Inside Story

Enemies of my enemy

Liberal preferences could make or break the Greens’ ambitions in the lower house. Will Jeff Kennett come to the rescue?

Peter Brent 24 March 2021 1128 words

Minority government? Greens leader Adam Bandt. Tracey Nearmy/Getty Images

When the Gillard government’s carbon price became law almost a decade ago, the Greens and the Coalition furiously agreed on one point: it wouldn’t have happened without the minor party. It was true. Labor wouldn’t have priced carbon during that term if the Greens hadn’t insisted.

That law was emblematic of the diabolical politics the government of 2010–13 struggled under. It was all very popular among many Greens and Labor supporters — just like bickering parents who had finally reconciled. But it seriously undermined Labor’s authority more broadly. The party that had dropped its own carbon scheme had happily introduced someone else’s.

Was it good for the Greens? That’s not clear. They’re still going strong, but they’ve never bettered their 2010 vote; across most Australian jurisdictions their peak remains the late noughties. (See this graph.)

As we get closer to the next election, the Greens and the Liberals will again be singing from the same sheet, this time insisting that a hung parliament is a big possibility, and perhaps even a likelihood. They both see advantages in playing up the likelihood of another Labor–Greens deal.

Greens leader Adam Bandt was at it on Monday during an interview with David Crowe in the Nine papers. Nominating the nine lower house seats his party is targeting, he urged left-leaning Labor supporters to vote for the smaller party. With the balance of power, he said, “We will help push the next government to go further and faster on climate change and make billionaires and big corporations pay their fair share of tax.” Along the way he painted fanciful scenarios and employed the odd pea-and-thimble trick.

“On current published polling,” he added, “a minority government after the next election is a likely outcome.” At least he said “likely” and not “the most likely.” With the probability of a decent-sized crossbench after the next poll (there are six at the moment, ignoring doomed ex-Liberal Craig Kelly), a hung parliament is a reasonable possibility. But the chances of Labor having to rely on the Greens are tiny, because the most likely number of Greens lower house MPs in the next parliament is just one: Bandt.

Unless the Greens can somehow get most of those nine seats. And they can’t — unless their old frenemy, the Liberal Party, comes to the rescue.

For the first decade of this century, the federal Coalition enjoyed the best of both worlds by warning constantly about the dangers of a Labor–Greens government — casting the latter as mad socialists and occasionally as Nazis — and then mostly preferencing the minor party ahead of Labor at election time. Evidence suggests that around a third of Liberal voters are swayable by how-to-vote cards in Labor–Greens contests, so those preferencing decisions can make a big difference.

Liberal how-to-vote cards in the electorate of Melbourne almost certainly brought Adam Bandt to Canberra in 2010. If the Libs had preferenced Labor’s Cath Bowtell instead, she would have won. The rest is history; from the Abbott opposition’s point of view, it worked a treat.

But during the Victorian election campaign in November of that same year, Liberal leader Ted Baillieu announced with fanfare that the party would, in a break with tradition, stand on principle and put the Greens last. Some called it mad at the time — it allowed Labor to redirect resources to Labor–Coalition contests — but on election night, to the surprise of most, the Coalition won. The preference decision was decreed a Good Thing and the federal Liberals eventually decided to do the same. (Strictly speaking, these remain state branch decisions.)

Ever since then the Liberals have preferenced Labor ahead of the Greens at federal elections. Under that new policy, Bandt almost certainly wouldn’t have been elected eleven years ago; under the old policy, the Greens’ Alex Bhathal would have romped home in Batman in 2016 (where she topped the primary vote), and Wills in the same year would have been much more touch and go.

As the sitting Melbourne MP, the Greens leader has progressively built a phenomenal personal vote to withstand the Liberal change; at the last two elections, in fact, his demolition of Labor candidates was so great that they didn’t even make it to the two-candidate count, rendering the Liberal how-to-vote cards redundant.

(Had Bhathal been elected in 2016, she too would probably be comfortably ensconced in the renamed Cooper. As it is, Labor’s Ged Kearney, who defeated her in a by-election three years ago, was easily re-elected in 2019.)

At Victorian state elections, meanwhile, the Liberals have been going cold on the post-2010 system, and in 2018 they ran a few split tickets (in practical terms preferencing neither Labor nor the Greens). In one electorate they solved the preference dilemma by not even fielding a candidate. The federal Greens’ biggest hope is that this approach catches on in federal elections, at least in the Victorian branch.

But back to those nine target seats. Crowe listed them as follows: “five seats held by Labor: Griffith in Queensland, Richmond in NSW, Canberra in the ACT and Macnamara and Wills in Victoria” together with Liberal-held “Brisbane and Ryan in Queensland and Kooyong and Higgins in Victoria.” These are the twelve electorates where the Greens’ primary vote was greater than 20 per cent at the last election, minus Melbourne, which they hold, Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s Grayndler, and Ged Kearney’s Cooper.

Because Labor continues to preference the Greens ahead of the Liberals, the best chances for the minor party are in electorates where Labor preferences will actually be distributed. In that list, it’s Ryan, Kooyong and Higgins. And probably Brisbane. And, they hope, Macnamara, Griffith and Richmond.

Macnamara has been the focus of some attention because the Australian Electoral Commission’s draft redistribution excises strong Liberal areas. It remains a notional Labor seat, and with new MP Josh Burns likely to receive a sophomore surge — a higher personal vote now that voters have got to know him — it’s a long shot for the Greens.

So it’s up to the Liberals, particularly in the Greens’ strongest state, to give the Greens a fighting chance. There, former premier Jeff Kennett has indicated he’d like to take over the job of state president. Of Bandt’s list, Wills is ripe for a change of Liberal preference policy.

Kennett is the kind of crash-through character to embrace the realpolitik of returning to the old preferencing days. Over to you Jeff? •

This article has been updated to include Griffith and Richmond as electorates in which a Greens victory would involve the distribution of Labor preferences.

The publication of this article was supported by a grant from the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.