Thursday, March 13, 2014

Do The Greens Display "Real Liberal Values"?

Of all the advertising in the Tasmanian election so far, the piece that has most interested me has been the Greens' claim to represent "real liberal values", as seen in a leaflet distributed in parts of the state and on this website.  So far as I know the claim has been largely ignored by opponents, but I thought it was something that deserved proper critical scrutiny.

The campaign is part of an increasingly confident and positive attempt by the Greens to take advantage of Labor's apparent death spiral in order to make a play for Opposition or at least co-Opposition status to the incoming Liberal government.  A part of this is an ambitious attempt to snare an elusive second seat in Denison.  The Greens have had their eyes on this prize for a long time but have never quite got there.  Past elections under both the seven-seat and five-seat systems have now and then seen polling samples that implied this result was possible, but it has never happened.  

The Greens have decided that they will try to appeal to what are often called "small-l liberal" voters in Denison.  They are fishing for the votes of those whose political views are "closer to those of Malcolm Turnbull than those of Tony Abbott".  In my view around 4% of Denison voters fit this kind of leftish-Liberal profile, and they are concentrated in the relatively wealthy Liberal-vs-Green southern suburbs (Battery Point, Mt Nelson, Sandy Bay, Taroona).  Most of them moved to Andrew Wilkie at the 2010 state election and have stayed with him ever since, but Andrew Wilkie is not a candidate at this election and his votes are up for grabs.

The role of this article is not to say whether the tactic of trying to harvest left-Liberal votes will work.  It is to present views on whether the claims made in it are correct.

The most obvious thing about the Greens' pitch to left-Libs is the colour:

Yes, it's a Green ad in Liberal colours!  It seems that the Liberals are no longer zealously protecting the colour "Liberal Blue" against use by their competitors. 

The discrepancy between the Liberal Party and liberal values (of whatever kind) is something I wrote about before in one of my favourite articles on this site, What is an independent liberal?  The Liberal Party is not consistently any of classically liberal, "small-l liberal" or what Americans call "liberal" (though the third can be argued to be a latter-day twisting of the term itself).  So here's my view on how the Greens go making headway on this issue.

The Greens' Critique Of The Liberals

The Greens make the following claims about the Liberals:

* that they are "tightly controlled by right-wing hardliners such as Eric Abetz who do not represent mainstream values."

Exaggerated.  Liberal incumbents do indeed display a right-wing voting and policy pattern on moral and law and order issues that is somewhere between reactionary populism and true conservatism, and not much to do with liberalism of any kind.  However, if Eric Abetz controls the party, why, for instance, is Guy Barnett running prominently as a candidate for Lyons, although Abetz is endorsing Bertrand Cadart (hardly a right-wing hardliner, as it happens) against him? 

* "their policies are a mix of hard right-wing morality and old-fashioned corporate welfare that will require taxpayers to subsidise unprofitable industries."

Mostly true.  The mentality of throwing public money at struggling industries (especially forestry) in order to apparently support jobs (while ignoring any job creation opportunities foregone by not taxing and spending less) is a matter of bipartisan consensus in Tasmania and long has been, and it's not something a classical liberal would have a bar of.  However, while the Liberals have been depressingly uniform in their conservatism on most moral issues (with the exception of adoption by same-sex couples - supported by only half of them - and Vanessa Goodwin's supportive vote on abortion law reform in the LegCo) few of them have recently flogged the kind of aggressive, reactionary anti-gay position associated with the Nile/Bernardi axis.  Thus the "hard" in "hard right-wing" is debatable when it comes to social issues; on law and order issues it is probably not so unfair.

To see what real hard-right moralists think of the Liberals it is notable that "Family Voice Australia" (formerly Festival of Light) gives the party's known policy positions a rating of only 45/100 based on their extremely dodgy candidate survey.  This is well below their ratings for the responses of socially-conservative Denison Labor candidates Alphonse Mulumba and Madeleine Ogilvie, not to mention several PUP candidates.  That some Labor candidates are responding so kindly to a survey offered up by a religious fringe group is a matter for concern, but that's another story.

* "The Liberals' voting record against marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia reveals an extreme conservative moral agenda."

I think this is also overdoing it.  The same voting record, whatever we think of it, is shared by many Labor politicians federally and one (albeit a retiring one) even at state level.  While the positions taken by the Liberals are in a clear minority in opinion polling on all of abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia, they are hardly at the extremist fringe.

* "The Liberals say they support equality, but they think it should be the government's job to decide what makes a family, based on gender and sexual orientation".

The obvious objection to this is that "marriage" and "family" are different things; that said, only five of the current ten Liberals took the pro-same-sex-family stance when that was last tested on the floor. The criticism is at worst mis-worded since the Liberals have at least opposed state sanctioning of same-sex families as worthy of exactly the same social recognition as mixed-sex married families.  

The Greens' Critique Of Labor

* "The Labor Party is a shambles.  This government endured despite the Labor Party and their dysfunctional antics [..]"

The Greens have no need to criticise the ability of the Labor Party to display liberal values, since it is not pretending to display them.  But this criticism of Labor is made in the course of claiming that the Greens deliver stability.

Labor certainly displayed "dysfunctional antics" in this term, including the inability of the party to discipline Brenton Best for crossing the floor and repeatedly attacking the Premier, the last-minute eviction of the Greens from cabinet, and sporadic leadership tensions.  However none of these seriously threatened stability.  Moreover, most if not all derived indirectly from Labor's decision to deal with the Greens, which in turn appeared to be the only alternative to a rerun of the unstable parliament of 1996-98.

