Greens in Government in the ACT – reflections on successes and challenges from a former MLA

Caroline Le Couteur - Greens in Government in the ACT - reflections on success and challenges from a former MLA

I have had the privilege of being a member of the ACT Legislative Assembly twice. These are some personal observations about being a small part of the ACT government.

There are many ways to look at the success of the Greens party in government. Did it work for the Greens as a party? Did we improve the government and did the community support (ie vote for) us? On both of these measures it’s a mixed bag for the ACT Greens.

In 2020, our vote was 13.5%, down from our peak of 15.6% in 2008 before we had balance of power. However, it seems the people of Canberra are content with our government as the ALP has been in power since 2001, with the Greens in balance of power from 2008 and part of executive government or cabinet since 2012. The ACT is not perfect, but it is almost certainly better than it would be without the ACT Greens.

The 2020 Parliamentary and Governing agreement says “ACT Labor and the ACT Greens have, over two previous terms, demonstrated that we can work together in government to deliver the most progressive and reformist administration in Australia.” Certainly the ACT has led the way with greenhouse gas reductions, LGBTI rights, shifting taxation from stamp duty to rates, new light rail and human rights legislation. 

But it is not all good. The ACT has the dubious distinction of being the most expensive jurisdiction to rent in Australia and the Commissioner for the Environment has stated that the total ACT ecological footprint, as estimated in 2017–18, is nine times the size of the Territory. 

Being in government has clearly changed the ACT Greens. Our policies have become less idealistic and more able to be implemented and closer to our majority partner ACT Labor. One issue where this shows is management of kangaroos in urban areas. The ACT Greens have reluctantly accepted the need for kangaroo culling while Federal Greens have publically disagreed.

Partly this is capture by the ALP, partly it’s recognising the practical issues of governing. It has led to some people leaving the party and others joining. It has led to paid staff instead of an all volunteer organisation. Voting for the ACT Greens in the ACT election has become voting for the status quo, or voting against the Liberal Party, not a protest vote seeking change. 

The first time I was elected, I was one of four Greens in the17 member7th Assembly; the second time one of two Greens in a 25 member 9thAssembly. In both cases, the Greens had balance of power and supported a Labor minority government. However my experiences were very different. Partly that was due to the very different situation the Greens were in. In 2008,when I was first elected, three of the four Green MLAs were female, second time I was elected there were only two of us, and I was the only woman.

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When I was first elected, we took 2 weeks to decide who to support, Liberal or Labor party. We chose Labor with a formal Parliamentary Agreement (PA) for confidence and supply in exchange for a laundry list of policies to be implemented. In the first couple of years of that Assembly, we also achieved wins by cooperating with the Liberal party (opposition). That got less as the Assembly time passed,partly because the Liberals thought we got too much political credit for our joint initiatives and they wanted to differentiate from us.

We achieved most of the policy objectives in the PA – but the ALP got most of the political credit. Our major achievement was the ACT’s 40% legislated greenhouse gas reduction target.  

Being ‘in government’ certainly changed the Greens. We were always clear that we were the cross bench, but nonetheless we enabled the government. We were forced to defend government actions that our constituents did not like or feel were consistent with Greens values.Arguably some of the actions were not consistent; afterall it was an ALP government. I can remember many people asking how could we support a government that cut trees down or allowed unsustainable and ugly urban intensification? Many people wanted us to use what we called ‘the nuclear option’ ie saying we would vote the ALP out of power unless they did X. We had to explain that we could only do that once, and that on most issues, almost certainly the issue they were complaining about, the opposition was worse than the government.

At the next election in 2012, our vote reduced and only 1 Green was reelected – not me. Shane Rattenbury, our remaining Green member, had balance of power.

He supported the ALP and became a minister. Shane was one of the more experienced and capable members of the Assembly, so his position in the cabinet was an asset to the ACT government. However, it also integrated him into the ALP-dominated cabinet and government.

