7 July 2003 © People and Place
William Lines is author of Open Air (New Holland, 2001). This is extracted from his article, co-written, with Natalie Sloan, from the present issue of People and Place.
THE Australian Greens no longer speak for conservation in Australia.
Why? Because of their increasingly left-wing pose and their rejection of population growth as a cause of environmental decline. Indeed, politics now determines their agenda, and they consort with the other parties in agreeing that the major issues facing Australia are refugees, education, health and increasing the population.
Under Bob Brown’s leadership, the Greens embrace international perspectives irrelevant to confronting the savage decline in the conditions of non-human life in Australia.
In 1995, the party called for stabilising Australia’s population and reducing immigration. By 2002, the Greens had not only abandoned this guiding principle but had reversed it. Today, they openly encourage immigration.
Between the two positions lie several years of national debate about immigration and refugees, sparked first by Pauline Hanson and then by the Howard Government’s position on illegal immigration. Partly out of concern that their opposition to population growth might be construed as racist, the Greens began fudging and obscuring the connection between growth in human numbers and impacts on the environment. They took refuge in vague and spurious assurances that technology and management would overcome any adverse effects from excessive numbers.
But other influences also precipitated the turnaround. From the time of their founding as a national entity in 1992, the Greens have been a conflicted party. Internationalists and social justice advocates have vied for dominance over conservationists.
For a while, the conflict was subsumed, and the Greens believed everything they held to be worthwhile and good was not only ultimately connected and compatible but mutually reinforcing.
Such foolishness reflected the self-deception that distinguishes our political culture. The Greens never met a moral dilemma they believed could not be disposed of through wishful thinking.
But the advent of One Nation and the refugee debate exposed the contradictions. Internationalists and human rights advocates accused those seeking limits to population growth of racism. Their self-righteous espousal of the high moral ground enabled refugee and immigration advocates to co-opt the party’s policy-making apparatus and rewrite immigration policies.
This suited Brown. After all, the Tasmanian activist was never comfortable with ideas about population limits. Regardless of his party’s policy, he consistently opposed controls on immigration, took strong pro-refugee stances and avoided debating population issues.
In 1997, for example, he told the Senate that he supported current levels of immigration – in clear contradiction of the party’s then existing policy. Today, the party has accommodated Brown’s position and realigned itself as a party of the Left only fragmentally concerned with the environment.
Brown claims the Greens are the only global party in Australia with objectives paralleling those of other global Green parties. As they replaced concern with population and environmental degradation with a social justice platform so the Greens increased their vote – but chiefly among a narrow, elite segment of the electorate: the most highly educated.
Between the 1996 and 2001 federal elections, the total vote for the Greens increased two-and-a-half times – from 2 per cent to 5 per cent. At the same time, according to Australian Electoral Survey figures, the proportion of voters with bachelor or higher degrees voting for the Greens increased four times, from just 3 per cent of the total of people with such qualifications in 1996 to 12 per cent in 2001. These were mainly voters from inner urban areas.
The party’s principles, which focus on rights and justice, eclipse those conservation fundamentals – nature has intrinsic worth, does not exist for human consumption and cannot be compromised – that motivated the movement out of which the Greens formed.
The Greens once described themselves as “neither Left nor Right but in Front”. The cause of conservation, they maintained, lies outside the orthodox divisions of contemporary politics. But now the Greens are solidly aligned on the Left and are as irrelevant to the cause of the environment as every other party.
In recent years, a succession of government and non-government reports has highlighted the growing human impact on nature in Australia. We now know more than ever about the deteriorating conditions across the continent such as declining biodiversity, fading vegetation cover, failing rivers, advancing salinity, collapsing marine ecosystems, and the subversive spread of exotic species.
During this same time – as conditions on the continent worsened and knowledge of human impacts increased – the Greens adopted a passive attitude towards the population-environment debate, increasingly championed human rights and detached themselves from conservation. Clearly, the Greens’ lack of principle on population size and growth makes them an obstacle to clear thinking about the state of the environment in Australia and undermines our capacity for effective action.