Australian Greens Are Building a Movement to End Neoliberalism
Australia’s Greens are poised to increase their vote in the next federal election. We talk to party leader Adam Bandt about challenging neoliberalism and confronting the climate crisis.
- Interview by
- Daniel Lopez
The Australian Greens trace their origins to the progressive struggles of the 1970s, including the antiwar, antinuclear, and environmental movements. After forming as a federal party in 1992, the Greens built their support base over the next decade, electing party leader Bob Brown to the Senate in 1996. In 2004, they made their big breakthrough, winning a nationwide primary vote of 7.2 percent and four seats.
As the Australian Labor Party shifted to the right, the Greens established themselves as Australia’s main left-wing political party. As well as championing the environment, the Greens’ members and politicians played an important role in opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and taking a principled stance in support of the rights of refugees.
In the 2010 federal election, Adam Bandt won the seat of Melbourne, becoming the first Greens candidate elected to the House of Representatives. Bandt has won four successive election campaigns and presently holds his seat by a margin of 72 percent after preferences — the third-largest margin of any Australian MP.
In February 2020, the Greens elected Bandt federal leader unopposed. While the Greens do not have a formalized faction system, Bandt is widely recognized to be on the left of the party. As leader, Bandt has championed a Green New Deal as well as redistributive measures to challenge spiraling inequality and undo decades of neoliberal cuts and privatization.
Following significant wins in state elections, the Australian Greens are poised to increase their vote in the coming federal election. A regular contributor to Jacobin, Bandt spoke with us about Australian and international politics, the Greens’ plan to build a movement that can increase the party’s vote, and the fight for progressive change.
In a nutshell, what has the pandemic exposed about Australian society, and what needs to change?
The pandemic exposed the structural inequalities that existed before. And it’s shown that the only way of surviving a crisis is to ensure that people have enough money to live on, and that public intervention must put health, life, and welfare first. That’s the only way that we got through 2020.
Take the JobSeeker unemployment support payments, for example. When hundreds of thousands were thrown out of work, suddenly the rest of the population found out just how terribly governments have been treating unemployed people for decades. The [Australian Liberal Party member and current prime minister Scott] Morrison government was forced to admit that you need more than $1,100 per fortnight to be above the poverty line. The temporary increase to JobSeeker effectively doubled the previous rate, bringing it close to the minimum wage.
For many insecure workers and young workers, that was the first time they came close to living above the poverty line. I think it revealed a fundamental truth about our society. It’s premised on forcing people to live below the poverty line, in insecurity, so that wages can be kept low while businesses make huge profits.
At the beginning of the crisis, with the increase to JobSeeker and with the JobKeeper wage subsidy, the status quo was suspended — and rightly so. But it also exposed the ugly reality we had lived with before. Now, we need to say that we can’t go back to that. That’s why we’ve continued to push for an increase to income support. No one should live in poverty in a rich country, whether you’re unemployed or working. That’s a crucial part of our election platform.
The flip side to this is that, if we ever get to the other side of the pandemic, there’s a real danger that there will be a return to austerity politics. There will be people who push for big cuts to social spending, to deal with the debt that was accrued during the pandemic. If we don’t entrench the idea that everyone is entitled to live above the poverty line, we may be facing austerity politics on steroids.
This connects with proposals such as the Green New Deal (GND), which push beyond neoliberalism by arguing that we can take real action on the climate crisis while improving living standards. The Greens have been vocal supporters of a GND. At the same time, Australia is lagging very far behind other countries in terms of taking meaningful climate action. Where do you think the idea of the GND is at globally? And what are the barriers to introducing a GND or something similar in Australia?
I’ve just joined a push by global parliamentarians for a Global Green New Deal. It includes people like Caroline Lucas, a Greens MP from the UK, and US congresswoman Ilhan Omar. I think that support for a GND is growing as we understand that you need significant public intervention to tackle multiple crises at once. That, to me, is the essence of the GND — the solution to the climate crisis can also solve inequality.
