25 years - looking back and looking forward | Australian Greens

25 years - looking back and looking forward

Senator Richard Di Natale's address to the 25th Anniversary Australian Greens National Conference on Sunday 19 November 2017.

By Senator Richard Di Natale
Tuesday, November 21, 2017

I want to begin this article, which marks the 25th anniversary of the Australian Greens, by celebrating the many people, the many movements and the many campaigns that have enabled the Australian Greens to emerge on the national stage and fundamentally change this country from both inside and outside our Parliaments this last quarter century.

We know that organisations like ours don’t just emerge from thin air. Our party is forged from a number of movements.

The environment movement with the history of the United Tasmania Group springing out of Lake Pedder and Franklin River; The peace and nuclear disarmament movement, particularly in the west where Jo Vallentine emerged as the first Greens WA senator; The workers movements in New South Wales, fighting with the community to preserve urban environments for future generations against big money development and powerful political interests.

These are the strands that were weaved into the Greens four pillars: ecological sustainability, social justice, grassroots democracy and peace and nonviolence. They stand as relevant and vital today as when they were first designed.

The social and political context of our origins

We can trace a line through our political history that brings us here.

With the exception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, post-war Australia was one of the most equitable periods of our history.

During this time, Keynesianism -- a big spending state to support people -- was the dominant economic framework. Inequality was at record lows because tax systems were strongly progressive and the wealthy actually paid their taxes. Social movements were forming in support of civil rights. Australia was becoming more outward focussed.

Our governments were rolling out nation building projects, owned by the states and we were accepting waves of migration from Europe to help build them.

The growing wealth, peace and relative freedoms opened up the potential for people to think in different ways about our relationship to each other and towards our precious planet.

The nation started listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices calling out for recognition, for justice and for protection of the land.

There were voices being raised in opposition to the destruction of beautiful forests and rivers, fuelled by greed.

They spoke out against wars fought overseas in support of American Imperialism and against the development of weapons that could wipe out humanity.

But it wasn’t to last.

Even though the public never lost its faith in an active state that supports people, powerful actors decided otherwise - it was overthrown by corporate interests. It was sold off by our politicians to create a new economic framework driven by greed, competition, and self interest.

Neoliberalism would sweep the world to deliver us some of the most exploitative, corrupt, and inequitable social systems that we have seen for over a hundred years. Now our job is to repair this terrible legacy.

Our achievements

We have achieved so much over the last 25 years.

There was the period of power sharing government that resulted in gun law reform in Tasmania that became a template for the country. We developed the most advanced climate laws anywhere in the world including a price on carbon, the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

We delivered the first plank of Denticare.

We had bills passed from opposition, no small feat, including to address the scourge of petrol sniffing in Aboriginal communities by bringing in Opal fuel.

We worked across party lines to improve democracy through voting reform.

We began the process of medicinal cannabis reform, but we still have a long way to go.

But many of our most important achievements are invisible. We hold both governments to account and stop bad laws. Without the Greens, the appalling 2014 Abbott/Hockey budget would be reality. Without the Greens, people already struggling financially would be in abject poverty today if that had happened.

We are at the progressive vanguard of policy debates including negative gearing, taxing capital gains again, multinational tax avoidance, banking royal commission, ending superannuation as a tax haven, the bank levy, and the list goes on and on.

Just look at Northcote. Because of the threat of the Greens, we saw the ALP announce:

  • a trial of a safe injecting facility
  • a ban on plastic shopping bags
  • investment of millions of dollars into public schools
  • improvements to renters rights
  • a tax on vacant residential properties.

We might not have our name on these reforms but we know we made them happen.

Look at the pressure being imposed right now in Victoria to establish the Great Forest National Park to save the ancient hollows that are the last homes left for the critically endangered Leadbeater's Possum.

We will win this. We will create these sanctuaries. Just like we will save the Tarkine again, but this time forever. We will create a national ICAC and we will end the $6 billion a year in subsidies propping up fossil fuel companies.

We will achieve all this because we Greens mobilise people and we look to the long term.

We elevate issues and drive fear into governments who, without the Greens staring them down, would otherwise just take the corporate donations and freely give out planning and mining approvals here and subsidise that polluter or forestry operation there.

We Greens and our movement are the only thing that will keep the coal from Adani’s mine in the ground. We will save the Great Barrier Reef and the tourism industry - just like our movement knocked off BP and Chevron’s dangerous plans to extract oil out of South Australia’s untouched and non-negotiable waters in the Great Australian Bight.

We should be proud that we forced the Queensland Labor government to abandon the $1 billion public loan for Adani and we must be resolute in holding them to account until they outright oppose this disastrous proposal entirely.

It takes time to get outcomes. Look at Tassie’s pulp mill and WA’s James Price Gas Port - but we get there inevitably and eventually. Just like Marriage Equality, which took a decade, but finally, soon, our Parliament will make history.

The Greens led this issue and we were dismissed as dreamers. But here we are - the only party that can say we voted YES on marriage equality - every MP, every parliament, every time. It reminds us that we do make change happen.

As Philosopher Max Weber put it:

“Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective.”

