Green growths

Here’s a little something I wrote for today’s Crikey email but failed to get finished in time for the deadline …

The main lessons from Saturday’s ACT election and NSW by-elections can be heard loud and clear from the news headlines, and could indeed have been ascertained even before the figures came in. After suffering the two worst by-election swings in NSW history in Ryde and Cabramatta, there is no coming back for the fourth-term Labor government. The ACT election further emphasised that Labor’s state and territory governments are marching in lock-step towards the wrong end of the electoral cycle. While Jon Stanhope is likely to continue in government with the support of the Greens, Labor’s vote was down a numbing 9.3 per cent to 37.6 per cent. There were also intimations over the weekend that South Australia’s government is becoming conscious of its mortality, with talk of Treasurer Kevin Foley plotting a move against Premier Mike Rann.

The ACT election provided further support for the other recurring theme of recent state and territory elections: the growing strength of the Greens. The party is certain to hold the balance of power for the first time after its vote went up 6.6 per cent to 15.8 per cent, securing a definite three seats out of 17 and perhaps even a fourth. While the Greens’ more excitable partisans might interpret this as the tide of history leading the party on to fortune, past experience suggests a more mundane explanation. After a few terms in office, Labor governments often find themselves facing disaffection among voters of an idealistic persuasion, resulting in loss of support to minor parties and independents. The hard-edged economic reforms of the 1980s produced a bonanza for independents when Labor lost office in NSW in 1988, and compelled the Hawke government to make its famous pitch for Greens and Democrats preferences as its primary vote sank in 1990.

Now that there’s a monopoly trader in the market for disaffected left-wing votes, the Greens are presenting Labor with a perfect storm at the next round of state elections. They thus stand poised to fulfil long-cherished but never quite realised ambitions for lower house seats. Since the threat to Labor is in their traditional inner-city strongholds, the victims could include some very senior figures. In NSW, the Greens need to gain only 3.2 per cent on Labor to claim the scalp of Education Minister Verity Firth in Balmain, which Dawn Fraser won as an independent the last time Labor lost office. On current form, that would seem to be an absolute certainty. Marrickville could also go if the fall in Labor’s vote approaches double figures, which would put Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt out of a job. While things aren’t looking quite so grim for Labor south of the border, it’s clear the Victorian party’s vote in 2010 will not reach the landslide proportions of 2002 and 2006. That means big trouble for another Education Minister in Bronwyn Pike, who needed a feverish last-week campaigning effort in 2006 to retain a 2.0 per cent margin in her seat of Melbourne. Also at risk are Housing and Local Government Minister Richard Wynne in Richmond (margin 3.6 per cent), along with back-benchers Carlo Carli (Brunswick, 4.6 per cent) and Fiona Richardson (Northcote, 8.5 per cent).

Then there’s the risk that the phenomenon might go federal, as suggested by the recent Newspoll showing Greens support at 13 per cent. Such figures would be viewed nervously by Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, who last November watched a Greens candidate take second place for the first time at a general election in his seat of Melbourne. This continued a trend of ominously mounting Greens support in Melbourne going back three elections: 6.1 per cent in 1998, 15.7 per cent in 2001, 19.0 per cent in 2004, 22.8 per cent in 2007. Tanner’s primary vote of 49.5 per cent kept him out of danger, but this was achieved at the peak of Labor’s electoral cycle. It’s not hard to conceive a scenario where the Rudd government pursues votes in the electorally decisive outer suburbs at the expense of the values held dear in the inner-city, which could place Tanner in serious jeopardy.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

184 comments on “Green growths”

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  1. The Middle Class Party! a little before there time you would have thought!

    The non-Labor size has struggled to find one solid voice! it has formed, split, folded and reformed so many times.

    Considering how volitile Unions can be its somewhat of an acheivement for the ALP to have remained for the most part one party for so long.

    Yes its had its splits (1950) but generally speaking the so called Conservate side has been the one who has found staying the course harder.

  2. Pentecostalists are Protestants, the last time I looked.

    Look a bit harder. They often do not regard themselves as Protestants, are not members of the WCC etc. A lot of mainstream Protestants would see their teachings as heretical or more politely as being a cult.

    They will often speak of themselves as Restorationists or Charismatics.

