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Who’s afraid of the Greens?

by Chris Saliba

‘Freedom of the press carries with it an equivalent responsibility to the public. Liberty does not mean licence.’ Australian Press Council, Statement of Principles.

Here’s a groovy article the Herald Sun could have published instead of its August 31, 2004 shocker, 'Greens policy backs illegal drugs', written by Gerard McManus.

Greens target drug abuse

The Greens today unveiled extensive new policies aimed at cracking down on drug abuse and those who profit from it. If elected to government the Greens would:

* ban advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products;

* place greater restrictions on the advertising and sponsorship of alcohol products;

* introduce mandatory labelling of all alcoholic drinks with health warnings;

* maintain strong penalties for those caught driving over the limit;

* disallow the use of intoxication as a defence in crimes of violence and negligence;

* urgently address the problem of solvent and substance inhalation;

* maintain penalties for the illicit sale of illegal drugs.

In other measures, The Greens would call for independent research into the effects and addictive properties of commonly over prescribed drugs; aim to provide more appropriate levels of drug education; and provide citizens with the known health effects of all drugs.

The Greens would also call for investigations into the practices of the police forces, in order to minimise drug-related corruption.

Senator Bob Brown, leader of the Greens, has challenged the Liberal and National parties to stop accepting donations from tobacco companies. Last financial year the Liberal Party’s NSW division alone received $84,738 in donations from tobacco companies.

Tobacco addiction costs 19,000 Australian lives per year.

In a recent statement the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians Dr Robin Mortimer said, ‘Tobacco may be a legal product but it’s addictive and lethal - killing 19,000 Australians every year. It also costs the nation a staggering $21 billion in health care and other costs – far more than the combined costs of illicit drugs and alcohol’.

In a principled move, Opposition leader Mark Latham recently announced that the Australian Labor Party would no longer accept donations from tobacco companies. Asked for comment on the Liberal Party’s current arrangements for party donations, the Prime Minister maintained that the party was acting within the law and that there was no intention of reviewing the party’s policies.


Bob Brown Vs. The Herald-Sun

Rather than the above, a lot of which I have copied almost verbatim from the Greens’ policies the Herald-Sun dished up quite the opposite when the 2004 election campaign kicked off. In an attempt – obviously successful – to scare the bejesus out of Herald-Sun voters, it made out as if Janis Joplin herself was being channelled to give policy advice.

A hopping mad Bob Brown wrote a detailed complaint to the Australian Press Council on November 22 of last year, stating that a number of claims in the article were entirely wrong. On February 25, 2005, the Press Council upheld Brown’s complaint. The Herald-Sun has since unsuccessfully appealed the decision.

‘The Council views this article as irresponsible journalism,’ the adjudication states starkly, and:

Given the sweeping and unqualified nature of the claims, the newspaper ought to have checked the veracity and currency of the policy claims.

Of more concern to the Press Council was the effect this article had on the upcoming election:

In the context of an approaching election, the potential damage was considerable. The actual electoral impact cannot be known, but readers were seriously misled.

Bob Brown speculates that Senate seats may have been lost in Victoria, Queensland and South Australia, due to the article’s wide reach.

The Herald-Sun has extraordinary influence. Its own online blurb boasts:

On any given day, 45 per cent of the adult population of Victoria reads the newspaper and, in the course of a week, 75 per cent of Victorians will read at least one issue.
The Liberal Party certainly knows how powerful the Herald-Sun is. It used the article’s incendiary headline in its election advertising.

In surfing the net researching this article I saw some of that impact first hand. Disgusted bloggers posted the Herald-Sun article with comments vowing not to vote Greens. I e-mailed the Herald-Sun’s editor Peter Blunden while the Press Council was considering the paper’s appeal to see if he would give any details. What parts of the Press Council’s adjudication had he disagreed with?

No luck there, but he pledged that the Herald-Sun would publish the Council’s findings, whether good or bad. (The Press Council’s Statement of Principles says, ‘Where the Council issues an adjudication, the publication concerned should prominently print the adjudication.’)

My curiosity was pretty much satisfied on March 10, when Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian ran an editorial titled ‘Greens get scrutiny their policy deserves’. Talk about turning an adverse Press Council adjudication on its head! The editorial outlines its modus operandi for dealing with The Greens. Instead of reporting facts, it draws conclusions.

