Not since the People for Nuclear Disarmament party (led by Peter Garrett) were done over by the Socialist Workers in the mid 1980s, has there been a war of such intensity among left-leaning and progressive minor parties as there is now.
Sensing a lack of support prior to the latest federal election, and desperate to hold on to their seats, the Greens developed a strategy to rope in as many votes as they could that were floating around just outside their reach on the progressive spectrum. They adopted a “take no prisoners” approach and attacked parties that up until now were considered “friendly” and “feeders” in terms of preference flows.
Knowing that Wikileaks, the Sex Party, Animal Justice, the Democrats and HEMP were all to some degree a part of the “Minor Party Alliance”, the Greens developed an online strategy to target these parties based on the fact that that some of them would preference right wing parties higher than they might usually do, just to stay a part of this group.
Formed in Sydney by the man now known as “the preference whisperer”, Glenn Druery, the Minor Party Alliance allowed minor and micro parties the chance to win a Senate seat off the back of a small primary vote, as long as all the parties in the Alliance preferenced themselves above the three major parties. It was a plan that most small parties wanted to be in on but then it also required them to place some parties above others, which may not have reflected their own core values.
Would your party’s stated policies and philosophies be more advanced by getting you elected, even though that may come at the risk of supporting another small party with an opposing political outlook? That was the question.
The Pirate Party and the Secular Party did not join the group. Animal Justice, Australian Independents, HEMP and the Democrats were all committed. Wikileaks were players who made a couple of genuine administrative errors in their final preferences.
The Sex Party were open about having one foot in the Alliance and one foot out. This hokey-pokey, each way bet approach, was the one that I supported. The Sex Party refused to preference the religious right anywhere but at the very bottom of our ticket. For this we were penalised within the Alliance and yet still allowed to stay, because we preferenced mostly progressive small parties at the top and were considered to be one of the major minor parties that delivered a substantial primary vote.
In the middle of the ticket was a large group of mostly right wing/socially conservative parties. The Greens targeted the Alliance “lefties” with an aggressive online campaign based on their preferences going to this conservative bloc. In so doing they may have established an anti-Green backlash among fellow travellers that will come back to haunt them at future elections.
It is important to note that much of the “trolling” that became the hallmark of their attack plan, came out of the Greens in Victoria. As soon as the Group Voting Tickets became public following the draw for positions on the ballot paper, Greens organisers identified certain preference flows from progressive minor parties and then through a systematic and planned attack, they arranged for supporters to insinuate that these minor parties would actually get right wing parties like One Nation, the Nationals and Australia First elected.
They worked in teams of people to post on rival candidate’s Facebook pages, official party websites and on Twitter. At one stage, a young and inexperienced staffer who had mistakenly allocated a high preference vote to Australia First thinking it was Australian Voice, was so bombarded with hate mail by Greens supporters, that she went into hiding. The messages were the same: “Your preferences could get right wing ‘nutjobs’ up in the Senate; you will be personally responsible for this; all your friends are watching you” etc.
Because we had preferenced One Nation at #39 in NSW, the Greens supporters went ballistic. Even though the Sex Party preferences team had used Antony Green’s analysis of the fact that One Nation could never be elected with minor party preferences from that position, the attack raged night and day on Facebook and Twitter. A vote for the Sex Party was akin to voting for the Hitler Youth, they implied.
It was disingenuous, dishonest and hurtful to many candidates who were young and inexperienced in politics but very impressionable on social media. Many of these were actually Greens supporters who were curious and “playing” in other parties. I don’t believe any of them will go back to the Greens after what they witnessed.
As it turned out, none of the scenarios that the Greens supporters raged about came to pass. In fact the reverse happened. The Greens did a preference deal with the mining magnate’s party and a separate preference deal with Labor – the architects of the PNG gulags. In the final wash up, Greens preferences in South Australia directly led to Family First being elected there. None of the Wikileaks or Sex Party preferences went anywhere near electing right wing parties. To say that the Greens were hypocritical is now a major understatement. But don’t let that get in the way of an attack plan that seriously wounded some of their best potential vote feeders.
Most of the progressive minor parties that ran in this election now have a very different view of the Greens, and preference alliances that might have been building over the last few years have been damaged.
In the ACT Senate election, Green’s candidate Simon Sheik failed to win the second ACT seat because the Animal Justice party sent their preferences to the Liberal candidate. The Sex Party polled the fourth highest primary vote (3.5 per cent) and sent it straight to the Greens. Personally I thought this was a major tactical error for Animal Justice but they were flexing their muscle with the Greens as payback for the local ACT Greens agreeing to a kangaroo cull earlier this year. Liberals are much more likely to shoot kangaroos than Greens in the grand scheme of things but Animal Justice felt they had been betrayed by their old allies. So they decided to show them that there was a price to be paid for this.
The real lesson for the Greens was that 1.21 per cent of the vote from a former ally can make the difference between winning and losing.
The Greens may well regret their tactics now. The focus for progressive parties is beginning to shift from the environment to civil liberties. The environment has in the past been the rallying point for dissatisfied and politically disenfranchised youth since Bob Brown led the Franklin Dam campaign in the early 1980s and launched the Greens. A move away from this focus at a time when environmental issues have global, rather than more localised, significance is not a good sign. But the Greens have only themselves to blame. Their new and aggressive style of personalised campaigning was never a part of Bob Brown’s Gandhi-esque approach.
Changes to the preferential voting system that will come about before the next federal election — and as early as the next South Australian state election — could well see the end of many small parties on the left/progressive spectrum. Any suggestion that a party must have 4 or 5 per cent of the primary vote before being eligible to be elected would mean the end for 95 per cent of minor parties.
Optional preferential voting above the line could solve most of the problems that people have with a large voting ticket. This would allow voters to simply number the parties above the line that they like, in order of preference, with no need to go more than five or six parties. Psephologists like Antony Green have cited the size of the ballot paper as a separate problem and that the only way for this to be corrected is to raise the bar so high for minor parties that they can’t get over it.
Huge hikes in deposit fees for candidates, even bigger fees to register parties and substantially increased numbers of demonstrated party members (over the 500 already required — 750 in NSW) have all been mooted. Antony Green has suggested to me privately that this will force small parties with similar ideologies to coalesce and become medium sized parties which can then afford the extra fees.
The problem with this is that these parties are being forced by an economic imperative to band together and not via a natural alignment of policy and philosophy. There is also the problem that psephologists will never mention: too many micro parties makes their job of predicting election outcomes much more difficult.
The last federal election saw a record number of minor parties contesting. The next one could see the end of minor parties altogether except for those that are bankrolled by millionaires. The Greens entered politics in Australia under an optional preferential style of voting and it is in their interests to protect other small progressive parties when changes to the current system come under the microscope. The progressive side of politics in Australia is in urgent need of a group hug.
New Matilda has sought a response from the Greens to the allegations made in this article.
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