The Wrong End Of The How To Vote Card


As William Bowe (aka The Poll Bludger) has already noted, "many a column inch has been spent on the Liberals’ bombshell preference announcement" to put the Greens last in all 88 lower house seats in the upcoming Victorian election.

But it is a sufficiently interesting, and potentially ground-shifting decision by the Liberals that it merits further column inches, including here at New Matilda. Up for grabs is both what the decision may mean for the future electoral and parliamentary strength of the Greens (or "the Greens Political Party", as John Brumby insists) and the longer term consequences for the Liberals and Labor too.

The obvious immediate consequence of the preference decision is that it will be harder for the Greens to win lower house seats in the Victorian election — and also in future elections elsewhere if the Liberals adopt the same approach. It is unclear precisely how much harder it will be, as there is little precedent to go by to help psephologists such as Antony Green estimate how strongly the preferences of Liberal voters will flow to Labor in accordance with the Liberals how to vote cards.

But while this move does set the bar higher for the Greens in winning lower house seats, it also legitimises the Greens as a serious player in the political landscape. As William Bowe writes, the Liberal Party’s decision "further enhanc(es) the campaign’s status as the most Greens-centric in mainland Australian history." A more "Greens-centric" campaign doesn’t mean the Greens will get enough votes to win seats, given the new difficulty in getting enough preferences from Liberal voters. But it does mean more people will give more thought as to whether or not they should vote Green, and there is a fair prospect that the Greens’ primary vote will rise even further if people see this as another sign of just how closely aligned the ALP and the Liberal party have become.

For years, voters have heard the misleading, endlessly chanted mantra from the conservatives that "a vote for the Greens is a vote for Labor". This election will now raise the curious situation in a number of seats where the comment can be made that a vote for Liberal is a vote for Labor!

It is no coincidence that voices from the hard right of the Liberal Party were strongest in urging the Liberals to put the Greens last on their how to vote card. This is not the very first time the Greens have received this treatment from the Liberals — but it is certainly the most high profile and electorally significant occasion.

Nor is it a coincidence that the one state where the Liberals put the Greens last on their Senate preference list at the recent federal was in Tasmania, where the Liberals have been in the grip of the hard right forces led by Senator Eric Abetz. It is probably also not a coincidence that Tasmania was by far the worst performing state for the Liberals at the recent federal election, with the party getting just 39 per cent of the two party preferred vote. While the Liberals’ preference decision to favour Labor in Lower House seats is the one that has got all of the attention, the party has also put the Greens — rather than Labor — last on their preference lists for every Upper House district, which could easily have the effect of enabling Labor to win a seat which would otherwise have gone to the Greens.

These decisions by the Liberals enhance the prospect that more people will perceive them to be a hard right, "big C" Conservative party — with the potential corollary that more people will also come to view the Greens as the genuine progressive alternative to such a party. The preference decision will undoubtedly provide a short-term boost for Labor in Victoria but it may make it even harder for Labor to deal with the identity crisis that has preoccupied so many Labor figures since the federal election.

John Brumby’s strident, almost desperate urgings for the Liberals to support his party rather than the Greens has borne short term fruit. But it also sent a loud and clear message to the public that Labor might no longer be the most clearly defined alternative to the Liberals — even as Tony Abbott’s party moves to the right.

This, along with Labor’s willingness to chase the shooters vote in regional Victoria, their decisions to preference the Country Alliance ahead of the Greens in two Upper House regions (alongside past Upper House preference decisions favouring ultra-conservative parties such as Family First or the DLP) will only assist in consolidating the feeling among progressive voters that the Greens are the clearest alternative.

It is obviously a great help boon in one sense for Labor to be receiving preference assistance from on one side, and the Liberals (and Nationals) on the other. It will make it harder for the Greens to win seats. Labor may feel this situation, with them in the middle illustrates that they are the true "centre" party. But as we saw at the federal election, they also run the risk that voters will see them as standing for little other than trying to stay in office, with their vote subsequently bleeding both to the Liberals and even more so to the Greens. Labor may feel it’s occupying the middle ground, but if that ground hollows out, they may also find themselves slowly disappearing down the hole in the middle.

Jeff Sparrow made the point here in New Matilda that despite a growing amount of media coverage about the Greens, there is still a relatively small amount of media space provided to the Greens to put their own perspective, compared to the airtime provided to the two traditional parties.

Not all media will be as blatant as this now notorious editorial from The Australian, which not only openly admitted their aim of trying to wreck the so-called "alliance between Greens and Labor", but did so "with pride", while also calling for the Greens to "be destroyed at the ballot box".

Whilst having News Limited papers openly gunning for you certainly presents a challenge, it is not necessarily an insurmountable one. It does show the sharper ideological divides that are now emerging in Australian politics, which suits the Greens approach of sticking more consistently to their core values. Such a divide would also suit the Liberal/Nationals in an electoral sense, but it would over time almost certainly also put paid to any suggestion that the Liberals could ever be seen as a credible voice for liberalism.

If the Greens still manage to clear the very significant extra hurdle that the Liberals have put in their way — which will be difficult but not impossible in the seats of Melbourne or Richmond, or even perhaps in the Liberal held seat of Prahran if the Labor vote drops enough for the Greens to poll second on primaries —  then this really could be a significant step on the way to overturning the long-standing two party duopoly that has overseen Australian politics for the last century.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.