Should Labor talk to the Greens? A report of our first debate.

More than a hundred people came to Open Labor’s debate, Should Labor talk to the Greens? at the Celtic Club in Melbourne on Thursday. Each of the five very different speakers was excellent and, together with diverse, lively contributions from the floor, they expressed a wide and intelligent range of views. It was like an old-style town hall meeting. It was also great to see two ALP members seeking preselection for the seat of Melbourne, Sophie Ismail and Louise Crawford, in the room.

James Button and Tom Bentley

More than a hundred people came to Open Labor’s debate, Should Labor talk to the Greens? at the Celtic Club in Melbourne on Thursday. Each of the five very different speakers was excellent and, together with diverse, lively contributions from the floor, they expressed a wide and intelligent range of views. It was like an old-style town hall meeting. It was also great to see two ALP members seeking preselection for the seat of Melbourne, Sophie Ismail and Louise Crawford, in the room. 


To comment on the issues raised here, please go to our forum: 
http://discussion.openlabor.net.au/t/should-the-labor-party-talk-to-the-greens-party/45

Moderator Tom Bentley began by asking participants to address Labor’s dilemma. The Greens political party is advancing, and taking votes from the ALP. As a result, Labor may never again win the levels of support from Australians it once enjoyed. But a weaker Labor party increases the likelihood of Coalition victories and undermines the long term policy outcomes that many Greens – and Labor – voters want. Can Labor and the Greens cooperate on any level, or are they locked in a fight that can produce only one winner?

Speaking first for the Yes side, student Ellen Coates said that she wanted to support Labor but felt unable to do so because of some of its policies, especially on asylum seekers. The Greens, by contrast, still espouse principles in politics that attract young people such as her.

Former ALP Senator Michael Beahan opened the No case by saying that people should not be naïve about the goals of the Greens: to replace the ALP as the primary party of the left.  Despite their frequent appeals to higher moral standards, the Greens will use any means to advance this political objective.  The Greens behaved disgracefully, he argued, when it voted down Kevin Rudd’s emissions trading scheme in the Senate in 2009, and when it imposed unrealistic demands on Julia Gillard’s scheme in 2011, leaving her government to suffer the political backlash.   

Responding for the Yes case, Guardian columnist Van Badham said she was a natural Labor person who switched her support to the Greens when she lived in Wollongong and saw Labor make some terrible environmental decisions and conduct brutal preselection battles that favoured factional power over good candidates. She urged both Labor and the Greens to keep their eye on the main game -- “fighting Tories” -- and argued that today’s political alliances can be determined on an issue-by-issue, place-by-place basis. 

Closing for the No side, Cath Bowtell, former President of the Victorian Labor Party and candidate for Melbourne, said the Greens Party would never enter formal coalition with Labor because it would force them to enter the real world of compromise and accountability that is required to create enduring political change.  She argued that the Greens have no interest in this kind of politics, and that they prefer to seek power without accountability. For all its problems, Labor remained the only party that could introduce emissions trading, a national disability insurance scheme, long-term funding for disadvantaged schools and other policies that people at the debate cared about.

Author and political commentator Dennis Altman completed the line-up as a self-confessed “agnostic”, with one foot in each camp. He argued that the fall in Labor’s vote since the highwater mark of 1987 is likely to be permanent; co-operation with the Greens will be essential to govern, and both the Labor Party and the political system must adapt to that reality.

These arguments produced lively, sometimes fiery, responses from the floor. The debate that followed opened up many other questions. Should Labor’s 120-year old practice of binding caucus, requiring all members to publicly support a caucus decision, still hold in the 21st century, when public discussion has become far more fragmented and issue-based, and the public is looking for honesty and openness from its politicians? Conversely, the Greens do not bind their MPs, but how can policy ever be implemented if every Greens party politician is free to take a different view when it suits them?

Among the many deeply-held views that came out in the discussion, some patterns became clear. Many former Labor supporters feel angry with the Party and where it has left them, and see the Greens as a new place to place their frustration, anger and political values.  Labor ignores this at its peril.  Whether or not it should talk to the Greens Party, it must learn to speak to people who vote Green more persuasively.

Equally, deeper cooperation with the Greens cannot be a substitute or a distraction from the Labor Party changing itself.  Many participants felt that if Labor could renew its culture of factional control, move away from its endless focus on internal manoeuvring, and rebuild a stronger set of connections with local communities, then it would face these questions with more confidence and legitimacy.  It was pointed out that Open Labor is working with people and organisations who are committed to ALP reform ahead of the National Conference later this year – including through online discussion to link people’s efforts to ongoing conversation.

The room did not reach agreement on these issues – and that was not our aim.  Instead, we sought to address head-on a question that is troubling many people in and around the Labor party, but that the Party itself is finding difficult to tackle directly.

A changing political landscape may force different realities on Labor and its allies.  If it wants avoid dependence on partnership with the Greens, then it must renew itself and its methods more convincingly.  Whatever the solution looks like, an open, honest and democratic conversation is likely to be part of it. 

All in all, it was a great night. Look out for more Open Labor debates this year. 

James Button and Tom Bentley are members of the operating group of Open Labor. 

To comment on the issues raised here, please go to our forum: 
http://discussion.openlabor.net.au/t/should-the-labor-party-talk-to-the-greens-party/45