A Green Insider’s Perspective: Lessons From An Election Campaign



Greens local councillor from Brisbane Jonathan Sri delivers a post mortem on the party’s federal election campaign.

So now the storytelling contest begins to interpret, explain, define and redefine this weekend’s unexpected electoral result.

Lots of people with an agenda to push will be seeking to frame the outcome in a way that reinforces their own goals and interests. Some will describe Morrison’s election victory as being ‘a vote for new coal mines’ or ‘a vote against closing tax loopholes,’ others will use it as ‘proof’ that voters are uneducated or short-sighted.

Obviously we should take all such analyses and narratives (including this one) with a grain of salt, mindful of the standpoint and background of the person pushing them.

What we do know is that in key seats where the ravages of neoliberalism are being felt most directly, a small but significant percentage of voters swung to hard-right minor parties, and those preferences flowed back to the Liberals.

Yesterday’s outcome took me by surprise in a way that Trump’s victory against Clinton did not. But a little over 24 hours after voting closed, the similarities between the US presidential election and the UK’s Brexit referendum already seem more tangible and obvious. I’m still processing it all, and I’m sure I’ll change my mind about a lot of stuff over the next few weeks, but I thought it would be useful – at least for myself – to jot down some initial thoughts…

So for those of us in our inner-city greenie bubbles seeking to push for a decolonised, more equitable, more caring, more sustainable society, what lessons can we take away from Saturday’s result?

Labor’s Humpty Dumpty moment: fence-sitting shenanigans impressed no-one

There were obviously many factors behind Labor’s defeat – not least the fact that Shorten is a singularly uninspiring leader – but I think one of their crucial mistakes was that they tried to please almost everybody, and in the end pissed off everyone.

They sat on the fence and gave off mixed messages on a whole range of issues – from saying they would ‘review’ Centrelink payments rather than increase them, to the Yes-No-Maybe statements about the Adani mine. In the end, they didn’t really seem to stand for anything.

Some have characterised Labor’s campaign approach as rejecting a ‘small target’ strategy, suggesting that they called for major reforms to taxation, announced big bold policies and sought to articulate a positive vision. But that’s not really true.

Instead of committing to free dental for everyone, they only promised it to pensioners. Instead of promising to scrap negative gearing altogether, they only promised to limit its eligibility to new dwellings (thus pissing off those who benefit from negative gearing, but not giving young progressive people enough to get excited about). Although they adopted some of the same rhetoric, their policy platform was nowhere near as inspiring, transformative and visionary as Jeremy Corbyn’s UK Labor manifesto.

Plenty of others will have more to say about what went wrong for Shorten, but for me, the big takeaway is that conservative commentators are going to trash you for being radical and economically irresponsible regardless of how incremental and common-sense your proposed reforms are, so you might as well stand for something substantial and risk making a few enemies, than stand for nothing and have no-one left in your corner.

A Bob Brown listening tour would have been a lot better than the ‘do what we say’ convoy

Bob Brown’s Stop Adani Convoy seems not to have achieved its intended outcomes. Many of us in Brissie were quietly sceptical that a bunch of ‘southern greenies’ (‘southern’ includes Brisbane) driving up to central Queensland to tell people what to think about new coal projects would end well. But in retrospect we probably should have put the case against this strategy more forcefully and vocally rather than getting swept up in the excitement and amplifying a negative and unhelpful story.

I know some environmentalists in regional areas got a valuable morale boost from Bob’s convoy, but there’s no evidence whatsoever that it had a positive electoral impact on the seats it passed through, and a fair few regional voices confirming that it actively damaged the chances of any candidates or parties who were perceived to be anti-coal. Perhaps it helped apply a bit of pressure on Labor to not forget about climate change altogether during the campaign, but that short-term benefit has clearly been overshadowed now by the regional Queensland bloodbath.

Maybe the lesson here is that rather than just uncritically accepting that a certain tactic is a good idea, we should all think for ourselves not only about how different actions will be portrayed by the media, but also about how those stories will subsequently be further twisted and reframed by people seeking to push a certain agenda. In this case it seems Bob Brown (and to some extent all us greenies who supported the Stop Adani convoy in one way or another) played right into the coal industry’s hands.

