The Trouble with Two

When I think about democracy I don’t think of only two opposed sides fighting it out until one is victorious. I think instead of the rich diversity of view points and experiences that make up a community, a state, our nation and the planet. And when I think of the Australian democracy we have today, with little more than faux opposition on many issues, I’m baffled by how much people buy into the Liberal Labor duopoly as if really offers much of a choice.

Last week I read an article by a Non-Government Organisation (NGO) in which the author put forth the positions of Labor and Liberal as if they were the only two options for supporters of their particular cause. This sort of thing has been surprising me for many years and never more than now when mainstream commentators acknowledge the Greens as the third force in Australian politics. As time goes on it becomes ever more the case that neither Lab nor Lib offer much for environmental or social justice organisations or the individuals they represent – you and me. At best, Lib and Lab have given with one hand only to take with the other. More often than not the overall funding for things like public education, health facilities (preventative to emergency), conservation and heritage, has fallen in real terms – NGOs have done the number crunching and that’s what they’ve repeatedly reported. The other government trick is to launch ‘new programs’. The Community Services sector has had to repeatedly reinvent itself every three years or so to accommodate the changing funding models and criteria of successive governments’ programs. I’m all for quality improvement but workers and consumers in community services will tell you that each time one such change is made a different set of vulnerable people fall through the cracks.

So why is it that NGOs have so often discounted the Greens? After all, the Greens have repeatedly demonstrated, in governments across Australia, a commitment to policies which recognise and honour the integral place that society and the environment have in our lives. Is it that people in NGOs believe the rhetoric of the old parties that these environmental and social priorities are incompatible with being ‘in the black’ economically? If NGO’s believed that surely they wouldn’t even be lobbying for their own cause? No, I think it’s got more to do with a perception that is now fading; the notion that the old parties love to perpetuate – that a vote for the Greens is a wasted vote, so don’t do it. What a potent irony! Don’t vote for the Greens because it won’t do anything? In fact, it’s now clear that nothing changes unless you vote for the Greens.

At present, more than at any other time in my twenty year voting life, neither Lab nor Lib can legislate without gaining the support of another party and/or independents. We Greens, as Bob likes to say, didn’t get the climate bill through parliament because people voted Labor; we got it because people voted Greens. Imagine how much we could accomplish if even more people put their votes where they would do more than maintain the status quo?

There have been plenty of times when the LabLib machine has voted together. They don’t need the Greens or the Independents to get every piece of legislation through parliament. If they don’t have a good enough reason to vote with the Greens (lots of votes at the next election or some murky big business reason that confounds we commoners) then they won’t. They’ll vote with each other and apparently hope that no-one notices.

Prior to the 2010 federal election the Greens put up a motion to have an enquiry into what a sustainable human population for Australia might be. We didn’t stipulate a figure. We began with the fair and reasonable notion that we, as a nation, ought to get informed on what the number might be so we can begin to plan for the long term. Both Lib and Lab voted it down. A moratorium on coal seam gas fracking? Both Lib, Lab, and the Nationals voted that down in recent months. On the flip side, increases to MPs’ wages? The Greens are frequently the only ones to vote against these motions.

So when an NGO fails to even mention the Greens, or Independents, they do their own cause a serious disservice by dismissing arguably the only party that is likely to actually do anything positive for them. Talking with and working with the incumbent party is one thing, but ignoring the third party that holds the balance of power is short sighted and counter-productive – especially in a pre-election period.

Two sided thinking is alarming as an exercise in logic. If you were building a house you wouldn’t just consider two types of flooring or tap fittings – you’d look at all the options to see which was best for you. As an NGO, large or small, you’re less likely to get traction with the incumbents by dismissing their competition. Why would a political party behave in a competitive way unless they think you might not vote for them?

The track record of a prospective government is important too – if they’ve made promises in the past, have they fulfilled them or at least pursued them vigorously once they were in a position to do so? The Labor government may have promised to honour the Millenium Development Goals but have they actually done so?  NGOs have a duty to present to their supporters the most complete picture of the political landscape.  To leave the Greens out of that picture is like leaving Uluru off the map of Australia. To leave all but two parties out of their consideration NGOs, and indeed the average punter, are committing to a narrow and sparse representation for themselves. The media seems to love a head to head clash, but is that what serves us best? Or are we better represented by considering all the players?

It’s not always easy to do what’s right. But you can count on the Greens to do it anyway. And I don’t think there is another party in this country you can say that about. So when an NGO sits down to write their next article or their next pre-election report card I hope they’ll present the full league of contenders and not just the two who they think will be in the showdown. If a duopoly is all that’s considered it may be all we get.

PS Yes, I’m a Greens member and I’m also a supporter of many NGOs, large and small, local, national and international.

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