Inside Story

Do the times suit the Greens?

Election 2019 | Labor’s momentum has posed a challenge for the other party of the left

Shaun Crowe 9 May 2019 1546 words

Next best chance? Greens candidate for Macnamara, Steph Hodgins-May, with party leader Richard Di Natale outside an early-voting centre at the Victorian School for Deaf Children in Melbourne on 29 April. James Ross/AAP Image

Australian election campaigns can be difficult for minor parties. The fight is as much against inertia and irrelevance as against the other parties. Journalists travel the country on two duelling campaign buses, polling results are translated into binary scorecards, and debate invitations are restricted to Labor and Liberal leaders. As a media spectacle, there’s only room for two protagonists.

For the Australian Greens, the fight for attention comes at a crucial moment, after three years of electoral stagnation and uncharacteristic organisational schism. Apart from Queensland, where the Greens elected their first state member in 2017, the last three years have offered a trail of disappointment. In Victoria and Tasmania, its two strongest states, the party has gone backwards in recent elections (alarmingly, its Tasmanian vote dropped by more than a quarter). In New South Wales, the state party managed to hold on to most of its vote but lost two defecting Legislative Council members in the process. (The branch was also the focus of a Four Corners episode that revealed the kind of internal bitterness usually reserved for third-term Labor governments.) Perhaps most crushing was its loss in Batman, a by-election campaign dragged down by unforgivable internal leaking, which placed a formidable Labor member in one of its strongest federal target seats.

If the Australian Greens find themselves in an uncertain position, the same can be said of the movement more broadly. The international network to which it belongs, the Global Greens, once claimed to be the world’s fastest-growing “political family,” but the story is now more mixed. Some Greens parties are ascendant, challenging and even surpassing their established competition, while others are struggling to stand still. The former include organisations like the German Greens, who after years of bipartisan “grand coalition” governments now consistently poll higher than the Social Democrats, a remarkable leap in the history of German democracy. The latter are the Green parties in Sweden and New Zealand, which have held ministerial positions in national governments only to then see their popularity drop significantly.

One common theme across the local and international cases is the link between social democratic strategy and Greens electoral performance. As members of what is usually the smaller party in any coalition, Greens politicians are often forced to react to choices made by the larger one. Sometimes these decisions expand political opportunities, and other times they close them off. It is much easier for the Greens to gain traction when the centre-left party governs with the centre-right, as in Germany, than when it presents a more compelling and progressive face, as in Victoria and New Zealand. (At the moment, it’s doubtful whether Franklin Roosevelt himself could take votes off Jacinda Ardern.)

In federal campaigning so far, the Greens’ strategy of breaking through the dominant two-party conversation has rested largely on its environmental critique of mainstream politics, a critique as old as the party itself. As Richard Di Natale argues, this is a “climate election,” and in many ways the times should suit his message. This has been a year of climate strikes and coal convoys, of long and brutal summer months, and of a horror show of scientific predictions — from a rapidly approaching emissions reduction deadline to mass species extinction. If the Greens originally emerged to confront the ecological indifference built into Australia’s political institutions — raising ecological concerns to their proper existential height — then this is their natural ground.

It is also the party’s most cutting political challenge to Labor, aside perhaps from refugee settlement. While the opposition has assembled a meaningful set of policies — leagues beyond the government’s unconvincing, half-hearted internal compromise — Labor still finds itself wedged on some of the country’s hardest environmental questions. The most obvious example is coalmining in central Queensland. For many locals, the Adani mine is a symbol of the area’s industrial history, as well as hopes for the region’s economic future; for most scientists, it relies on a “carbon bomb” that simply must remain in the ground. It also happens to border four marginal electorates. Greens policy is to rapidly phase out coalmining while transitioning energy production to 100 per cent renewables by 2030. Labor supports these goals in principle, but not the minor party’s urgent timeline, nor its rhetoric.

