It wasn’t a slick, professional event. The lighting was bad, the sound quality patchy, the speeches unpolished and the video montage decidedly amateurish. It looked like something thrown together in a university Media Studies class.
But it had some things we haven’t seen in the campaign so far.
Passion. Conviction. And vision.
Forget about the dodgy cardboard lectern. Forget about the embarrassing acoustic rendition of ‘Great Southern Land’ by a visibly nervous Warren H. Williams. Forget that Bob Brown stumbled over a speech that was in dire need of a proofreader, and that Christine Milne appeared to have resurrected a twinset and pearls from the 1950s. All of these things are matters of style, window-dressing at best. I’m sure there will be any number of commentators making the point that it shows the great divide between ‘major’ and ‘minor’ parties (although I suspect what it mainly shows is the great divide between the financial resources of the parties).
Focus, instead, on what was actually said.
Right out of the blocks, Bob Brown moved to quell suspicions that the Greens would not negotiate if they held the balance of power in the Senate. He listed the stimulus packages, noting that the Greens had negotiated for changes to protect jobs and to boost infrastructure in schools before voting to pass the packages. Almost as an aside, he noted that the Coalition had opposed them.
That said, Brown was quick to criticise both the ALP and the Coalition, drawing the distinction between their ‘bickering, the shortsightedness, the leadership spills and the failure of vision’ with his own party. The Greens, he said, have demonstrated stability and look to the future. He managed to both praise and damn the government in talking about the proposed mining tax. Rudd’s government had a great idea to get money to the nation, Gillard was bullied by the Big Three mining companies, and Abbott rejected the idea out of hand. Any way you look at it, he said, the result was a loss of money for schools and health.
In what I am sure will be a well-quoted sound bite, he said of the government, ‘If you say you’re moving forward, you have to know where you’re going’.
Having dispensed with both the ALP and Coalition, Brown gave us details of the Greens’ policies. It should be noted that none of these were accompanied by costings announcements. At the same time, these were only a handful of a comprehensive policy package you can find on the website.
On health, Brown proposed a national dental scheme, ‘Denticare’, and an end to junk food advertising (see here for a perspective on this policy). He also suggested the formation of a task force to look at how technology now available to us could be used to assist older Australians in maintaining independent living as long as possible.
In terms of our political system, Brown announced that the Greens would seek a referendum on an Australian republic, an anti-corruption commission and lobby for above-the-line voting in the Senate. He also proposed to end a minister’s power of veto over legislation passed in the Northern and Australian Capital Territories.
Environmentally, national recycling laws, marine reserves and an absolute ban on any nuclear waste dumps were on the agenda, along with a pledge to protect native forests.
Brown interrupted the policy roll-out here to talk about why the Greens voted down the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. He claimed that the scheme would ‘give $22 billion to polluters over ten years, and fail to reduce emissions’. Australia does, however, need a carbon tax, in order to fund development of renewable energy – ‘let’s tax the polluters,’ he said.
By far the most popular announcements were on asylum seekers, high speed rail and same-sex marriage. Asylum seekers should be treated ‘decently’, sent home if not genuine but otherwise settled in Australia and give our wholehearted support. High-speed rail between cities was long overdue – there’s been a network in Japan since the 1960s, but Australia’s major parties had voted the Greens proposal down. ‘We won’t let that go,’ Brown stated.
Calling for an end to marriage discrimination, Brown displayed real anger. ‘If South Africa … Argentina … Catholic Spain can get rid of that discrimination, why can’t you, Julia Gillard? Why can’t you, Tony Abbott?’
There were also calls for a full parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, flexible work hours for carers of all kinds, and freedom for Tibet.
Summing up, Brown said, ‘The coalition offers deadlock or dominance. Neither are good for democracy. We Greens offer a responsible review of every proposal put before the people of this country’. Australians had a choice: ‘vote for the last century with the big parties … or vote for us Greens, and bring this country into the 21st century’.
Without costings, it’s impossible to analyse the financial implications of the Greens’ policies. It also makes the Greens a target for the major parties, who can claim that anything proposed is fiscally irresponsible. (That’s a line that’s been working for the Coalition, certainly. If Labor is ‘incompetent with the economy’, the Greens are ‘dangerous extremists’.) The other problem with analysing policy from a campaign launch is that it’s necessarily light on detail.
There’s nothing in the announced policy positions that leaps out as immediately objectionable. Dental care is sure to be derided as financially unachievable (by the Coalition, at least), but it would be difficult for either party to portray dental care as undesirable. High speed rail is likely to be very popular, going by questions submitted to the ABC’s Q&A program, lobbying in Community Cabinets and various opinion pieces in regional media. It is also a point on which both major parties are weak.
Announcements about freedom for Tibet are unlikely to play well with much of the electorate, who tend to consider that local issues are far more important than the fate of a country that is neither a trading partner nor a military ally. It is a cause celebre for the Greens, however; they have been speaking out against the Chinese invasion for many, many years, and the party faithful may well expect to hear it again in this election – as a matter of principle, if nothing else. Similarly, the call for a debate on Afghanistan may well provoke criticism. Australia’s presence in that war has become an article of faith for the major parties. Unlike the invasion of Iraq, the public at large have accepted that we are justified in being there.
The real sticking points will be the mining tax, carbon tax and same-sex marriage. The Coalition is flatly opposed to all three, and will continue to use the Greens’ position (and their preference deals) to bolster a scare-campaign against voting Labor. The ALP has committed to a carbon tax ‘eventually’, and has brokered a deal on the mining tax. That deal, however, is one that the Greens do not accept, and Brown warned that they would be lobbying for a higher rate to be levied against the mining companies. This may hang up the mining tax in Senate negotiations, assuming the Greens do win the balance of power.
Finally, on the issue of same-sex marriage, the major parties are in lockstep. Both have absolutely ruled out any possibility of drafting legislation to remove or amend the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act (1961). The Greens have tried to introduce legislation before – most recently Senator Sarah Hanson-Young in February this year. You can read about how the major parties treated the proposal here. The Greens have virtually no chance of accomplishing this reform. It was important, however, for them to make the point – they are the only party likely to be represented in Parliament that supports removing all forms of discrimination based on a person’s sexuality.
All in all, it was a great relief to hear that much conviction stated without apology and without reserve. The Greens know many of their positions will be controversial, if not downright rejected. Knowing that, they stated them anyway.
The age of the conviction politician is not dead; they’ve all just moved away from the major parties. And that is a real tragedy for Australian politics, and the Australian people.
A final word: While both Sky News and ABC News24 promised to carry the launch live, only Sky covered the entire program. ABC News24 gave us a slick video montage of Tony Abbott while Lin Hatfield-Dodds and Warren H. Williams were making the introductory remarks, and only crossed to the Canberra Convention Centre for the ‘major speeches’. Once Bob Brown had apparently finished speaking, they cut back to the studio – leaving Sky to be the only channel covering his final remarks, and introduction of the Greens’ candidates and sitting Senators. If you didn’t have cable TV or the ability to stream Sky’s feed, you had no chance of seeing the entire event.
Had that launch been for the ALP or Coalition, I have no doubt that at least one free-to-air network would have carried the entire program without interruption. And since the Greens are likely to become major players in the new Australian government, I can only wonder at ABC News 24’s decision to relegate them to second place behind recycled Coalition campaign footage.
It’s something that the ABC might want to think about for the rest of the campaign, perhaps. People are interested in what the so-called minor parties are saying and doing – and surely it is the place of our national broadcaster to bring that information to us??