Why progressive voters should vote for the Greens

Tanya Plibersek’s recent call for a binding vote on marriage equality is an example of why progressive voters should vote for the Greens.

There are two particular reasons for progressive voters to vote for the Greens. One is: voting for the Greens pulls ALP policy to the left. Simply, the higher the Green vote, the more advantage the ALP sees in moving to the left in order to benefit from these votes. Plibersek is doubtless aware of the support for the Greens in her own constituency – the state seats of Balmain and Newtown are now held by Green representatives. Just as Cath Bowtell did in 2010 when threatened by Adam Bandt, Plibersek has spoken out on same sex marriage subsequent to this increase in Greens representation. Every vote for the Greens is an incentive for the ALP to better represent its progressive voters.

Secondly, the Greens play a critical role in Australia politics of introducing ideas that the ALP is too mainstream to countenance. Certainly the ALP, when in Government, plays a role in passing (with Green support) legislation to advance progressive causes. But only once such causes are deemed acceptable. [1] The ALP and the Greens perhaps have a synergy because the Greens are willing to engage with ideas unthinkable or radical to the mainstream, helping to make them part of the political debate, legitimise them, and bring them closer to acceptance, popularity, and passage. “What was once radical, even revolutionary,” in the words of Caroline Lucas, “becomes understood, accepted and even cherished.” This is certainly happening for ending marriage discrimination. But also, for example, with regard to ending Japan’s whaling, a cause which the ALP eventually acted on after years of activity from the Greens.

With respect to making good things happen neither the Greens nor the ALP plays a superior role as such. Rather, it is necessary – in Parliament as outside it – to have both radical groups pushing new ideas and more conservative groups embracing ideas that once seemed radical. The ALP has made it quite clear what role it’s going to play in this dynamic – it’s vital to have a second party playing the role of the radical.

A final thought: while the ALP may turn green with envy of the Greens progressive voter base, it’s also likely that more principle and less so-called ‘pragmatism’ from the ALP would also see it win votes from non-progressive voters. Most voters don’t have a political ideology and inasmuch as any voter is ‘centrist’, they simply hold different views from the left and from the right. You can have a left hand and a right hand but that doesn’t mean there is a middle hand – the same is true of political ideologies. Winning these votes is less about what you offer and more about how you offer it – people want political leaders who have values, who stand for something. [2] Instead, the ALP seems to me a ship adrift with all the crew up in the crow’s nest trying to decide how to ride the next wave, instead of in the hold, studying a map, choosing to tack in a worthwhile direction.

Given this, I think the Greens deserve a certain amount of electoral support, and I argue that this support will help to advance progressive causes in Australia. I hope, too, that it will see the ALP reunite with its base (which is more progressive than its MPs), and that Australia can have two strong parties of the left.

[1] This idea and the language I use is derived from the idea of the “Overton Window“. One could also consider this in terms of the four social movement roles.

[2] I’m not just making this up. See Drew Westen’s unsurpassed The Political Brain.

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