  3. This may surprise a lot of people but the Greens also receive a very significant Christian vote as well. In particular the more progressive parts of the church such as the Uniting Church are very vocal in their support of the Greens.

    Also, if you check the preference flows in the Assembly from the WA State Election you will see that preference flows from FF to the Greens ahead of the majors are actually surprisingly high.

  4. Adam has a point about the Greens finding it hard to get beyond 10% of the national vote

    Rebecca: I agree about the idiocy in Canberra re: the new housing – it’s a good thing both of the Dunphy’s are dead – they were even worse “sacred wilderness” people than the current lot

  5. Well, protecting the wilderness is often a good thing. I agreed with the Greens on the Gungahlin Drive Extension, for one thing; driving a new arterial road through a nature reserve when there are other available routes is, uh, not the most ideal course of action.

    It’s just that there’s too many in the Greens who fail to realise that there are competing considerations, especially where social welfare is involved. Molonglo looks to me like a social disaster waiting to happen as a consequence of the (evidently successful) campaign against the construction of Molonglo Central, and the reasons for standing against it were pretty damned weak.

  6. Mary, I don’t think 10% is something the Greens care about. The National’s never make 10% and they have lower house and upper house seats and a chance to affect outcomes.

    The Greens will in time take the inner city in Melbourne and Sydney (It’s only a matter of time). That will add to the exposure of Greens policy which will lift the vote.

    I have no doubt that the Greens will go above the 10% at the next Federal election. Greens do worst when Labor is in opposition as people who don’t understand the preferential voting system vote Labor. I know many Green voters who did that at the federal election.

    I’m actually more interested in the lower house seats. If the Greens pick up an inner city seat at the state election in Vic keep an eye on the federal seat. I also think The Greens will finally crack the lower house seats in the NSW state elections.

    It’s amazing that the Democrats never really were a serious threat except in Mayo (apart from the Senate).

    When Labor is in power, Green voters return to the fold.

  7. If the Greens get Lord Mayor in Melbourne, is this likely to do anything positive or negative for their vote at the state/fed levels?

    Also, there is a possibility of a higher vote then otherwise would be expected at the next Vic state and federal elections, as they are on at almost the same time. Alternatively it could lower the Green vote as they have fewer volenteers/members to run and hand out.

  8. Dave – The only way having a Lord Mayor would impact on other elections would be if they got up a profile for doing good or bad things. If the community responded positively to initiatives it would probably increase their vote in that area at State elections. I dunno how about Federal. More of a disconnect there.

  9. I agree that the Greens are currently limited to a particular demographic, but I would argue that demographic is closer to 20% than 10%, and a lot of those voters still vote Labor, thus there is still room for the Greens to grow. We will hit a ceiling, at which point we may need to re-assess how we fit in the political system, but I think that will be as we poll closer to 20%. That’s the level where the LibDems in the UK and the NDP in Canada really hit their limits.

  10. Ben:

    The Greens probably should have merged with the Democrats years ago – Adam said that in the broad centre there is lots of possible votes – in the left to far left there is not

  11. Exactly. The Democrats were very much a minor party of transition. They were the first really successful minor party in Australia, but their base was contradictory and tried to bring together the left and the centre. That was essentially the cause of their downfall, and the Greens would’ve gone down with them if they’d merged.

  12. Dawson,

    There is some quantifiable evidence. Ben Spies-Butcher, who was our candidate for Heffron in 2007, did some analysis of Labor voters in the Australian Electoral Study, which found that there is a common demographic which is about 20% of Australia (concentrated in inner-city gentrified areas, but it’s not as simple as that), they predominate amongst Greens voters but include a lot of Labor left voters.

    At some point I’ll try and pull it all together and put a post up about it all.

  13. Yes, but defining a demographic and having it vote for you are two different things. It’s fine, for example, to say that the Libs ‘have’ the pensioner vote but the reality is that they don’t have it all and never will have.

    So – for example – if you define your demographic as ‘under 30, professional, lives in inner city, female’, you’re going to have at least 40% of people who tick all these boxes NOT voting for you.

    I’ll be interested to see your common demographic, when you pull it all together.

    BTW, please take the ALP left wing….but you won’t last long if you do.

