Inside Story

The Green–Labor alliance: one year on

With the Green vote strengthening in some key federal electorates, the Labor–Green alliance in the ACT is worth a closer look, writes Norman Abjorensen

Norman Abjorensen 10 November 2009 1456 words

“We have made advances,” says the Greens’ convenor in the ACT Legislative Assembly, Meredith Hunter. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

IMAGINE for a moment a possible scenario a few federal elections down the track. The Coalition manages to claw its way back, but neither it nor Labor is able to command a majority, with Labor on seventy-three seats, the Coalition seventy-one, three independents and three Greens (the Greens having picked up Sydney, Grayndler and Melbourne).

Let’s forget about the Senate for the moment and focus on the possibilities in the House of Representatives, where governments are made. For the Coalition to govern it would need the support of the three independents (assuming they are broadly pro-Coalition, in the form of renegade Nationals, as at present) as well as two of the three Greens (which is highly unlikely). Labor, on the other hand, would only need the support of the three Greens (a far more likely prospect).

It’s not completely far-fetched. Labor is looking increasingly vulnerable in its inner-city seats, including Melbourne, where the Greens polled almost 23 per cent of the primary vote in 2007, Sydney, where they polled almost 21 per cent, and Grayndler in Sydney’s inner west, where the figure was almost 19 per cent.

It is for this reason that many keen and not entirely disinterested eyes are watching closely the development of the political alliance between the Greens and Labor in the Australian Capital Territory following Labor’s loss of its majority at the 2008 election. Labor, with seven of the seventeen seats, relies on the four Greens members to pass its legislation. (The Liberals hold the other six seats.)

The formal alliance between Labor and the ACT Greens is now twelve months old and, despite some not unexpected strains and tensions, it has delivered the Territory not only sound and stable government but also some much needed institutional reform. To an observer of politics the experiment represents a novel exercise in transparency: the formal agreement is on the internet, as are regular updates on progress.

Clearly, the Greens are here to stay in the ACT. Labor must simply learn to live with them in what is essentially a strongly pro-Labor electorate, albeit with a growing Green tinge. Of course, the ACT is not Australia. It is the most left-leaning electorate and the most highly educated, and it is a place where the traditional conflicts between labour and capital have simply not happened. Throw in the predominance of public sector employment and the electoral profile is unique.

Another point of difference – but one shared with Tasmania – is the Hare-Clark system of proportional representation and multi-member electorates, which gives the Greens a discernible advantage in gaining representation, and especially so in the ACT’s unicameral parliament.

Of course, Labor has relied on the Greens before in the ACT. In fact, it was probably an anomaly that the sixth assembly elections in 2004 returned the first majority government to the territory in its twenty years of self-government, an outcome that the champions of Hare-Clark had argued was next to impossible. But an exceptionally popular chief minister, Jon Stanhope, and an especially inept Liberal opposition delivered just that.

The situation returned to normal in 2008 with Labor losing two seats and the Greens going from one to four (though not without an element of luck in the form of a bizarre drift of preferences from a motorists’ group, which enabled the Greens to take the last seat in the seven-member electorate of Molonglo). So long as the assembly stays at seventeen, the Greens are likely to retain three seats.

Labor was not happy with losing its majority, and indeed some key Labor figures bitterly accuse the Greens of “sitting in Labor seats.” While the Greens’ parliamentary convenor (they don’t use the term leader), Meredith Hunter, enjoys a constructive relationship with deputy chief minister Katy Gallagher (they meet weekly except in sitting weeks), some other Labor offices have a frostier relationship with the Greens. It is likely the alliance will be tested severely later in the four-year term when Labor sets out to win back its perceived lost ground.

But so far the experiment has proved that Labor can live with the Greens and, perhaps more importantly, it has given the Greens the chance to establish their credentials in a way that Labor had to do a century ago: by demonstrating to a wary electorate that they are responsible lawmakers and not a bunch of dangerous radicals. (And, as if to underline that point, