Greens Going Down The Gurgler?


The Greens keep getting written off by the mainstream media. Saturday’s results weren’t good news but they hardly mark the beginning of the end of the party’s advance.

The Greens suffered a setback in Saturday’s New South Wales local council elections. It didn’t take long for the party’s enemies in the media to ramp up the Schadenfreude.

In The Australian, Troy Bramston claimed it was a blow for Christine Milne and evidence that the party would struggle without the proven electoral appeal of Bob Brown. "Greens’ heartland turns against the radical party", that newspaper’s editorial page trumpeted.

Prominent Labor figures were quick to jump on the bandwagon. "It’s a very bad result for the Greens party throughout the inner west," federal Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese told Sky News. "I know it’s a pretty popular thing in my electorate to have a crack at the Greens," Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon added on ABC News 24. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen claimed the poor result was due to the Greens’ policies on asylum seekers. "Just as we’re disappointed with the approach of the Greens, I wouldn’t be surprised if many in the Australian community are as well," he told reporters in Canberra.

There’s no hiding from the fact that the Greens polled poorly in this latest round of elections. The party’s vote was down across New South Wales. The high-profile local government area of Marrickville in the inner west saw a 7 per cent swing against the Greens, most of which appeared to flow to the Labor Party. There was a similar swing away from the Greens in the City of Sydney, won convincingly by Clover Moore and her team. The party even went backward in sunny Byron Bay.

Greens MP David Shoebridge admitted as much on Saturday night, telling reporters that "this was a tough election to be talking about the progressive policies that the Greens practise: talking about restraining overdevelopment, reining in corporate Australia".

"These kind of policies had a pretty hard go in an election where the electorate was clearly moving to the right."

The strong showing of the Liberal Party in many councils backs up the assertion that the electorate moved towards the right. The Liberals picked up council seats across the state in what amounts to a big endorsement for Barry O’Farrell and Tony Abbott in New South Wales. Labor, on the other hand, recorded another dismal result, including in its western Sydney heartland. As election guru Antony Green notes in the Sydney Morning Herald, Labor’s result looks worryingly similar to its 2011 wipe-out in the state election last year.

"Across parts of western Sydney and the lower Hunter, where the Liberal Party did so well at the state election, the Liberals have bitten deeply into councils traditionally controlled by Labor," Green wrote yesterday. "There were consistent swings of 5 per cent to 10 per cent from Labor to Liberal in Blacktown, Bankstown, Parramatta and Campbelltown. The Liberal Party’s first foray into Camden has been a huge success, and Labor even lost support in Fairfield and Penrith, where the Liberal Party did not endorse candidates." Federal Labor MPs in New South Wales will not be reassured about their prospects for 2013.

For the Greens, this is a warning, but hardly a harbinger of doom. The party has risen meteorically from just 2 per cent of the federal vote in 1998 to 11 per cent in 2010, and continues to expand its footprint as it competes in more and more elections. On Saturday, for instance, it ran candidates in many western Sydney councils for the first time, recording respectable results in many. Votes of 6 and 5 per cent in Parramatta and Penrith won’t see Green councillors elected there any time soon, but it does show that a residue of support exists just about everywhere in the country. Unlike other protest and minor parties, the Greens continue to build their electoral machinery and party support base, at a time when membership in the major parties is in decline.

Saturday’s results should not be overstated. They weren’t good, certainly. But nor are they beginning of the end of the party. In Marrickville and Leichhardt, the party is polling roughly a third of primary votes. Across the state, there will still be dozens of Greens councillors elected.

As I wrote when Christine Milne took up the federal leadership, the slow rightward drift of Labor in recent decades has allowed social progressives and committed environmentalists to find a new home with the Greens, and this bloc of voters is not going anywhere at present.

The issue of asylum seekers is a good example. Despite all the media criticism of their position on offshore processing, the Greens have in fact played a pretty sensible long game. There is no conceivable way the Houston plan can "fix" the problem of boat arrivals, and all the old problems of indefinite mandatory detention will soon resurface. In the meantime, Labor has backflipped, while the Greens have maintained a position that will satisfy the party’s base. For voters who support the Refugee Convention and oppose offshore processing, the Greens are the only party that can offer any succour.

Political commentary about the Greens is often skewed by the fate of the Democrats; many believe the Greens will eventually go the same way. But the Greens are a very different party to the Democrats. Unlike the Democrats, which often found themselves squeezed uncomfortably in a centrist role between Labor and the Coalition, the Greens sit quite happily at the left-most edge of the political spectrum. Their unabashed social liberalism and environmentalism horrifies many conservative voters, and will always leave the party open to attacks for its supposed "extremism". But the party’s ideological coherence also keeps its base unified, and means the party is electorally stable.

Yes, the Greens could leak votes back to Labor at some point. Yes, recent opinion polls have not been flash. But it will take much worse showing than on Saturday to seriously damage the Greens’ chances in the Senate in 2013. However much Labor might like to believe it, the Greens are not going away any time soon.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.