greens solicit govt $$

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    The Greens This Time Around

    Gary Johns, Australian Financial Review, 2 September 2004


    What about the environment vote this time around? The analysis from the 1990 'Green' federal election is salutary. Political scientists, Ian McAllister and Clive Bean concluded that the 1990 election saw 'the emergence of ... environmental and quality of life issues', and asked 'to what extent can this new focus ... be accommodated by the major parties.' Less often recalled, they also found that while Labor's victory depended in part on the second preferences of greens and Democrats, it was also due to a bias in the electoral system, which enabled Labor to win with a minority of the two-party preferred vote.

    Well, it has been 15 years, and with the exception of a fleeting visit from a couple of WA Green Senators, Margetts and (Chamarette replaced) Valentine, and Organ in Cunningham (soon to be returned to the wild?), the green movement, in a parliamentary sense, is still very much the Brown (and Nettle) show. This, despite a strong showing by independents since 1990. How come? First, the environment is not as partisan an issue as greens would like. Both major parties have some green followers. Second, despite the doomsday litany, it does not necessarily arouse great passion. Without the global warming scare, the green campaign cupboard would be looking bereft. Third, and consequently, the major parties have been able to accommodate the environment vote, principally by giving environmentalists policy access and funding.

    The agreement by the Greens and Democrats to swap preferences in the Senate may see the Greens pick up sufficient to hold the balance of power. If so, the price of legislation will rise considerably. The prospects are less favourable in the House of Representatives. When Michael Organ scored 23 per cent of the first preferences in the October 2002 by election for Cunningham, there were 13 candidates and no Liberal. Whether the Greens could repeat the performance in Cunningham, or anywhere else is doubtful. The Greens are supposedly polling well in North Sydney, a seat the Liberals lost before to Independent Ted Mack. The Greens and Democratscombined scored varied from 11 to 16 per cent in the last three elections, but any increase for the Greens will be partially at the expense of the Democrats.

    The Peter Garrett preselection for Labor in Kingsford Smith is a big a coup for the 'accommodation' thesis. It is also bizarre. The electorate is too working class, too industrial, too labour for the former president of the Australian Conservation Foundation and member of the International Board of Greenpeace. In May this year at an Australian Academy of Science Conference on the environment, Garrett railed against the 'hot, heavy and wet economy that produces lots of greenhouse gases and wastes lots of water and uses lots of energy.' Welcome to Kingsford Smith!

    The big story of the accommodation thesis is that environmental organisations are also charities and as such obtain financial support from the public through tax deductions. They have close connections to the Greens political party and have advocated votes to other parties. They also sit on a myriad of government committees across all levels of government, and increasingly engage the corporate sector. They are essentially political activists, and provide an organisational base for the Greens which the Democrats never had.

    Much to the chagrin of many members of caucus, the greens were never out of Graham Richardson's and the Prime Minister's offices prior to 1990 election. Their reward was the establishment in 1992 of the Register of Environmental Organisations, which removed the need for amendments to the Income Tax Assessment Act every time an environmental organisation was granted tax-deductible status. The grounds for removal of an organisation from the Register are revealing. They are, among other things; 'not using donations to the public fund for the principal purposes of the environmental organization'. If the principal purpose is to be politically active, it is difficult to see how partisan activity of the kind that environmental organisations are engaged in could ever disqualify them.

    In a scorching critique by left wing think-tank, The Australia Institute, Taming the Panda: The Relationship between WWF Australia and the Howard Government, it is clear that the game of pandering (excuse the pun) to green NGOs has grown in recent years. 'Over the last 11 years WWF Australia's total revenue and expenditurehave risen by more than 500 per cent ... much of the increase attributable to Federal Government largesse.' Other green NGOs are (you guessed it!) green with envy.

    Given the political role that many environmental NGOs have in determining preferences and endorsing parties it is interesting that the linkage between government funding and other sorts of patronage has not been examined more thoroughly. It is rather accommodating.
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