The party now has to choose: will it remain primarily concerned about environmental issues, or will it become a party of the far left?
The Victorian election over the weekend represents a debacle for the Greens. Unless the party changes and is prepared to deal with the coalition, it will also mark its effective end on the federal political scene. The Greens did register a (tiny) 0.6 percent increase over their primary vote in the last Victorian election, but the result represents a collapse of more than 2 percent since their federal high-water mark just a couple of months ago. At time of writing it also appears the Greens will also lose a position in the upper house, leaving them with just two Victorian seats.
They have only themselves to blame.
The decision by the Victorian Liberals to preference the Greens last was a political game-changer. If the tactic is repeated in the next federal election, Adam Bandt will disappear as quickly from the political scene as Michael Organ. Yes, Organ. Remember him? Don’t worry if you can’t. Even Bandt had mysteriously forgotten his predecessor when he distributed his campaign material which breathlessly urged voters to make electoral history and send “the first Green ever to the lower house”. The only problem was that Bandt’s claim wasn’t true.
Organ had proceeded him, winning the seat of Cunningham (that’s the area around Wollongong) and holding it for ten days less than two years, between October 2002 and October 2004. Organ had comprehensively defeated Sharon Bird in a by-election caused by the resignation of former Speaker Stephen Martin, when the Liberals decided not to stand. At the time this result, too, had been heralded as the harbinger of some kind of new Green renaissance that would transform federal politics. Then, at the next election, the Liberals entered a candidate and Labor won back the seat. Organ was quickly despatched.
Like Organ, Bandt only won thanks to Liberal preferences. These turned a 36 percent primary vote into a winning 56 percent, allowing him to defeat Labor’s Cath Bowtell even though she’d received more of the primary vote than he did (38 percent).
Bandt couldn’t have done it without Liberal help. Devoid of the assistance of those dutiful voters who followed the conservative how-to-vote ticket Bandt (who’d stood and lost in 2007) would now be a two-time loser. Of course this didn’t trouble the former socialist Left Alliance member, who has never bothered much with the Liberals. He stated before the election that he would indubitably side with Labor, a commitment he reiterated on election night. He didn’t even bother to see how Green he could turn Tony Abbott by dangling the promise of government in front of the opposition leader. Bandt – like the new Green Senator from NSW, Lee Rhiannon – is not so much a single issue politician as a single answer one. And it seems that whatever the question happens to be, their answer isn’t Liberal.
The problem is that, just like the other parties, the Greens are composed of factions. First there are some environmentalists; and then there are the red-greens, people with a determinedly left-wing perspective who will never work with the Liberals. What this election has clearly demonstrated is that the majority of Australians reject this approach. That way lies a dead end. The party can only regain significant influence if it is prepared to abandon the naïve attempt of some to introduce a socialist nirvana. If the Greens want political influence they instead need to co-operate with the coalition on finding a solution to environmental issues. The mechanics of the electoral process mean this is the only way they can have an effect.
The Victorian Liberals were the first to call the jolly green giant’s bluff. Leader Ted Baillieu dealt the Greens out of the game when he ripped away the prospect of liberal preference flows in safe Labor seats.
Overoptimistically perhaps, but the Greens were earlier talking up their prospects of seizing up to four seats from Labor and pushing the next government to the left. But voters decided they’ve already got a left wing party and don’t need another. It’s all very well for Senator Bob Brown to assert, correctly, that the major parties have previously attempted to stop the Greens from becoming MP’s in Tasmania, and yet now it’s the environmentalists who’ve decided which party eventually formed government in the island state. This is true, but it’s also completely irrelevant. As Brown knows only too well, Tasmania has a different voting system and, on the mainland, the Greens can’t win without Liberal preferences.
While the Greens remain a left-wing party (as opposed to an environmental one) there’s little, or nothing, they can offer the coalition. If the conservatives throw their preferences to the minor party, as they have in the past, it offers the Greens legitimacy amongst their own middle-class voters. It just took Baillieu’s realisation that the Liberals weren’t getting anything – that’s right, nothing – in return for him to call the bluff. Now it’s clear that, if the smaller party MP’s actually want to plunk their bottoms down on parliament’s soft leather seats, they’ll have to give up on imposing socialist nirvana and return to their original environmental concerns. And this is the strategic effectiveness of the move.
One of the tight contests in the federal election was the seat of La Trobe, in the Dandenong ranges east of Melbourne. There might have been many reasons why sitting member Jason Woods wasn’t returned, but on the night it was the Green’s decision not to award him preferences that proved vital. Woods was involved in environmental issues, but this apparently wasn’t enough for the Greens. He ended up losing by 1,619 ballots, even though there’d been 10,931 voters who placed a “1” next to the name of the Green candidate.
The point is that the environment is an issue that stretches across normal political boundaries. It can mobilise a powerful constituency, precisely because it bridges otherwise firm divisions in the electoral landscape. If the Greens really wish to elevate the environment and have it considered as a significant factor, they need to privilege these concerns, even if it means doing deals with unlikely partners. Failure to do this will consign it to eventual political oblivion.