Next election, in 2016, our vote again decreased slightly to 10.3% but, as the size of the Assembly had increased, two Greens, Shane and I, were elected. We did not discuss supporting the Liberal party; it was just assumed we would support Labor. Again, we had a parliamentary agreement with a laundry list of policies and a commitment to confidence and supply.Shane continued as a minister while I thought of myself as a cross bencher but became more like a back bencher. As a minister, Shane, except for rare occasions, was committed to vote with his cabinet colleagues. As members of the same party, we both believed we should vote together.  This gave me a limited scope for action. It was very different from the 7th Assembly when the female dominated party room of four MLAs were peers with equal voices and not answerable to the government.

This made it almost impossible to work with the Liberal party on areassuch as housing affordability where I shared their concerns and the government was, at least in my opinion, failing.

The professional lobbyists also appreciated that the power wasin cabinet. Groups that had lobbied me as the relevant Greens spokesperson in the 7th assembly didn’t bother in the 9th

I was the chair of Assembly’s planning committee in the 9th Assembly and the other members of the committee, Liberal and Labor, were new MLAs. I confidently told them that if we could craft consensus recommendations on territory plan variations, the executive would almost certainly follow our recommendations. I was wrong; cabinet usually preferred the recommendations of its bureaucracy over that of any backbenchers.

I didn’t stand for reelection in 2020 as I was just getting too cynical. However, our vote increased by 3% while our elected members tripled. Worldwide, almost all governments were returned with increased majorities in Covid elections that year.

Being part of government clearly has positive and negatives. I’ll list some of the issues with a brief commentary. I’m looking at these as issues due to our position in government, not issues due to policy questions. Clearly these are written from the point of view of being the minor party in a government. When we become the sole party, or major party, then there will be other issues, I’m sure.

Differentiation from the major governing party

In my opinion, the ALP takes the Greens support for granted in the ACT.

The more closely and longer the ACT Greens support the ACT Labor as government, the closer the ACT Greens become to ACT Labor. When our policies are implemented, the ALP will always claim credit if it is popular. This is despite recognition for the Greens role being required by our agreements with the ALP.

Luckily for the ACT Greens, federal Labor is very different from us so there is no risk of confusion there. The politically active people of the ACT tend to focus on Federal issues; Canberra is after all the seat of the federal government. The Green vote in federal elections is a lot higher than in ACT elections, up to 23% in 2010 compared with our highest ACT Assembly vote of 15% in 2008.

Recently I had coffee with a couple of friends. Both had been members of the ACT Greens; both had left the party. Both of them no longer saw the ACT Greens as part of the solution; instead we are seen as part of the problem. Basically they see the ACT Greens as just part of the ACT ALP government. So do many people in the ACT. Many people have told me “Shane Rattenbury has sold the Greens out”. I don’t think that is true or fair to Shane but it’s very hard to look like a different party if your leader is a minister in the ACT Labor led government and you almost always vote with them.

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In the ACT, we have a progressive electorate and a weak right wing local liberal party as the opposition. It has seemed to me and others that the ACT Greens vote increases when the community is tired of the ALP but is not prepared to try the Liberal party. 

Cabinet or not?

In Australian governments, executive government – cabinet – determines the budget and the priorities for government action. So, if we are to really influence government outcomes, we need to have ministers at the cabinet table.

However there is a high price for this. We put forward a positive policy platform, and it gets reduced to a green tinged ALP government and we have to publically defend whatever the government does.

The Greens often complain about how big business, unions and industry groups have undue influence over government’s decisions.  There is no reason to think the ACT government is any different.  Green’s members of government often don’t have knowledge and social connections to know all about who will benefit from some government decisions.

It’s a hard role being a cabinet member, especially from the minor party. You cannot widely discuss issues with your party colleagues. And the priorities/values of the major party will not always be the same as yours,so you cannot just assume that you would support what other ministers are doing. Plus the rest of cabinet is also doing its best to ensure that your party does not do well and loses votes.

There is also a price to pay in terms of party relationships, both within elected members and the wider membership. The current agreement with the Labor party is called a “Parliamentary and Governing agreement’ while the previous ones were just Parliamentary Agreements. As well as the list of policies and commitment to confidence and supply, it commits all Greens members to vote with cabinet decisions except where the Greens ministers dissented in cabinet.

Ministers, Labor and Green, have to toe the government line and ensure that the back benchers do as well.

