Choosing between Labor and the Greens

By Stephanie Griffin | 29 Jun 16

How to Vote Progressive in Australia
Edited by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer
Monash University Publishing

“There is a timidity in current Australian political thought, expressed in declining satisfaction with the political system and disillusionment with current political leadership” – Dennis Altman

“Young people are not only switched off from political action, they have little interest in democracy at all” – Andrew Giles

It is no secret that progressive Australians have become disheartened by politics in recent years.

Party membership in the Australian Labor Party (ALP) is waning and young people are seeking an alternative political option. For those whose vote is primarily dictated by their social/environmental conscience, Labor has become an underwhelming choice, most notably with respect to its harsh stance against refugees and asylum seekers. For some, the Greens provides a flicker of hope due to the party’s support of asylum seekers and historical association with environmentalism. But the Greens under Richard di Natale has demonstrated a tendency to side with the Liberal Party on social welfare issues, and some Australians are concerned that its success has led to compromises that weaken its progressive credentials.

Labor or Greens? That is the fundamental question many “progressive voters” are asking themselves in the lead up to the July 2016 federal election.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia is a volume of recent essays edited by pioneering gay rights activist Dennis Altman and academic and author Sean Scalmer. Each chapter aims to address the anxieties associated with left-wing politics in the current political climate, with varying levels of success.

With the Australian left struggling to overcome conservative rhetoric in recent years, the resulting message of the book isn’t fundamentally optimistic. Instead, you can expect a realistic, nuanced and informative analysis of the policies of Labor and the Greens.

As Altman writes: “Both parties need each other to win seats, while simultaneously competing for the same voters, people who see themselves as ‘progressives,’ and are likely to give high priority to issues such as climate change, civil liberties and immigration policies.”

Most of the contributors consider mainstream “progressive politics” to exist in a realm exclusive of the Liberal-National Coalition. As a result, each author takes the time to carefully and deliberately make their case for Labor or the Greens without having to argue against the political right. By narrowing the scope of the book, the reader is given the opportunity to reflect on both parties’ policies, history, culture and what a vote for them would truly represent.

Some progressives might criticise the editors for omitting minor left-leaning parties from the debate. But smaller parties are unlikely to effect real change, or pose a real threat against the conservative coalition in the upcoming election.

While it would be remiss for any work on current left-wing politics to ignore the inconsistent recent history of the ALP, it is important to remember its roots as a union party and a party for the working class. As unionist and social commentator Van Badham states in her essay, Labor is the party she most trusts to look after her aging mum.

Labor’s policy achievements are shown to be considerable: economic safety nets such as Medicare, the aged-care pension and the recently implemented national disability scheme aimed at protecting Australia’s most vulnerable. Giles makes the argument that while we cannot vote a party in based on its past achievements alone, the foundation of the past is a significant indicator of what is to come.

It is encouraging that after such a rigorous assessment of the status of left-wing politics in Australia, the overall message is not all doom and gloom. In her essay State Member for Melbourne Ellen Sandell points to the Labor-Greens cooperation during the Gillard years and their success in introducing many environmental reforms as evidence that Labor and the Greens can and should work together to support the progressive agenda. Notably, the Gillard Government was the most legislatively productive in Australia’s history, with the help of the Greens.

But Labor’s extremely conservative, even reactionary stance on immigration has alienated many of their inner city voters. The Greens immigration policy platform makes no mention of offshore processing for asylum seekers and is the far more humane choice.

While the collection fulfils its mandate of comparing Labor and Greens policies, it also offers an important historical measure of the current anxieties that frame the political discourse on the Australian left. The structure of the anthology adds to the sense of honesty and authenticity that the editors have aimed for with each selection. Each author writes from their past experience to answer a forward-looking question.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia is a highly informative and useful tool for any progressive voter who is struggling to navigate the quagmire of left-wing politics. Instead of criticising millennials for being politically apathetic, the contributors acknowledge that in the current era of information saturation, it can be difficult to know where to begin. This book might be just the place.