Federal Labor has paid a huge price for creating conflicts in Brand Labor before and during the election campaign. Here’s how Hugh MacKay put it in the Sydney Morning Herald …

(Labor’s) degenerative thinking that has led us to adopt increasingly presidential-style campaign methods. Leaders as brands; endless repetition of vacuous slogans; craven dependence on the dreaded focus groups; more sizzle than sausage. It devalues the real electoral process, and diminishes the significance of each elected representative. (1)

The increase in support for the Greens has been interpreted as a reaction to the flaws of both the Labor and Liberal parties, both of which are perceived as parties without principle – no honesty, backroom deals, public exclusion, uncaring about our environment and climate etc.

Over time, the Greens have successfully built a brand based on principles which include ecology, social justice, and democracy. Each of those principles is broken into strategies (e.g. increasing public participation) and is publicly published in the Green’s Charter (2).

In general, people admire principle because it forms the basis for trust. If we know that a person or group will stick to their principles, then we know that we can trust them in that context. The Greens Charter tells the public what the Greens will support, and by extension, what they will, and will not, do.

Violations of the Charter would indicate that the Charter is really just a piece of paper that is there to give the impression of principle.

The people of the world do not hate us for our values and principles – they hate us for our lack of them. US commentator

Secret talks

Recently in Tasmania there has been growing disquiet about ‘secret talks’ that are taking place between a small group of environmental NGO charities and a larger number of forest industry groups, called the ‘round table’.

Concerns expressed on public websites such as Tasmanian Times (3) are related to reports that the ‘round table’ will divert more public monies to the industry coupled with support for plantation based forestry and a pulp mill to process the pulp wood from plantations. These talks have taken place without public involvement.

Environmental blogger’s concerns have centred around the damage created by the support of monoculture practices, the lack of public participation in deciding matters with such a broad range of impacts, and the appropriateness (or otherwise) of such a group making such far reaching decisions. The ‘round table’ methods appear to be in violation of the Greens’ Charter of principles.

The development of such concerns can be seen as an early indication that the Greens’ brand is under threat – in other words influential Green supporters are becoming confused and concerned about what the Greens actually stand for.

If that continues then the Greens risk a substantial erosion of the trust that people have in them.

The Greens’ close association with various environmental NGOs that articulate policies or directions that conflict with Green principles and with community views, compounds the problem.

The ABC reports (4) that the Wilderness Society supports a pulp mill in Tasmania to assist the forest industry. Since there is only one approved mill ‘on the table’, many are concerned that the ‘round table’ talks will segue into some kind of OK for the Long Reach (Bell Bay) mill proposed by Gunns.

Questions have also been raised about how a tax exempt charity such as the Wilderness Society can approve or support particular industries, and consequently about what the Wilderness Society’s agenda/role really is. E.g. is it a lobbyist for the wilderness or a political lobbyist for industry?

Defensiveness and avoidance

Defensiveness and avoidance are usually associated with guilt. Instead of dealing openly and honestly with issues, peoples’ views have been derided or they are personally attacked by Greens’ members.

One person (S) within the Greens challenged support for the ’round table’ because their actions were inconsistent with the Greens Charter, and therefore with their principles. Instead of answering those concerns, a Green insider proposed that (S) leave the Greens party.

It is a very ominous sign when people are asked to leave because they argue for adherance to the organisation’s core principles.

This was further compounded when some community campaigners with substantial influence and credibility, were told by a Green candidate to ‘get involved and encourage changes from the inside’.

The result of these two opposing positions is that if you want to criticize from within you should get out and if you want to criticize from outside then you should join.

This is a lose/lose paradigm that makes no sense and indicates a serious lack of leadership in policing what the Greens stand for.

At least some influential Green members appear to neither want constructive criticism from external supporters, nor from internal party members. That only leaves unquestioning conformity as an option – the same kind of monocultural thinking that has brought down so many organizations and countries.

Successful organizations listen carefully to their critics because they are providing a service – they are showing the organization how they might improve and sharing different perspectives with them.

TT as a research tool

The commentary on Tasmanian Times and elsewhere provides a relevant social kaleidoscope.

On the TT threads in the last week we’ve seen influential Green party members:-
• defending apparently serious breaches of the Green’s own principles (as per their Charter) of democracy and ecology,
• telling us that the Greens must be ‘pragmatic’ and compromise, and
• making derisory attacks on those who point out the risks to the Greens of their breaching their own Charter.

On the TT threads in the last week we’ve seen (4) Green insiders defending apparently serious breaches of the Greens’ own principles (as per their Charter) of democracy and ecology, telling us that the Greens must be ‘pragmatic’ and compromise, and engage in derisory attacks on those who point out the risks to the Greens of their breaching their own Charter. We’ve even been told that now 2 Green politicians are sitting with Labor in Parliament that we must now start thinking about timber workers etc, while casting much of the Greens’ own support base as uncompromising ‘die hards’. Presumably this position means that compromise is desirable or necessary.

