Whitlams Children crop
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Review
Category
Politics

Gough’s squabbling children: will Labor and the Greens learn to live together?

When news broke of Gough Whitlam’s death in October 2014, the Greens were quick to respond with a tribute message, proclaiming, ‘we are proud to be the party that takes up where Gough Whitlam left off.’ So enthusiastic was Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon to share her admiration for Gough that she posted an image of him accompanied by her own party’s logo. Within hours, Anthony Albanese had called a press conference to denounce the Greens, and Bill Shorten was on the phone to Christine Milne demanding that the offending image be taken down from Senator Rhiannon’s Facebook page.

In his new book, Whitlam’s Children, Labor and the Greens in Australia, Shaun Crowe offers the thought-provoking suggestion that this ostensibly petty squabble is emblematic of deeper questions facing the Australian left. Which party is the rightful claimant to the Whitlam legacy? What are their competing claims to be the contemporary champions of social democracy? And can they set aside their disagreements for long enough to work together towards the goals they both share?

Although the presence of Gough can be felt throughout the book, Crowe’s primary focus in Whitlam’s Children is actually on Labor’s most recent period in government. Through interviews with major players on both sides of the Labor-Greens divide, Whitlam’s squabbling children are brought into fruitful conversation. Sounding much like a patient counsellor to the rival siblings, Crowe talks to the likes of Tanya Plibersek, Christine Milne, Penny Wong, Richard Di Natale, Wayne Swan, Adam Bandt and Greg Combet about how they view their own party, the other party, and the policy and politics of the Rudd-Gillard period.

To frame these conversations, Crowe draws on a series of distinctions from the political science literature. On the one hand, Crowe characterises the ALP as an ‘office-seeking’, ‘catch-all’ party, ready and willing to build an electoral coalition necessary to win and maintain government. In contrast, he views the Greens as a ‘policy-seeking’, ‘movement-based’ party. That is, they ‘give greater priority to the articulation and defence of their policies than either the maximisation of votes or the securing of office.’ Moreover, they ‘stress “constituency representation over the logic of electoral competition.”’

‘Labor and the Greens might… represent entirely different types of political party,’ Crowe hypothesises. ‘Labor might accept the primacy of election and all that goes with it, aggregating diverse interests to win majorities, even if this means accepting a level of policy adaptability. In its desire to ‘do politics differently’, the Greens might view this tendency as a weakness.’

As measured as Crowe is in tone, it is readily apparent from this characterisation where his sympathies lie. Julia Gillard’s criticism of the Greens as ‘a party of protest … that would rather complain about things than get solutions,’ is phrased in more pejorative terms than Crowe’s, but it is essentially the same point. It certainly isn’t a surprise when Labor MPs greet Crowe’s hypothesis warmly. Andrew Leigh likens the difference between the parties to his own journey from academia to the world of politics. Like academics, the Greens ‘get to say lots of interesting things’ but, unlike Labor politicians they do not ‘get to change the world.’ Labor frontbencher, Clare O’Neil, puts the point more bluntly: ‘To make a difference in government, you have to form government, and the Greens can’t do that.’ Tanya Plibersek, echoing her erstwhile leader, tells Crowe that, ‘I’d rather struggle and get done half of what I want than sit back and say “it’s all terrible” and achieve nothing.’

‘This was the essential difference between the two parties,’ for Plibersek, Crowe explains. As the Deputy Opposition Leader sees it, there is not necessarily ‘an enormous difference in principles — the bigger difference was each party’s capacity to implement them.’ Crowe agrees with this analysis, arguing that: ‘at bottom is the most pervasive difference between the two parties: the difference between office-seeking and policy-seeking parties, with their distinct attitudes towards policy, parliament and elections.’ And Crowe concludes by redirecting Whitlam’s rebuke to the ALP Left in 1967 – ‘certainly, the impotent are pure’ – towards the Greens.
As commonplace as it is to observe that moral grandstanding and Machiavellian opportunism are errors to which the Greens and the ALP are respectively prone, it is another thing entirely to suggest that this is the essential difference between them. Doing so leads to something closer to caricature than characterisation. It discounts the extent to which the Greens stand in profound opposition to the right of the Labor party – to free marketers, social conservatives, those elements of the ALP that are pro-US and pro-fossil fuel – and it ignores the Greens’ fundamental strategic differences with those in the Labor party they regard as their ideological allies.