Where the August 31 article claimed The Greens planned to introduce, ‘laws to force people to ride bicycles...’, The Australian’s March 10 editorial countered with:

Does anybody doubt they would achieve this transport revolution by using taxes and parking charges to price cars out of the reach of many Australians – especially when the party also aims to "reduce car ownership"?

By the third paragraph the editorial had descended into abuse. Can anyone doubt the bias of the Murdoch empire against the Greens? They don’t even try to hide it. The Herald-Sun had provided a "public service" for going over the "rag bag of Greens policies". The party is lambasted for having a "feral fringe".

Next the Press Council gets it in the neck, accused of pushing "various social agendas", sniggering that they are probably the ideological slaves of David Marr, "who reportedly maintains that journalists can't be journalists unless they come from 'a soft-leftie kind of culture'."

True or False?

Is it true? Do the Greens back illegal drug use? Of course not. If elected to government, does anyone seriously think The Greens would urge the electorate to break the law? As a headline, it’s clearly nonsense, and this is why it works. It makes an alarming, emotionally charged statement that can’t be countered with rational argument. It spooks people.

The first step in their policies is to de-criminalise drug usage. Nowhere, and this must be repeated, nowhere do The Greens advocate illegal drug taking.

The Greens’ policies state that:

The regulation of the personal use of currently illegal drugs should be moved outside the criminal network.

Drugs are a hot button issue, just the sort of thing to get a reaction. Greens’ policies acknowledges as much:

Drugs and substance abuse are complex issues and strategies need to acknowledge this complexity.

Other misleading statements in the 31 August article include the assertion that ecstasy would be supplied over the counter to young users. Real policy:

Investigations of options for the regulated supply of social drugs such as ecstasy in controlled environments where information will be available about health and other effects of drug use.

The Greens’ policy only talks of "investigation of options". It doesn’t state that their intention is to start issuing ecstasy, ad libitum, as soon as humanly possible. And why has the Herald-Sun said the drugs would be issued to "young users"? Are they insinuating that The Greens would hand out drugs like candy to children and teens?

The claim the paper makes to "state sanctioned heroin and marijuana sales at what it calls appropriate venues" conveniently leaves out a key detail. These venues, with regards to heroin use, are not to be the dubiously vague venues the article makes out, but rather licensed clinics. The actual policy on heroin use reads:

Pilot programs to test the effectiveness of controlled availability of heroin to registered users from specifically licensed clinics.

With regards to the use of cannabis, the Herald-Sun is correct. The policy does support "the controlled availability of cannabis at appropriate venues".

The Greens policies also recommend "the decriminalisation and regulation of cannabis cultivation and possession for personal use, while monitoring its effects on the health of young people".

This is not as far out as it seems. Remember 1999, when Victorian Liberal Premier Jeff Kennett floated the same idea? The concept certainly doesn’t belong to the ‘loopy left’.

Many may argue this is all hair splitting. Yet it is important to make the distinction between a drugs policy that is advocating heavy regulation, education and research into the effects of certain drugs, legal and otherwise, against a completely irresponsible and libertine free-for-all, as the Herald-Sun would have us believe.

What of some of the other claims made in the August 31 article? Medicare funding for sex-change operations? True. Greens policy calls for, ‘transgender medical procedures being available at both public and private hospitals and under Medicare’.

Laws to force people to ride bicycles more often and eat less meat? Hardly. Reading this you’d think the Greens were intent on introducing gruelling, punitive mandatory exercise. The policies on this issue aim to reduce the use of cars and increase the frequency of bicycle riding as a mode of transport. No coercion is mentioned. Again, does anyone really think that people under a Greens government would actually be forced to ride bikes?

One would expect that the benefits of increased bike riding would be obvious to all: reduction in pollution, less reliance on world oil markets (which may have peaked) and an increase in exercise. Besides, I thought we were a great sporting nation? You’d think Australians would jump at the chance to get involved in more athletic activity.

The Greens' actual policy on bike riding: "Favouring walking, cycling and public transport as the preferred modes of ‘passenger’ transport" and "encourage the cycling and walking amenity of the streets by supporting, for example, lower urban speed limits on residual roads". The Greens would also "make users of private transport aware of, and ultimately pay for, the full costs of their transport choices". This may sound ominous to many. How would such "full costs" be calculated?

