Just Can't Swing


The Victorian Greens should have been able to give Labor a run for their money in the Albert Park by-election last Saturday – but they didn’t. Instead of experiencing the traditional by-election swing against them, Labor retained the seat with an increased primary vote. It was the best result for a Government in a by-election since 1982.

So why did the Greens fail to win a seat that was set up for them to win? Why didn’t they even reduce Labor’s margin in what is a classic Green-friendly seat – inner suburban, with a young-ish demographic switched on to politics, and with strong local issues like the Government’s proposed dredging of the bay and the Albert Park Grand Prix ? And what does this mean for the Greens in the Federal campaign?

As Greg Barber, the Greens de facto Victorian leader suggested in the wash up on Sunday, it was all down to dirty politics. He was right about that but it was not, as he suggested, Labor’s dirty politics.

There are always plenty of slightly mad amateur politicians to add colour to a by-election. Take for example independent Adrian Jackson, a former Liberal who was expelled from the party after banning Americans and Israelis from his Middle Park bed & breakfast. Or the even wackier Liberal Prodos Marinakis  who used to be a communist and now writes lyrical punk rock odes to the wonders of free-market capitalism – running as an independent.

But the Greens were supposed to be the mature opposition in this race, given the absence of the Liberal Party (and State Opposition leader Ted Baillieu’s tacit endorsement of the Greens: ‘I am not somebody who is going to advocate a vote for the Labor Party, that’s for sure, in either seat. I think the Labor Party needs a good kick up the bum’). And in order to provide a serious opposition, you need to provide more than just a feel-good image.

The Greens are masters of the feel-good brand. Their message has been that by voting for the Greens Party you are ‘doing something’ about the environment regardless of whether the Green (if elected) will be in a position to affect environmental change.

The Greens also bank on providing a place for soft Labor voters to park their vote when they feel the ALP has let them down on a particular issue. In fact, taking votes from Labor while preserving the Liberal vote has been their strategy for some time as was detailed in the ‘For Green Eyes Only’ dossier they prepared on why the Greens failed to pick up Lindsay Tanner’s seat of Melbourne in the 2004 Federal election.

The Greens’ strategy is at odds with the fuzzy feel-good brand they need to project to keep their traditional voters. They’re caught in a classic Catch-22. They need to go after Labor votes hard to increase the size of the base and become a third force of Australian politics that actually has some force. Yet the harder they go in, the more they turn off their traditional voters, undermining their base.

Their Albert Park campaign was doomed to failure because they didn’t have a clear strategy. They were not going to win this by-election by pitching themselves to disaffected Labor voters they needed to pick up the Liberal voters who were left with nowhere to turn when their party made the tactical decision to save funds for the Federal fight. But their strategy has been to go after the Labor vote for so long, and the Liberal philosophy is so alien to them, that they had absolutely no idea where to start.

So they stuck with what they knew which quickly came unstuck in the face of a Labor campaign designed to highlight the fact that the Greens are more than a pleasantly fuzzy bunch of idealists.

For some time Labor has been drawing attention the Greens’ preference deal with the Liberals before the last election, and their subsequent record of voting largely with the Liberals in the Victorian upper house through billboards, a website and statements in Parliament and the media.

To this, Labor added an attack on the Greens’ policy of phasing out selective State schools like MacRobertson’s Girls’ School, sending a direct mail letter to all Albert Park households from Sue Loukomitis, a fomer MacRob student (who is also the general manager of Auspoll, one of the polling companies the ALP uses). The letter was not on ALP letterhead, but was easily linked back to the Labor Party as it was authorised by Stephen Newnham, Labor’s State Secretary.

Loukomitis expressed her dismay about the policy dismay that came across as genuine when she was interviewed on 3LO about her role in the direct mail campaign. But the Greens reacted by branding the letter ‘Labor lies!’ the same line that Greg Barber plastered across Labor’s billboard depicting him as the Liberal Party’s mini-me.

Is accusing your political opponents of lying great politics when they’re actually directly quoting your own policy? Unless you’re willing to do a political backflip immediately, it takes quite some weasling to try to convince voters either that it’s not really what you meant, or that it wasn’t really what you said. The Greens tried claiming that what the policy actually meant was that they want all schools to be as good as MacRob. But that was never going to wash with the voters.

And in accusing Labor of lying, they showed that they are not above dirty political tricks as their brand would have you believe. In fact, their whole campaign for the by-election was focused on countering Labor’s anti-Green advertising.

By failing to capture any attention for their own issues holding the Government accountable, the dredging of the bay and the Albert Park Grand Prix the Greens proved that the Labor strategy of attacking the Greens brand is tactically astute and can provide a template for inner-city seats in the Federal election.

And by failing to secure a swing against Labor in a by-election, they have effectively silenced Labor’s own internal critics who nervously felt that going in hard against the Greens would prove counter-productive.

In fact, the strategy proved so productive that the Greens could only really have performed more poorly had they (as Prodos Marinakis, ex-communist turned freaky Libertarian punk rocker did) gone out on Saturday armed with ‘ how-to-vote cards, corflutes, and a copy of Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead … to meet the good people of the Albert Park district.’
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