There are, in fact, enormous differences of principle between the two parties. The Rudd and Gillard Governments opposed same-sex marriage because people like Joe De Bruyn, the former member of the ALP federal executive and head of the Shoppies union, believed it was morally wrong. As a matter of principle, he fundamentally disagreed with the Greens’ view of the world.

When Prime Minister Gillard agreed that Australia would host an American military base in Darwin, it reflected the Labor party’s longstanding commitment to the U.S. alliance. The Greens fundamentally disagree with that commitment. They opposed the Darwin base. They oppose Pine Gap and, as Richard Di Natale said last year, they believe that Australia should ‘move towards an independent, non-aligned foreign policy.’

The Greens desire a rapid transition to a renewable energy, and an economy in which which tax receipts and public services look more like those of Scandinavia than other Anglosphere countries. Chris Bowen and Andrew Leigh don’t. That isn’t because in their heart of hearts they are socialists who recognise that all they dream of is not possible in this world. It’s because they are economic liberals.

Apart from opposition to same-sex marriage, about which it is difficult to be charitable, these are complicated issues. They are matters about which reasonable people can and do disagree. But the disagreements are ones of substance. For partisans of the status quo to preach compromise to those who desire radical social change is to beg the question, not answer it.

As much as the Greens are in fundamental disagreement with the right of the Labor party, there are those on the ideological left who they recognise as siblings, as sharing their desire for fundamental social change. Which camp a Labor figure falls into only has a loose relationship to ALP factional system and varies from issue to issue. But we’re talking about something like the difference between Martin Ferguson on the one hand and Laurie Ferguson on the other.

Laurie Ferguson tells Crowe that he feels ‘philosophically close to the Greens on the majority of issues,’ while singling out refugee policy as an exception. ‘On foreign policy, I aspire to a more independent neutralist position. I’m not as enamoured with the US alliance. I’m a very strong environmentalist, on climate change. I believe in radical tax messages, alternative energy…’ Likewise, Melissa Parke identifies shared values: ‘They believe in fair and safe working conditions, better public transport, high quality public health and education, supporting the disadvantaged, affordable housing—these are also Greens policies.’

What then divides Parke and Laurie Ferguson on the one hand from a Larissa Waters or an Adam Bandt on the other? Crowe suggests that Waters and Bandt are unable to compromise; too ready to let the perfect become the enemy of the good; too prone to privileging the comforting, ‘even therapeutic’ feeling of ‘saying the right things,’ even when doing so will make little difference in practice.

An alternative construction is that Bandt and Waters are committed to a different theory about how to achieve the goals they largely share with Parke and Ferguson. The ALP left believe it’s best to argue with the ALP right at party conferences. The Greens believe it’s best to argue with the ALP right in parliament and in public. One group believes the right is more likely to compromise on the basis of shared loyalty to party. The other believes that the cost of caucusing is too high and true leverage is exerted through public debate and electoral competition. It’s when the ALP right have to negotiate parliamentary votes that they are forced to make real concessions.

This is not an argument over principle, but it’s a very real argument over strategy. Both the Greens and the left of the Labor party supported same-sex marriage, but they pursued it in very different ways. The Greens’ critique of their Labor comrades is that while the Labor types were huddled at conferences trying to hash out deals with Joe De Bruyn, the great transformation occurring in Australian society passed them by. Meanwhile, the Greens point out, they were putting marriage equality on the public agenda, ushering it into the sphere of legitimate controversy, and proudly standing, without fear or qualification, for the rights and dignity of lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender and intersex people. For the Greens, this great social change – one that seemed unthinkable only a very short time ago – happened because of people like Bob Brown, not because of people like Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

The rejoinder open to the Labor left is that it was because of the time they spent at Labor conferences, huddled with the likes of Joe De Bruyn, that Labor legislated to remove practical forms of discrimination against same-sex couples around matters like superannuation, social security and health care. As Bob Brown said in parliament in 2008, ‘this is, indeed, historic legislation and the government is to be congratulated for putting the legislation to this parliament within 12 months of it’s election, to remove a great sway of discrimination laws against same sex couples.’

