There are two interesting trends in Australian politics presently. First, the environment is at last becoming a primary issue as the Howard Government isolates itself from world activism on global warming. Second, the ALP is fast losing any claim to be a genuinely progressive alternative to the conservative parties.
With the apparent demise of the Australian Democrats, these trends together suggest that the Greens have a bright political future. The question is whether the Greens can pull off the balancing act of staying principled while they gain electoral relevance.
The next few years are likely to see the environment become the core concern for what is now a global civilisation. As such, it will increasingly come to dominate politics, which is currently still national scale and centred on socio-economic matters.
The central environmental problem is of course global warming. It is now clear that such a thing is happening, that humans are doing it, and that costs to natural species, to property, to human health and ultimately to human life may be catastrophic. One of the latest concerns is the possibility that the Gulf Stream will cease operating and plunge northern Europe into a mini-ice age. If nothing else, such an event would have a disastrous impact on economic conditions worldwide.
Most national governments now accept the need for drastic action on climate change, the main hold outs being the United States and Australia. The governments of the US and Australia argue that, yes, global warming probably is under way, but the proposed remedies will hurt the economy. They seem to place their hopes in new technology, such as hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear power.
Nonetheless, there is now a genuine debate emerging in these countries over the necessary responses to climate change, and it is ever more rapidly reshaping national politics. The Liberals, of course, are a complete wash-out on this topic, while the Nationals are losing all relevance. So how are the other parties situated?
The Australian Greens are a dedicated environmentalist party and the Democrats have a generally good record on the subject. The ALP has mostly swung too and fro, according to perceptions of electoral advantage. The ALP has never been able to integrate environmental issues into the fabric of the party or political culture, largely because of the abiding power of the industrial right.
While the ALP has not been able to reposition itself as a broad front opposition party, the decline of class solidarity and in particular of mass unionisation have seen its traditional support base erode. Furthermore, an internal culture of careerism and endemic corruption has gutted the party of its best personnel and most serious thinkers. It has fallen to providing no more than competent state governments and at a national level is moribund. Now led by its most conservative leader ever, it is utterly dependent on reacting to initiatives by the dominant conservatives.
So, with Labor in decline and the environment moving to centre stage, can the Greens become a real power - the third force in Australian politics?
So far, it has to be said, the Greens have been something of a disappointment. Despite having the clearest intent, some genuinely innovative policies and a base of enthusiastic supporters, they have generally failed to provide sustained political leadership. There have been too many embarrassing episodes, too little internal cohesion and too little sustained strategy to convince those outside the hardcore that the Greens are a power in waiting.
However, the signs are good. Senator Bob Brown has provided a real presence for some time, and with senators like Kerry Nettle, Christine Milne and Rachel Siewert providing support, the Greens now look much more formidable. If they are smart, the Greens may be able to gain a crucial position in the national politics.
To succeed, traps must be avoided and basic requirements met. The Greens must continue to provide high quality politicians. The fewer the people you have, the more important it is that they be good quality. This is not easy in an activist party, because the requisite skills of effective politicians and not always those of effective activists. The best solution to this problem is to create a culture where the politicians are integrated members of teams, not the sole actors. Activists can then pursue careers as staffers, keeping their expertise and enthusiasm working behind the scenes.