Far from ‘extreme’: The Greens’ worrying technocratic turn

It seems unlikely that recent dummy spits by ALP hardheads will either dent the Greens’ appeal or scare the minor party into dropping those policies that are to the Left of Labor’s (and therefore ‘loony’ or ‘extreme’). As Lee Rhiannon has pointed out, and as this week’s Nielsen poll confirms, left-leaning voters see a lot of sense in the two parties of the Left getting together.

The bigger problem, which Rhiannon evades with talk of her party’s ‘progressive’ character, is that the Greens have been pursuing a long-term process of moderating their policies and approach – of moving to the right on a series of issues and playing a more ‘constructive’ role. This process includes the watering down of policies perceived to be controversial vote-losers (e.g. drug decriminalisation or, more recently, death duties). It has also taken the form of public attacks on the party’s ‘watermelon’ Left in NSW, most prominently over the BDS. Finally, it has also meant adapting to their role in government – most sickeningly in Tasmania by being the party for school closures, but even federally limiting their ambit and integrating themselves with the political establishment.

One particularly disturbing way this adaptation has manifested is in the party’s increasing resort to a technocratic, anti-political approach to politics. Now, at one level anti-political rhetoric can be a cute debating trick, with politicians accusing other politicians of ‘playing politics’ – as if politicians are meant to do something else!

This kind of rhetoric tries to connect with the not unreasonable idea that politicians too often represent narrow, party political interests rather than the social good. You could see it in action last week in the tussle over the National Disability Insurance Scheme, an impeccably neoliberal policy all the parties actually agree on. NSW Upper House MP Jan Barham – part of that state’s right-wing Troika of Greens politicians – was quick to accuse Barry O’Farrell of ‘playing politics’ in stalling on the scheme, which he undoubtedly was. But wasn’t she doing the same when she claimed the NDIS is ‘a ground breaking process for people with disabilities that will provide self-determination and dignity for those people and their families’ even though the evidence for such claims is negative?

The technocratic argument also taps into a more profound crisis of the political class: its increasing inability to govern through usual democratic processes. This process has been magnified by the political and numerical weakness of the minority ALP government. The argument treats the rule of experts as preferable to the (limited) rule of the people through democratic processes. This is the idea that what one needs is not ‘politics’ but ‘policy’ in order to get good outcomes. It comes tied up with all kinds of baggage – that all ‘ideology’ is bad, that when particular social interests affect governance they necessarily distort good outcomes, and that what is needed is deference to ‘experts’ who can design policy based on a value-free ‘evidence base’. This is a dangerous game to play, because it accepts the supersession of politics as something that is based in real social interests and antagonisms. The Greens were able to build a serious voter base largely because they took clearly left-wing political stands against the increasing convergence of the major parties around a rightward shifting ‘centre’, one where technocratic governance had apparently eclipsed ideology.

So on asylum seekers, Sarah Hanson-Young attacks Tony Abbott for being ‘all politics with no responsibility’. She supports ‘the comments made by Former Chief of the Australian Defence Force Admiral Chris Barrie, who has condemned the Coalition’s policy as dangerous and irresponsible’ and claims that ‘no experts support the Coalition’s policy’. For her, Greens policy involves ‘sensible and practical steps for savings the lives of refugees’ rather than being tarnished with politics. Now, I support the Greens’ demand for onshore processing but how is this not politics itself? Indeed, how have debates over immigration ever been about anything other than politics? The Greens have rightly been wary of Gillard’s appointment of an elite expert committee, yet this wariness is undermined by their desire to appear to defer to such expertise on the issue.

On education funding, the Greens have joined the calls for the Gonski report to be implemented. So Penny Wright argues: ‘Gonski gives us a clear way forward to achieving a system of fair, needs-based funding for our schools and the Greens are keen to work constructively with the government to bring on these practical and visionary reforms.’ Now why would any self-respecting progressive politician defer to the findings of UNSW’s chancellor David Gonski who – with vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer – has spearheaded the aggressive corporatisation of the university, not to mention a hardline industrial relations agenda that provoked extended and bitter industrial action by staff? This is not to mention presiding over (and denying the existence of) a culture of bullying at UNSW, recently outlined in a survey carried out by the NTEU. While Gonski’s proposed reforms point to the underfunding of public schools, they are far from unbiased and will lock in public subsidy of rich private schools. This is in contravention of Greens policy which rightly calls for a significant cut in public money being given to private schools (here)see points 18 & 65 – a policy that the Right in the party have been trying to get rid of, and which they will have a fifth attempt at in the current policy revision process*. Again, behind the veneer of the expert report is an intensely political deferral to elite opinion and neoliberal orthodoxy.

