Inside Story

Can Whitlam’s children bury the hatchet?

With minority government a possibility in Victoria, the Greens and Labor might need to find a way of working together

Shaun Crowe 23 November 2018 1671 words

Cooperative offering: the Greens’ Victorian election campaign launch in Prahran last month. National leader Richard Di Natale is on the far right, and Victorian leader Samantha Ratnam is to his right. Penny Stephens/AAP Image

When I launched my new book, Whitlam’s Children: Labor and the Greens in Australia, in Sydney a few weeks ago, the discussion was rigorous but good-natured. Labor senator Jenny McAllister spoke, as did former national Greens convenor, Ben Spies-Butcher. They both offered what Ben called “friendly provocations,” outlining their concerns about each other’s policies and political strategies while acknowledging their joint interest in the success of a future progressive Australian government. Audience members from across the political spectrum, including the Greens’ Lee Rhiannon, asked questions in a similar spirit. We didn’t sort out the Labor and Greens relationship, stubborn knots remained tangled, but it did feel productive.

It’s easier, of course, to express noble sentiments at a book launch than in the middle of a bare-knuckled election fight — as the final week of Victoria’s campaign, with its frenzy of hostility and mutual accusation, is showing. While available polling looks encouraging for premier Daniel Andrews, Labor is fighting for re-election on two fronts — against the Coalition in a series of suburban marginals, particularly in Melbourne’s southeast, and against the Greens in a cluster of inner-city seats. A loss to either side, depending on its magnitude, could mean the end of majority government, or of government altogether. Inevitably, things are getting stroppy.

The gloves might now be off in the inner city, but the Greens began their campaign with a cooperative offering of sorts. At the party’s election launch, leader Samantha Ratnam promised that her party, if it secured the Legislative Assembly’s balance of power, would work with Labor to “usher in the most progressive era of politics Victoria has ever seen.” The Greens would consider all available options, from a basic supply-and-confidence agreement to a joint Labor and Greens cabinet. The premier was less enthusiastic about the idea. When asked about Ratnam’s speech, he restated the position he took during the 2014 election, explicitly ruling out such an arrangement: “No deal will be offered, no deal will be done.”

The essential tension within any Labor–Greens collaboration is that it can only be born out of conflict. For the Greens to establish the kind of parliamentary leverage required, they need to win lower house seats — most of which will have traditionally been held by Labor. Single-member districts are by nature a zero-sum contest, and on Saturday night, the Greens are aiming to win five of them: Prahran, Richmond, Melbourne, Brunswick and Northcote. A clean sweep would make Ratnam’s goal much more likely.

Prediction here is difficult — inner-city polling is notoriously imprecise — but the Greens should be confident at least in Northcote and Brunswick. (Lidia Thorpe won Northcote convincingly at a recent by-election, and Labor will struggle to overcome its public saga with the previous Brunswick member, Jane Garrett.) From here things get trickier. The Greens might have held Melbourne and Prahran since 2014, but, worryingly for the minor party, consolidation is not guaranteed in either. Labor is confident it can win back one or both, in what would be a rare reversal in the history of the electoral relationship. The final seat, Richmond, held by Labor’s planning minister Richard Wynne, is an obvious target for the Greens, but the local party is split over the preselection of Kathleen Maltzahn, whose position on criminalising sex work (on which she shifted a little earlier this year) is opposed by many younger feminist activists. Greens sources suggest the party is struggling to recruit volunteers in the seat.

On the face of it, you would expect the Greens to do well in an election like this one. Green parties tend to increase their vote after the parliamentary and electoral compromises of first-term social democratic governments have disappointed more progressive voters. We saw this at the 2010 federal election, still the party’s highest federal watermark. If any government has a chance to defy this trend, however, it is Victorian Labor under Andrews, with its credibly left positions on renewable energy, Safe Schools, refugee settlement, trade unions and drug harm minimisation. Labor is also assisted by the premier’s social media operation, perhaps the savviest in the country.

To minimise losses to the Greens, or even reclaim seats, the government will need to replicate Ged Kearney’s Batman by-election achievement earlier this year — winning over a set of people who would have voted Labor in the past and who would prefer to vote for a progressive Labor option, but who have otherwise defected to the Greens in their disappointment.

