used to this. The third party of Australian politics attracts more voter support than the Nationals, but gets nothing like the coverage its size should warrant. The days are long past when the party that grew out of the environmental movement 30 years ago could be dismissed as a bunch of tree huggers. In the 43rd parliament, the minority Gillard government not only survived on Greens support but produced more significant legislation than any in decades.
Now the party is on the cusp of even greater political power. The Greens are quite likely to hold the balance of power in the senate, either alone or in concert with one or two other centre-to-left minor party players. The populist right – Pauline Hanson’s party or its equivalents, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party or the Liberal Democrats – will likely be rendered largely irrelevant. There also is a fair chance the Greens will increase its numbers in the house of representatives and hold the balance there, again in concert with other non-major-party members.
In short, it’s time to take them seriously, all the more because they represent the antithesis of what people are increasingly complaining about: the Bib-and-Bub duopoly of major parties with small ideas.
Agree with them or not, no one can deny the Greens are the party of big ideas – bolder than Labor, vastly bolder than the Coalition. The party has a comprehensive suite of policies addressing all the big issues: climate and environment, of course, but also health, education, housing, taxes, Indigenous affairs, electoral reform, you name it.
In this, they are quite unlike the teal independents, on whom so much media attention has been lavished in this campaign, who are running on a narrow subset of long-held Greens policies: climate, integrity in government and the status of women.
They differ, too, in that the teals are essentially centrist candidates, hoping to harvest the votes of moderate Liberals concerned at the rightward lurch of the party. In the event that neither the Coalition nor Labor wins a majority of house seats on May 21, most of the teals would be expected to support a conservative minority government – although just two have admitted this to date.
The Greens, in contrast, are forthright about their position. They are proudly of the left, want Scott Morrison kicked out and have said they would not support a conservative government under any circumstances.
They differ from both major parties in their willingness to acknowledge the elephant in the room at this election: the massive deficits racked up by the current government that must at some point be addressed either by raising taxes or cutting services.
The Morrison government promises more tax cuts. Labor, which promised significant tax reform at the 2019 election, now resorts to hollow pointscoring, noting that the two highest-taxing governments in Australian history were both Coalition ones, John Howard’s and Morrison’s. True as that is, it also is beside the point.
The Greens differ from the parties of the right in that they offer policies based on evidence rather than ideology. And they differ, in this election, from their own past selves.
The Greens have had four leaders in their history. The first was Bob Brown, hero of the campaign to save Tasmania’s Franklin River, the charismatic man of nature. The second was Christine Milne, who proved herself a skilled negotiator through the term of the Gillard government but didn’t have Brown’s appeal to voters. The third was Richard Di Natale, who succeeded in getting the party’s vote share trending up again. Respectively they were a medical doctor, a teacher and another doctor, all dedicated and smart people but largely focused on climate and the environment and not really political animals.
Bandt is something quite different – an advocate for the full sweep of party policies. To a greater extent than any of the previous leaders, notes one former long-time adviser, “Adam has very much sought to stress that they are a multi-issue party.”
Bandt, like a quarter of the current parliament, is a lawyer. There are two reasons we have so many lawyers in politics: first, because the job of parliamentarians is to make law; and second, because the skills that make a good lawyer transfer well. A solicitor must be adept at assembling a brief of evidence; a barrister must be able to argue it persuasively. Bandt has worked as both and has those skills.
He’s across his brief; he doesn’t make mistakes; he has a way of boiling big, expensive, complex policy down to something that seems straightforward.
Talking at the National Press Club about his party’s plan to spend some $8 billion a year to fund dental care through Medicare, for example, he summarised thus: “The Greens will make Clive Palmer pay more tax so you can fix your teeth. Dental care must be universal. It is a human right.”
He makes it sound simple, but then the basic premise of the Greens agenda is simple: tax the billionaires, the big corporations and the dirty industries to fund ambitious social and environmental goals. It’s simple but it’s also mind-bogglingly expensive.
The party would enact a new 40 per cent super-profits tax to apply to corporations with turnover of more than $100 million, assessed on their net revenue after deducting income tax and “making an allowance for a fair return to shareholders”. For mining projects, the tax on corporations will be assessed “on a project-by-project basis, based on the original Henry Review’s mining super-profits tax”.
The independent Parliamentary Budget Office has calculated the mining component would raise $124 billion over 10 years and the wider component would raise $214 billion over the same period. The party would introduce an annual extra 6 per cent wealth tax on Australia’s billionaires – 122 people at last count – to raise a further $40-odd billion.
That’s enough to fund not only dental healthcare through Medicare, but also mental healthcare. As well as the wiping of all student debt and the construction of a million new homes over 20 years, and more.
A levy on coal exports would raise $21.7 billion in new revenue, with the proceeds to be spent on new investments in hydrogen, clean metals production, climate adaptation measures, subsidies for people switching from gas to renewable electric appliances, and support for displaced workers. That source of revenue would quickly decline, however, given the Greens also propose phasing out exports of thermal coal by 2030 and metallurgical coal by 2040, and an immediate moratorium on new coal, oil and gas developments.
