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Issue 574, 5 October 2007 - All unions should back the Greens

Dangers in the Greens' Senate campaign must be addressed

AS THE key progressive alternative to Labor, the Greens face an important challenge. In broad terms, the party has a choice: either build itself as the party of working people and the progressive left or as a minor electoral party in the Senate that sees its role as disciplining the major parties.

The implications of this are profound. The first approach would see the Greens establishing a constructive engagement with disenfranchised Labor supporters in order to win their support.

The second would mean a "tweedledum-tweedledee" approach to both major parties. This approach was used by the Democrats, epitomised in their slogan "Keep the bastards honest". Ultimately, it saw them collapse from the third force in politics a decade ago to the verge of extinction today.

The Greens have a superior political program to the Democrats. Still, Bob Brown's approach to the election seems oddly similar to the old Democrats' strategy.

Of course, more Greens senators would be fantastic. It is true that Labor cannot win upper house control and that there is a choice between a conservative-controlled or a Green-controlled Senate.

It is also true that Howard's control of the Senate has been disastrous, using it to drive through WorkChoices, VSU or the Northern Territory takeover.

However, it is a mistake to conclude that the Senate can play a progressive role. First of all, the Senate was never intended as a house of review.

It was created at Federation supposedly to protect the rights of states. In reality, it was intended to serve a similar function to the House of Lords in Britain-to act as a brake on the lower house and, in particular, to prevent Labor governments from introducing radical change.

Sometimes right-wing governments will complain that the Senate is obstructing them. But this does not mean that we can rely on the Senate to stop them. No party had a majority in the senate from 1981 to 2005, yet the vast majority of government bills passed without significant amendment.

The Labor years under Hawke and Keating-1983 to 1996-saw a series of attacks on working people. For example, industry-wide bargaining was undermined and enterprise bargaining introduced.

But they were never meaningfully challenged, let along blocked, by the Senate. The same was true from 1996 to 2005 under Howard. Despite the Coalition being in the minority in the senate, they carried the Workplace Relations Act-forerunner of WorkChoices-and the GST, with only minor amendments.

While Labor and the minor parties occasionally blocked or softened the most extreme proposals, they accepted the Liberals' right to pass legislation. The result was that relying on the Senate to block the Liberals' agenda was often counter-productive and undermined the grassroots movements that could have stopped them.

After the Liberals were rocked by the 1996 Canberra riot and the 1998 waterfront dispute, the ACTU refused to mobilise workers in action against the Workplace Relations Act, arguing that non-Coalition senators would save the day.

When they didn't, it was too late. Workers were left feeling resigned to the new legal situation.

Best-case scenario

Imagine, for argument's sake, the best-case scenario after this election: a Labor government in the lower house and a Senate with a Greens-controlled balance of power. Labor would try to force its WorkChoices-lite policy through the Senate. But if the Greens senators held their ground, Labor could respond by arguing that the only option was to retain WorkChoices in full-and they would blame the Greens for it.

There would only be one option left-to fight the law outside parliament. But unless the union movement was politically prepared for this, it would be very hard to conjure struggle from nothing.

That's why, when the Democrats sold-out the struggle against the Workplace Relations Act in the late 1990s, workers felt unable to do anything because union leaders did not argue that struggle would be necessary.

The Greens should not perpetuate a myth that we can rely on elected parliamentarians to play the decisive role. This will damage the party and the union movement in the long run.

Despite the challenging climate created by Labor's climb to power, the Greens' best bet is to build itself as an explicitly left-wing alternative to Labor with a deep connection to grassroots activism. This means changing the party's overwhelmingly electoralist focus.

By David Glanz and Tom Barnes