The Current Political Climate – limited opportunities
One of the most valuable principles to have emerged from the 130-year history of sociology as an academic discipline concerns a causal relationship between ideas and their social contexts of production - or in modern terms, there is a causal relationship between social structure and narrative. There are more nuanced ways of expressing this principle, that might also take account of social processes, such as an individual’s aspirations for promotion, but the point about position in social structures is pretty basic. The relevance of this to contemporary political discourse is important, and needs saying at greater length to qualify misplaced hopes for major change in political systems.
Anybody who expects politicians to respond in a straight forward way to the scientific facts of climate change needs to apply a modernised version of this sociological principle: the position of any political party (group, or individual) in the structures of government will determine what it is possible for them formulate as policy on any subject. This means that Green parties in Australia are constrained by their aspirations to become a major political party capable of governing the country. In the first instance, Green parties need to respond to all the issues on a parliamentary agenda; that is environmental issues occur among a vast range of concerns and will be routinely prioritised as particular issues among other issues of concern to voters, parliamentary agendas, and policy makers. It is often very difficult for Green parties to prioritise environmental issues above social justice issues – such as the plight of asylum seekers, the health needs and legal rights of disabled people, or the rate of unemployment. Nor is it realistic to expect Green parties (that are intent to govern) to successfully promote radical environmental or social philosophies.
The second point to be made is that so long as Green parties sit with the ‘cross-bench’ on environmental concerns they are locked into a duopolistic structure of government dominated by two major party groups – in Australia, the Liberal Party-National Party alliance and the Labor Party. The cross bench may initiate legislation about environmental issues, but as a minority they can only either influence the major parties as a matter of conscience, say, or negotiate with them to gain support for their proposed legislation. It definitely suits the major parties to be able to isolate environmental issues as the main concern of a ‘cross bench’, since the economic consequences of most environmental corrections are increasingly large, and therefore difficult to deal with, and likely controversial – no matter how much climate change, for example, will cost large corporations in the future.
The third big point is that all parliamentary players are constrained by the rules of the game: they want to sit in parliament as part of a Westminster political system; they want to be sufficiently popular with voters to get elected to parliament and bring about whatever progressive changes they can. This is why political parties generally stay at arms length from social movement ‘actions’, such as blocking the Adani coal mine, or the ‘fracking’ of coal seams by energy companies. Only independents, or ‘single issue’ parties can effectively deal with the kinds of issues that attack or alienate large corporations, and significant numbers of the voting public, and separate politicians and parties from revenue streams that derive from mainstream economic growth (i.e. taxes) and ‘bribes’ (i.e. political donations). And therefore this small number of ‘activist’ politicians becomes dependant on the political and financial support from other social movement supporters, and various other non-mainstream players. Here again, the principle of structural location determining the narrative applies: being an outsider, or small minority, in a political system can be liberating in terms of the views it becomes possible to express. But, at most times, lines of communication with the bigger structure need to remain open. This inevitably leads to some compromises being made – either to journalists, other minority politicians, to major parties, and to the voting public whose changing views may be relatively unknown. It is not surprising that Twitter and Facebook are so popular with all politicians. In the end it’s a numbers game.
Finally, all players in political processes are captives of the popular media. Popular media producers attempt to steer all political events – and are easily able to lock aspiring politicians into a ‘24/7’ media cycle. The role of ‘new’ social media may be destabilising to ‘old’ media dominance, but here again position in communicative structures determines narratives. Radical thoughts can be expressed on Twitter and Facebook, but their ability to be effective as broadcasts is limited by the resources and skills major media players can inject into the space (e.g. the use of mechanised ‘bots’ to muddy the waters, the hacking of personal emails and data bases, and the targeting of particular demographics).
In short, in the forthcoming Australian state elections, voting for independents, or even minority parties, is the only environmentally sensible thing to do. Voting for major parties is in effect an endorsement of a political status quo, and an endorsement of an increasingly unpopular system – one that is widely seen as corrupt, self serving, and ineffective.