  14. I dunno Dawson. The ALP left-wing seems to start off ok but they get bastardised by the party machine. I would think that their passion and activism would get rewarded in The Greens as opposed to being muffled in the ALP.

    Also, if we’re taking 10% as some kind of Green benchmark, that figure is most definitely not restricted to the inner-city. A recent example being Lakemba.

  15. I don’t just mean “demographic” as in economic and social things. I also mean the type of people with similar political views. They also consider people who have said they have considered voting Green but didn’t decide to do so. My point is the potential voting audience for the Greens is closer to 20%.

  16. I did an analysis for Senator Nettle a few years back that looked at who “Green voters” were and where they lived in NSW. The purpose was to target these areas with the limited campaign resources available to her.

    After an analysis of the 2004 Australian Electoral Study and using the Census it was clear to me that the key indicator was people with tertiary qualifications and people of no religion. The correlation was most favourable for the Greens when these two indicators were both present in an electorate. After the 2006 census and the 2007 federal election it is clear to me that the correlation still exists.

    With all other things being equal, based on what limited research I have undertaken, I do believe the ceiling could be 20% on average across the country, if not higher.

    And I do take your point Dawson 166 that knowing who your demographic is (and knowing where they live) and getting them to vote fro you are two different things. Voter inertia is a hard thing to break.

  17. “The Democrats were very much a minor party of transition. They were the first really successful minor party in Australia, but their base was contradictory and tried to bring together the left and the centre. That was essentially the cause of their downfall, and the Greens would’ve gone down with them if they’d merged.”

    There is nothing contradictory about a party trying to bridge the left and the centre – if the Greens seriously want to grow much more, that’s what they will have to try and do (which should be easier with the Democrats out of the way). Both major parties bridge a much wider space – the so-called ‘broad church’. You can’t have broad appeal with a narrow or rigid base.

    If the Greens had merged with the Democrats, this might have provided a fast(er) track to bringing that about – although far from certain of course, and the pschology of it may have been too hard for enough people to stomach in both parties for it to work. Which I guess when you strip it all back is why it didn’t happen (i’m talking early 90s before the Greens seriously set about solidifying themselves as a distinct entity, not later periods when things were too entrenched).

    For all the Green’s gains, they are still short of where the Democrats were ten years ago in terms of federal representation, which for people interested in the strongest representation for pro-environment parties, rather than just cheersquadding their team, is not an ideal result. The Democrats and Greens combined were in double figures in the Senate not too long ago, and with the disappearance of the Democrats, it is down to 5 – historically high for the Green Party, but where the Democrats were in 1980 (in a smaller Senate), so not exactly huge progress for political representation for the environment for 30 years worth of effort. No doubt it will grow from here, and I am not blaming the Greens for this or discounting the Greens strong growth at state and local government level (where the Democrats as a whole did very poorly over the years, apart from SA). I am just saying there’s been a lot of effort over 20 years for not much overall growth if you are talking about levels of public support and parliamentary representation for pro-environment parties. Whether it would have been stronger now if there the Greens had merged with the Democrats rather than gone their own way circa 1991 is both uncertain and academic, although I suspect it would.

    Developing polling level and parliamentary representation not much different from what the Democrats had, with a more reliable, but ideologically narrower, support base, is not the same as if that level of support had never existed for a pro-environment party.

    If you want to make genuine strong commitment to the environment a core mainstream political priority (which I think would be a good idea) you can’t do it with a vehicle which determinedly positions itself away from the centre.

    And FWIW, in my view the cause of the Democrats downfall had nothing to do with trying to straddle the left and the centre. It was predominantly due to them blowing a hole right through the key reason that people from across the spectrum voted for them – honesty – (and failing to acknowledge that they’d done it, which made it rather hard to try to repair the damage).

  18. Umm, I am just curious why the Nationals are not being counted as a ‘minor party’ in this discussion… or have I missed something? If they do count as a minor party, wouldn’t they be the stand-out for the most successful and most effective minor party in Australian political history?

  19. AB @ 170
    Interesting analysis. One of the issues facing the Greens as they get some power is how to apply it without ‘getting their hands dirty’. Would it be better not to apply it at all? How to make compromises that do not compromise the long term potential of the greens? Tough issues to address for them – as they were for the Nationals in the Howard Government in the past decade and in Western Australia now. Is this what you meant by the ‘loss of honesty’ happening to the Dems?