Nevertheless, no one could really claim to be surprised by such an objective. The Greens’ core business is the environment. They’re hardly going to say 'drive all you like, there’s no environmental impact and oil will run forever'. Heightening awareness of environmental impacts is not the same as forcing people to ride bikes.

As for the assertion that The Greens would force people to eat less meat, who knows where that one came from? Bob Brown enjoys a juicy steak. He’s not a vegetarian. Nowhere in their policies does it suggest Australians should eat less meat. Indeed, I did a word search through the entire 56,000 word document and ‘meat’ came up only once, in relation to a call for the banning of whale meat. I can’t imagine many Australians baulking at not being able to eat whale meat.

The closest thing I could find to The Greens trying to dictate what we eat was this:

The Australian Greens will: support programs to encourage healthy eating, physical activity, social cohesion, and healthy communities and environments.

Can you think of a single Australian who would consider the above ‘kooky’? Healthy communities and environments sounds like something out of the Mark Latham book of policy prescription.

The list goes on. Driving farmers from their land? Reducing population by 2 million? God knows where they came up with that figure. Greens policy on population treads carefully. There is absolutely no mention of targets for reducing population:

The relationship between people and environment is a complex one – especially in an increasingly globalised world. It is not reducible to simple formula for carrying capacity. The Australian Greens take care of these complexities in a population policy that respects human rights and social justice as well as continental and planetary ecological limits.

An open door policy on asylum seekers? Another way to spook people, suggestive of imminent deluge. It’s akin to criticizing the emergency ward of a hospital for having an ‘open door policy’.

Are the Greens Kooky?

Are the Greens policies as "kooky" as John Howard insists? You’ll have to do your own research to make up your mind on that one.

Without doubt their overall program is radically different to the prevailing orthodoxy. The last decade of the Howard government has seen a current account blowout that would make Kath and Kim blush, from $194 billion dollars in 1995 to the $393 billion today. Under Howard, we’ve all shopped ourselves silly, and still feel like we’re missing out.

The Greens would change all this. Under the Greens we would be made more aware of the cost of everything we consumed – to the environment, to poorly paid sweated labour. Splashing out on an outré outfit at a Chapel street boutique would become fraught with all manner of ethical dilemmas. Were the workers properly paid? Did the dyes used in the product have an adverse environmental impact? Is the outfit sustainable?

The Greens state:

To become ecologically sustainable, our society must change from one which recognises no physical or ecological limits, to one that lives within the capacity of the Earth to support it and which allows for the Earth to sustain the diversity of living things. Ingenuity must be used to do more with less. The trend to more efficient use of physical resources and energy must be accelerated, and the physical and biological limits within which society functions must be explicitly recognised. These limits must be defined as early as possible, with caution, and with an awareness of our role as stewards of this planet.

More with less? Recognising limits? It’s the virtual opposite of today’s endless growth model. It preaches its own brand of mutual responsibility. In their economic policies, this is stated explicitly:

The Australian Greens are working for a sustainable society that maximizes quality of life. We believe that integrated economic, social and environmental imperatives must replace the current narrow pursuit of economic growth.

The Greens would also introduce new taxes, making us think twice about the consumer choices we make:

The Australian Greens regard ecological tax reform as the key element of a tax reform package. Eco-taxes and green levies, which have been introduced in a number of European countries, adjust prices and help to encourage efficient resource use and reduce pollution.

While The Greens are conservative (if I can put it like that) when it comes to the economy and the environment, maintaining that we must all live well within our means, on social policy they are liberal. Where John Howard puts forwards a ‘tough love’ policy of mutual obligation for the unemployed, toughness on ‘border control’ and zero tolerance on drug consumption, the Greens are all nurturance and succour. No doubt John Howard would find the following policy thoroughly kooky:

The Australian Greens believe that unemployed people can make a useful contribution to society. We support those who choose not to seek employment but contribute to society through other productive, economic and/or socially useful unpaid work.

True, some of these policies sound almost utopian. Under a Greens government, could I ditch my job, start up a website devoted to the downfall of a Greens government, and have it recognised as legitimate work? How would this policy really work?

