Australia: Interview with new Greens MP Adam Bandt: 'I'll give a voice to the social movements'

Greens MP Adam Bandt.

Adam Bandt interviewed by Jody Betzien

September 2, 2010 -- Green Left Weekly --  Adam Bandt, the Australian Greens' MP elect for the seat of Melbourne (long considered a “safe Labor seat”), and the Greens' first House of Representatives member to be elected in a general election has been very busy since the August 21 election. He says he left the triumphant Greens' election night party at 11pm thinking that he would have to do some media the next day so should get a good night's sleep. He woke up the next morning and after a couple of hours having coffee and reading the paper, the situation sunk in. “And that was the last two hours I've had to myself since”, he told Green Left Weekly in a wide-ranging interview conducted on September 2.

After days of negotiations following an election which left neither of the traditional parties of government with the majority of seats in parliament to form government, the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party announced an agreement on September 1. In return for placing a number of items (including a referendum on including Indigenous people's rights in the constitution, a full parliamentary debate on Australia's military intervention in Afghanistan, re-opening the climate change response, expansion of public cover for dental care and electoral and parliamentary procedure reform) on the agenda of a possible ALP minority government, the Greens agreed to support Labor budgetary supply bills and to "oppose any motion of no confidence in the Government from other parties or MPs".

Since then, the progressive independent MP elect Andrew Wilkie, who won the seat of Denison in Tasmania, has made a similar commitment to support an ALP minority government. Wilkie spurned a $1 billion dollar sweetener (in the form of extra funding for a public hospital in his electorate) from the opposition Liberal Party-National Party Coalition.

The ALP now needs to win the support of at least two of the remaining three independent MPs in order to have the numbers to form government.

Below is the full transcript of the interview with Bandt conducted by Jody Betzien for Green Left. An abridged version will appear in the next print edition of Green Left Weekly.

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In the electorate of Melbourne your primary vote soared to 36% and on two-party preferred terms you defeated the ALP candidate Cath Bowtell by 10%. This large votes goes well beyond the traditional Greens vote, what do you think is the significance of this rise in the Greens vote in Melbourne and nationally?

We made a decision to run a campaign based on some positive values and plans. Compassion, sustainability and equality were the three key principles of our campaign. We called for urgent action on climate change. We called for compassionate treatment of asylum seekers and for an end to mandatory detention. And we called for full equality for same-sex couples.

We set out a positive plan for getting Melbourne running on renewal energy within a decade, redirecting federal money away from roads to public transport. In an overwhelmingly negative election campaign, putting forward a positive vision for how things could be better, was well received.

One of the things that we did differently to last time is that we made conscious efforts to get our message to the people on low incomes who live in the electorate particularly in public housing. This is one of the electorates with the highest concentration of public housing tenants in the country.

We took a very strong stance against Labor's income management proposals, against their plans to toughen welfare rules, and in favour of ideas like making dental care part of Medicare and increasing Newstart [unemployment benefit] payments.

I think those things in combination with a strong grassroots campaign are the reasons for our vote.

A strong contribution to your campaign came from unionists who were angry with Labor's industrial relations policies, especially the plans to maintain the anti-union Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) under another name. How do you see as your role as an MP in this campaign?

I've had a long involvement with this issue. I have represented construction workers before the royal commission into the building industry and I have defended many individual unionists and unions against charges brought by the ABCC. And the Greens have had a strong position in favour of the repeal of the ABCC Act.

We are now in a position to bring bills before parliament to abolish the ABCC.

Based on our agreement with the Labor Party, if a Gillard government is elected, we will have the ability to introduce our legislation to parliament and have it debated and voted on. That is a significant opportunity to ensure that we end up with one set of industrial laws for all workers in Australia, without certain sections being picked off and treated specially.

With a few notable exceptions, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and affiliated unions backed Bowtell in Melbourne, enlisting staff to ring up members and donating large amounts of money. What is your message to unionists after your victory?

I'm very grateful that a number of unions were able to objectively assess the Greens industrial relations policies and to realise that we had policies that would better protect people's rights at work than under those of the Labor party.

A few unions did tell their members that our policies were the best policies. I am deeply appreciative of the unions which did that.

