21 November 2013 —The Greens could be the ideal fulcrum between the economy and the environment  if we are to transition to a decarbonised world that still provides jobs and wealth. Yet they are pilloried on many fronts. Is this fair? Reasonable? Or just plain biased?

 The Greens have come in for a hammering in the last election. Their voter support was down, and now they are being attacked in the media for refusing to negotiate and rigidly sticking to their early roots as a party of protest.

They are even blamed for not speaking up loudly enough on behalf of the green economy.

At the Sydney climate rally last weekend, one small pro-carbon anti-climate group quickly revealed its true stripes: concern about losing jobs and Australia’s food security as farms are sold to offshore investors.

What were the Greens doing about this, the group demanded angrily?

“Not a word, not a word.”

Of course the Greens are absolutely pushing the green economy line, that jobs and healthy businesses are there for the taking. And their role in treading a path between the through this is crucial if there is going to be a transition that decarbonises the economy while at the same time promoting jobs and wealth creation in green industries.

Australia has probably never seen such high level of negotiation as under the Greens as they held the balance of power in the Gillard Labor government. Massive pieces of legislation were pushed through, none lost. Some of the changes are widely regarded as transformational.

But the messages are not getting through. At least not to the right ears.

In a high profile article in The Australian Financial Review recently, an early organiser for the Wilderness Society and the Greens, Vincent Mahon, pilloried the Greens’ positioning as a marginal party that alienates small business, refuses to negotiate and instead clings to simplistic origins as a party of protest.

In the article Mahon accepts the Greens achievements with carbon, the minerals resource rent tax, national disability scheme, the national broadband network, education reforms and the dental care scheme.

But they lost the opportunity to build “a broader agenda, a wider visionary project,” he says.
There’s even been criticisms from our own columnist Michael Mobbs in a recent Bathurst Burr.

The attacks are worth investigating, since for many people the Greens have a critical role as the political leadership for the broader green movement.

If there is going to be environmental gains much of it needs to come through the legislative process as a way to back, stimulate and potentially lead change at the community level.

But it’s too easy to dismiss the fall in polling support by saying the Greens are not positive enough or because Christine Milne is not as effective as her predecessor Bob Brown.

Tim Hollo

Tim Hollo, a former media adviser to Greens Leader Christine Milne for six years, finds the criticism a non-ending source of frustration and, understandably, he thinks it deeply unfair.

Much of the negative view of the Greens, he says, comes from what seems like a determination in mainstream media to blacklist any positive stories, to continually portray its leader Christine Milne in a harsh light and a refusal to analyse policy, which is the cornerstone of the party (and it must be said is a problem that currently afflicts the entire political agenda).

Hollo dismisses the AFR article, which was long and harsh in the extreme, as wide of the mark.

“It’s narrow and written by an outsider who doesn’t understand Greens politics,” Hollo says.

“The problem with that critique, like so many other critiques, is it’s looking at the Greens through the prism of the Democrats or the Labor Party without understanding what the Greens are. The Greens aim to change politics and that’s what makes it so damned hard.”

Hollo says the article was wrong on a number of levels, and repeats often heard criticisms, such as  “the hagiographicals of [Bob] Brown’s leadership… ‘what a wonderful leader he was… what a great communicator…’

“If you think back over that time, Bob Brown was consistently attacked as soporific. And now there’s the critiquing that Christine Milne is nowhere near the dizzy height of his leadership.”

The thing, says Hollo, is that Milne has “always been a negotiator, and Bob never was.

“To attack the Greens for not negotiating with Kevin Rudd can be only deep and persistent ignorance. Rudd could never negotiate even with his own party.”

On the issue of collaboration, Hollo says the Greens were “extraordinarily successful” in negotiating outcomes in the last parliament and yet the “media narrative is that the Greens don’t know how to negotiate”.

They’ve done great work with so many sectors, from business to farmers and agricultural groups, yet this is rarely reported and the industry groups invariably fail to return the favour.

No industry group will support the Greens come election time, he says. Neither the industry groups “because they are so weak they are shit scared to say something positive”, nor, surprisingly, other environment groups.

“The vast majority are too scared to support the Greens.

“The environment groups even congratulate Labor for the things the Greens did. Instead the Greens are characterised as a bunch of radicals.”

An exception is the horticultural association, which Hollo says at the last election “did stick its neck out and say people should vote for the Greens”.

Again this was another positive story not reported.

As for the last election, Hollo says the main reason for their loss of position was because they were lumped in with the protest vote against Labor.

“In 2010 the Greens reaped a large part of the protest vote; this time they were seen as at the heart of power and subject to the same protest vote as against the Labor Party and they copped the punishment that Labor got.”

So how to deal with the media blackout on good news?

In the next election the Greens will take a huge lesson from Melbourne Greens MP Adam Bandt, who was expected to lose but won, largely on the back of a massive grassroots campaign, Hollo says.

“There was an army of volunteers that doorknocked every weekend for months and every day for weeks and said we’re going to do a bit of media, but frankly the media hates us and we’re not going to get anything out of that.

“The way forward is bugger the mainstream media; let’s go out there and campaign.”

Hollo also rails against the personal, often subversive criticisms that Milne must contend with, such as photos that frequently portray Milne as harsh. Critics also complain about her voice and tone, as too “school marmy”.

“The amazing thing about Christine is how she interacts with people on a personal basis. The media always shows her looking hard and nasty, but she smiles a hell of a lot and when you get her in person she is incredibly personable.”

Christine Milne and Peter Verwer at The Fifth Estate political salon 2012

The Fifth Estate, which hosted a political salon with Milne last year, agrees. The contrasting perceptions between the public and the private person are almost identical to those that beset former prime minister Julia Gillard.

He denies there was a mass exodus from the Milne office because of disagreement with her leadership, but concedes that was the case for Ben Oquist, who had worked with Bob Brown for a long time. Others left because they were simply exhausted after years of work, he said.

There was also absolutely no leadership challenge from Adam Bandt. It was “completely made up”, he claims.
The good news is Tony Abbott’s bad news
On prime minister Tony Abbott’s trashing of climate action and clean energy initiatives, suddenly Hollo is more upbeat.

“I look at it as a bit of a silver lining,” he says.

Around the world the history of social movements, from women’s rights, gay rights or any other social equity cause, is that they typically gain a foothold, are repulsed by a backlash but then come back stronger than ever.

People will be angry at Abbott and that’s showing up in polls to a small extent and to a larger extent at last Sunday’s climate rallies, which drew out many more people than for similar rallies in the recent past, he says.

Another positive is the growth of clean tech around the world “that’s going to be difficult to stop, the only question is whether we get there in time”.

“Yes people are upset they’re tearing [climate initiatives] down but if we as a movement – that is much broader than the Greens – can use this to drive the kind of change that’s necessary then maybe [it’s a good thing].”

He also thinks there is a chance for a strong campaign that might rescue the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, flagged for closure, given its rational frameworks, low cost and good design in reducing carbon emissions.

“The likelihood is Abbott will not back down on carbon but on the CEFC…there is a possibility it can be kept.”

For Hollo, from such a supposedly negative party, that’s quite a positive statement.