  20. As I pointed out about the WA Greens, their refusal to compromise their principles (admittedly an admirable stance) lost them their seats and their power.

    It’s the old question: Is it better to be in power, at the cost of making compromises and be able to achieve real outcomes, then not to be in power, have loverly unsullied principles but not be able to achieve anything ‘real’?

    If ‘saving the world’ (something I’m all for, by the way) is paramount to all else, then surely its importance outweighs the conscientious qualms of a few MPs?

    Or is preserving the integrity of the Greens more important than saving the environment?

    (Mind you, I have good reasons to doubt the extent of this integrity; Greens members are human beings, after all).

  21. Dawson@173
    Not sure how you can say the Greens being principled lead them to lose 2 Senators. Being in front of the Kernot Democrat bulldozer in 1996 was not a good place to be, but at the end of the day it was National preferences that finished the Greens (WA) off in that election. In 1998 Margetts would have beaten Gregg by approx. 5000 votes – until the Christian Democrats vote was counted. There pref ticket (which had the ALP #3 ahead of the Lib #3) altered the pref flow such that the ALP stayed ahead of the Greens, who went out electing Gregg, the ALP went out electing Knowles (the Lib #3), leaving One Nation stranded. The two people the CDP did NOT want elected (Knowles & Gregg) were thus elected by their preference decisions…. But the point is, the Green vote was still creeping up, 0.5% at a time. Notwithstanding Federal elections, the Greens had elected 3 MLC’s in WA in 1997 (the Democrats had elected 2 that election) to build on Scott’s election in 1993.

    I would also agree with Andrew’s comments re a merger between the Greens and Democrats in the early 1990’s. I thought it possible under Powell, but not Coulter. As well, in 1992 Vallentine stepped down to be replaced by Chamarette, who was into big ‘networks’ but not big parties (she orchestrated the “NO” vote within the Greens (WA) which kept them out of the Australian Greens…), so the chances began to diminish rapidly after she went into the Senate.

    And as I keep harping on about, there is a place for a ‘centre’ party in Australian politics, but the Democrats weren’t it when trying to straddle both left and centre. It would have required an even more pragmatic approach – and I don’t think either their membership or some of the MP’s (Andrew being one of them!) would have stomached that. On that, though, there is a discernible shift internally within the Greens toward the centre, pushed along by Bob Brown, which may yet create the kind of party Andrew is alluding to – of being one with a determinedly environmental core. What this means for the left of the Greens is another question…

  22. [What this means for the left of the Greens is another question…]

    Interesting question. There is a tension in the party between those who strongly believe in all progressive values like social justice, equality etc etc and those who argue that compromising ‘left’ policies would lead to greater representation and thus allowing the party who introduce its ‘core policies’ – presumably the environment.

    Since the party is relatively undisciplined and there is no party machine, the tension will be played out between individual members at state and national conferences and it will be interesting to see how it gets resolved, if it gets resolved.

  23. Boerwar @ 170
    There’s nothing wrong or inherently damaging with ‘getting your hands dirty’. What can be damaging is if you won’t admit to others that that’s what your doing (or even worse don’t admit it to yourself). In my view, compromise in politics is fine, as long as it is ‘compromise’ in the sense of getting something less than ideal, but still moving in the right direction (as opposed to ‘compromise’ meaning betraying your fundamental ideals because you think it will win you votes or is a clever strategy).

    My reference to the ‘loss of honesty’ regarding the Dems was to do with about the GST debacle.

    StewartJ @ 174

    “there is a place for a ‘centre’ party in Australian politics, but the Democrats weren’t it when trying to straddle both left and centre. It would have required an even more pragmatic approach – and I don’t think either their membership or some of the MP’s (Andrew being one of them!) would have stomached that.”

    I appreciate that perception is reality in politics, but your view about my view (and about the views of the majority of the Democrats’ former members too) is wrong. “Pragmatism” is another of those words in politics which means different things to different people (a bit like “compromise”), but not only am I supportive of a pragmatic approach, I don’t see much point even getting involved in electoral and parliamentary politics if you aren’t prepared to be pragmatic.