Or here’s an Industrial Relations policy to surely drive John Howard and other economic dries over the cliff:

The Australian Greens’ industrial relations policy is underpinned by the principles of social justice and empowerment through workplace democracy.

Workplace democracy? I can hear John Howard exclaiming now, Sounds more like covert unionism to me!

Why The Scare Campaign?

The scare campaign from the Coalition and the Herald-Sun is obvious enough. A very real fear during the federal 2004 election was that The Greens could win the balance of power in the Senate. Indeed,
the Herald-Sun's August 31 article says as much:

With a chance to grab the balance of power in the Senate, the Greens have for the first time released a comprehensive set of policies beyond their environmental platform.

(This is not entirely true. The 1995 book The Greens, by Bob Brown and Peter Singer, covered a wide range of policies.)

The Australian’s March 10 editorial airs the same fears:

Vigorous scrutiny of this radical agenda has been lost amid the unquestioning deference to the Greens by most of the media, even when the party aspires to hold the balance of parliamentary power.

The coalition didn’t run arguments against the Greens policies. Instead they accused them, with a straight face, of being both Communists and Nazis. The Age reported on September 7, 2004, these comments from Nationals leader, John Anderson:

This idea that they are some warm, nice midway house between the coalition and the Labor Party overlooks the fact that actually they are a home for people who in the 1950s would have joined the Communist Party.

Fact? Fact? Since when is it a ‘fact’ that the Greens are covert Communists?

The previous year, on October 31, 2003, Tony Jones conducted an exasperating and extraordinary interview with George Brandis, after he had made claims that the Greens ideology could be traced back to the earliest incarnations of Nazism. Clearly losing patience, Tony Jones asked a question that, to anyone tuning in at that moment, may have caused them to mistake Lateline for some new ABC comedy hour:

TONY JONES: Let me ... we haven't got endless time to discuss this. I want Bob Brown to respond very specifically to that question you raised. Did the Greens' ideology stem from the black forest of Germany?

(For details of the controversy, see Nazi Greens an enemy of democracy, government decrees, Teeth bared, Howard's team mauls our latest outbreak of democracy and Green historian to Brandis: my work's been abused.)

The Greens are a grass roots democracy movement built up over some twenty years by groups of committed environmental activists willing to be vilified, jailed and beaten for their cause. They have stuck to their guns over very unpopular issues, like the Tampa for example, and still managed to win votes. Nothing could be more worrying to a ruling government than an energised, grass roots democratic movement.

The only other grass roots democratic movement of recent times was Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. Love her or loathe her, ordinary Australian’s flocked in their droves to hear her speak. People who once felt disenfranchised from the political process now felt they had a voice, and politics was something worth getting involved in.

But that had to be dealt with too. Thus the Howard government kissed-up to One Nation voters, while behind their backs started to plot ways to bring the party down. Howard loyalist Tony Abbott worked behind the scenes, and helped along by Hanson’s own naivety, ineptitude and plain ignorance about electoral law, landed herself in the clink. Her mistake seemed to be in thinking that she was swimming amongst the big fish, whereas in reality she was being circled by killer sharks.

The Coalition wins control of the Senate

As we all know, the coalition won control of the Senate at the 2004 federal election. What impact the Herald-Sun’s August 31 article had can only be speculated on. Did voters who rely on the Herald-Sun for their news get accurate reportage? Did they get a clear picture of what The Greens actually stood for?

What they did get was a scare campaign. The Herald-Sun’s piece – good enough for the Liberal Party to use in its advertising – made all sorts of outlandish claims, creating the Hieronymus Bosch-like image of a Greens regime that would cheerfully supply illegal drugs our youth, create laws to force you into punitive physical activity, drive families from their land and swamp the nation with unwanted foreigners. In short, all the hallmarks of some out-of-control extremist regime.

If the Greens were really just a bunch of innocuous kooks, as John Howard made out, why didn’t he let it go? Surely a party that self-evidently insane couldn’t last long. Australians aren’t so stupid as to be taken in by a lunatic fringe of batty shrub-huggers. Why not laugh along and enjoy the spectacle of them digging their own political grave?

I guess John Howard doesn’t like to leave anything to chance.
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