Whether you call it a GND or not, key elements of the proposal are gaining in popularity. Even conservatives such as the UK’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, are saying that some form of Green Industrial Revolution will be crucial in the next twenty to thirty years. Leaders like Johnson won’t follow through with that in the same way that the Left would. But I think it shows that the crises we face are intensifying, and there’s a growing push for solutions that deal with all of them. Joe Biden may not have called his significant infrastructure spend a GND for domestic political reasons — but he’s implementing many elements of the GND. I think the concrete policies that underpin a GND are gaining popularity.
The coming federal election will likely be very significant. It seems like the Greens are in a strong position. There’s every chance that you’ll be joined by a number of newly elected Greens MPs, including from Queensland, even though that state has historically been seen as one where it is difficult for the Greens to win.
From where I stand, it seems that this is in part because the Greens are the first party in federal politics in recent history to return to a form of campaigning based on training and inspiring a strong volunteer base. Greens campaigners have been going out and knocking on doors and convincing voters that a better politics is possible. Is that your take? And if so, what do you think has been critical to building that kind of activist-focused political movement?
Yes, that is my take as well — and I’ll come back to it in a second. But first, I wanted to say something about the federal election. It’s easy to despair at Morrison’s government and the fact that the Labor opposition has signed on to so many of the Liberals’ policies. But I’m quite excited and optimistic about the next election, because it will be much more closely contested than people think.
We now have a government where Morrison is hanging on to a majority by his fingernails. The Liberals are only a few seats ahead now. If a few hundred voters had changed parties last election, we’d have a minority parliament right now, with the Greens holding the balance of power.
Since then, there’s been a real and growing shift against what Morrison stands for. So, if we can get a swing against the Morrison government — even a small swing — I think the most likely outcome in the next federal election will be a minority Labor government and a power-sharing parliament between the Greens and Labor.
Also, there’s potentially a double bonus in the senate. The Greens are hoping to kick Pauline Hanson [leader of the far-right One Nation party] out of the Senate. We’re running Penny Allman-Payne as our lead senate candidate in Queensland. Penny is a secondary school teacher, a trade unionist, and a strong fighter for equality.
With a small shift in the Greens vote across the country, we may be able to create one of the most progressive parliaments we’ve seen for some time. I think the mainstream commentary will gloss over this and will view the election as a two-party contest. But when you look at the numbers and understand just how finely balanced the current parliament is, there’s a very real chance we’ll end up with a minority parliament. That will offer huge hope for progressive change.
To return to your point about why we are doing well, in Melbourne, we concluded a while ago that we were never going to be able to outspend the Liberal or Labor parties, who receive massive corporate donations. And we are never going to get the media airtime that the others do. But what we do have is people who are willing to fight for progressive values. Historically, the Greens have had supporters who volunteered to leaflet and hand out how-to-vote cards on election day. But we didn’t have structures that could help our volunteers directly engage with people and persuade them.
In 2010, we won the election in Melbourne with a huge swing because of people power, and because we made a conscious decision to turn supporters and volunteers into advocates. This can help transform politics from a monologue into a dialogue, and it can really empower people to go out and campaign for progressive values. As a political party, you can sometimes have your heart in your mouth when you do this, because it involves a lot of decentralizing. It relies on empowering the people who are doing the door-knocking and making the phone calls. But it works — and not just in the narrow electoral sense of increasing the vote. It helps create a political movement.
One of the biggest things that we found in the Melbourne campaigns over the years is that when we’ve built a people-powered movement, afterward, volunteers and campaigners tell us that they did things they never thought they were capable of. They have felt empowered in a way they have never felt empowered before. That’s the thing about taking collective action based around progressive values to try and win political change.
The Queensland Greens have taken this approach to campaigning to the next level. They have made a huge breakthrough in state politics. And we should remember that the structure of Queensland’s parliament was designed to prevent small parties winning. They don’t have an upper house in Queensland. Now we have two seats in the Queensland Parliament — the Greens have become the true third force in Queensland politics. There’s a real chance that we’ll be able to replicate that success in the federal election. With a strong people-powered campaign, we also have a chance to kick Pauline Hanson out in the federal senate.
So, you’re right. Building an activist campaign has been part a conscious decision and a conscious shift in how we do things. It’s a key part of why, over the last ten years, especially in state parliaments, our numbers have grown hugely. And it’s about more than just building support for the Greens — it’s also about building progressive movements in Australia more broadly.