I am aware that back bench members of Parliaments in all parties often feel that they are not listened to by their cabinet colleagues and have to do what cabinet decides. However I suspect the situation is worse where the backbenchers are voting for policy determined by a cabinet dominated by another party.As I discussed above, this was an issue for me in the 9th Assembly. Back benchers do not have the information that ministers have, which adds to the problem.

As far as the wider party goes, most members are very proud and supportive of their elected members. However there are some who have left due to concerns about the ACT government’s actions.

ACT Greens ministers have usually been junior ministers under the control of senior ALP ministers. Shane Rattenbury, who in his 3rd ministerial appointment was promoted to Attorney General, is the one exception. The Green ministers have been given some of the portfolios where the chances of success are low, such as homelessness and housing complaints.  Interestingly, in the current Assembly the Chief Minister is Minister for Climate Action while a Green minister is minister for Water, Energy and Emissions Reduction. You could say the Chief Minister does the popular policies and giveaways while the Greens do the heavy lifting.

In the 7th Assembly, the Greens put in what were, in effect, cabinet submissions about budget spending with some success. Interestingly, the current PAGA refers to the 2 terms of the Assembly when the Greens had a minister, but not the term before when we had balance of power.

Given the importance of cabinet, the Greens having a seat at the table is an important goal. I think we should try to make it work better. This would mean making the relationships between minor and major party as well as minister and backbencher more equal. 

We should loosen requirements for cabinet solidarity (ie all cabinet publicly supporting cabinet decisions), and requirements for back benchers to vote with and support cabinet decisions. Making information available is a part of good governance. As far as I can tell, both from my past as a public servant as well as an MLA, much of what is in cabinet submissions is actually already in the public domain or, if not, will be as soon as the decision is made and published.  Cabinet submissions could usually be made public once the decision is made. And if they cannot be, ministers should be asking what are they hiding and why?

Turning policies into practice

In Government, Greens can actually implement the policies we have been pushing. However it is easier to write bold policies than implement them.

If Greens are not in majority government then which policies are implemented and how they are implemented will be at least partly determined by other parties. We run the risk of concentrating on the less important or being blamed for unpopular policies that are not core policies for the Greens.

Relationship with other parties

If the Greens are to really have balance of power, then there must be some possibility of us working with more than one other party. If we are 100% committed to one party, then we become like a faction of that party, or like the National and Liberal Party relationship. That seems to be where the ACT Green and ACT Labor relationship is heading.

Despite policy differences, all political parties in Australia have the aim of improving the welfare of people in Australia. Thus some political cooperation is possible. This can be especially so in local issues which are often not party political. This is an area where I think the ACT Greens could and should do better.

Better governance

The first ACT Green-Labor parliamentary agreement was written by a party that had not held the balance of power in its own right before. It has a section headed “Accountability and Collaboration”. It had a lot about information sharing, resource provision and collaboration. In contrast the 9thAssembly’s PAGA is only concerned about information for Labor and Green MLAs. Neither government party seems to want to provide information to the opposition or the community. This is also relevant to Cabinet secrecy which I discussed above.

This seems to me to be wrong as a matter of principle and an illustration of how being in government has changed the ACT Greens. It is also shortsighted as the Greens may not always be part of government and will need better access to information if that happens. 

Think tank

In many jurisdictions, Greens play the role of a policy think tank for other parties as eventually they see the wisdom of our policies. It is important that this role continues and we do not become so close to government and all the day to day issues that we cannot think ahead for better policies for better outcomes.

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Conclusion – Greens in Government should be bold and values-driven

We all know that everywhere current government policies will lead to significant climate change and perpetuate or increase inequality. Our governments just aren’t good enough.  Greens should be in government.

When we are in Government we should push policies that are needed, not just what we think will keep us in government, or get us in. We need to be clear about limitations to action and be bold in action.

We should not agree to support all government policies or cabinet decisions. We should not restrict our ability to work with all political parties. I think it is in the Greens’ interests to have public disagreements with all other parties and to support all other parties where our policies align. And, regardless of the restraints on any elected member who may be in cabinet, our other elected members should always be free to follow party policy and their conscience.

May there be more Greens in Government!

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