And then there was the Melbourne by-election, where the Greens did well to win on primaries but did little to arrest high levels of disinterest, which saw one-third of the electorate not turn out, with informal votes coming in third place at over 8 per cent. The Greens’ vote dropped by some 1800 compared with the last state election, suggesting an inability to enthuse the electorate in this apparently crucial by-election. So what inspiring politics did they articulate? Well, actually, they told voters that ‘The Greens are about policy not politics’, and that they have:

A scientific approach to policy and politics. [Candidate] Cathy [Oke]’s scientific background means a voice based on sound reasoning and positive and deliverable outcomes. Her pragmatic approach ensures that far from being extremists the Greens are a grounded future driven party.

But why should the technocratic form of these arguments be so worrying? Because, rather than addressing the substance of the crisis of democratic politics, they seek to get around it by creating an apolitical veneer around issues that are (and should be) political. The failure of the political class to be able to govern with a mandate doesn’t come from lack of consultation with experts or failure to study the evidence. It comes from the political system’s increasing divorce from its social base in the neoliberal era, a process most evident in the ALP’s secular decline. If democratically elected politicians cannot govern with popular (or even parliamentary) consent, deferring to unelected technocrats inside and outside the state bureaucracy further delegitimises the idea of popular will determining government action. It is one thing to criticise actually existing democracy (which is already on the nose if opinion polls are to be believed), quite another to then suggest that what we need is even less democracy. Just look at Greece and Italy, where the inability of politicians to maintain consent for brutal austerity led to them stepping down in favour of technocratic administrations willing to do the Troika’s work.

The Greens have long prided themselves on ‘doing politics differently’ to the major parties. But the more they have been drawn into the mainstream, into taking responsibility for the running of the state, the more they have started to play politics in exactly the way that has led the major parties into crisis. Now so tied in to this dynamic, the ‘anti-politics’ they articulate is no longer of outsiders wanting to engender a truly ‘grassroots’ approach. Nor is it even of wanting to save existing democracy (however limited) from itself. Increasingly they accept their place in a hollowed out political system and the remaining vestiges of democratic influence it still describes.

Clearly this is a trend and not a completed process. Obviously the Greens still relate to the desire by many voters for a left-wing alternative to the major parties. But it is reasonable to ask, I think, whether being inside the tent has made them ever less able to articulate politics and policies that speak to and for the vast majority of ordinary people who reject the neoliberal consensus of the last three decades. And if they don’t, who can?


*Apparently also among the Right’s proposals are an end to support for the principle of free tertiary education, as well as dropping opposition to school league tables and TAFE privatisation. But that’s a story for another post!


  1. Yes. As someone lives in the Melbourne electorate, it was a very strange campaign, with the Labor material clearly (though opportunistically) to the left of that coming from the Greens. ALP slogan: fight the TAFE cuts. Green slogan: keep Melbourne liveable.
    I do wonder if, precisely cos the Greens are a new party, without the historical connection that Labor has to the labour movement, it’s far easier for them to slide into a neoliberal mode without the ructions that the process inspired inside the ALP.

    • I think that’s right, Jeff. The lack of a base in clearly defined, stable class interests leaves the Greens much more open to being pulled by involvement with the state. Compare this with the trade union bureaucracy that forms the basis of the ALP; it has always had a life and social obligations outside the parliamentary arena, and so not as dependent on the state for its political survival. Of course, with the decline in union density (which was never below 40% between 1914 & 1990!) to just 18% now the union leaders are much more pulled by the allure of political influence by the ALP’s parliamentary role than the ALP is pulled by the social weight of the unions.