Stagnant Greens vote demands major strategic reorientation

For the Greens to have retained all their senators is a major relief for the party, but you’d be hard-pressed to spin this election result as a win, and it certainly seems to call into question the strategy that the Greens party leadership advocated.

Nationwide, the Greens’ House of Reps vote seems to have stagnated yet again, but there’s actually a fair bit of variation from state to state. The SA Greens vote recovered substantially to around 9.5% (well done guys!) which I assume is partly a result of Xenophon dropping out of the ecosystem. The Greens primary vote fell slightly in NSW, Tasmania and WA, and fell significantly in Victoria, while Queensland and the two territories both had encouraging positive swings.

Crucially, Queensland is now one of the Greens’ strongest states. I’ll repeat that point because it would’ve sounded crazy to most people in the movement a decade ago: The average Greens vote in Queensland is now higher than in NSW, Tasmania and South Australia, and less than 1.5% behind Victoria and WA.

I won’t pretend to know the ins and outs of what’s going on in the other states, and there will be more thorough reviews of what we did well and poorly over the coming weeks. But from where I sit right now, with the dust still swirling, it seems the Queensland Greens vote defied the nationwide trend because we made a deliberate choice to reject the Australian Greens framing of ‘a climate election’ and talked about a wider range of policies, from free dental care to free uni education.

This meant we weren’t pigeonholed as a single-issue party, and had something to offer the millions of voters who’ve been screwed over by neoliberalism, but for whom climate change action simply doesn’t rank as a high priority no matter how much we think it should.

The Queensland Greens’ broad progressive agenda, referred to by some volunteers as ‘the CHED platform’ (which stands for free Childcare, building more public Housing, publicly owned renewable Energy and free Dental) resonated with thousands of voters. In most parts of the State, we didn’t have the resources or volunteer capacity to meaningfully reach many people, which meant the only message they heard was from the party leadership down south, with a tunnel-vision focus on climate change. But in the electorates where voters actually heard the ‘CHED’ message, we saw unprecedented swings, particularly (but not exclusively) in our three key seats of Griffith, Brisbane and Ryan.

The result in Griffith (Greens primary vote just over 24%) stands out noticeably compared to other Greens key seats around the country. The campaign was extremely disciplined in not focussing on climate change except where voters identified that as their most important issue. Despite having a much smaller budget than most other key Greens campaigns, Max Chandler-Mather and his team mobilised a huge number of doorknockers and achieved a swing of around 7.2%, without which this seat would’ve arguably been won by the Liberals.

A 7.2% swing is a phenomenal outcome considering that the nation as a whole was swinging in the opposite direction, and the electorates of Griffith and Brisbane are now both among the Greens’ strongest House of Reps seats in the whole country.

So I guess all this reinforces what we learned in the 2017 Queensland State election: if the Greens want to win votes, seats, and greater policy influence over urgent issues like climate change, we actually have to talk about other stuff too.

The practical limitations of the South Brisbane Greens approach

In spite of the huge swing we pulled off in Griffith, we also have to acknowledge that even though our message and policy platform clearly resonate with voters, we might be reaching the tactical limits of the centrally-coordinated data-driven doorknocking strategy we used in this election.

The hard truth is that even with a strong candidate, an incredibly hardworking and passionate campaign team, a winning message, a supportive local Greens councillor, and hundreds of amazing volunteers going out doorknocking every weekend for months leading up to the election, less than 1 in 4 people voted for us.

1 in 4 is a lot better than we did almost everywhere else in Australia. In fact under the circumstances it’s an amazing result. But considering how much effort we put in, some volunteers will be thinking “Geez, we did all that and we still didn’t win?”

There were obviously a lot of factors working against us too. But that’s the case in every election. To achieve such a great result in Griffith, we were pulling in Greens volunteers from across the city, and ruthlessly centralising resources and energy in order to knock on tens of thousands of doors (this is energy which might otherwise have been directed towards other forms of community organising and activism either within or outside the Greens).

In the final weeks of the campaign, we had eight doorknocking teams heading out each weekend in this one electorate. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the largest doorknocking campaign in the country. (I’m not aware of any other doorknocking campaigns in Queensland – including those run by GetUp or the other political parties – that were as big as the South Brisbane Greens effort).