How should we weigh the importance of marriage reform against the Equal Treatment in Commonwealth Laws legislation? How much credit do the Greens deserve for same-sex marriage reform, and how does it compare to the impact of Labor’s belated but broader appeal to the community on marriage equality? These are questions that are difficult even with hindsight, let alone for partisans in the midst of battle. They are also more complex – and more interesting – than Crowe’s simple dichotomy between those who are willing to get their hands dirty and those who aren’t.

The debate about the best theory of change is really an argument about whether to leave the Labor Party or stay and try to change it. It is here that the sibling rivalry intensifies and the narcissism of small differences becomes most insistent. But the mutual enmity is not simply irrational. For the ALP left, each comrade who departs for the Greens undermines their effort to change the party. For the Greens, it is only when ALP members and voters follow their lead that a left-wing party – unshackled from the right’s suffocating grasp – will be able to achieve true social change.

This disagreement gets an airing in Whitlam’s Children in so far as Crowe devotes space to Labor resentment of electoral competition from the Greens. Anthony Albanese tells Crowe: ‘So much of what they do is just about politics, about getting people who vote Labor to vote Green in selective seats. In my seat they had billboards throughout the electorate, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, they had full-time staff, they had a campaign office on Parramatta Road…’

This is, of course, what political parties do. But Albanese phrases his argument in terms of the general good of the social democratic left – the whole Whitlam family, rather than one or other sibling. ‘If,’ he explains, ‘they had put a little bit of effort into the seat next door, Reid, a marginal seat, trying to change people who vote Liberal to voting Green, we could have won Reid. We would have been closer to government.’

However, if it is simply the good of the greater left that is at stake, the argument can work in reverse. Labor could stop competing with the Greens in the inner city and devote their energies to outer metropolitan marginals. While this is obviously not going to happen as long as Anthony Albanese is still around in Grayndler, it wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility in Batman after David Feeney was found ineligible to sit in parliament. In the face of what looked a likely Labor loss, putting up a merely nominal fight could have saved face and saved some dough to spend in seats like Chisholm, Dunkley, La Trobe and Corangamite.

As it transpired, the battle for Batman was genuinely a contest between two of Whitlam’s children, a contest between two candidates who shared the same principles but disagreed over strategy. Did the voters of Batman want the Greens’ Alex Bhatal fighting for the cause in parliament or Labor’s Ged Kearney fighting for it in caucus and, possibly, cabinet. Did they want another Adam Bandt or another Peter Garrett?

The loss for the Greens was a bitter one; the disappointing outcome both result and cause of internal disunity, generating the appearance of a stagnating movement turning in on itself. But in deciding to contest Batman vigorously, the ALP had chosen a candidate as likely to appeal to would-be Greens voters as any. If it took electoral competition from the Greens for the ALP to preselect a Ged Kearney rather than a David Feeney or a Martin Ferguson, then the left should regard this as time, energy and money well spent. For the Greens, Kearney’s victory over the Ferguson/Feeney wing of the Labor party is only a small solace though. On their theory of change, Kearney will be as ineffective inside the ALP machine as Peter Garrett was.

The warring siblings won’t readily agree. The Labor faithful will stand up for Garrett’s record, just as they believe Kearney will achieve more in parliament than any Green could. They are about as likely to accept the impertinent suggestion that the Greens can take some credit for Kearney’s candidacy as they are to abandon Batman altogether. This is natural. They disagree with the Greens about the best way of achieving social change. But it’s a disagreement that Whitlam’s Childrensheds little light on because Crowe prefers to frame the Greens-Labor rivalry as a one-dimensional choice between ‘complaining’ and ‘getting solutions’, absolutism and compromise, purity and power.

Appropriately enough, much of Whitlam’s Children focuses on the ‘diabolical problem’ of carbon pricing. Here, the Greens’ decision to vote against the Rudd Government’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) is offered as, ‘proof of the minor party’s fatal weakness, its doctrinaire aversion to incremental progress, a moment when purity clearly produced impotence.’