      Nevertheless, that has also meant that the Greens have been much more readily pulled to the Left by social movements. Hence the Greens’ ability to relate (and effectively!) to the social movements of the first half of the 2000s. But with their growing incorporation in the logic of parliamentary success they may lose their ability to relate to new movements as effectively as in the past.

  2. Nothing annoys me more than the call to ‘avoid politics’. Feel like I’m being talked at by imbeciles.

  3. While I agree with you on many of the points you make here Tad, the painting of “technocratic” policy proposals as necessarily the imposition of elite opinion on voters is not necessarily one that bears scrutiny.

    Let’s take the NDIS, which I agree has elements of neoliberal positions in its private-public mix of service provision. What other proposal for universal disability services is on the table? It may well be that you wold like to see the Greens advocate for a universal public disability system closer to the British model, but the reality of Australia’s broken federal system means that the states will never deliver this, especially under the current crop of fiercely anti-government premiers. Similarly, it’s easy enough to attack emissions trading scheme as technocratic and market-based, and of course I’ve read your proposals regarding climate change in Left Turn. But in fact the Greens are proposing a much more nuanced set of policies in this field than that, including much tougher regulations and significant public financing of renewable energy generation.

    A further point suggests itself. In a seat like Melbourne, the “grass-roots” in fact contains many middle-class professionals: the scientists, teachers, managers and academics who are likely to both vote Green and support policies based on scientific principles. In a time when the ideas of scientific method are under sustained assault from business interests and the right, many voters rightly see the defence of evidence-based policy as a political stance in itself.

    Of course, if you think an election is an example of a hollowed-out democratic process, perhaps we are talking at cross-purposes.

    • The very idea that the scientific method can be used to formulate policy based on “scientific principles” is ideological (or “political”, if that’s the slur you prefer).

      It assumes that human social behaviour is reliably fixed, that its principles can be discerned by empirical observation, and that tweaks can be performed by politicians to adjust its performance on a mass level–all while the objects of these policies themselves remain passive.

      The premise of left-wing politics is not to intelligently manage the mass of rationally accumulating atomistic individuals, but to transform society so that those individuals can manage society collectively themselves. The Greens emerged from a background in social movements like this; that’s why they’re called The Greens and not The Brainiacs.

    • Thanks for your comments, Ben.

      I would be the last person to argue that we need less science in policy, but the appeals to science here are problematic because they obscure the social and political dimensions of what is being addressed. I have no doubt that many Greens voters are drawn to the appeal of scientific solutions to social problems precisely because they see this as a way to break out of the narrow politicking and irrelevant ideologies that are deployed to prevent progressive social change. But we cannot escape the fact that politics represents (in however mediated and distorted a form) real social interests and antagonisms that cannot be wished away with a technical fix.

      Neoliberal ideology in particular reduces social antagonisms to the logic of the market, where all have formal equality in exchange. It thereby demands the submission of politics to apparently neutral, technical procedures within that framework. I am suspicious of claims we can mix the market with regulation because market processes work against conscious decision-making in response to social need. It is, in the end, a denial of the need for politics (properly understood).

      It’s true that arguing for a non-market disability scheme would be unsettling of the neoliberal status quo (which not just Coalition premiers but the ALP also accepts wholeheartedly), but accepting market logic immediately surrenders to the idea that what this is about is reducing social interests to measurable values which can then be the basis for driving “efficiency”. By this I mean: seeking the cheapest possible contracted out services, intensifying the exploitation of disability workers, creating ever more cumbersome assessment procedures in order that clients don’t get more than their “personalised” status allows them, furthering the cumbersome bureaucracy (usually self-monitoring by workers) of ensuring the cheapest delivery of services, etc. These are not just my paranoid fears about what will happen; the implementation of market principles and “individualised” care pathways in mental health, where I work, has led to exactly these kinds of things, with no systematic benefit for our patients. Further, by creating an insurance system rather than the straightforward funding of services according to need, there is real potential for future “unexpected” cost blowouts to lead to further rationalisation of service, or wholesale cutbacks, as we have seen in the insurance-based Workcover system in NSW (all highly political decisions).