Think about that – the Greens’ most ardent supporters being dismissed as ‘die hards’ by a Greens candidate. What sort of reversals in brand does that indicate? The Greens have been fairly consistent in demanding that their spokespeople are ‘on message’. What message is ‘on’ here?

What message is being sent by the two Green politicians in the Labor/Green government when they absent themselves from debate which is contrary to Green policies? From the perspective of voters who are paying for representation, it could well seem that the Green members are disenfranchising the voters by refusing to represent the ideals that they voted for.

Principled…or not

In organisational and marketing work, it isn’t possible to have ‘occasional’ principles. Either the organisation supports them wholeheartedly, or it does not. The principles of an organization are what give it meaning and purpose – they are its raison d’être.

On the other side of the coin, the negative connotations of the term ‘without principle’ are well known.

The Greens’ Charter says that the Greens want to ‘ensure’ the ‘integrity of ecosystems’ and ‘not impair biodiversity’ hence it is reasonable to suppose that a major commitment of public funds and priorities to massive monocultures would be of major concern to the Greens and would not be supported by them without clear and well-articulated reasons and a robust public debate. Their Charter also supports the principle of democracy as evidenced by public participation, yet the ‘round table’ talks exclude the public despite their being about public assets.

Dissonance occurs in people’s minds when what the Greens state publicly (e.g. in their Charter) as being of prime importance to them, differs from how they behave in practice. That effect is usually seen as an important warning sign of brand ambiguity – in other words people becoming confused about what the Greens stand for.. We also saw brand conflict recently with the Wilderness Society undergoing severe internal difficulties for the same kinds of reason – internal dissonance.

What is the heart?

I argue that the heart of the Greens must be its Charter of Principles. Without adherence to those principles ‘the Greens’ is just the name for a group of followers dedicated to some common cause (e.g. seeking political power) that can change ‘pragmatically’.

The Charter should act as a beacon for a set of principles that, if followed, will lead people to a more sustainable and desirable future.

So if a Greens insider states that (the Greens) “…may have to compromise on some points…” I feel entirely justified in asking ‘What compromises? Who decides? and…Does this mean the Green’s principles are flexible and if so which ones?’

And why describe their most dedicated supporters as ‘die hard’? Does this signal a shift towards the other parties and away from their past support base? A move to embrace the middle ground already held by Labor?
I suggest it’s time for the Greens and their supporters to take a reality check.

Many of the people on TT who have expressed concern about the ‘round table’ and its potential risks are individuals who, over many years, have demonstrated a genuine commitment to protect the environment and Tasmania’s various smaller businesses. They are the Greens’ heartland.

I believe that those people’s views are worthy of respect. When prominent and influential members of the Greens deride them or their views, they create questions about the Greens which contribute to a growing sense of unease.

Furthermore, when Green members fail to support their Charter, they risk being seen as either ambivalent about their principles (i.e. just like the other political parties), or uncaring of how people see their support of those principles. In conjunction with ‘secret round tables’ and proposed big payments to forestry while our hospitals are short of money, this could all quickly escalate into a growing distrust of the Greens. Look how quickly the Democrats’ vote collapsed after Meg Lees supported a GST.

Doing what’s convenient

Bob Brown cannot be there forever. At some point change must occur – what then?

How can any of us be sure that the Greens will continue to support the principles that have stood them in good stead over so long? If their own members have become ‘die hards’ and their priorities must now include timber workers in a ‘deal broking’ party that must be ‘pragmatic’ and ‘compromise’, what are the Greens becoming? What will their distinctive features be? Will they have any?

Of course, this kind of direction by the Greens will be supported by conventional power groups like forestry but that simply adds to public concerns.

People who trusted the Greens are hoping for something better than the Lib/Labs, and betrayals of the publics’ trust and confidence are unlikely to be forgiven.

Let’s face it, the whole pulp mill saga in Tasmania could only occur because the Labor government was ‘pragmatic’ and adhered to no principles of representation or duty of care. Among other things they abandoned independent review (the RPDC), they left the public out of consideration, they ignored socio-economic impacts, they legislated the laws of natural justice out of reach, and they used our money to fund an industry that was damaging us. Their actions were a perfect example of lack of principle.

Now we see environmental NGO charities headed down the same path, apparently supported by various Greens despite their actions being in defiance of the principles in the Greens’ Charter.

It would be helpful if the Greens showed that they recognised the warning signals for what they are and took a leadership position and acted to police their own principles in order to set to rest the many concerns articulated by their own constituencies.

Will the Greens act to support their principles and protect their heartland?

Watch this space

Mike Bolan

is a complex systems consultant, change facilitator and executive/management coach.

Note. The author welcomes constructive criticism and new information that adds to our understanding of these matters.

1. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/the-election-everyone-lost-except-the-system-20100910-154uz.html
2. http://greens.org.au/charter
3. http://oldtt.pixelkey.biz/index.php?/weblog/article/karl1/show_comments
4. http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2010/08/27/2994959.htm