In making this claim, it would have been valuable to have considered the testimony of Ross Garnaut, the former advisor to Bob Hawke who Kevin Rudd and state Labor governments commissioned to lead a review on the issue. The view Garnaut expressed on the Rudd Government’s CPRS to a Senate committee hearing in April 2009, was: ‘If there were no changes at all it would be a lineball call whether it was better to push ahead or say … we’ll have another crack at it and do a better one when time is right.’ The problems that Garnaut said needed fixing to ‘make it worthwhile’ were precisely those identified by the Greens: the CPRS locked in low ambition on emissions reductions; paid out polluters instead of making them pay; and didn’t deliver the requisite support to renewable energy and green technology.

The fact that an expert of Garnaut’s stature, handpicked by Labor, was prepared to state this view publicly makes one thing tolerably clear. It was not just for the sake of purity that the Greens sought to negotiate substantial improvements to the CPRS. Garnaut did not testify that the CPRS was good but he wanted it to be perfect. He was explicitly asked whether the CPRS was better than doing nothing. ‘I’m still agonising over that, to be honest,’ he answered. It was a ‘really hard question’ and ‘a lineball call.’

What the intellectual architect of Labor’s policy was effectively telling the Australian Senate and the Australian public was that the CPRS might make Labor folk feel good about passing nice legislation, but it wasn’t actually going to change anything – let alone amount to a solution. Thus the Greens’ desire to change the CPRS was not born of otherworldly idealism but a very practical concern that the policy would actually make a difference; that it would actually catalyse the transformation of the Australian economy that was, and remains, both necessary and desirable.

It was in this context that Kevin Rudd refused to even meet with Bob Brown, let alone negotiate with him. So on an issue that goes to the future of life on the planet, one that defines the Greens, in the face of a policy that may have been worse than doing nothing and a Prime Minister who wasn’t even willing to sit in the same room as the Greens, some argued that the Greens should have just acquiesced, without qualification or condition. This clearly wasn’t a recommendation about a plausible course of action. It was an invitation to commit political suicide, accompanied by an offer of assistance.

Labor resentment about the very fact of the Greens’ existence, it should not be noted, didn’t derive from the Greens’ supposed purity but their actual potency. Labor needed Green votes in parliament – even more so after the 2010 election – and the Greens wouldn’t just behave like good members of caucus. Rudd’s refusal to even meet with Bob Brown during the CPRS debate no doubt reflected his peculiar personality, but it also reflected a broader Labor disgust that these left-wingers, who had ratted on the party, now expected to be rewarded for their betrayal. In other words, the Greens’ theory of change was working.

When Labor cast its own verdict on Rudd in June 2010, it was in large part because he wouldn’t negotiate with much of his own cabinet. The criticism of the Greens for failing to secure a compromise with Rudd on the CPRS thus requires the Greens to have achieved what Rudd’s own cabinet and caucus colleagues finally deemed impossible. Criticism of the Greens further assumes they could have anticipated that Rudd would show such reckless disregard for his own political self-interest as to abandon one of the Government’s signature policies. Clearly, the Greens worked on the basis that voting down the CPRS would lead to a much more acceptable alternative: a double dissolution, the comfortable re-election of a first-term government along with likely gains for the Greens in the Senate.

Even if the doubtful proposition that the Greens should have voted for the CPRS is accepted, it hardly supports Crowe’s contention that the Greens are constitutionally incapable of compromise. As much as the Greens refused to compromise with Kevin Rudd on the CPRS, the history of the successful negotiation of an emission tradings scheme with the Gillard Government demonstrates that the Greens relished the opportunity to get as close to power as they could and to forge a solution.

How, conversely, should Labor’s pusillanimity on carbon pricing be explained? How should we understand the CPRS backflip, the ousting of Rudd, the calling for a citizen’s assembly when nobody, except the government, was prepared to pretend that they weren’t already committed on the issue?

Crowe argues that the challenge for Labor arises from the fact that it is a large, disparate ‘electoral coalition, seeking to win both the working and progressive middle classes.’ As Julia Gillard has put it, Labor has a dual constituency: it’s traditional blue-collar base on the one hand and progressive activists in the inner cities on the other. The attempt to balance the distinct interests and experiences of these two constituencies is inherently challenging.

Parties like the Greens allegedly don’t face this challenge because, in the words of political scientist Herbert Kitschelt, they are a homogenous group of ‘highly educated voters who tend to be employed in the public sector of personal services and production of cultural symbols.’ Unburdened from the imperatives of economic security, the indifference of the post-material middle-class to questions of physical security and material prosperity is matched by ‘a vocal and unambiguous commitment to causes like feminism, Indigenous reconciliation, multiculturalism and the rights of people with diverse sexualities.’