      The “evidence base” we have on disability is straightforward in terms of people’s needs, but the scientific trials the government is rolling out rely not just on that science, but an ideological presumption that market mechanisms must be central to addressing those needs. As one learns very quickly in medicine, you can get statistically significant positive results in a clinical trial, but if the hypothesis being tested is loaded towards a narrow range of possible outcomes, the answer you get may be clinically meaningless (or positively dangerous).

      We have a 30 year social evidence base that the turn to the market has been accompanied by deep problems in terms of service provision, yet the political class is intent on continuing down the market road as if this is merely a technical matter. One has to ask what social interests this serves. If one doesn’t, then technocratic rule remains the mystified appearance of elite rule. Surely our task on the Left should be to challenge rather than prop up that mystification?

    • I’d add one other thing. I don’t think the Premiers are “anti-government”. They are for cutting direct government action for things we on the Left would consider valuable. Right-wing austerity governments are quite happy to blow lots of money on things like bank nationalisations overseas, even as they reduce welfare and services spending. We need to be clear about that class/social content rather than just talk about things in terms of government v anti-government, which confuses the issue.

    • I dunno. It’s a complicated situation. The stuff Tad is talking about is taking place as the Greens are consistently denounced by Laborites and conservative pundits for representing loony far Left politics. Insofar as they’re creating space in the mainstream to discuss ideas previously excluded, well, that’s a good thing. Certainly, I can’t see anything progressive resulting if the Labor Party successfully defends its inner city seats on the basis of these Howes-style red-baiting attacks.

      • Actually, Tad, I want to press on you that. You say, ‘Clearly this is a trend and not a completed process.’ OK, fair enough. But what would a completed process look like? How would we know it had occurred? And, in the interim, what does that mean for attitudes to the Greens? Are you suggesting that Greens candidates should be assessed on their individual merits or that there’s a distinction between the various state branches?
        I’d be interested in your response because, as we know, transitions can take a long time, and the Left does have a tendency to mistake a tendency for a completed process.

        • Well, I’m generally for defending the Greens against the ALP (and the ALP Left) in electoral terms. My criticisms of the Greens still fall within the general parameters that I outlined in my Overland essay from 2010; that they are the product of a historically significant split in the ALP’s voter base, clearly to the Left (although of course not without contradictions) that the Left cannot ignore and must defend from a genuine Left stance.

          But as a Marxist I’ve never left the question at just that, not even when I spent time as an active party member (contra Alex White’s quirky fantasies about my views). The question is really how can a more radical Left clarify its positions in relation to this really-existing and changing situation, where the Greens play an crucially influential role? Part of that is critiquing the question of involvement in government and the implications of that for any progressive electoral project. Ideally we’d like a radical Left that could intervene in the sphere of official politics in a way that was relevant, but as the bitter experience of the Socialist Alliance (or the UK Respect project for that matter, or Rifiondazione in Italy, or the NPA in France) indicates, to do so without being clear on what one is trying to do leads to massive problems.

          The reason I raise the issue of “tendency” at the end is to make an argument that the Left shouldn’t just sit tight and watch the tendency unfold; this post is directed at the Left in the Greens as much as the Left outside the party. I’m really asking at the end about what kind of political alternative needs to be built — and I’m saying the direction the Greens are heading in is deeply problematic in terms of that sort of project. The other thing I am pointing to is that if the Greens continue to vacate the field the possibility of other forces (not necessarily on the Left) benefiting from this is a real concern.

      • Hi Jeff — from my perspective I feel that the likes of Tad and other Marxists (or lefties of that stripe) who criticise the Greens party for tacking to the right or exhibiting elitism or adopting neo-liberal policies fundamentally misunderstand what the Greens party is.

        The Greens party is not a party that seeks to make or unmake social conditions. They’re not interested in fundamentally changing our relationship to the means of production, or building class consciousness. They never have been and never will be.

        They were born from a middle-class petit-bourgeois conservation movement and since the early days of Bob Brown in the Tasmanian parliament they have adopted parts of other middle-class, feel-good, issue-based identity-politics.

        The likes of Brian Walters as recent star candidate demonstrates that the Greens party establishment is not interested in “left or right” — just electoralism. They have presented their own middle-class ethics as a political non-ideology (or post-ideology).

