The parliamentary wing of the Australian Greens often goes by its working name of ‘Party Room’. Party Room is actually a physical space in Parliament House where Greens MPs meet, a room adorned with the portraits of MPs past and present and haunted by the ghost of the Democrats who once met there. Party Room meets three times a week during parliamentary sittings and the majority of items on the agenda relate to the business of the day and the sitting week ahead. We decide on things such as the Greens position on a government bill, reaching agreement on the issues that will have priority that day, and discussing the pros and cons of various ways of communicating Greens positions and decisions.
A formal system of briefs exists where substantial agenda items such as bills and controversial issues are documented and distributed before the meeting. Other things tend to crop up on the morning of the meeting and are dealt with speedily, as the media cycle won’t wait a day to hear the Greens point of view on a story.
The first thing to say is that Party Room functions in a similar way to almost any other Greens committee or body. Decisions are made by consensus, and when consensus cannot be reached the facilitator (the Party Room Chair) searches for a way forward that will satisfy everyone present and represent a genuine consensus. As with other bodies, a vote exists as a mechanism for breaking a deadlock; however, in my four years as a Senator I can’t remember a single time Party Room has had to resort to counting the numbers on a matter of policy. I’ve mentioned this to a few press gallery insiders, and their reactions have varied from the surprised to the sceptical. It’s hard to blame them given the way the other parties and the parliament as a whole operate; nevertheless, the Greens meeting culture is alive and well in the Parliament.
The Party Room Rules contain the formal bylaws that govern the processes and procedures of the Party Room meetings. They are similar to many Greens meeting rules, and also contain extra rules around electing the positions of leader, deputy, whip and Party Room chair. With only two leadership transitions in its history Party Room has not had to put these rules through their paces often, but with the interest in the recent leadership transition we are actively reviewing the current process.
Some of the more substantial matters that come before Party Room relate to policy initiatives and policy positions. Initiatives are concrete policy ideas developed by the Greens, where we control the timing and content. The portfolio holder does the policy work, consulting with the stakeholders, party and independent researchers such as the Parliamentary Library as required. The policy is usually costed by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) before it is brought to Party Room as a brief. Party Room then discuss whether the proposal makes for good, green policy; whether the benefits outweigh the costs; and the political angles, such as the optimal timing for release, anticipated attacks from political opponents, and who our particular target audience for the policy might be. A recent example is the Greens proposal to abolish negative gearing which went through all of these steps.
On the other hand, firming up a position on a policy of the government, opposition or other party can be less straightforward. In most cases it’s obvious where the Greens stand on an issue, for instance the deregulation of university fees, the Medicare co-payment or the six-month exclusion from NewStart for young people. In those cases, it’s just a question of how to express our position and how to use the parliamentary opportunities Party Room has access to in a way that will cut-through and reach the greatest audience.
But unlike our own policy development where we have time to optimise a policy and where it is clear that it aligns with the Greens policy platform and charter, the policies of the other parties occasionally fall into a more complicated area where the pros and cons have to be carefully weighed against Green values. An example of this was the Abbott government’s budget proposal to re-index the excise on fuel. The measure was consistent with Greens policy regarding the taxation of fossil fuels, but was a regressive measure that had to be seen in the context of an already brutal and punishing budget. Party Room came to a consensus on the view that we could not side with the government on such a regressive measure, particularly given the money was to be tipped into roads without so much as a nod to public transport. Discussion then turned to how to communicate the message to our members, supporters and the public.
This raises the issue of how and when we consult the Party to make sure Party Room has the backing of the members for a call on a debatable issue such as the fuel excise. I think this is a work in progress, as consulting a body of more than 13,000 members, often with diverse opinions and in a tight time frame, is not an entirely straight forward proposition. With the new National Council up and running I think the channels of communication are more open than ever before. Party Room are committed to taking advantage of this new mechanism as much as possible, whether that involves asking Council to facilitate a national discussion on an issue or just keeping the party informed of Party Room decisions on issues of interest. The better we can share information, the easier it will be campaigning together to make our progressive voice heard in the Australian community.