Image for Tasmania’s lesson: when Labor attacks the Greens, it threatens itself

For the best part of the past 12 years the ALP ran Tasmania as if it were a sub-branch of Norm Gallagher’s Builders’ Labourers Federation, in which Jim Bacon, the first of Labor’s last three premiers, had once served as Gallagher’s loyal lieutenant.

And, like the old BLF, its working-class rhetoric of being one with the many workers hid secret deals with a few big-business mates in forestry and gaming.

Cronyism, bullying, purging, threats, lies, blacklists and intimidation were the order of the day. The perception became commonplace that the government was rotten.

Tasmanians let this pass for a very long time because they were frightened, because any who came between the ALP and its exercise of power had their lives made miserable.

But the greatest cost was in the end to the ALP itself, which ceased to become a force for any progressive politics. It lied, it deceived, it sold Tasmania’s soul for a mess of pottage, all so it could keep itself in privilege.

So far to the right did the Tasmanian ALP move that Robin Gray, the former Liberal premier and board member of the timber company Gunns, last year proposed a Liberal-Labor coalition on the ground that nothing now divided the two major parties and it would keep the Greens out of power. (On TT: HERE)

‘‘No policy issue,’’ Mark Latham has said, ‘‘or set of relationships better demonstrates the ethical decline and political corruption of the Australian Labor movement than Tasmanian forestry.’‘

But that is only half the story: the other half is that its desire to destroy the Greens led the Tasmanian ALP to so many of the poisonous accommodations it made with the forestry industry.

And last Saturday Tasmanians made it clear they had had enough.

Lindsay Tanner wrote on this page yesterday (On TT: HERE) that the high Green vote represented the defection of the educated and the affluent from Labor’s ranks.

But this is a myth. The collapse of the Labor vote was about the many people who are neither educated nor affluent having had enough of what they perceived to be the collusion of Tasmanian Labor with corporations against their interests.

One Tasmanian Green MP, Kim Booth, is a sawmiller, more a lager guzzler than a cafe hopper. Another Green MP, Tim Morris, was the highest votegetter in the electorate of Lyons, which combines rural and forestry areas with some of the poorest public housing estates in Australia.

The former Liberal leader Rene Hidding put Morris’s unprecedented vote down to the fact people in that electorate - which Gunns has papered with its highly unpopular plantations - were frightened their drinking water was poisoned by the plantations.

It was, then, not the latte sippers voting Green but the poison swillers frightened of what they believed the unholy union of corporate power and the ALP may have done to them.

Tanner is right to argue the ALP treats the rise of the Greens in Tasmania seriously as a national portent. But, in suggesting the ALP sees the Greens as a new enemy, he is repeating the terrible mistake made by the Tasmanian ALP that left it politically gangrenous and led it to its drubbing in the election.

The conservative forces in this country have rarely been so foolish.

They have governed nationally for long periods through embracing rather than destroying other conservative forces - the Democratic Labor Party, the National Party in its various guises.

The embrace was not always easy or straightforward, the differences sometimes substantial and even, as with Joh for PM, destructive. But the overall effect was large and infinitely valuable.

It gave the Liberal Party power again and again when it would otherwise not have had it. And the less noted consequence was that it constantly tempered some of the Liberal Party’s excesses, while opening it to a constant source of vitality and difference.

In Tasmania some Labor elders are beginning to question the old nostrum that the Greens are the wreckers of progressive hope. This week the former Tasmanian ALP minister, state secretary and senator Terry Aulich called on Labor ‘‘to seize the day’‘. (On TT: HERE) Tanner is right to argue the ALP treats the rise of the Greens in Tasmania seriously as a national portent. But, in suggesting the ALP sees the Greens as a new enemy, he is repeating the terrible mistake made by the Tasmanian ALP that left it politically gangrenous and led it to its drubbing in the election.  The conservative forces in this country have rarely been so foolish.

In a local paper Aulich wrote the Greens ‘‘have a lot to contribute’’ and argued an agreement between Labor and the Greens was ‘‘essential’‘.

Come the federal election, pundits are predicting the Greens gaining the balance of power in the Senate. The ALP can choose to treat this as an opportunity, as helping them to prosecute a more progressive agenda. Or it can make the mistake it made for too long in Tasmania and treat the Greens as its greatest enemy.

Through the 20th century, Big Brother was the state. In the 21st, it may well be the corporation, be it Gunns or Halliburton or the coal industry. We need corporations as we need states but, as the global financial crisis has shown, as climate change demands, we need checks upon their excessive powers.

In that battle the progressive forces could do worse than come together, recognising their differences, accepting their conflicts, but avoiding the unforgivable crime of fratricide. And who knows? In the mash-up there just might arise a better future.