It’s a huge agenda and prompts two immediate questions. One: What chance would the party have of getting it through parliament even in a balance-of-power scenario? And two: By emphasising such a broad agenda, do they not risk losing people who care about climate and environment but are otherwise more conservative?
In answer to the first, Bandt tells The Saturday Paper he believes the party would be able to push a Labor government “to make Australia a more equal society through our priority measures of getting dental and mental health into Medicare, building affordable housing and wiping student debt”.
“They’re all areas that I could see the next government coming to some form of an agreement with us. Probably the toughest area to push for action will be around coal and gas,” he says.
“We can have a debate in the next parliament about how quickly to get out of coal and gas. But everyone should be able to agree we shouldn’t open up new coal and gas mines. You can’t put the fire out while you’re pouring petrol on it.”
The fact both major parties continue to support new developments in the face of settled science, he says, is “criminal”.
But, says Bandt, attitudes are shifting fast. These days, when he ventures into communities dependent on the fossil fuel economy he finds people understand that the “use-by date” for coal is fast approaching.
Compared with just a few years ago, “people are up for that conversation, because they do know that change is coming and they want government to come up with a plan and to look after them during the transition”.
In answer to the second question, about the appeal of his broader platform, Bandt believes the party will win more votes than it loses.
“These are popular ideas and part of the reason our support is growing. What we’re putting on the table is a vision. The others are going small but we are offering a big vision.”
The fact that the Greens’ spending measures are “funded not by lifting taxes on everyday people but by making the billionaires and big corporations pay their fair share” will resonate with people, he says.
Even if the voters don’t understand the mechanisms by which multinationals shift profits around the world, even if they haven’t read the analyses by the likes of Oxfam, showing billionaires doubled their wealth during the two Covid years, they are acutely aware of growing inequality and feel the tax burden falling more heavily on them.
And are the Greens’ plans really so radical? Gough Whitlam made universities free. Wiping student debt is hardly unprecedented. The party’s greenhouse gas reductions target is wholly in line with the overwhelming scientific consensus. Their housing policy – centred on the massive construction of new homes paid for by the state – is a return to the responsibility that once sat squarely with government.
Australia has had ambitious public housing programs before, in fact, under both conservative and Labor governments. The founder of the Liberal Party, Sir Robert Menzies, was a strong advocate. For about 30 years, from the early 1950s to the early 1980s, the public sector built an average of about 15,000 dwellings a year. During the past 40 years, as the idea that the private sector was inherently better and more efficient at such matters increasingly took over politics, the trend has been sharply down. Since the turn of the millennium, government has averaged just a few thousand new homes a year.
Also over the past 40 years, rates of home ownership have declined precipitously. Only among the most affluent cohort of those over age 65 has it gone up. Between 1981 and 2016, home ownership rates among 25- to 34-year-olds fell from more than 60 per cent to 45 per cent, and among the poorest 40 per cent of that age group, it has more than halved, from 57 per cent to 28 per cent.
At the 2019 election, just 2 per cent of people aged over 65 voted Green, but 44 per cent of voters under 25, and 34 per cent of those 25 to 34 did. So did 17 per cent of people with a tertiary qualification, 15 per cent of women and 20 per cent of those living in rented accommodation.
It’s not hard to see the demographic to which the Greens policies appeal. It’s the young and educated. It’s generation rent, as well as women and the inner-urban climate-concerned.
The policies do not, as Bandt says, appeal to a majority, but they do appeal to a growing constituency.
In political science the received wisdom holds that at elections where the people are contemplating a change of government, the vote share of minor parties declines. But it’s not evident so far in this election campaign. The various polls all put the Greens in the low double digits, likely a bit more in the senate than the house.
On those figures, says Ben Oquist, director of The Australia Institute and a former Greens staffer, the Greens could pick up a further three senate seats this time, taking them to 12, and possibly the balance of power in the senate. Oquist is not a dreamer; he is one of the few who correctly predicted Morrison’s win at the last election.
The most recent poll in the Nine media had the Greens on course for a record result in Queensland, of all places. “I would have thought it was total nonsense if I hadn’t seen my own polling showing the same,” says Oquist. “They’re up from 9 to 16 per cent. And if they’re doing well in Queensland, they must be doing particularly well in those inner Brisbane seats.”
Before the campaign started, says Bandt, the party identified 10 prospective lower-house wins, and there are now “about five where we think we’re now level-pegging or we’ve got our noses in front”.
These are Ryan, Brisbane and Griffith in Queensland, Richmond in northern New South Wales, and Macnamara in Melbourne. Interestingly, three of those are currently held by Labor.
The Greens challenge now is to maintain the momentum through the final two weeks of the campaign, when minor parties tend to get squeezed, attention focuses on the major parties and the undecided voters begin to choose.
But Bandt is optimistic. After “three or four decades of Labor and Liberal alike embracing neoliberalism, throwing people to the wall, engaging in a race to the bottom,” he says, “we are now the only defenders of progressive social democracy. And I think there is still a big, beating progressive heart in Australia.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 7, 2022 as "The Bandt interview: what the Greens are promising ".
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