Green Tea party

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ABC The Drum Unleashed 13th April, 2010

Call it Tea Party derangement syndrome.

For the ABC's Kim Landers, writing on The Drum a fortnight ago, the Tea Party Movement inspired thoughts "about the rise of One Nation and Pauline Hanson in Australia."

And in the National Times in February, Bella Counihan speculated about the possibility of Hanson running as a Tea Party sponsored candidate.

The Tea Party Movement has been a force in US politics for more than a year now, arising in February 2009 to oppose George Bush's extraordinary bailouts of the banking system.

But what seems to really perplex Australian commentators is the idea that an American grassroots movement could be against Barack Obama's health care reform. Many Australians seem to imagine that being anti-Obama's plan is same as being pro-death - how could people be protesting it?

But the Obama plan is less about ensuring free health care than making it illegal for individuals not to buy health insurance. And the plan eliminates many low-cost insurance options, compelling nearly a third of the country to switch to more expensive insurance.

So putting aside the occasional Tea Party hyperbole - Barack Obama is not literally a member of the Communist Party - being opposed to the health care legislation isn't a priori evidence of craziness.

Pauline Hanson's supporters had a scattershot animosity towards immigrants, aborigines, and greenies. The Tea Party Movement is concerned about a much more prosaic thing: the reckless spending of the federal government.

Certainly, George Bush was a massive spender. Of all the presidents since the Second World War, only Lyndon Johnson increased federal spending more than Bush did.

But Barack Obama makes Bush administration look cheap. His proposed budget for this year increases taxes by $3 trillion over the next decade. And his policies will increase the national debt will by $9.7 trillion.

Few areas of the federal spending are as out of control as health care. Obama's plan will do nothing to keep down costs.

And the US government now pretty much owns General Motors.

Is being opposed to a massive transfer of wealth from taxpayers to bailout private banks and car companies, or being opposed to massive tax hikes and huge budget deficits, really the same as claiming that we're being swamped by Asians?

The Tea Party was sparked by the extraordinary bailouts at the start of the financial crisis, but there has been distress within American conservative circles about uncontrolled government spending for some time.

Porkbusters was a campaign started in 2005, dedicated to exposing examples of government waste. Things like $1.8 million for swine odor and manure management research, and $50 million for an indoor rain forest for Iowa, slipped innocuously into an unrelated energy bill.

It was Porkbusters which exposed plans for the infamous "bridge to nowhere" - a federally funded, $398 million bridge to an island in Alaska that has fifty inhabitants and an airport. The island was already serviced by a ferry every half an hour. Sarah Palin campaigned on a "build the bridge" platform when she was running for Alaskan governor in 2006.

The bridge was cancelled. Palin now claims to be a born-again Tea Partier, dedicated to opposing pork in all its forms.

Clearly the movement has a quality control problem.

There is a belief that if Obama tackles immigration reform, the Tea Party movement will reveal itself as nativist and anti-immigration. But a recent survey of Tea Party members found their views on immigration roughly corresponded with those of the general US population.

That's not to say there aren't members who want to crack down on illegal immigrants. Tom Tancredo, a prominent anti-immigration Republican, addressed the Tea Party national convention in February this year.

Dick Armey (chair of the conservative group FreedomWorks and as close to a "leader" as the Tea Party movement has) is trying to keep voices like Tancredo out.

But worse again: the convention also controversially invited a 'birther' to speak, who wanted to ensure "signs saying 'Where's the Birth Certificate'" followed Obama everywhere in the 2012 campaign.

These distasteful elements are a direct result of the Tea Party's lack of structure and leadership. On the one hand, the Tea Party is being courted by mainstream Republicans looking for endorsement. But on the other hand, fringe groups like the Larouchites, birthers, 9/11 truthers, and the John Birch crowd see the Tea Party Movement as a possible vehicle for their own message.

It's messy. But it's no more messy than the writhing mass of ideologies and agitators who comprised the Vietnam-era New Left.

There is one parallel between One Nation and the Tea Party Movement. Their members feel ignored and disenfranchised by politicians and political elites.

Both want governments to justify their decisions to the people.

That's not necessarily a bad thing.