Government didn’t walk away from the Greens, but Milne needed to ditch Labor

Happier times: prime minister Julia Gillard and former Greens leader Bob Brown’s agreement has largely been upheld. Alan Porritt/AAP

Greens leader Christine Milne’s announcement yesterday that the alliance between the Greens and Labor was over had more symbolic than practical implications for Australian politics.

Senator Milne vowed the Greens would continue to support the government’s supply bills and vote against no confidence motions in parliament. These two safeguards are crucial in the Westminster system and mean that Labor will continue to remain on the government benches until the election later this year.

The original agreement between the Greens and Labor came into effect just after the 2010 election which resulted in a hung parliament. In a public ceremony, prime minister Julia Gillard and then leader of the Greens Bob Brown signed a deal that gave Labor the edge to form a minority government.

In the five-page agreement, several issues were stated as being of great importance to the Greens in giving their support to Labor. While Milne may say the government has now “walked away” from this pact, a review of the big ticket items it contained shows Labor appears to have largely held its end of the bargain.

Principles

The 2010 agreement states “policies which address climate change” should be pursued by both parties as a priority during Labor’s time in government.

Despite the electoral backlash, fuelled effectively by the opposition’s campaign, the Gillard government upheld this accord by implementing the carbon tax in 2012.

The political consequences have been great. Labor’s popularity slumped and questions about prime minister Gillard’s trustworthiness became a potent weapon for the opposition.

Milne may say, “the Labor government is no longer honouring our agreement … to address climate change”, but in the end Labor delivered on its promise to the Greens at great political cost.

Goals

A variety of suggested improvements to Australia’s political operations were set out in the “Goals” section of the agreement. These included establishing a Leaders’ Debate Commission which the government has taken steps to do.

It also sought to hold a referendum on Indigenous constitutional recognition in the constitution. This will not be achieved in full before September 14, but last week the House of Representatives passed an Act of Recognition that committed to a referendum.

Another goal was for the parliament to serve its full term. The prime minister has moved to ensure this by naming September 14 as election day.

Proposed reforms to electoral funding have Labor backing and are currently before the Senate.

Integrity of parliament

Tapping into community concerns about parliamentary accountability, the agreement between Labor and the Greens sought to improve the operation of parliament.

As set out in the agreement, the much discussed Parliamentary Budget Office has been created in time to cost the parties’ election promises.

Policy

Of course, the cornerstone of the deal between the Greens and Labor rested on four core policies. First, that Australia tackle climate change. Second, that greater investments in dental care be made. Third, that high speed rail be implemented by 2011; and finally that parliament debated the war in Afghanistan.

In these areas the government gets ticks in three out of four policy areas. Labor did introduce the carbon tax and it did commit to a Denticare scheme. Parliament debated the war in Afghanistan in 2010, though perhaps not as comprehensively as the Greens would have liked.

Only high speed rail remains an unrealised goal.

The real story

On balance, it looks as though the Greens were the party that benefited most from the agreement. The party used its position of holding the balance of power to directly influence government policy. This was a remarkable achievement by a minor party in the Australian political system.

So what’s the real problem? Put simply, it was too dangerous for the Greens to be too closely associated with Labor.

Yesterday’s announcement, therefore, is significant for a number of reasons. It marks the beginning of the Greens’ 2013 campaign and shows Milne clearly trying to reaffirm the party’s traditional credentials.

By lambasting Labor’s decision to allow mining in the Tasmanian Tarkine wilderness, Milne highlights her party’s concern about conservation. By attacking the decision to reduce payments to single mothers, Milne seeks to remind voters of her party’s tradition of humanitarian welfare policies. Her concerns about “big miners” and fossil fuel exports serve to underline the Greens’ core of progressive policies.

None of these issues rated a mention in the 2010 agreement, but Milne has used them as reasons to walk away from it.

This is Milne’s first major tactical decision since Bob Brown’s retirement in 2012. With the election in seven months likely to produce a majority government, she has set the pathway for her party as an independent entity with a clear policy agenda.

In recent opinion polls, the Greens appear to have reached a plateau of support. By distancing themselves from Labor, the party hopes to reinvigorate its status as the “third force” and remain a player in the Australian political landscape.

If Milne has to blame Labor for a dumped agreement to achieve this, so be it.