The Australian Greens went to the May election with a promise to put an end to new coal and gas projects. For their fiery rhetoric about taking on big business to fight climate change, voters rewarded the party with three new seats in the House of Representatives and the balance of power in the Senate. Realistically, the new Labor government cannot pass a single piece of progressive legislation without the support of the twelve Greens senators.
Despite this position of strength, Greens leader Adam Bandt announced on Wednesday that the party will support the government’s symbolic climate legislation, even though it contradicts the key Greens demand of “no new coal and gas projects.” After campaigning on an emissions reduction target of 75 percent by 2030, the Greens have agreed to back Labor’s election campaign target of 43 percent. They gained minor, almost meaningless concessions in return.
The Ghosts of 2009
The Greens’ surrender flies in the face of their election promises. At the same time, it continues a parliamentary strategy that can be traced back to the backlash the party endured when it rightly voted down Labor’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) in 2009.
The CPRS was an emissions-trading scheme proposed by the Kevin Rudd government. It would have transferred a huge amount of public wealth to private companies, enriched big polluters, and potentially increased Australia’s contribution to global carbon emissions. The Greens were entirely correct to vote it down. Nevertheless, Labor cynically exploited public ignorance of the CPRS’s shortcomings to blame Australia’s despicable record on climate action on the Greens’ lack of compromise.
The Greens subsequently adopted a parliamentary strategy of more or less unconditional compromise. For example, in the 2010 federal election, the Labor Party — led by the mining industry bosses’ then preferred candidate, Julia Gillard — fell short of majority government and desperately needed the Greens’ support. Despite holding Gillard’s future as PM in their hands, the Greens entered into a power-sharing deal with Labor. In exchange, Labor agreed to form a climate change committee and made some vague commitments on carbon pricing. It was a tragic lost opportunity to extract real reforms.
The Greens’ decision to support Anthony Albanese’s climate bill is a repeat of their 2010 mistake. The new target of 43 percent is lower than what Labor promised in its 2016 election campaign. Worse, it’s a symbolic target and not an obligation on government or industry. In Adam Bandt’s own words, it will “cook our country by 3 degrees or more.”
The Greens’ surrender raises a legitimate question about their parliamentary strategy. Labor’s legislation is worse than symbolic — it’s designed to preserve the status quo by appearing to take action. If the Greens are not prepared to draw a line in the sand over this, then what would it take?
The Greens party room initially failed to reach a consensus in meetings on Tuesday. As the debate ran into the night, however, Bandt’s compromise position won out. Following his speech at the National Press Club on Wednesday, journalists asked Bandt which federal Greens MPs had opposed the compromise. He declined to answer. The stern expressions of some of those present, however, suggested that the strategy of unconditional compromise is not preferred by the entire parliamentary party.
Indeed, the maiden speeches given by the Greens’ newly elected, younger MPs were far more militant than their party’s support for Labor’s climate bill suggests. On Monday, for example, new Greens MP Max Chandler-Mather argued that Australia’s backward climate policy “only makes sense when you consider that the power holders in parliament are coal and gas corporations, not everyday people.” The logical strategy that flows from this position is to confront these vested interests, not compromise with them.
The parliamentary Greens’ backdown is also out of step with the party’s grassroots. Brisbane Greens councillor Jonathan Sriranganathan is one of the Greens’ more militant elected representatives, and has used his position to coordinate grassroots protest and disruptive mass civil disobedience on climate action. He is also perhaps the most prominent Green to publicly express his disquiet over the party leadership’s tendency toward compromise. In response to a potential retreat, Sriranganathan argued that “agreeing to support new legislation that represents a partial improvement on the status quo can act as a pressure release valve.” As he explained,
Sometimes the right call for the Greens will be to refuse to support tokenistic, cosmetic improvements, and instead support the community to build a bigger campaign, applying more pressure to drag Labor back to the negotiating table and secure something better.
Sriranganathan also criticized the federal MPs for refusing to survey Greens members on the proposed legislation. As he noted, excluding the grassroots from all key decisions undermines the party’s claim that it is a grassroots participatory democracy.
Failing While Rome Burns
Despite the urgent need for real action, the climate movement in Australia is in a weak position. The giant climate strikes of 2019 and the student protests of 2022 have not continued. The new environmentalists in Parliament have so far been outmaneuvered by their fossil fuel–funded (and far more hardheaded) opponents. Most direct action on the streets is currently limited to individualistic, symbolic acts of defiance, which are nonetheless met with increasingly brutal and punitive police action. At the same time, there are 114 proposed new coal and gas projects set to commence over the next few years. Many will either enjoy bipartisan backing, removing Labor’s need for Greens votes, or will simply will not need legislative approval.
Without a mass movement to exert extra-parliamentary pressure on Labor, the parliamentary Greens will ultimately find themselves forced to choose between irrelevance and compromise. And the relationship will need to go both ways. To retain the trust of the grassroots, and help build a movement that is up to the tasks ahead of it, the Greens must use whatever leverage they have to not only make concrete gains for the environment but also to rally opposition to Labor’s hollow symbolism. A logical line in the sand would to be to use their leverage to block any public funding for new coal and gas projects — something Bandt has flagged but not yet committed to.
Despite the Greens’ support for Labor’s climate bill, the new Greens MPs were right in their maiden speeches. This is a war, and we must be prepared for purposeful conflict rather than meaningless compromise with big business.