Dreaming of a Green Christmas

Let me recommend two short pieces this morning for your holiday reading. In El País, Jeremy Cliffe evaluates the new German government, a coalition of social democrats, Greens and free-market liberals. And in the channel nine papers, Rob Harris outlines the woes of Australia’s Greens, who seem to be bleeding funds and relevance to a cohort of more centrist or left-liberal independents.

The contrast is striking. It’s not just that Germany’s Greens happen to be in government; they have established themselves as part of the political mainstream. And by linking up, even reluctantly, with the liberals, they are helping to chart a way forward. Here’s how Cliffe puts it:

It is hard to imagine our democratic societies rising to the challenges of the coming decades without an ingenious fusion of the cohesion brought by social democracy, the commitment to drastic climate action and a healthier society brought by the green tradition and the innovation and openness brought by liberalism. They reinforce each other, and all three are necessary.

It’s not quite true to say that this is “the first such national government in European history” – similar coalitions govern in neighboring Belgium and Luxembourg, although there the liberals rather than the social democrats hold the prime ministership. But the more general point is the one I’ve made many times: the need for as broad a coalition as possible to defend democracy in dangerous times.

None of this, however, in Australia, where Greens and Labor would much rather spend their time fighting each other than put in the hard work of convincing people that democracy is under threat. Only in the very last paragraph does Harris mention a key part of what has gone wrong: “The Greens’ long-term issue is that they’ve become the natural home of anyone who is concerned about climate, but also of the far left.”

Germany’s Greens don’t have this problem. There, as in most European countries, there is a serious far left party; people who care more about overthrowing capitalism than saving the planet join it rather than the Greens. Here the same party has to do for both.

As I keep saying, voting systems matter. The Greens in Australia suffer not just from a system that radically short-changes them in representation. It also means that the forces further left are unable to sustain a viable party of their own, so they mostly end up in the Greens – and by dragging them to the left they drag them away from the mainstream and from possible allies in the centre.

Over the last twenty years I have probably voted for the Greens more often than not; I think they are generally the best of our major parties on the big issues of democracy, human rights and climate change. But their frequent flirtation with socialism does them no favors. It is no surprise that many voters, when offered an option that combines those attractive features with a respect for individualism and market economics, are ready to embrace it.

Just as our system of single-member districts has prevented the emergence of a far left party, it has done the same as regards a European-style liberal party. Once upon a time there were such liberals in the Liberal Party, but they have almost all been weeded out over the last 25 years. Now they are reappearing as independents and threatening what used to be safe Liberal seats.

If enough of them succeed, they may yet participate in a German-style “traffic light” coalition, for all the electoral system’s efforts to stop it.

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