This is important to remember, especially when we consider the other major issues that we are the lone voice fighting for:

  • The way our country treats refugees fleeing persecution;
  • Securing a liveable future for young people with a rapid, uncompromising shift to a clean, smart economy;
  • Putting an end to the wealthy, corporatised self-interest that has corrupted our democracy and bent it to its will.

Change will happen in all these areas too, so long as our patience matches our passion.

The next 25 years for the country

What does Green government look like? What vision do we offer the country for the next 25 years?

It is one where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have settled a treaty with Australian governments, where they are at the centre of their own decision-making power, instead of consigned to the margins.

It is one where we no longer trash our planet, but we preserve it to ensure that the next generations coming after us have greater opportunities than our generation enjoys. That doesn’t just mean preserving ecosystems that sustain jobs like the Murray-Darling basin for farmers, or the Great Barrier Reef for tourism, but it means jobs in restoring and preserving our habitat and flourishing biodiversity instead of extinction.

It is a future where we embrace and support people who are living through hard times rather than use them as political ammunition to incite fear and loathing, be they people who are long-term unemployed, struggling with substance abuse or seeking protection under the UN convention for Refugees.

A future where our Parliament takes inequality seriously, instead of just paying it lip-service and voting the other way. Where politicians act in the interests of people, instead of those big corporations and vested interests who donate to the major parties, year in, year out.

Attacks on civil society

We have to maintain courage, because democracy is an ongoing project – it is not static.

Right now we are witnessing a creeping authoritarianism reflected in attacks on civil society and anyone the government doesn’t like. They are using foreign donations as a cover to stop political advocacy. They want to remove tax deductible status from community organisations who engage in advocacy on public policy issues.

The AWU raid recently conducted fits a sinister pattern of the government using the apparatus of the state to silence dissent.

This was a direct assault on democracy that would do Vladimir Putin proud.

They have hauled political opponents before Royal Commissions, they harangue Human Rights Commissioners who dare try to reveal what is going on in those offshore hell holes. They tell environment groups they can only do remedial environmental works - they don’t want them to stop the land clearing in the first place.

These events and the whole citizenship fiasco has shown how far the national interest has become subjugated to political interests.

Our democracy is broken. People want it fixed.

Restoring faith in our democracy starts with an independent Federal anti-corruption watchdog. There are tell-tale signs of corruption everywhere, the federal government manages hundreds of billions of dollars every year and we have no co-ordinated oversight, no institution with strong investigative powers to protect the integrity of our public administration.

We need to ban donations from gambling, tobacco, property developers, alcohol and mining interests and place strict caps on all the others so money can’t buy influence.

We have to jam the spanner in the revolving door between political operatives, lobbyists and powerful commercial interests.

Look at coal and gas across all the major parties - Anderson, Vale, Macfarlane, Ferguson.

The same in tackling Australia’s problem gambling - Conroy, Bitar, Arbib, etc.

Again in finance. Two recent Premiers, Anna Bligh working as the new mouthpiece for the big banks; Mike Baird to NAB, while Lindsay Tanner and Paul Keating went off to work as merchant bankers for Lazard.

How can we fix democracy if our political leaders have their eyes firmly fixed on their own lucrative careers?

We are a party of ideas

Only once we have repaired our democracy, then we can make serious progress in addressing the big challenges that are only getting worse.

We are a party of ideas. We are the disrupters - we are driving the political ideas boom. The other parties just attack each other. Their ideas are stale. They offer no solutions to the big challenges before us.

The future of work; how to stop young people getting completely screwed over in housing; our economy bumping up against environmental limits, treating drug use as a health issue rather than a criminal issue, mass migration from global warming and taxing inherited, pre-existing wealth.

We have cutting-edge ideas that we can discuss at this conference and beyond.

We can trial and test the benefits of a universal basic income so that society is freer to pursue the many wonderful meanings and purposes that are not derived from work.

We can promote the model of taxing and regulating cannabis to get the influence of organised crime out of young people’s lives, to make better use of law enforcement resources and to treat drug use as a health issue. As long as taking drugs is illegal, governments can and do create environments in which people are at greater risk when they choose to use drugs.

We can put a Buffett Rule on the richest 1% to stop their accountants reducing their taxes artificially and explore how we make sure that wealth is shared and not concentrated in the hands of a tiny few, handed down through the generations.

We can proudly reassert the role of government to build and run essential services and infrastructure, from re-regulating energy systems, to public transport, to establishing a people’s bank.

We will look at what automation means and how we ensure that productivity gains are shared with the workforce and not just captured by employers. We will look at how we restore work security as casualisation is becoming an increasing threat to the prosperity of young people in particular.

In conclusion

If all of these ideas are to become a reality we need to fix our democracy. This is the political headwaters - everything flows from this point. The big money lobbyists, the secret donations, lucrative high-paying jobs after leaving Parliament.

We cannot solve our economic, social or environmental problems until we fix our democracy.

The marriage equality vote reinforced what I have known all along, that Greens’ views are shared by a massive proportion of the Australian people. Our challenge is making sure they know that we are right beside them on issues and unlike the other parties, we will never compromise on our values.

A lot has changed in the last 25 years, but throughout the Greens have been a voice of integrity and decency. A lot will change in the next 25 years, but one thing I am certain of is that we will never waver from being the genuinely progressive party building a better future for those generations who will come after us.