ALP Tears Won't Bring Voters Back


Are the Greens and Labor really "at war", as the media is suggesting?

Yes and no. At the top level, the relationship between Julia Gillard and Christine Milne appears strong. Gillard needs the Greens to continue to govern. In the Senate, the Greens hold the balance of power. In the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt’s lower house vote is also pretty handy in a razor-thin majority of one. Hence, at least legislatively, the Greens and the ALP have been in a kind of uneasy coalition since the 2010 election.

That uneasiness seems to have degenerated into outright conflict this week, as lower levels of the ALP have rebelled against the influence of the minor party. Embittered by the Greens’ refusal to countenance offshore processing for asylum seekers, Labor politicians and union figures have exploded with angry diatribes.

The Green-bashing was kicked off by Victorian ALP leader Daniel Andrews, who is fighting a critical by-election against the Greens for the Victorian state seat of Melbourne. But the attack was soon joined by the factional leader of the New South Wales Right Sam Dastyari, AWU boss Paul Howes, and the ALP’s parliamentary whip, Joel Fitzgibbon.

Even firebrand left wing Senator Doug Cameron has joined the fray, saying that "the Greens’ intransigence, their lack of flexibility, their complete incapacity to take a mature approach on key issues is the major problem for me, and I don’t think that’s a good thing for the left of politics."

You’d be forgiven for wondering just what is making Labor so unhappy about the Greens. Looked at in terms of policy achievements, the 2010 agreement between the Greens and Julia Gillard has been an extremely successful alliance. Without the Greens support, Labor could not have delivered its productive second-term legislative agenda.

This agenda includes bills dear to the heart of the Labor faithful, such as the National Broadband Network, the mining tax, and, of course, the carbon tax and its associated tax cuts — just to name three. All of those laws passed thanks to the Greens’ support in the Senate. None of them would have been possible if Labor had not been able to form a minority government. You would think Labor would be pretty pleased with the fruits of that collaboration.

Unfortunately, few in the ALP seem to realise the value of the alliance with the Greens just now. Perhaps that’s what happens when your primary vote is mired under 30 per cent for more than a year.

There’s no doubt that the relationship between the parties has never been a particularly warm embrace. The Australian Labor Party is old and proud: it is one of the oldest parties of working people in the world. The Greens may themselves boast a long lineage as an environmental party, but that still makes them Johnny-come-latelies in the Australian political landscape.

Labor’s resentment has only been exacerbated as the Greens vote has climbed, from a negligible rounding error two decades ago, to more than 11 per cent of the primary votes at the 2010 federal election.

For many in Labor, the Greens are regarded as little more than populist adventurers, unfit to govern, and whose idealistic policy platform can never be implemented. There is a visceral antipathy aimed at the minor party from power-brokers representing unions in the party’s right, who quite accurately believe that the Greens have little interest or care for the blue-collar wing of the labour movement, particularly that part of it that represents workers in industries such as mining, energy and forestry.

For their part, the Greens have plenty of their own reasons to dislike Labor. In certain left-leaning parts of the country, the Greens are the natural party of opposition to Labor, and the two parties have waged vicious warfare at the electoral booth for decades in progressively-inclined local councils.

Then there’s Tasmania, still the electoral heartland of the Greens. Labor has repeatedly cut deals with the Liberals in Tasmania to try and marginalise the Greens — most notably in 1998, when the two major parties conspired to reduce Tasmania’s 35-member state parliament to only 25 seats, in an attempt to sideline the Greens. The manipulation initially delivered majority government for Jim Bacon. But it had no long-term impact on the rise of the Greens’ vote. At the 2010 election, the Greens polled their highest ever vote in the Apple Isle, more than 21 per cent, gaining a seat to hold five in the Tasmanian lower house.

As the ABC’s electoral guru Antony Green observes, the Greens are not like Australia’s previous third party, the Democrats. The Democrats had a broad, but thin, support base right across the country. The Greens have that, but they also have pockets of concentrated support in certain areas, such as coastal communities and in the inner-city electorates of the capitals.