The Greens' Claim To Liberal Credentials

I do not think it's necessary to discuss marriage equality further.  In terms of the versions of liberalism supported by the targets of this ad, it's obvious the Greens have the runs on the board and the Liberals and (in even allowing a conscience vote on a basic issue of equal treatment under the law) Labor don't.  Marriage equality is also an issue of business freedom in that current laws significantly constrain celebrants who might wish to offer gay or lesbian weddings as products, and cannot do so in the most lucrative way.

On the Greens' other claims on their behalf:

* "Are liberal values such as freedom of expression [..] important to you?"

This one is a double whopperburger with pants-on-fire fries and coke. Challenging the Greens'  attempt to claim the field on free expression was my main reason for writing this article.  When Labor Attorney-General Brian Wightman attempted to reconstruct the fabric of freedom of speech (in the guise of anti-discrimination amendments supposed to address bullying) the Greens went along for the ride.  They claimed Labor's hamfisted attempt to greatly curtail the presence of insults, ridicule and comments that might offend their target (oooh!) from public political debate (oh, except in parliament of course) was "perfectly appropriate".  

Not only this, but the Greens have a long history of claiming that freedom of expression is threatened when it isn't, especially when it comes to illegal anti-forestry protests.  The Liberals' proposed crackdown on forestry protests that involve unauthorised workplace invasions (including imprisonment of repeat offenders) is harsh and inflexible to say the least, but laws of this kind do not limit someone's right to freely express a view.  They simply indicate that some methods of expressing a given message are unnecessarily disruptive and obstructive, and that someone who has something to say by means of a public demonstration has plenty of ways to say it without causing productivity losses to business.  The right to free expression does not mean the right to express a view absolutely wherever one likes, since assuming that it does entails infringement of the rights of others in the process.

* "Are liberal values such as [..] a level playing field for business important for you?"

The Greens are here making the reasonable point that current bipartisan policy "picks winners" by allowing projects like the pulp mill to bypass normal planning process and be supported by government. Pro-business classical liberals would charge that far from supporting a level playing field for business, the Greens support excluding many kinds of businesses (like canal estate developers, Mt Wellington cable car developers and people who want to log alleged "high conservation value" forests) from the playing field entirely.  Whether such businesses should be excluded is another question; the point is that liberalism favours an open approach to business options, within something approaching reason, and the Greens may not. 

* "Stability came from the calm and steady influence of the Greens"

Put this one in a time machine and send it back a couple of years and you'll hear laughter.  At that time the Greens were a demoralised party at grassroots level, torn between McKim and Booth positions on the forestry peace deal, and unable to even get their act together to field a LegCo candidate for a seat where they'd polled close to a quarter of the vote at the state election.    It's a remarkable measure of the direness of Labor's tactics that the Greens are now able to project themselves as unified and stable when one of their five members never supported the deal with the government in the first place!  One can only wonder what chaos might have occurred (in view of the behaviour of both Kim Booth and Brenton Best) had the governing coalition had even one less seat.

Stability really came from Labor's desire to stay in government as long as possible, and from their willingness to throw the Greens goodies (including two ministries) in order to stay there.  

In Conclusion

The Greens' propaganda overdoes it slightly (as propaganda tends to do) but it makes the basic point effectively enough: the Liberals are not really a liberal party.  At state level, they are a socially conservative, populist, corporatist party pushing a somewhat right of centre version of the classic major-party big-government approach in this state.

Greg Barns has made the point that you sometimes find a more economically liberal position in the Labor Party than in the Liberals (this was especially so in 2002, when the Liberals supported a protectionist approach to business trading hours and were very deservedly drubbed).  But while some ALP figures may tick liberal boxes in their approach to business and the economy, ALP culture still does not get the free-speech side of a liberal philosophy, and Labor's unanimous vote for Wightman's attempt to make the Anti-Discrimination Commission the effective chief censor of Tasmanian politics proved this.  Admittedly, few (beside Andrew Leigh) have attempted to claim Labor to be the party of liberalism.

As for the Greens themselves, while they manage to come across as more liberal than the Liberals on many issues of personal liberty, on the whole they're not a liberal party either, but are just another Tasmanian party that from time to time likes to tell people what they can and cannot do. Tassie's answers to Malcolm Turnbull are a long way from Tony Abbott, but they're not that close to the Greens either.   

Liberalism in Tasmania (together with its more radical sibling, libertarianism) is quite simply a marginal political viewpoint - a substantial inner-city minority in Hobart and something that scarcely exists in much of the rest of the state.  And the rest of the country's not so different.  The typical small-l liberal in Tasmania falls off the left end of the Liberal Party (a la Barns or, as Barns points out, Hans Willink) and ends up in the dark political wilderness that is the vacant centre of Tasmanian politics.   Somehow I don't think we'll be seeing Palmer United rake it in in Battery Point this election either.

The answer to the Greens' question "THIS ELECTION, WHICH PARTY STANDS FOR REAL LIBERAL VALUES?"  is a very simple one.  

It's the same answer as it was last election.  It's the same answer as it has been for decades.

None of them are even close.

At least, not consistently.


  1. "The typical small-l liberal in Tasmania falls off the left end of the Liberal Party and ends up in the dark political wilderness that is the vacant centre of Tasmanian politics." Well, you were spot on with that one! ):

    1. You blew your chances and reputation Mr Willink by mimicking Mr Wilkie's campaign in the silliest of fashions. Your policies and background suggest you were trying to appeal to the thinking-types of Denison - your platform is thoughtful and progressive. So how do you suppose your campaign style, which I would describe as cheap and non-thinking.. as well as demonstrating a lack of integrity because you went against Mr Wilkie's wishes...( yet still you persisted with it ) went down with the thinking man and woman of Hobart?! I am sorry to say this, but I think your campaign was viewed by many as quite silly and opportunist.


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