Lessons for the Greens from the 2013 Federal election

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The Greens' vote declined significantly at the 2013 Federal election. Doug Evans looks at whether this signifies the beginning of the end or just the end of the beginning?

The spirit of The Greens: past, present, future.
The spirit of The Greens: past leader Bob Brown, present leader Senator Christine Milne and, perhaps, future leader Senator Larissa Waters.

Part One: The Bad News

THE ELECTION IS OVER. The new Government has just been sworn in. It seemed it would never come but, at last, Australian voters have declared the Liberal-National coalition to be the least-disliked of the two old political parties who share government in the ‘lucky country’.

It is a truism that oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them. There can have been few elections when this was more so than this one. The nation’s lurch to the right, which has delivered a Lower House majority of around 35 seats to the Abbott-led LNP, was surely driven more by collective dismay at the antics of a dysfunctional Australian Labor Party in government than by the attractiveness of the policies and personalities on offer from the opposition benches.

This article is the first of two attempting to assess the implications of the 2013 election for the third feature of the Australian political landscape — the Australian Greens.

Since 1996, when Bob Brown joined sitting Greens senator Dee Margetts in the Federal Senate, the Greens have been the increasingly prominent third feature of Australia’s political landscape. Reviled by the Liberal National coalition and distrusted by the Australian Labor Party, they are somewhat disdained by the punditry who regularly predict the Party’s imminent decline and eventual demise. Despite all this, the Greens ‒ until this election, at least ‒ have steadily increased their vote and presence in the Federal Parliament.

After the 2010 election, they had nine senators in the Upper House and had broken into the House of Representatives with the election of Adam Bandt in what had previously been one of Labor’s most iconic seats, the seat of Melbourne. In the 2010 election, they polled a record 11.76% of the vote for the House of Representatives, held the balance of power in the senate and played a major role in supporting the minority Labor government of Julia Gillard.

Before examining how the Greens were affected by Australia’s swing to the right, I should state that I am a member of the Greens. A lifelong social democrat and Labor voter, I was finally forced to confront the question of why would a social democrat vote for Labor? Unable to find a satisfactory answer, I began voting Green, eventually joining the Party, a very ‘mature’ recruit to the cause indeed.

Life for the Greens was altered by the 2013 election.

There is plainly both bad news and good news for the Greens in this election result. The bad news is that nationally the Greens first preference vote has declined by 3.4% from 11.8% to 8.4%.

The swing was far from uniform.

In Tasmania, the vote more than halved falling precipitously by 8.7% to 8.1%, while in Victoria it fell by less than the average swing against Labor, by 2.3% to 10.4%. In general, the Greens vote declined by anything between 2% and 8% to around the level of its vote in 2007 and, for the first time since the Democrats were a force in Australian politics, the Greens’ Senate vote was smaller than its House of Representatives vote. This is not the first set back for the Greens vote, but it is a significant decline and must be taken seriously.

The good news for the Greens is that, in the face of a major swing to the right, the Party has actually increased its representation in the Federal Parliament — but I’ll save discussion of this until Part two of the article.

Why did the Greens vote decline and what are the implications for the future of the Party?

There are differing views on this.

The Palmer juggernaut was seen by some as taking votes from The Greens. (Caricature by John Graham / johngraham.alphalink.com.au)

Bernard Keane in Crikey suggests that there were a number of ‘one-off factors’, though he names only two: participation as the minor partner in what has become a deeply unpopular Tasmanian State government and the appearance of the Clive Palmer juggernaut, that also impacted on the ALP and LNP vote. Keane goes on to suggest that, with the benefit of hindsight, the disproportionate allocation of resources necessary to ensure Adam Bandt’s re-election in the Lower House seat of Melbourne was illogical given the likelihood of a coalition victory, the probable loss of balance of power in the Lower House and the implications of that for Bandt’s ability to influence outcomes. He suggests that the resource might have been better allocated in an attempt to get NSW Senate candidate Cate Faehrmann elected and make Abbott’s task more difficult after July 1 next year when the new Senate commences.

Writing for New Matilda, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon suggested that:
‘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.’

She sees the task ahead for the Greens as engaging and winning back the support of these voters with
‘...clear messages that keep reminding them that the Greens stand for their interests and beliefs more strongly than Labor.’

I have no idea how widespread was this belief that, for some reason, this time it was necessary to vote Labor to try and see off the Abbott menace, but I have certainly had a number of unbelievably frustrating exchanges online with people adhering to this view.

Bob Brown writing for The Guardian allocates responsibility for the decline to other factors. He points to the Murdoch media campaign against the Greens and, like Bernard Keane, notes the rise of Palmer’s Party, which he said:
‘...took a lot of votes from The Greens, not least because Palmer has a humane approach to refugees not unlike the Greens’ policy.’

Although Palmer and the Greens more or less agree over asylum seekers and the dangers of coal seam gas exploration, there are no other obvious points of agreement and I think the real reason that Palmers Party took votes from the Greens is somewhat more basic.