        Their “lefty” positions really have come from the wholesale adoption of the policies of various left-wing trade unions like the AMWU. Most of the Greens party representatives have no real interest in left-wing (that is, Marxist) policy (the likes of Lee Rhiannon notwithstanding).

        The fact that left-wing activists and Marxists like Tad and others (e.g. disaffected Labor left members) have joined the Greens party expecting them to be a real left alternative to Labor is shown to result in most cases in extreme disappointment. Witness Tad’s exit from the Greens party and subsequent many essays on how the Greens are becoming more right wing.

        News flash. They were never left wing to being with (in a classical sense).

  4. I also live in the seat of Melbourne. One pamphlet that I received in the mail just prior to the election asked me to vote Labor because the Greens would not rule out a coalition with the Coalition. From what I understand Bob Brown declined to rule out that option at a federal level either. There are ‘neo-liberal’ ‘Greens’ parties internationally, as well as coalitions between Conservative and Greens parties. I wonder if a ‘Blue Green alliance’ is in Australia’s near future? As the last post notes – without a formal and historical tie to the trade union movement – it’s hard to know just where the Greens will end up – or who they will be in bed with in the coming years.

    • Even the most left-wing parties can do funny things. Synaspismos, the Eurocommunist force at the heart of the Greek SYRIZA (Coalition of the Radical Left) party was in a unity government with the conservative New Democracy party in 1989. This was sold as providing clean government after corruption scandals had tainted the previous PASOK government.

      Of course Christine Milne speaks proudly of the Tasmanian Greens’ participation in both Labor and Liberal led governments in that state. This is what she said in 2008:

      “The majority Liberal government of Robin Gray had driven the state into a parlous economic situation and the Labor-Green Accord had to turn it around. It was a difficult period of protests and unrest as the public service was slashed and public spending was cut. The Greens never wavered from the task. Nor did we do so with the Rundle government when again we had to rectify the reckless spending of the Groom majority Liberal Government.”

      Currently the Abbott leadership of the Liberals makes that kind of deal impossible federally. Even the most conservative Greens have been drawn into the partisan anti-Abbott posturing encouraged by the ALP (helped by the constant attacks on the Greens as extremists from the Murdoch press and the Coalition). But Greece again shows how in a deep enough crisis the Left can be tempted into all kinds of strange deals, with the SYRIZA breakaway DIMAR entering the current austerity government.

      Once you accept the idea that the ultimate aim is to run the capitalist state, your primary allegiance can soon be to the reproduction of capitalist social relations rather than your formal Left politics.

  5. Sure, in politics, anything can happen. But something things are more likely to happen than others. ‘Blue green alliances’ are both more likely – and have occurred more frequently – than alliances between labour parties and conservative parties. The relationship between labour parties and trade unions serves as an anchor – however problematic and ineffectual at times – that make alliances with conservatives less likely.

  6. Is Alex White part of the current Greens hierarchy?
    If so, Tad Tietze is not the only one to be fleeing from support for the Greens.
    It is reasonable to suggest that the modern Greens grew out of the Rainbow coalitions of the late sixties into the seventies, which were deeply informed of New Left critiques, the obvious reason being that you cannot change society unless you understand how it works and how and where it needs to be changed.
    It is true that an increasing amount of Greens policy seems to be directed toward emotive issues governed by an underlying ad hoc approach dislocated from an informing critique involving use value, rational (as opposed to neolib)economics and an appreciation of the relationship between economics and ecology.
    It seems to me, the last thing the Greens want to talk about any more is enviro, or to connect the dots joining now isolated single issues like climate change and uranium, in relation to something more coherent and over arching, a big picture thing that explains environmental relevance of say, undermined biodiversity in terms beyond weepies over a hypothetical Kuddly Koala cull at some location where enviro balance has been disrupted and even the Koalas, through over-breeding are now also jeopardised.
    The point is, Greens policy MUST foreground use value over property rights, it must be a universal and it is folly to deny policy on the basis that it is somehow tainted with the emotive moniker of “left”.
    If the Greens have to be “left” to change a real world mess, there is no point denying reality for ideological reasons. If the left critique can help save the enviro, better to embrace it than creep off for fear that some MacCarthyite smears you as a “Socialist”.
    More straight talking; less euphemisms, please- time is running out.

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