(Meg) Lees Law – or why the Greens & Tea Party types are useless in real politics

STONE the crows! Why is everybody amazed Green is no longer for go?

Last week’s Newspoll showed the Greens are losing support, with a three and half year low 8 per cent primary vote. [i] The only thing confounding the Crows is that it has taken this long for the slide to start, one that pundits aplenty now think will continue. [ii] Because the Greens are, like all morally superior minority parties of right and left, to practical politics what bagpipes are to music – loud, whiney and a blessed relief when they stop.

Perhaps this is why Bob Brown decided in April 2012 that it was time to go, realising that the number of voters who like the skirl of the political pipes had peaked.[iii] (Although offering to assist in negotiating a preference deal with the Libs for Adam Bandt hints at relevance deprivation syndrome.[iv])

The Greens have reached the inevitable point for third parties where (Meg) Lees Law kicks in and they are faced with a no-win choice between purity and policy.

Lees Law governs anti-politics parties which (a) present themselves as an alternative to the main player on their side of the partisan divide, (b) say anything that appeals to the moral vanity of their constituents and (c) because they have no expectation or interest in the grind of governing make promises for which there is no possibility of the state paying.

The law holds that when confronted with a political issue, when their position is actually important, anti-political parties have two options, both of which cause them to implode. With option one, they make a practical decision based on political reality, thus alienating supporters who are not interested in the inevitable compromises which governing requires. With option two, they remain aloof. This pleases the faithful, but demonstrates to the electorate at large that the party is play-acting at politics.

Back in 1999, Democrats leader Meg Lees acted in the national interest by backing the GST. This enraged the anguished who supported the party because it allowed them to oppose everything while proposing nothing, at least nothing financially sensible or politically possible.

By accepting that politics is the art of the possible, Senator Lees ended the illusion that the pure can be anything other than impotent. As the terms of her agreement with John Howard demonstrate, she extracted a price for her support, but this was not enough for Democrats supporters who preferred accomplishing nothing to not getting everything.[v] While the party took a long and loud time to die, it was doomed when Lees chose policy over purity.

Christine Milne set the Greens on the second, equally unavoidable, path to perdition in August when she picked purity over policy and refused to get on board with what the government’s independent advisors advocated – a bipartisan agreement on offshore processing for boat people.[vi]

The moment before Bob Brown announced his resignation was probably the Greens’ high-water mark, the apogee of influence provided by Julia Gillard’s error of judgement in paying too high a price for Green support for her minority government

If so, Senator Milne’s refusal to participate in the real world of politics just four months later was the moment the ebbing tide revealed the Greens’ ship of state was holed below the waterline.

Senator Milne argues the fall in the polls isn’t her fault. “It may well be that people have misunderstood I think a lot about the asylum-seeker debate,” she said[vii] But voters know a craft that cannot navigate the boundless sea of politics when they see one.

The curse for political parties that are not actually in the business of politics is that they lack a governing compass to chart a course to the only destination that interests the electorate – a fair society where equality of opportunity is a given and there is a functioning economy to pay for it.

Parties that have no experience or apparent interest in governing, as opposed to grandstanding, are ultimately doomed whether they compromise or stick to their principles. In the end, people want grownups making the decisions.

What confounds the Crows is the way the commentariat mistakes third party hand-wringing and promises of the impossible for practical politics.

There is an excellent example of this in Aaron Sorkin’s screwball agit-prop dramedy The NewsRoom (which the Crows seem alone in enjoying – Ian Cuthbertson called it “the greatest load of bilge served up as great TV since Dallas,” on the weekend). [viii]

Starting with The American President (1995) and right through The West Wing, Sorkin slagged the Republican right and now he is devoting an entire series to attacking the Tea Party movement.[ix] In last week’s episode, Tea Partiers were presented as bigoted dupes of sinister robber baron capitalists whose obsession with ending deficit spending is financially illiterate.[x]

The program’s premise is that voters will never work out the dangers of single-issue ideologues without the help of well-educated journalists. So the episode was awash with warnings that could have come from the Obama campaign.

It was as over-wrought as it was unnecessary.

While the Crows have no psephological feathers to fly with, they predict that the Tea Party will be out of business by the time of the congressional elections midway through President Obama’s second term. The more the electorate learns about its agenda, the less they like it. While support has stayed stable, since 2010, the movement’s unfavourable rating has more than doubled to 28 per cent. [xi]

The reason is they stand for nothing other than cutting spending – which is tricky when the only way to really make an impact on the US deficit is to reduce health and welfare outlays, which elderly Tea Party types use.[xii]

As Clarence Page puts it, the Tea Party relies on “magical thinking”, “a blissfully simplistic, ideologically driven world view that seems to think candidates can win votes by promising to reduce popular government services.”[xiii]

The Tea Party faces the same problem as the Greens. Politicians who sell themselves as the nation’s conscience are useless in negotiations. If they realise this, and try to adjust, they lose face with their friends. If they stick to their principles, they alienate voters who want governments to govern, which inevitably involves compromise.

Lees Law ensures the politically pure never last long. Purity makes politics impossible. What the electorate wants is people in power with the moral courage to make the unpopular decisions and distasteful compromises that governing always involve.


[i] Dennis Shanahan, “Labor momentum stalls as support for Greens hits three-year low,” The Australian, September 4

[ii] Christian Kerr, “A paler shade of Green,” The Australian, September 8

[iii] Ben Packham and James Massola, “Bob Brown quits as Greens leader, to be replaced by Christine Milne,” The Australian, April 13

[iv] Christian Kerr and Matthew Denholm, “Preferences up for grabs to save Greens’ Adam Bandt,” The Australian, September 7

[v] Prime Minister Howard’s June 22 1999 agreement with Senator Lees on the terms of the GST is at http://australianpolitics.com/1999/06/22/howards-commitments-to-meg-lees-on-the-gst.html recovered on September 8

[vi] Australian Greens, “The worst of coalition policies past and present will not save refugees’ lives,” August 13 @ http://greens.org.au/content/worst-coalition-policies-past-and-present-will-not-save-refugees’-lives-0 recovered on September 8

[vii] Ben Packham, “Greens boat policy misunderstood: Christine Milne,” The Australian, September 4

[viii] Ian Cuthbertson, “The Newsroom,” The Australian, September 7

[ix] Alex Pareene, “Aaron Sorkin versus reality,” Salon, July 19 @ http://www.salon.com/2012/07/19/aaron_sorkin_versus_frivolity/ recovered on September 7

[x] The News Room, “112th Congress”, Soho TV, September 3 @ www.sohotv.com.au/whats-on/series/episodes.aspx?s=8 recovered on September 8

[xi] CBS News Poll August 22-26 @ @ www.pollingreport.com/politics.htm

recovered on September 8

[xii] Timothy Noah, “Why Tea Party seniors adore Ryan,” Real Clear Politics August 15 www.realclearpolitics.com/2012/08/15/why_tea_party_seniors_adore_ryan_287554.html

[xiii] Clarence Page, “Tea Party movement’s magical thinking,” Real Clear Politics, August 15 http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2012/08/15/tea_party_movements_magical_thinking_115110.html recovered on September 8