It seems pretty clear to me from reading and listening to informed comment from within the Party, there was a good range of factors contributing to the decline in the Greens vote and (a bit of good news hidden in the bad) that some of these are more or less specific to this election and will not necessarily become permanent features in our political landscape. A list of the factors contributing to the slump in the Greens voter would include:

1. The departure of Bob Brown

Bob Brown was the charismatic and respected Federal Leader of the Party who retired in June 2012 after 16 years in the Federal Senate. His removal from the scene, only a little over a year before this election, was always going to cost votes for the Party which to many was/is inseparable from the man. With the passage of time, nostalgia for ‘uncle Bob’ will fade.

2. The country swung to the right

Australians decided in 2013 that the conservatives were the least detested of the two old parties. This broad shift in sentiment impacted negatively on the Greens at the progressive end of the spectrum, as it was bound to do. When the country swings left again, some or all of this component of the lost vote will swing back gain.

3. Climate change kept out of election

Disastrously for our future well being, both major parties ensured that climate change ‒ one of the Greens emblematic policy strengths ‒ was kept out of the election. There was, however, talk of the carbon tax by both major parties, with Rudd even bizarrely claiming at one point that he had "abolished the carbon tax".

There was no mention of the climate emergency that is on us from either Coalition or Labor. Reducing the Clean Energy legislation to just another tax was bound to hurt the Greens. If people didn't like 'a great big tax on everything' the Greens could not escape the blame. When you take a stand on something, you win support, but you also harden opposition. Within a few years, climate change will become impossible to ignore and the position of the Greens will inevitably be seen to have been correct.

4. The change of government effect

The electoral climate for a third (minor) party becomes far more difficult when a change of government is in the offing. People want to cast a vote for one of the sides likely to win, and the contest closes out consideration of alternatives without a chance of winning the big contest. This is particularly so for first time voters, often an important support for the Greens — and ones who were personally targeted across the country by the Liberals, who sent them all individually addressed letters telling them not to risk the Greens. This, as much as failure to understand the nature of preference allocation, is probably the underlying cause of the leakage of votes to Labor from the Greens that Rhiannon drew attention to in her article.

5. Malicious Murdoch media

The scurrilous sliming of the Greens by the Murdoch media over the last three years and the unjustified exclusion of a Greens presence from important public discussions during the campaign also certainly contributed to the decline in the vote.

6. The Labor taint

The Greens were tainted by the odium attaching to Labor. Many who spoke of the failure of the minority government were actually conflating that issue with Labor's leadership woes, combined with scandals around Peter Slipper and Craig Thomson, the ICAC trials and so on.

7. The decline of the protest vote

Finally the Greens vote has always had a component of what might be called the ‘protest vote’. Some of these voters can be described as ‘left leaning’, some as right leaning’. The Greens’ ‘left leaning’ protest vote comprises people who have voted for the Greens simply because they were not either of the ‘old’ parties. They saw the Greens as outsiders whose presence infuriated both Labor and the Coalition and liked them for this. Now that they have seen the Greens exercising power both Federally and in coalition in Tasmania and the ACT in tandem with Labor; to these voters, they have begun to resemble the two old parties and the left leaning protest vote has moved on, to the advantage of the colourful new maverick on the block, Clive Palmer.

The Greens’ probably somewhat larger ‘right leaning’ protest vote comprises people whose basic political position is somewhere to the right of Greens policy but who have voted for the Greens because of individual policies. Figures produced by ABC election analyst Anthony Green support this view. They reveal that between 20% and 25% of Greens votes have always allocated second preference to the Liberal Party. These voters might be (for example) conservative gay people who would like to be able to marry their partner or, in particular, ‘small-l-Liberals’ who can’t abide the cruel inhumane asylum seeker policies of their preferred party.

The appearance of Palmer’s right leaning micro-party with similar asylum seeker policies and supporting a conscience vote on marriage equality might well have attracted such voters. The percentage of ‘right leaning’ Greens voters revealed by Anthony Green pretty well matches the reduction in the Greens vote at this election. In 2013, this layer of the vote has been stripped away reducing the vote to the reliable core of ‘true believers’ whose vote is grounded in principle and/or rational assessment.

The one-off character of some of these factors suggests that some votes lost in this election will return next time — but who can be certain?

The collapse of the Palmer Party at some point in the future will leave the votes of about 6% of the electorate searching for a new home, but who can say now what the policy mix of Australia’s political parties will be at that point?

The Greens Party realizes that it must actively seek remedies to its changed circumstances. All this poses the question of how the vote can be grown again when a percentage of Greens voters are so loosely attached (but I’ll address this in Part Two).

Finally, I suggest that the substantial but (hopefully) short-term decline in the Greens vote in 2013 needs to be considered against the very long-term, albeit gradual, decline in the Labor vote.  This has declined at an average annual rate of 0.15% (from 50% to 38%) since 1940.

Slowly ‒ erratically but inexorably ‒ for seventy years, the appeal of the ALP to Australian voters has been in decline while primary support for the conservatives has held steady at around 45%. The comments to the intriguing article that alerted me to this by Canberra academic Ian MacAuley are insightful and also worth reading. Supporters of progressive thought and policy better hope like hell that the decline in the Greens vote at this election is a temporary setback rather than a landmark indicator of worse to come, because history strongly suggests the ALP is incapable of turning this tide by itself.

Coming up tomorrow is Part 2: The future of the Greens.

Creative Commons LicenceThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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