Saturday, 12 October 2019

Book review: Inside the Greens, Paddy Manning (2019)

This is a useful book but it’s a bit of a hybrid. The first section, which is made up of 11 chapters that chronicle the emergence and changing fortunes of the political movement we know as the Greens, right up to the 2019 federal election, is good but the second half – which I didn’t complete – appeared to be a sort of policy document designed to provide a platform for the party to engage with the community.

Even in the first half of the book the scholarship is sometimes unconventional due to the fact that Manning is not a historian. Not that professional historians are not allowed to have personal opinions or to express them in their works. But Manning is not just any journalist, he is one who is personally invested in the subject he has chosen to study. As a result, you are inclined to wonder about objectivity when the author chooses certain events or certain words to include in the text – often quotations taken, presumably, from interviews conducted with politicians – in place of others.

I had trouble classifying this book as it does contain a lot of history but it also reads in part like journalism, especially in the second section of the book. I finally plumped for “history” on account of the strength of its first section, which represents a significant accomplishment.

The Greens have been at the forefront of a number of useful initiatives that turned out to be ahead of their time. Barack Obama, who started the “Green New Deal” theme in American politics, also led on the environment.

But the Greens have also been behind some disastrous failures, such as the Labor Party’s policies on negative gearing, family trusts, and the capital gains tax concession. These tax policies unquestionably helped to give the Liberal-National coalition (one of the major forces in Australian politics; they sit on the right of the political spectrum) a lower-house majority following the May federal election. Labor was predicted, in all of the available opinion polls, to win the contest. But the Greens have often struggled with policies other than ones dealing with the environment, and Manning competently details these struggles in the book.

When the Murdoch press talked, in a predictably biased way, about the motorised cavalcade into Queensland led by former Australian Greens leader Bob Brown that was designed to protest against a coal mine that the local subsidiary of the Indian conglomerate Adani Group planned to build in the Galilee basin, I understood Manning’s frustration. But Brown’s highly visible stunt did in fact turn off a majority of Queensland voters, especially in the regions, basically ensuring that the Coalition won more seats in the Senate than they had held there before the federal election. I lived in Queensland for over five years and I can say, from personal experience, that Queenslanders hate little more than being told what to do by educated lefties from the southern states.

All these things were neatly summed up by a tweet from the Australian (a Murdoch outlet) on 6 October at 2.14pm that said, “Bill Shorten concedes he misread the mood of voters who saw Labor as anti-worker and 'green-left'.” Shorten had been the leader of Labor at the time of the election – in fact he had been party leader for a number of years by that time. The tweet came with a link to a story on the newspaper’s website titled, “Shorten: Labor loss my fault.” I don’t have a subscription to the paper so I didn’t read the story but later the same day the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) tweeted, “Bill Shorten has accepted blame for Labor's surprise election loss as the party prepares to release an election post-mortem in which he is expected to feature heavily.” The story started with this:
Former opposition leader Bill Shorten says he "misread" the level of anxiety caused by Labor's franking credit policy and failed to promise enough tax cuts to people earning under $125,000 a year to win the May election.
The franking credits issue, like the other tax policies noted above, would have hit retirees hard (I wrote about this problem in February, three months before the election).  Later on, further down the page, the SMH story went:
Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said Mr Shorten had "set an example for the rest of us" by taking responsibility for the loss. 
"We did have some big, controversial tax policies, and we did spread ourselves too thinly on the commitments that we made, that that growth story was obscured, and we got in our own way a little bit," he said on [Murdoch-controlled] Sky News. "We can't afford to drag our bums around and mope around about the last election. We need to look to the future."
Franking credits are tax refunds available for retired shareholders. Because companies pay income tax, the government decides that shareholders do not have to pay tax on money earned, as a result of owning shares, in the form of dividends. But under the existing system, even if you pay no income tax, you still receive a payment from the government equal to the income tax paid by the company relative to that part of its equity that you hold.

Negative gearing is where the expenses incurred from owning an investment property – such as council rates and the interest owing on your mortgage (if you don’t own the property outright) – are deducted from the assessable total income you present to the Australian Tax Office when you lodge your annual tax return.

As for capital gains tax, tax has to be paid on part of the difference between what your investment property cost and what it realised upon sale – this is called the “capital gain” – but only on the first 50 percent of it. Labor had wanted to reduce that to the first 25 percent with the exception of properties that had been bought before the new law would be passed (this is called “grandfathering”). Another exception would have been newly-built properties, which would have still attracted the full, 50-percent tax concession.

Labor had also wanted to reduce the amount of benefit that could be realised through the use of family trusts, which many retirees use to organise their money. On 21 January 2019 the website Accountants Daily, which is operated by Momentum Media, published a story about the Labor policy. It included this:
About two years ago, opposition leader Bill Shorten announced that Labor would reform the taxation of discretionary trusts to prevent income from being allocated to household members in lower tax brackets. 
As part of its reforms, Mr Shorten outlined that Labor would introduce a minimum 30 per cent tax rate for discretionary trust distributions to adults. 
Following the release of a report on trusts and the tax system by RMIT University this week, shadow treasurer Chris Bowen said that Labor’s proposed trust tax would eliminate “tax loopholes” costing the budget “billions of dollars through tax, avoiding income tax shuffles including income splitting via beneficiaries”.
As a result of its poor judgement, Labor lost to the Coalition. As part of the deck-clearing Labor carried out following the loss, Shorten and Bowen both lost their jobs.

As for Adani’s coal mine, the SMH ran a story on 10 October, just before this review was published, titled, “'Clumsy' Adani arguments left Labor voters feeling abandoned: Richard Marles.” The first two paragraphs of the story went:
Deputy Labor leader Richard Marles concedes the opposition's "clumsy" attempts to "walk the tightrope" on Adani during the federal election campaign left the party's traditional voter base feeling abandoned. 
As a new split opens up within Labor over climate policy and how to win back middle Australia, the senior Victorian MP will say in a speech on Thursday night that the party's line on blue-collar regional jobs - especially in regional Queensland - left voters feeling they "looked down" on them.
So, as far as this story implies, Labor would in future back down from criticism of fossil fuel industries.

On balance, I learned a lot from reading Manning’s book so am grateful for the work he undertook to produce it. The Greens are a bit different from other Australian political parties, especially the majors (Labor and the Liberals), because of the relatively flat organisational structure they use. This impacts on certain aspects of the Greens’ operation, such as funding and the formulation of policy. It gives the grassroots more influence but this, as it turns out, and as Manning demonstrates, is not always as good as it sounds. As a history of the creation of a political party, Manning’s book cannot be ignored. And this publication is, as recent events have shown, extremely timely.

The book furthermore confirmed things that I have for some time understood about the politics of Australia since, in the early 1980s, I became aware of such a thing even though, in my twenties, I was far more interested in art and literature than I was in politics. At the end of March I wrote a post that contains a bit about the rise of the Greens and the matching rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (a conservative and populist political party) and, in the light of what Manning puts in this book, I stand by what I said then. For me, reading this book (bar most of the second half, as already noted) was time well spent. 

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