Other unions supported the Labor candidate, and that is their right. It was disappointing that the peak bodies chose to intervene on the side of Labor when the Greens had the more progressive industrial relations policies. This was disappointing as many unions had expressed the view that peak bodies shouldn't take sides in this contest. But they did and showed themselves to be more willing to support the ALP than a party that had better industrial relations policies.

Some people contacted me to say that they had resigned from their union as a result of their union's funds and ACTU funds being used to run a campaign against a candidate who had a progressive and principled stance on industrial relations.

You would not have won the seat if the Liberal Party hadn't given preferences to you before the Labor Party. After your victory, a number of business groups and right-wing newspaper commentators like Gerard Henderson have called on the Liberal Party to stop this practice. How will you counter that possibility in the next elections, including the state election?

In this election one in nine people across the country voted for the Greens and if we had a fair system of proportional representation in the House of Representatives we would have 17 seats rather than the one that we've got.

In the system that we've got, the people who voted for the Liberal Party tended to put us second last and Labor last. Those people's votes were important in the final result.

It wouldn't surprise me if more conservative employer groups do begin to conduct that sort of campaign. And the fact that conservative employer groups are saying that the Labor Party should be preferenced over the Greens shows how far the Labor Party has drifted to the right.

How do we deal with it? I think my job is now to increase my vote and to ultimately move to a situation where we can win seats like Melbourne because the majority of the people vote for us.

A large number of people come up to me in the final stage of the campaign saying that they were small “l” liberals who were disappointed with the stances that the Liberal Party had taken in particular the increasing role that conservative views in organised religion was playing in politics. They felt that the Liberal Party no longer represented small “l” liberal values and they were moving to us for the reason that the Liberal Party was becoming more conservative as well.

Electoral reform has been placed on the agenda in the agreement with the ALP but the need for proportional representation in House of Representatives elections, which you raised earlier, was not mentioned in the agreement. Was it raised during the negotiations with the ALP and will the Greens raise it as part of the electoral reform agenda?

I think proportional representation is important and a fair way of reflecting the will of the people in parliament and what we've seen very clearly in this election – and it is an increasing trend worldwide – is that people want new new voices that aren't represented by the two major parties.

Of course there are people in parliament who don't want proportional representation, including the major parties and others, so we have got our work cut out for us to persuade the Australian people that we need a system of proportional representation. It is something that we do want and it is something we have raised in previous parliaments and we will continue to raise.

Obviously the agreement that was reached with the Labor Party focused on those areas where we were approaching common ground. For instance, we have got the beginnings of some real movement on climate change, we have the beginnings of agreement on an expansion of the dental care system, and the construction of high-speed rail on the east coast.

What this agreement isn't is a coalition or an alliance. We have maintained our separate party platforms and this is something we will continue to pursue in parliament and outside.

One area where we differ from the ALP and we haven't reached agreement on is the issue of proportional representation and there are many others including same-sex marriage, asylum seekers, forests and many other things that we will continue to push in parliament.

The Greens-ALP agreement promises a referendum on including Indigenous people's rights into the constitution. Are you looking at just symbolic recognition or to entrench some real rights for Indigenous people in the constitution? And will Indigenous communities have a say in developing such a constitutional proposal?

I would hope so. It is now an open question as to what kind of recognition it would be, what form it would take and who will draft it. I would really hope that we end up with something substantive out of it. What we have sought to do is open up a front of discussion in the public sphere about the proper way to recognise Indigenous people in constitution. The Greens are very clear that our preference is to see a treaty and to have Aboriginal sovereignty recognised and to push for self-determination. It will only work if it is a recognition that comes from the bottom up and not from the top down.

In the process that will now unfold, should ALP Prime Minister Julia Gillard form government, there will be opportunity for that discussion to be had and that it doesn't go the way of the republic debate.

A parliamentary debate on the Australian military intervention in Afghanistan is another part of the agreement. What positions will the Greens enter this debate with?

We have always opposed the war on Afghanistan. We have been the only party in parliament to do so. We've said from the beginning that this was the wrong approach, that there wasn't a justification for doing it, and that, at a minimum, there should have been a parliamentary debate, which we believe should take place before any troop commitment is made.