Thus, when it comes to the negotiations of the Gillard Government’s Emissions Trading Scheme, Greg Combet explains his disagreement with the Greens’ more aggressive posture on the starting price and industry assistance. Combet tells Crowe that it would have ‘put tens of thousands of people out of jobs, who are working-class people and who would be severely disadvantaged.’ Rooted in the working class, Labor understands the desire for a more secure and prosperous life. The Greens don’t represent working class people and so are unhindered in the pursuit of their post-material preoccupations.

As an explanation of the difficulties of the Rudd-Gillard period, the ‘dual-constituency’ argument seems like an invitation to amnesia. Unless we repress all memory of the Hawke and Keating Governments, we can hardly be expected to believe that Labor are squeamish about economic transformation that comes at the cost of major job losses for its blue-collar base. Hawke and Keating implemented major economic reform despite the costs of trade liberalisation for some and the unpopularity of privatisation amongst many.

A more plausible explanation for Labor’s carbon pricing saga is that since the Hawke-Keating period Labor had become much more clear about reducing the role of government in the economy than expanding it. The difference between its clarity and confidence on trade liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation and its confusion and cowardice on carbon pricing is that Hawke and Keating really believed what they were selling. With Rudd and Gillard, it was not at all clear. Labor had become a party that was just more energised by maximising comparative advantage than internalising externalities; by expanding trade than civilising global capital; and by curbing government intervention than increasing it.

As Dean Jaentsch argued in The Hawke-Keating Hijack, the Eighties left Labor looking more like a ‘catch-all’ party than ever: unmoored from its origins in the organised working class; willing and able to do whatever it takes to win power. But Labor didn’t just become more opportunistic under Hawke and Keating; it shifted markedly to the right on economic policy, in a manner that inspired Tony Blair, and was replicated by Bill Clinton, whose erstwhile advisor, Dick Morris, was a significant influence on Mark Latham. In pursuit of liberal economic policies, Labor has often been willing to lead public opinion and weather electoral discontent.

As Crowe fleetingly acknowledges, the Greens he spoke to ‘lamented what they saw as Labor’s lost antagonism towards capital.’ They ‘claimed that Labor was too reluctant to regulate private industry – made timid before the political power of business – to pursue progressive change.’ As Adam Bandt explains, ‘involvement in campaigns against a Labor government doing things I thought more appropriate for a Liberal government meant that I left the Labor Party… The Labor Party’s adoption of neoliberalism was pretty stark.’ For the Greens, the ALP’s spinelessness on carbon pricing and taxing mining companies only confirmed this view.

Crowe’s characterisation of Greens as the educated, affluent inhabitants of the inner cities is uncontroversial enough, but the claim that they are indifferent to working class aspirations does not withstand analysis. When Adam Bandt became the first Green elected to the lower house in 2010, he did so with significant financial support from the Victorian Branch of the Electrical Trades Union who had, at that point, disaffiliated from the ALP. Like large parts of the union movement, the ETU regarded the Fair Work Act that had been passed the year before as merely a watered down version of the conservative legislation that preceded it. Upon being elected, Bandt criticised the restrictions on strike action in the Fair Work Act as contrary to international labour standards. The Greens have consistently run to the left of Labor on industrial relations: publicly defending unprotected industrial action when Bill Shorten condemned it; calling for legislation to protect penalty rates when Bill Shorten was still opposing it; and calling out deals negotiated by the ALP-affiliated Shop Distributive and Allied Employees Union that actually left its workers worse off.

Under Labor’s legislation, workers have experienced record-low wage growth over the last decade such that the union movement has declared that the bargaining system is broken. It’s current campaign to ‘change the rules’ is essentially a push to overturn Labor’s Fair Work Act. This seems to significantly complicate the one-sided claim that Labor is on the side of the workers while the Greens are consumed by post-material concerns. The same goes for unemployment benefits where the Greens have consistently campaigned for an increase to a payment that has not been changed since 1994. It is also the case that during the Gillard Government common ground was forged by Tanya Plibersek and Richard Di Natale to expand public provision of dental care.