In its Batman strategy, the Greens campaign focused overwhelmingly on the Adani mine, and this does carry some risks, particularly if voters perceive the Greens as a narrow, single-issue party. Perhaps recognising this, the party’s election manifesto is a much broader document, tying together problems of “economic inequality, increased costs of living, environmental destruction and climate change” in a way that would fundamentally reorganise the country. It advocates significant increases in taxation, with a commensurate expansion in social services, such as public housing, welfare and free university. While the manifesto does not map a political strategy for legislating this new social contract — or how a government might neutralise the inevitable, well-funded campaign against higher tax rates — it reflects one of the party’s most underrated functions: as Australia’s most powerful and prominent left-wing think tank.

So how might the Greens go on 18 May? Potentially government-changing elections can be delicate for the party — criticise Labor too hard and risk alienating voters who most of all want a change in government; criticise Labor too lightly and fail to make a clear case for support. This is particularly important in lower house races, where the outcome between Labor and the Greens is necessarily zero-sum.

At this point, the House of Representatives forecast for the Greens looks pretty thin. Apart from the seat of Melbourne, which Adam Bandt should again win comfortably, the party’s best chances are in two neighbouring Victorian electorates.

One is Macnamara, where the Greens candidate, Steph Hodgins-May, is the party’s most credible shot at winning a second federal seat. This was Michael Danby’s old electorate, renamed from Melbourne Ports, where Labor’s vote had declined steadily over the past decade (we’ll soon learn whether the old member was an asset in parts of the community, as he claimed, or a drag on the progressive vote, as is more likely). As in the Prahran state seat — part of which overlaps with Macnamara — whichever candidate comes second to the Liberals should win this race, probably with a larger margin than in 2016. Labor will hope for a repeat of last year’s state election, when its primary vote rose considerably in this area of Melbourne. The Andrews bump might still be enough for Labor to hold Macnamara — at least for now.

The other main Greens target is Wills, in the city’s northern suburbs, where the party earned a 10 per cent swing in 2016. While the seat shares much with the Batman campaign — including a gentrified south in Brunswick and working-class north in Pascoe Vale and Glenroy — this is a more difficult campaign than the by-election, with its electoral geography skewed further against the minor party. The Greens candidate, Adam Pulford, is running an energetic campaign but will do well to consolidate the gains made last election.

With the NSW party again shut out of its strongest seats by Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese, the Greens’ best chances outside Victoria are in Queensland. Because it is not historically the party’s strongest state, the local Greens have felt liberated to run creative and radical campaigns, inspired more by Jeremy Corbyn than Bob Brown. They are outside, although not implausible, chances in both Griffith and Brisbane. The latter will be especially interesting to watch on election night — the kind of Turnbull Liberal seat undergoing gentle revolutions elsewhere, only this time with little media attention.

But the party’s biggest battle — and what will determine the future of Richard Di Natale’s leadership — is in the Senate. In some ways the Greens were given a reprieve by 2016’s double dissolution election, which halved electoral quotas. This time they will need to be in the top six candidates in each state to win seats, not just the top twelve. With ballots as long as cricket bats, and with smaller parties usually dependent on preference flows, these are difficult races to predict. But the contests can broadly be split in two. On one side are Victoria, Western Australia and Tasmania — strong Greens states historically, where the party should hold its seats. On the other side are South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales — borderline cases, where the Greens will need to improve their vote to retain senators. If the Greens can hold five of these six seats, they will have done well.

These Senate results will shape the minor party’s immediate future. Crucially, they will also shape the next parliament. If Bill Shorten does become prime minister, he’ll need as many Greens votes as possible to pass legislation in the Senate (and if conservative Australia’s rearguard election campaign is any indication, that will be no easier than it was for Julia Gillard). So too will the Greens depend on Labor’s ultimate success to make any of their goals viable. Because of this, for at least a few hours on election night we might witness a rare moment of Labor and Greens solidarity — a brief ceasefire in the country’s ongoing progressive civil war. •