    But as I said above, you should be clear and honest about what you are doing and why, not try to spin your way through difficult decisions or situations. I appreciate we have a political and media culture which has contempt for intellectual honesty, or acknowledging differences of views within a party or admitting your position is not 100% perfect in every way on every occasion, but if people don’t make an effort to change that, then it won’t.

    Possibility this was a bigger issue for the Democrats than anybody else, given that honesty – a la keping the bastards honest and all that – was the central thing most in the general public identified with the Democrats, so it caused greater damage when this core value was so brazenly betrayed. But idealism and being seen as different to the big major parties is one thing that draws many people to smaller parties, so its not helpful for any of them to let that get debased, at least in the eyes of their supporters.

    Being pragmatic, making compromises, etc is not automatically contrary to being idealistic (at least in how I define ‘idealism’. It is harder to do both and more of a hassle, but if you’re trying to build up something that is substantively different to the major parties, rather than just a smaller less influential version of them, I think its necessary.

  24. All minor parties appeal to a range of people. All parties have core supporters who are small numbers compared with actual votes received. Eg ALP membership nationally might be 60,000 but votes might be 6m. Greens membership nationally might be 10,000 but votes are 1m. Many voters choose the party they are nearest to without endorsing all their policies. Plenty of Green voters don’t have tertiary education or no religeon. Plenty of Green voters would of support some Green policies – they just don’t like other parties policies more.
    The potential vote for Greens currently is around 20% which can be gauged from scrutiny of votes at elections. Greens get say 10% first votes but get a similar number of voters who consciously give Greens a second or near second preference. About 70% of these voters are from ALP or other left of centre and other 1/3 are from Lib, FF or other right of centre.
    These figures of course are not fixed – every day issues arise which challenge people’s views. Parties don’t own their voters. Votes in Melbourne last election – if Senate votes had been replicated in Reps for Melbourne, Greens would have been elected comfortably. Labor will need to carefully consider whether they can avoid to risk losing Tanner.

  25. I’m not a Greens voter but that is great news.
    No way did the Liberal Party deserve to maintain their number of seats at 7 in the Assembly given their performance over the last four years.
    This year has been solid enough, but they deserved a hit after the turmoil in the Party – where most of the members cannot stand each other.
    Also, because of the 9% swing against Labor, it has almost been forgotten that the Liberal vote fell by over 3% as well – a really poor result because they picked up absolutely none of the lost Labor vote. Appalling.

  26. William.

    You might like to start a Melbourne City Council thread now that the draw of the ballot has been finalised. Monday is the closing date for the registered Group preferences and final negotions take place for poll position in Melbourne’s Closing event for the Spring Carnival.

    The Greens are expected to come on fourth and possible give the election to Catherine Ng. It is early days but the Melbourne City Council will play a role in the Greens fortunes and may be a precurser to the state election results in 2010.

  27. The Greens were unfairly denied a senate seat in Queensland because of the distortion built in to the system and the way/order in which votes from excluded candidates are distributed.

    If you count the 2007 Queensland senate vote as though there were only seven candidates standing (3 ALP, 3 Liberal and 1 Green) the Greens win the six seat by a margin of 50,000 votes.

    The Australian Electoral Commission has adopted a policy of “Ignorance is bliss” relying on an assessment paper dating back to 1986 when changes to the Senate counting system where first proposed. Back then votes were counted manually and the system currently in place was designed as a trade off to facilitate a manual count. With the advent of computer based technology a the fallacious argument relied on by the Australian Election Commotion no longer applies.

    Australia was the first country to adopt a preferential voting system for National elections. Now is the time to once again be a leader in electoral reform by adopting a reiterative computer based counting system to correct the error and distortion in the current method of counting the results of the election.

    The AEC is of the view that the public trust the current system to elect their State representatives. That can only be said because most people are not aware of the distortion in the way the vote is counted. If you inform them of the facts that the election results did not reflect the voters intentions then Australians would begin to support change. Change that counts.

  28. Ultimately the Greens will go the same way as the Democrats and The DLP and disappear forever on the Australian political landscape. Afterall not everyone can have jobs in Eco-Tourism their policies are just so way out and would see this country need up like an African basketcase.

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