Building a political movement was also one of the most important parts of Bernie Sanders’s campaign in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn’s in the UK. They brought people into politics and gave them an ownership over the politics they support. Do you think there are other lessons that the Australian left can take from those two campaigns and apply here?
People want governments to rein in the obscene wealth of the billionaires. That wealth has been on display during the pandemic — Australia’s billionaires grew their wealth by more than a third. Mining billionaires more than doubled their wealth. In fact, billionaires here in Australia grew their wealth faster than billionaires in any other country, which is quite a feat when you consider what has happened with corporations like Amazon and Microsoft. And if Australia’s billionaires are growing their wealth faster than billionaires in other countries, that has to be addressed.
We have pushed hard — as has Bernie Sanders — to make billionaires pay a levy on the insane profits that they made during the pandemic. We also want an ongoing tax on billionaires.
We aren’t just fighting to keep Australia’s progressive tax system by opposing Morrison’s stage-three tax cuts for the rich. We want to impose a tax on billionaires’ wealth. One of the key parts of this campaign is explaining what we could fund in Australia if we made billionaires pay their fair share of tax. This is something that’s gaining global momentum. In the United States, it’s been spearheaded by politicians like Bernie Sanders, and it’s gaining broader support. This will be a big part of our push going into the next election.
This raises a related question. Across the Anglophone world, there’s an overall resurgence of support for democratic socialism, especially among younger people. Now, the Greens have always welcomed socialists among their members. At the same time, the Greens haven’t seen themselves as a socialist party, but rather as a left party. Do you think the party needs to shift in the direction of democratic socialism?
When I was involved in student politics, I was in an organization called Left Alliance, which was the national organization of socialist, feminist, and progressive students. I’ve always been of the view that, as we fight to tackle the climate crisis and the inequality crisis, we should be campaigning side by side with socialists. At the same time, there are a lot of people in the Greens who see themselves as socialists — and that’s fine, too.
I think part of the task for a progressive movement at this point in Australian history is to bring together people who might have different political identifications, but who want to tackle the climate crisis and the inequality crisis. I think it’s a similar approach to the one Bernie Sanders has had, working together with other politicians in the United States to advance a global GND.
I think people can judge the merits of our platform and decide how they want to label us. But the core elements of it are making billionaires and big corporations pay their fair share of tax. We want to use the proceeds to fund services that will make our country more equal and that will fund services that improve people’s lives.
In a nutshell, instead of cutting taxes for billionaires, we want to make dental care part of Medicare. And this is one of the lessons that I take from campaigning in Melbourne and from looking at some of the campaigns that you’ve mentioned across the country and across the world. For those of us who want real action on the climate crisis, we also need to put forward a plan that will improve people’s lives in a material way. This isn’t about devolving to hip-pocket politics. It’s saying that the role of government should be to reduce inequality and to make our lives better.
This has resonated in Melbourne. It’s the electorate with the highest proportion of public housing anywhere in the country. When people see that you are fighting just as hard to lift the JobSeeker unemployment benefit or to bring dental care into Medicare as you are fighting for climate action, you gain a lot more respect and trust. And we should never fall into the trap of saying that one issue is more important than others. For many people, meeting our basic social and economic needs is critical — especially as we’ve seen during the pandemic. We’ve got to be fighting for that just as hard as we’re fighting for climate action.
Just a few weeks ago, Labor opposition leader Anthony Albanese announced that his party is ditching its opposition to Morrison’s tax cuts for the rich, as well as Labor’s policies to reign in tax discounts for capital gains and negative gearing. This is a significant shift to the right. How would you explain it, and do you think there’s much hope for pushing Labor to the left?
I do think there’s hope. But I think Labor has made a fundamental error of judgment in thinking they will appeal to more people if they ape the Liberal Party’s economic approach. It’s a misreading of where things are in the world at the moment.
Neoliberalism is dead. The Liberal and Labor parties are trying to keep it alive when people want an alternative. If you ask people whether they prefer tax cuts for the wealthy or bringing dental into Medicare considered, most people will answer that they want services that can make the country more equal.
I think we’ll see this reflected at the election. If there is a strong showing for progressive candidates, and we end up in a power-sharing parliament, then the case will be very, very strong for keeping a progressive tax system. There will be a very strong case to put a new tax on billionaires and to put a superprofits tax on big corporations.
