Where To Now For The Greens?

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Following the election of the most right-wing government in decades, those on the progressive side of politics have many lessons to learn. We must do so quickly if we are to be an effective force for a fairer and more just Australia.

For the Greens the positives in this election are many.

On top of the historic win of Adam Bandt, the Greens deputy leader, holding his seat with 43 per cent of the primary vote, it looks like the Greens have held all their Senate seats and have won an extra one in Victoria. This takes the party room to a total of 11. The Greens are the only party, other than Labor and the Coalition, to elect 10 Senators since World War II.

The party defied the media vultures’ prediction of the death of the Greens. Senator Christine Milne lead a united energetic campaign advancing the Greens key messages on climate action, more funding for public schools, universities and TAFE, and humane protection for refugees.

The party went into this election with many hoping that the Greens vote would again increase – it had in every federal election except 1998 – that more seats would be won, and that we would retain the balance of power in the Senate.

So while the party has done quite well winning seats, it is the examination of the vote shift that raises some necessary challenging questions for the Greens; questions that will be answered with a frank, internal assessment.

With much of the vote counted, nationwide support for the Greens in the House of Representatives is at 8.4 per cent, down by 3.3 per cent. While there have been some exceptions, we did suffer due to the tide of votes flowing to the conservative side of politics.

The national Greens Senate vote stands at 8.7 per cent – a decrease of 4.4 per cent. The largest swing against the party came in Tasmania, where despite a respectable Senate vote of 11.6 per cent, the vote decreased by more than 8 per cent in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Our campaign team delivered strong media coverage. However, our narrative doesn’t seem to have cut through as compellingly as it did in 2010. Back then our visionary policies on climate action, Denticare and public infrastructure like high-speed rail energised supporters. As far as voters were concerned, these issues were largely implemented during the last term of parliament or neutralised as “Greens issues” by Labor’s late adoption of our policies.

In the context of the 2013 Abbott-led onslaught directed at the carbon price and a race to the bottom on refugees, it appears voters weren’t as receptive to our campaign initiatives as in 2010.

The difficult Labor-Greens relationship also needs to be examined. This is a complex issue. We need to distinguish ourselves from Labor otherwise many voters will fail to recognise any good reason why the Greens deserve their vote over Labor.

In a Labor minority government situation, the Greens strive to be principled and cooperative. What is clear is that the 2010 Labor-Greens Agreement, the role of Greens MPs in the last ACT government and in the current Tasmanian parliament, should demonstrate the need to build awareness of the significant principles and policies that separate the two parties.

At the same time, the bulk of our voters want to be confident that their preferences will stay on the progressive side of the electoral spectrum and will at some point flow through to Labor before the Coalition parties, if the Greens are not elected. According to preference flows, if the Greens did not exist more than 80 per cent of our voters would, with some reluctance, vote for Labor. So our messaging needs to be very precise to those Labor voters who are considering voting for the Greens but are anxious about a Coalition government.

Confusion about the preference system and a lack of clarity on where the Greens preferences are going looks to have sent some of these voters back to Labor, not trusting that a vote for the Greens would stop an Abbott government.

This leaves the Greens with the challenge of how to be critical of Labor and demonstrate that we are the progressive option while highlighting that the Coalition is the main enemy.

Adam Bandt’s strong message that he would stand up to Tony Abbott and the Labor Party’s increasingly conservative agenda seems to have been a recipe for success.

Our research shows that Greens voters, in the broad demographics of working women, young renters, public sector workers and students, are not that different from progressive Labor voters. How we engage and win the support of these voters will largely rest on clear messages that keep reminding them that the Greens stand for their interests and beliefs more strongly than Labor.

This was the first election where we had a fully costed platform with detailed progressive revenue streams. This strategy appears to have limited the negative attacks on Greens candidates. However, many still agree that we continue to grapple with a coherent economic message coupled with a jobs growth narrative.

Christine Milne is a clear communicator on economic matters. However, the party is yet to earn its stripes for having a consistent message that our potential voters understand and believe will make a difference.

Our challenge is to articulate a vision of fairness and prosperity, balanced with a strong commitment to environmental protection and social justice, and to build these values into all aspects of the party’s work in coming years.

If the Greens can meet the challenge of developing a cohesive and coherent strategy that learns from both the party’s experiences this election and our previous accomplishments it will be less likely that the lows that are inevitable in the cyclical nature of politics will hit the Greens vote to the degree that occurred this election.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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