If, on the other hand, the Greens have a good night on Saturday, a number of different models of minority government present themselves. These will shape any inevitable game of post-election chicken between the parties. On the most aggressive end is an integrated ministry, with the Greens entering executive government with Labor (this currently exists quite smoothly in the Australian Capital Territory, but the same model collapsed bitterly during the recent Labor administration in Tasmania). In the middle is a formally negotiated agreement, or a kind of written contract between the parties. At the other end is a more open and anarchic relationship, free of an agreement or cooperative institutions, with legislation negotiated bill by bill in the parliament.

During the research for Whitlam’s Children I interviewed Labor and Greens politicians about the experience of minority government under Julia Gillard, which began with a formal agreement between the two parties signed at an awkward press conference after the 2010 election. While representatives of the two parties disagreed on many things, most accepted that the arrangement worked as intended, at least within the parliament, allowing the government to hold together a fragile majority while legislating a broadly progressive agenda. Some in Labor put this success down to the political dexterity of Gillard and her senior ministers; others emphasised collaborative institutions like the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Greens representatives were thrilled by the experiment, feeling an unprecedented influence over policy and a newfound sense of ownership of legislative outcomes.

A group in each party did, however, express concerns about the deal. Within Labor’s caucus, a number felt that the arrangement was a burden for Gillard — one she managed to overcome at times, but one that held her back. For some, this was because parliamentary uncertainty sits uneasily within the Australian political tradition; for others, it was because the required policy compromises made Labor look duplicitous, or the Greens association repelled a set of swing voters necessary for Labor’s electoral coalition. While careful not to blame Gillard personally, these politicians considered the agreement a mistake.

Chris Bowen, for instance, would have preferred a purely “transactional” relationship. Bob Carr thought the official arrangement was unnecessary. “With the wisdom of hindsight, we can say it would have been best to avoid such a deal and have allowed them to vote according to their preference, measure by measure in the parliament,” he told me. “Clearly they wouldn’t have been voting a Labor government down to facilitate the election of Tony Abbott. They weren’t going to vote against a confidence measure and, in retrospect, we would have avoided a lot of pain and a lot of criticism by not having a formal agreement.” Daniel Andrews’s comments suggest that Labor’s starting position in any Victorian negotiation would be at the transactional end of the spectrum.

A small number of Greens politicians voiced similar reservations about the 2010 deal. As they noted, Labor lost government at the parliament’s end, but so too did the Greens. In fact, the 2013 election was also a disaster for the Greens, with the party losing around a third of its 2010 vote. Some put this down to the close relationship with Labor, which blunted the party’s image of independence and dragged it into the muck of major-party politics. Because of this, Lee Rhiannon thought the Greens should be wary of repeating the agreement. “Until we get more experience, we have to be really careful about going into those formal relationships to form government. Partly that’s a perception within our own party — but also in terms of achieving change.”

This is the essential predicament that frames both Labor and Greens discussions around minority government: a closer relationship can facilitate parliamentary success, but it often ends in electoral failure. Any Victorian relationship, regardless of the model chosen, would need to negotiate this perception, as well as a couple of more specific, recurring problems. One involves disputes over controversial extractive industries like forestry, which divide conservationists and industrial workers often in Labor-affiliated trade unions. Another involves those progressive social questions that, when wedged, divide progressive middle-class voters and more traditionalist parts of Labor’s voting base.

Perhaps even more pressingly, the Victorian parties would need to work through their deep institutional hostility, built up over decades of electoral competition, sneering and condescension, and tribal brawling. As Kelvin Thomson told me — speaking as an MP who faced an increasingly aggressive Greens challenge in his time as member for Wills — emotions in urban Melbourne tend towards the primal. “In a place like the Brunswick branch of the Labor Party, a lot of people share a lot of positions with the Greens, but at the same time are deeply hostile to them. It’s like a falling out between brothers, a Cain and Abel.”

In the end, parliamentary arithmetic will determine the shape of any post-election relationship. Will Andrews survive with his majority intact? If I were a betting man — a temptation that, on occasion, I’ve succumbed to — I would lean towards yes, but the path is a narrow one. While no election is without consequence, this one means a lot for both parties. For Labor, it is a chance to prove it can govern both progressively and popularly, while holding together different parts of a baggy and diverse electoral coalition. For the Greens, it is the most challenging test yet of their slow but relentless movement through the nation’s inner cities, at the heart of their strongest state. •