Is It Crunch Time For The Greens?


Are the Greens “in trouble”, as the ABC News website confidently asserts today? That depends on what you mean by “in trouble”. It may be that the obituaries for the environmental party are being written far too soon.

There’s no doubt the minor party faces a tougher struggle in 2013 than in 2010. Three years ago, the Greens were cresting an historic wave. The party‘s vote reached record highs: 1.46 million first preferences, or nearly 12 per cent of the lower house vote. In the Senate they did even better, polling 13 per cent, or 1.6 million votes. The party increased its Senate representation to nine and picked up its first-ever lower house seat, when Adam Bandt defeated Labor’s Cath Bowtell in Melbourne.

The Greens’ strong showing in 2010 was helped by a number of factors: disquiet amongst Labor voters at the removal of Kevin Rudd, distaste at what was a particularly mendacious and negative election campaign, and the undeniable popularity of veteran leader Bob Brown, a once-in-a-generation figure of rare political integrity and appeal.

This time around, the party does not enjoy the same electoral momentum. Most polls have the Greens on roughly 9 per cent, a couple of points down on where they polled in 2010.

A range of factors seem to be at play. Some voters are undoubtedly disappointed with the performance of the party in minority government. Whatever the actual achievements of Julia Gillard’s term in Parliament – and, as we know, there were many – the relentless attack on the very idea of minority government from the Opposition and many sections in the media has undoubtedly caused a bit of damage. In addition, Christine Milne is not as popular as Bob Brown (although she’s not nearly as unpopular as conservatives like to assert).

Other factors are outside the Greens’ control. Kevin Rudd has also been restored, ensuring a competitive election. The tight contest might persuade some swinging voters who had been thinking about voting Green to move back to giving Labor their primary vote. Paradoxically, Tony Abbott himself might be a factor, as those who really loathe the Opposition Leader might decide that a Labor vote is the only sure way to see his back.

Further, the party has been relentlessly attacked from the right. Representing the left-most tenth of the electorate, many conservatives view the Greens with the same sort of horror that left-leaning progressives viewed One Nation a decade ago. It has been relatively easy to portray the Greens as an extreme fringe, if only because, in crude electoral terms, it is on the fringe. Given the visceral hostility directed at the party from the Murdoch newspapers and many aspects of the political mainstream, perhaps the real surprise is how well the Greens vote has held up.

Whatever the reasons, the Green vote looks to be ebbing from its high tide three years ago. Does that the mean the party will be, to quote Lenore Taylor in The Guardian, the “biggest losers from three years of political turmoil”? 

No, not really. While a swing against any party is never positive, the argument that this election will somehow herald the beginning of the end of the Greens is overblown.

Take Adam Bandt’s contest in Melbourne, for example. Bandt will indeed have his work cut out for him to hold onto the Greens’ only bridgehead in the lower house. But that’s hardly news. Melbourne is, in effect, a Greens-Labor marginal. It will always be a tough seat to win or hold. A redistribution removing some Green-leaning booths to the north of the seat hasn’t helped.

Even so, Bandt has a much better chance of retaining Melbourne than many in the media seem to realise. A recent poll (commissioned by the Greens themselves, mind you) had his primary vote on 48 per cent, a figure which should see him comfortably re-elected if repeated on polling day. Even if you don’t believe that poll – a recent ReachTel poll has the Greens on a much lower 33 per cent – there are good reasons to believe Bandt will get up.

For instance, like most returning candidates, Bandt can be expected to enjoy the famous “sophomore surge” which sees incumbents enjoying a boost in their primary votes in their second election, due to increased name recognition. As deputy leader and the only Green in the lower house, Bandt’s profile has been high in the seat. The Greens have also spent heavily on their campaign advertising in inner-city Melbourne in an attempt to shore up his support.

Some will say that with the Coalition announcing they will put the Greens last on how-to-vote cards nationally, Bandt won’t pick up the Liberal preferences he needs. But many voters in inner-city electorates don’t follow the directions, preferring to make their own minds up when filling in every box. If Bandt can boost his primary vote above 40 per cent, he stands an excellent chance of picking up enough Liberal second preferences to carry the day.

If we zoom out to the Senate, we can also see that things aren’t nearly as gloomy for the Greens as is being portrayed. Liberal preferences are rarely at play in the determination of Green Senate spots, as Tim Colebatch pointed out yesterday.

It’s true that Scott Ludlam and Sarah Hanson-Young look to be in trouble in their contests in Western Australia and South Australia. In WA, the poor primary vote for the Greens may spell the talented Ludlam’s demise, while in South Australia, Nick Xenophon’s decision to direct preferences to the major parties ahead of the Greens makes it very tough for her.

There is some chance of the Greens picking up a second senator in Victoria to help balance that result, perhaps on the back of Wikileaks preferences. The Greens could weather a poor showing in the national vote and still come out of the 2013 election with seven or eight members in the Senate – more than enough to retain the balance of power in the upper house, in the absence of a Coalition landslide. 

What if the worst happens, and the Greens lose all three senators up for re-election, plus Bandt?

Even in this scenario, the Greens will still be a functioning party and retain an excellent platform to regain ground in 2016. With only three Green senators up for re-election, the Greens are guaranteed to begin the next Parliament with six senators.

The demise of the Democrats has long coloured perceptions of other minor parties, especially the Greens. As I’ve long argued, the Greens as a party are reasonably insulated from a Democrats style implosion. Unlike the Dems, Greens voters are a highly coherent bloc. With their concentration in inner-city electorates and their affinity amongst the growing class of knowledge workers in the white collar and “no-collar” industries, the Greens are in many ways a new kind of industrial labour party, which explains the terror the ALP feels for the upstarts to its left.

Whatever the result on 7 September, these long-term demographic trends aren’t going away. As Australian society becomes more pluralistic and diverse, and as Australian cities continue to sprout apartment buildings, bicycle repair shops and organic bakeries in their inner cores, the Greens vote can be expected to grow in the long term.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.