During the course of the full parliamentary debate we will make our position very clear: that this is a war that Australia should not have been involved in and that it is time now for an exit strategy.

There is a big disparity between the views of most MP s and that of the Australian public, with 61% according to a recent Essential Poll wanting Australian troops to be withdrawn. Given the position of both major parties a parliamentary debate is going to be a bit stacked against majority public opinion. Do you see the Greens being able to assist the anti-war movement to mobilise pressure on parliament to come into line with the majority desire for withdrawal of the troops?

On issues like the war in Afghanistan as well as recognition of same-sex marriage there is a significant disjuncture between public opinion and the positions of the major parties. Because the two major parties are in agreement about issues like these there hasn't been the space for debate on them and the disparity has not been brought into the open.

One of the things that we place a priority on is giving a voice to social movements and to that undercurrent of progressive public opinion that is not being represented. The one thing that should come out of a full public debate is precisely how far away the major parties are increasingly from what people are thinking.

Under the agreement the ALP leadership also agreed to re-open the response to the climate change crisis. The Greens have called for placing a price on carbon to implement some form of market solution to climate change. The last plan of that type that the ALP came up with, the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) [a carbon trading scheme], gave massive subsidies to the big polluters, and according to some analysts would not even have delivered the modest greenhouse emission reduction targets set by the Labor government. How will the Greens' market solution to climate change differ?

There were a number of reasons why we opposed the CPRS. They included those you just mentioned. Under the CPRS Australia's domestic emissions wouldn't start to fall until 2035 plus it took billions of dollars in compensation away from households to give to the big polluters. It would have set Australia on a path of rising emissions and money going into the pockets of large corporations which would have sent them offshore without any reduction of our emissions.

What the new climate committee [to be established under the Greens-ALP agreement] will do is go back to the drawing board and acknowledge that there needs to be a price tag on pollution. There are a number of ways this could be done, ranging from a straight carbon tax to a fully fledged emissions trading scheme. The principle we will be advancing is that the big polluters should pay the costs of addressing climate change and it shouldn't come from ordinary people and consumers. There are various ways to address this problem and this is one of the things the committee will have to look at. Some are more market-based solutions and others are based more on the taxation system.

We'll now have the opportunity not to play politics with climate change, as was done under former prime minister Kevin Rudd's Labor government, when the CPRS was used to try and wedge the Coalition while they refused to negotiate with the Greens over climate change. And it all ended up with what Professor Ross Garnaut described as the worst example of public policy making he had ever seen.

We now have the opportunity to get around the table people who agree that polluters should pay for their pollution and work out a system that is going to stick.

If there is an ALP minority government supported by the Greens, will the Greens commit to assessing and voting on all bills (with the exception of supply bills) on their merits as Wilkie has expressly indicated he will? Will any future agreements made with the ALP be made public immediately, as was done with your recent agreement?

The only guarantees we have made to the ALP in this agreement are to support supply and to assist the government if ant motions of no-confidence are moved and that's it. We will maintain our independent legislative platform comprising the policies we took to the election. There remain many areas where we will disagree with Labor and the other major parties such as treatment of asylum seekers, same-sex marriage, forests and a number of other areas that are not reflected in the agreement precisely because we have different positions to Labor on them.

I will be judging pieces of legislation on two things: one is our party platform and the other is the interests of the people I represent.

What flow-on effect to you expect from the federal election outcome to the Victorian (November 2010) and NSW (March 2011) state elections? There have been concerns in the left and labour movements about suggestions that the Greens may entertain supporting or even entering coalition state governments with the Liberal-National Coalition. What do you say in response to these concerns?

The state elections will be treated as a “clean slate”. There are different issues at play in the state and federal elections.

The Greens are an independent political party. We are not a faction of the Labor Party and the Labor Party cannot presume that no matter how far they lurch to the right they can always rely on our support.

Having said that I would invite people to look at our record and how we have operated in recent times in balance of power situations. In Tasmania we have Labor and Greens working together in a coalition government with Green ministers and in the ACT we have Greens supporting a minority Labor government.