Staring Through The Greens’ Populist Prism

In The Drum last week, Liberal shadow minister Kevin Andrews described the Greens as little more than Marxists for Forests.
The Victorian Liberal Party’s decision to not preference the Greens in the state election, was, in part, because that view is widely held within the party’s grassroots. The decision seems to be the right thing by their supporters: Liberal voters do not want to feel responsible for entrenching the far-left in a position of power.
But this presumes the Greens’ policy views are driven by a bleak, terminally unpopular radicalism.
The recent political melee over banks and their stubborn insistence on making profits suggests otherwise.
Neither the ALP or the Coalition are the biggest populists in Federal Parliament. The Greens are.
Compare the major parties’ responses to the recent interest rate rises with that of this blossoming minor party.
Seeking to get a leg up over the Government on interest rates, Joe Hockey flirted with naked and obvious populism – railing against the Government for not acting against the perfidy of bankers, and full of dark hints about “levers” which the Coalition could pull.
Yet when challenged on what those levers actually were, Hockey stepped back from the populist brink. The shadow treasurer released a complex nine-point plan for regulatory reform of the finance system.
Wayne Swan has had great fun threatening the banks on talkback radio when they’ve callously raised rates, but the art of governing is managing competing objectives – it wouldn’t be prudent, or good policy, to directly stop them from doing so.
So the Federal Treasurer met the political opportunity of the Commonwealth Bank’s interest rate rise with assurances he, too, would be releasing a detailed and complicated plan for regulatory change in the future.
But then there’s Bob Brown.
On Sunday the Greens leader announced his party would prefer to simply ban banks from lifting their interest rates past Reserve Bank movements for two years.
In other words, Brown had no complicated plan; no attempt to delicately balance the incentive structures of the banking industry with community dissatisfaction about those profitable institutions. He proposed a bludgeon: outlaw banks doing what the Greens think is a bad thing.
“It’s time they gave something back to the average Australian,” Brown said.
Then forcibly lower ATM bank fees, force banks to offer fee-free savings accounts, and forcibly limit mortgage exit fees: all to stop, in Brown’s words “excessive profiteering”.
Helpfully, profiteering is defined. “Banks continue to exploit this essential service to maximise their profit.” In other words, profiteering is exactly what all businesses try to do, all the time.
Of course, all parties are prone to blustery populist rhetoric.
A Google site search uncovers nine uses of the word “profiteering” on the Liberal Party website, (mainly about people smugglers, and, for some reason, lobster fishers) and two uses on the Labor Party’s site.
But that’s nothing compared to the Greens, whose website features the word “profiteering” 295 times.
And there’s something deeply populist about a party which thinks it can give everything to everyone, at any price, at any time.
In Victoria, the Greens transport plan for Melbourne pours tasty infrastructure manna across the city. Under the Greens’ plan, the city would receive 10 new rail lines, nearly 40 new stations, 12 new tram lines, and 550 new trams. (Why not 650? Why not 11 new rail lines? Why stop building stations when you get to your 40th?)
And, of course, the Greens promise to reinstate tram conductors, because, well, people say they miss the old conductors.
This plan will never, ever happen. Not just because Greens won’t win government in their own right. But because there is no chance they’d ever be able to afford it if they did.
Understandably, the major parties have been a little miffed by the Greens’ transport generosity. Why should the Greens be able to shower the electorate with promises of gifts it will never be able to give, when Labor and the Coalition are so constrained by the tradition of pretending their policies are cost-effective?
In Victoria, the reluctance of the Greens to have their policies costed is a tacit admission that, really, cost-effectiveness isn’t the point. It’s the thought that counts. Their plans and policies are specifically designed to make the major parties look miserly.
When seen through the populist prism, the Greens’ policy platform looks very different to their radical reputation.
They’re the most vocal defenders of the anti-siphoning laws, which “protect” sports fans from having to get Foxtel. (Sure, the anti-siphoning laws entrench the free-to-air television oligopoly, but that is a minor point when there is pandering to be done.)
The Greens want the Government to limit private sector working hours, which sounds appealing after you’ve worked a long day, but only makes sense if you don’t believe government policies can have any unintended consequences whatsoever.
The Greens claim Australia has an expansive immigration program only because nasty “big business” controls population policy.
And, of course, there’s no government service they don’t plan on spending more on. Governments have limited resources. Popular expectations of what government should do are limitless. This is, however, not a constraint the Greens feel applies to them.
Of course, there are many deeply unpopular policies the Greens support. Parties should be praised for defending unpopular things. Too often it’s the only way we get positive reform.
And it’s more noble than the alternative.
Better a party stands up for unpopular radical views it truly believes in than succumb to simple populist demagoguery.