Out Of The Frying Pan


"If you lot were running this place, we’d be cooking". That’s what outgoing NSW Greens MLC Ian Cohen said when he looked at the unionists, environmentalists, feminists, academics, social workers and policy advocates assembled before him in the chamber of the NSW Legislative Council today. The thing is, this lot looks increasingly unlikely to have a say in running the NSW upper house after 26 March.

Cohen and Labor MLC Penny Sharpe organised a forum today to discuss the prospect of a Legislative Council controlled by the Coalition — with the support of the Shooters’ Party and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats.

They are concerned that groups with a narrow agenda out of step with the rest of the community will exert undue influence on lawmaking in NSW. The consensus was that NSW Labor has been bad news for progressives — but that Liberals in cahoots with the Shooters and Fred Nile will be much worse. Those with long memories recalled the assaults on workers’ rights and civil liberties by previous state Liberal governments. "Yes, the ALP are awful," said Eva Cox, "but they’re less awful than some of the alternatives." Things have been bad, David Bernie, vice president of the NSW Council for Civil Liberties said, but they could go backward. He pointed to the safe injecting room in Kings Cross and the introduction of ethics classes in schools as two positive initiatives passed under Labor which would be very likely to disappear under the influence of the extreme right parties.

Some argue that the scenario in which the Shooters’ Party and Fred Nile hold the balance of power has been made more likely thanks to Greens preference decisions.

In February the NSW Greens announced their decision not to direct preferences to either of the major parties in this month’s elections. At the time, Greens MLC David Shoebridge said, "the NSW Labor machine is toxic to voters in NSW and the Greens want nothing to do with them." Another view, one that you’ll hear from the ALP, is that the decision not to preference Labor was made to shore up support for inner-city candidates in the lower house.

Greens campaign material will direct voters to vote 1 above the line for the Greens. (Liberal how-to-vote cards for the upper house are putting the Liberals first — and Fred Nile second.) There’s a risk that the Greens will consign themselves to marginal status for the next four years. With the Coalition predicted to hold an outright majority in the lower house and the strong likelihood of a conservative upper house with the balance of power held by extreme right wing minority parties, the Greens — along with the ALP — may be left out of the lawmaking process altogether.

So what is the situation in the upper house? There are 21 vacancies in the Legislative Council; nine of the standing MLCs are Labor and two are Greens. ABC psephologist Antony Green’s reading of last week’s Newspoll predicts five new Labor MLCs and three Greens.

This will give Labor and the Greens 19 seats combined — and loss of the balance of power.

It’s the candidate placed sixth on Labor’s list for the Upper House who is likely to miss out — and in a tough twist for progressives, that’s former CFMEU official and member of the Labor Left Andrew Ferguson. According to David Shoebridge, that’s entirely a matter for the ALP. In response to those who suggest that Greens preference might stop Ferguson winning a seat, he argues that it’s not for the Greens to decide who should be on a winnable spot. Shoebridge told New Matilda, "it’s the same party machine who put Eric Roozendal in the top spot and Andrew Ferguson at number six."

Former president of the Legislative Council Meredith Burgmann doesn’t see it like this. Her view is that voters who are worried that preferencing Labor will entail support for Eric Roozendal are missing the point that their preferences will also push candidates like Ferguson over the line — and if they’re not allocated they may be distributed to one of the extreme right parties.

Shoebridge told New Matilda today that the Greens position is that the upper house will be decided on primary votes. Antony Green and Ben Raue agree with him. Their analysis suggest that the Greens preference decision will have little impact on Labor’s prospects in the Upper House. Raue writes:

"If the right wing gains control of the upper house it is because of the massive unpopularity of the current government causing a massive landslide to the right."

"Greens preferencing decisions have no impact on that outcome. I’m sure that the Labor types coming out and crying foul know that. They know that their policies have driven away a large proportion of their voter base, and are facing a massive disaster. The latest hysteria about Greens preferences seems to be nothing more than an attempt to blame the Greens for their impending defeat." 

The optional preference voting laws are complex and poorly understood, argues Eva Cox, who pointed out scenarios in which a failure to preference might result in votes for the Greens being directed to the extreme right parties. (Here’s clarification from Green on NSW preference flows under optional preferential voting.) Cox, like Meredith Burgmann, encouraged voters to distribute their preferences above the line rather than following the cue of the Greens.

There’s no doubt that the speakers and audience at today’s forum shared a genuine desire to find a progressive consensus. And even if, as Paul McAleer of the MUA phrased it, "egotistical hysteria gets in the way of progressive outcomes", there’s a common enemy in sight.

Still, strategies for withholding the balance of power from extreme right wing parties were thin on the ground. Some speakers made direct appeals to the Greens to reconsider their preference decision — but the only substantial decision taken was to produce brief plain English guides to preferential voting to ensure that voters know where their preferences are heading.

The forum was chaired by GetUp’s Simon Sheikh who pledged to use GetUp’s networks to help. Even so, with less than two weeks till polling day, spreading the word will take some considerable effort. And on current polling, progressives are  going to struggle to make their voices heard in the Legislative Council. 


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