Our next federal campaign in Griffith will probably be even bigger again, but I do wonder whether this model is easily scaleable or transplantable. If we want to win more than one or two lower house seats each election, we’re not going to be able to rely on mass doorknocking alone.

In the northwest corner of the Griffith electorate (Greens heartland of West End and Highgate Hill) the South Brisbane Greens have used mass doorknocking in multiple elections since 2016, and it feels to me like we might almost be reaching saturation point in those suburbs.

You can’t reach everyone via doorknocking. Some people are never home, and more and more are living in highly secure (i.e. inaccessible) high rise apartments. And of the people we canreach, some will change their vote based on conversations with strangers holding clipboards, but some won’t. So while doorknocking is certainly an incredibly effective tactic, we need to start thinking more about other forms of community organising and outreach that are long-term sustainable.

Which brings me to the last section of this little rant…

Meaningful change comes from the bottom-up

Over the last few years, a whole range of interest groups seeking progressive change have chosen to adopt what are essentially top-down strategies. That approach seems to have largely failed in this election. I won’t comment in detail about the specific strategies of individual advocacy groups, but a common theme seems to be use a comparatively small group of active volunteers to reach voters in a particular federal seat, in the hope of shifting their votes and replacing a hard-right Liberal MP with a centre-right Labor MP, or convincing a given centre-right MP that ‘Issue X’ matters to their constituents.

Don’t ask voters to vote foranything specific – just ask them to ‘Put the Liberals last’ or ‘Put Hanson last’.

The difficulty with this approach is federal electorates are very big. Whether you’re doorknocking or calling voters or making speeches at the local rotary club meeting, you need to reach thousands of people multiple times in order to shift the outcome in a seat by even one or two percent. On top of that, you’re in a crowded landscape where other stakeholders and representative bodies (e.g. local councils, chambers of commerce) are actively pushing their own often contradictory views.

Most of these advocacy groups I’m talking about don’t do any other ongoing community organising that positively impacts the lives of the voters they’re seeking to influence at election time. They aren’t coordinating local food co-ops or revegetating bushland or teaching pensioners how to use computers. So even if some of their volunteers might be doing that stuff in other contexts, the advocacy group itself is ultimately perceived by residents as an external entity that’s coming into their community and telling them what to think, rather than an intrinsic part of the community whose voting advice should be taken seriously.

The Greens often suffer from this same weakness. We are seen as an abstracted political party rather than an embedded social movement. We might consider ourselves as being very different to other political parties, but for most voters, their emotional experience of us – seeing some yard signs or flyers in the letterbox… maybe talking to a volunteer on election day or in the weeks beforehand – is pretty much the same as the major parties.

A related weakness is that at least here in Queensland, progressive advocacy organisations and minor parties lack any meaningful clout at lower levels of government. You’re probably not going to convince major party federal politicians to oppose new coal mines when the mayor and the entire local council within that electorate is strongly pro-coal. Of course, the opposite is also true.

Local councils – particularly the smaller regional ones – tend to be more responsive to and reflective of the values and priorities of the people they represent than do higher levels of government. They can be an enabler and supporter of change, or a major obstacle. Either way, starting at the bottom and working your way up is often more effective than going straight for the top.

This is true not just for non-partisan advocacy groups, but also for parties like the Greens. We’re going to have a much easier time winning a federal seat if we can first win a couple of local or state seats in the vicinity. And many of the changes we’re seeking, such as finding room in our communities to house refugees, or transitioning our power generation and transport networks to be fossil fuel-free, ultimately have to be implemented at the local level anyway.

That’s probably enough ranting for the time being. I know right now a lot of people who were hoping that the weekend’s election result would lead to serious action on climate change or social justice or whatever issue people are feeling extremely demoralised about. Personally I’m not in particularly high spirits either. I’m feeling especially sad for the First Nations communities and people of colour on the front line of racism, colonisation, climate change and extractivism.

But change was never going to come via the ballot box alone, and perhaps this is a necessary reminder to all of us to not lose sight of the value of on-the-ground community work, even if at first glance such activity might not seem to have much bearing on federal government policy.

Take care of each other, check in with people who are feeling down, and find strength in the positive personal relationships that are forged through campaigning. Because now we have to dust ourselves off, rise up and prepare for the next stage of the struggle.

The future is not dead yet.