This has translated to control of several local governments, and lower house seats in state and federal elections in places like Melbourne and Balmain. If the national vote for the Greens continues to grow as it has been doing for the past decade, eventually the Greens stand a chance of storming ALP ramparts in the inner-cities: seats such as Melbourne (already held by the Greens), Batman, Sydney, Grayndler, Denison and perhaps even Fremantle. All of these seats, it goes without saying, were once safe Labor seats. You can see why Labor strategists are convinced of the growing threat from their party’s left.

The problem for Labor is that there’s not much it can do about the Greens. Unlike One Nation, the Greens are not a flash-in-the-pan protest party. The party has its activist factions, of course, but it has also shown itself to be a savvy and durable political machine, capable of fielding candidates in every seat in a general election, and of presenting a telegenic media presence to the masses.

Long-term demographics also favour the party: Green voters tend to be younger, better educated, white-collar professionals in the cultural, media and services sectors, and Australian society is becoming better educated, more white-collar and more service-oriented.

Politically, the Greens also have a long-term issue running in their favour in the form of climate change and environmental degradation. These are global issues which might wax and wane in popularity from year to year, but they are hardly going away any time soon.

This boils down to some pretty simple electoral mathematics. As long as the Greens continue to poll above 11 per cent, they should continue to hold eight or more Senate seats. A Senate quota in each half-senate election equals roughly 14 per cent. The concentration of Greens voters in Tasmania gives the party a lock on two Senators from that state, which means the Greens only need a couple of good state showings to get three or four Senate spots each time.

In Victoria in 2010, they polled above the 14 per cent quota, guaranteeing a spot. In South Australia, they polled 13 per cent and needed only Sex Party preferences to get over the line. In Queensland, Labor’s vote was so low it meant that the Greens were able to win the fifth spot ahead of the LNP, with the help of Democrats preferences. Only in Western Australia and New South Wales did the Greens need ALP preferences to win their Senate spots.

So if the Greens primary votes holds up, there’s not a lot Labor can do to hurt the Greens, at least in terms of the Senate balance of power. And why would it want to? After all, if Labor does govern, those Greens are the Senators that Labor needs to pass its legislation. If Labor loses, as seems likely, this is all pretty irrelevant.

There are yawning inconsistencies in the ALP rhetoric about the Greens. Firstly, if the Greens really are so doctrinaire and ideological that they can’t be trusted to run anything, what does that say about the many policies the two parties share? Industrial relations, carbon pricing, support for the NBN and renewable energy, paid parental leave, opposition to whaling … the list of policies espoused by both parties is long.

Interestingly, as Jeff Sparrow observes today, those policies where the two disagree are even more revealing. If Labor is meant to be the party of flexible centrism, why is it supporting the unpopular war in Afghanistan, or standing in the way of popular measures to enact same-sex marriage?

Secondly, as the astute Peter Brent has observed, Labor seems to be utterly confused about which voters it is trying to win back. Is it the party’s so-called "base" among socially conservative working class voters? It’s true that many of these voters hate the carbon tax and don’t much like the Greens either, so maybe this anti-Greens shadow boxing will help.

But Labor’s base is also being eroded from the left, among educated white-collar progressives: the sort that love the carbon tax and hate Labor’s dog-whistling on asylum seekers. These voters are probably going to continue to defect to the Greens if Labor keeps posturing to the centre.

So attacking the Greens may win Labor a few swinging voters back. But Labor’s primary vote is now so low, none of this really matters. Unless a miracle can somehow be summoned, Julia Gillard’s government is heading for a massive defeat next year.

As a result, on current indications, preferencing against the Greens in the next federal election will simply deliver Tony Abbott more votes in the Senate, which he will use to undo Labor’s legislative achievements. That’s the kind of self-defeating strategy even the Labor Party would want to think twice about.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.