A typical progressive Labor supporter would probably reply to a Greens campaigner by saying that the Labor Party is the only party in a position to form a government. For the foreseeable future, this is true. Do the Greens have a long-term plan to become a party capable of forming a government, and what might that look like?
It will be very difficult for Labor to form a majority government. So, my response to that hypothetical Labor campaigner would be to say: don’t waste your vote on a party that can’t form a majority government on their own. Give your vote to the Greens instead, so you can keep the Liberals out and help make the next government a progressive one. That’s the way we’re going to get progressive change in this country at the next election.
In the long term, we have an electoral system in Australia that is different from, say, New Zealand, where there are Greens ministers, or in Germany, where the Greens are polling well and have been in government before. That said, the Australian Greens have been in government before. Right now, we are in government in coalition with Labor in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), and we’ve been in government before in Tasmania.
The Labor/Greens power-sharing arrangement in the ACT is a success story. In the short term, the pathway to change involves keeping the Liberals out and working with Labor in one of a variety of ways while keeping our independence. Ultimately, that is a step toward the Greens growing and taking a greater role in the Parliament. But in the short term, I’m focused on keeping the Liberals out and advancing some real change on the things we’ve been talking about.
What does that mean? To my mind, I think everything should be on the table when it comes to determining what a power-sharing arrangement with Labor should look like. There are a variety of possibilities. What happened following the 2010 federal election [in which the Greens supported Labor to form a minority government] is on one end of the spectrum of possibilities. The example of the ACT is on the other end of the spectrum. There, the Greens hold ministries alongside Labor. There are probably a variety of options in between these two. I’m less worried about the form power sharing might take, and more worried about what change we can make in Australia as a result of it.
Concretely, what positive steps do you think the Greens could achieve in a power-sharing arrangement with Labor? And, perhaps just as important, what risks do you foresee associated with holding the balance of power and supporting a minority Labor government?
Last time we held the balance of power, the Greens got dental care for kids included in Medicare and secured $13 billion worth of funding for clean energy. We also secured measures to make big corporations pay for their pollution.
With inequality getting out of control and the climate crisis hitting, the first goal is to kick the Liberals out. Beyond that, we’ll push the next government to go further and faster on the climate crisis and make billionaires and big corporations pay their fair share of tax. The Greens will push for a 6 percent tax on billionaires’ wealth and a corporate superprofits tax. We’ll also fight to get mental health care and dental care for everyone included in Medicare. Also, we want to initiate a big build of public housing and lift income support above the poverty line.
We might not be able to get all of what we want — there’s a risk Labor might not be prepared to lift people out of poverty, for example. But I think people will understand the barriers we’ll face. People get that we’re up against Liberal and Labor parties, both of which take donations from tax-dodging gas and coal corporations. Getting Labor to take action won’t necessarily be easy.
Probably the bigger risk for the country is that we see a German-style “grand coalition” where Labor decides to work with the Liberals instead of us. They’re voting together to cut taxes for the wealthy and to open the Beetaloo gas basin in the Northern Territory, which is much worse for the climate than the Adani mine. So, there’s a chance Labor might go down that road. That said, despite all their bluff and bluster preelection, I think Labor will have no choice but to work with the parliament the Australian people elect. That will put the Greens in a very powerful position.
Last, I have to ask — because I think Jacobin is one of the only magazines in the world whose readers would be interested in your doctoral research on the Marxist legal theorist Evgeny Pashukanis — can you give us the lowdown?
Evgeny Pashukanis is a very underappreciated jurist who was working during a critical time in history, in which social structures were changing rapidly. He ultimately found himself on the wrong side of Joseph Stalin and paid for it with his life. I found him particularly interesting because he was trying to work out, in a really sophisticated way, the answer to a simple question: What’s the connection between law and economics?
I came back to that question when I was trying to understand the links between what might be called globalization and global capitalism, on the one hand, and the suspension of human rights across fields from criminal law to industrial law, on the other hand. Answering that simple question took me back to Pashukanis. There haven’t been that many people who’ve picked him up and read him over the last few years — but I think he’s still right on the money.