If the Greens are to be characterised as inner-city trendies oblivious to the experience of those doing it tough, it would seem necessary to at least touch on matters like industrial relations, social security and healthcare. Crowe was apparently not able find space to do this. He is however able to find room to rehash internal research released by the ALP to The Australian after Labor’s defeat in the 2017 by-election for the Victorian state seat of Northcote. ‘On the basis of fifty interviews,’ Crowe explains, the research found that ‘“about 70% of Greens voters in inner Melbourne are rich, dislike unions and think suburban people are backwards, racist and bigoted”.’ While acknowledging that the dissemination of this research was ‘politically motivated’, Crowe avoids the more salient point that generalisations about a total population from a sample size of 50 is an entirely flimsy exercise. While it is not surprising this ‘research’ got a run in The Australian, it is surprising that it is rehashed in a scholarly book purporting to independence.

Whitlam’s Childrenis ostensibly interested in the claim that inspired the book’s title, made on the day Whitlam died, that the Greens are ‘Gough’s children.’ But it never really asks the next question as to why the Greens would happily claim the legacy of Whitlam in a way they wouldn’t any other Labor leader. To do so would be to acknowledge that the Greens lay claim to a radicalism that they see mirrored in the Whitlam Government but that they believe the contemporary Labor party has betrayed. Whether Whitlam was as radical as all that; which party represents greater continuity with the Whitlam Government; which party offers the better vision of a good society today and the most plausible way of realising it: these are all fascinating, endlessly debatable questions. But they are questions Crowe doesn’t really address. Instead, Whitlam is reduced to a pragmatist, celebrated for making Labor electable by appealing to middle and working class alike, while Whitlam the progenitor of a radical transformation of Australian society is largely forgotten. The Greens aren’t characterised – or criticised – as radicals who hope to emulate Whitlam’s success but tendentiously caricatured as committed to saying interesting things but achieving nothing.

It looks highly likely that, after the next federal election, a Shorten Labor Government will find itself in the same predicament as the Rudd Government in 2007, needing Green votes along with those of other Senate crossbenchers in order to pass legislation. Debates between Labor and the Greens on matters of both principle and strategy – including on carbon pricing – are bound to come to the fore. The contest and conversation between Whitlam’s children is set to continue.

 

 

Lead image: crop from cover of Whitlam’s Children

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Tom Greenwell is a regular contributor to Inside Story and teaches history and politics at Hawker College Canberra. He is a member of the Australian Greens.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the excellent analysis Tom. I liked your comment about the Greens attempting to achieve change through debates in the public arena rather than (largely unknown) party conferences.

    Even if the Greens don’t get greater standing in government hopefully they can articulate the political issues that really matter to the majority of people, and criticize those apologists for the way things currently stand.

    Would be interested to hear what you think of the Victorian Socialists in Melbourne, I saw Noam Chomsky recently endorsed them. Have they got a shot? How should the Greens position themselves?

    Im a tradie on south coast NSW, trying to open up conversations with others where possible. Its not a hot political culture yet, but the embers are here.

  2. Thank you very much for articulting so well a problem that has worried/frustrated me forever. I shall distribute the article all about. I am Deep Green and tired and dispirited. So many of my Labor friends are in total agreement with me, but “working to change hings from within”. If they all voted green we’d be in! Then we wouldn’t be ideological would we?

  3. Great article, but the one thing you could have also complicated here is the question of whether Greens voters are in fact affluent and comfortable. The majority of Greens voters I know personally tend to be in insecure casual or contract work in academia or the arts. The Greens demographic – younger knowledge workers – are at the pointy end of neoliberal policies. Even on a question of voting on self-interest rather than values this, too, attracts people in this position away from Labor, who created many of these problems and have no obvious solution to them, and toward the Greens.

  4. Voting history
    Liberal
    Liberal
    ALP
    ALP
    Liberal
    Democrats
    Democrats
    Democrats
    greens
    greens
    greens
    Next will be greens also
    Interesting how I’ve changed as I’ve aged and Politics has progressed in this country
    I’m tired of the magor parties infighting and now Christine Miln has left the greens…the greens now should be more stable and appealing ….I believe
    The focus on the health of our Biosphere/ Environment is critical !
    If if is not healthy we all Die!

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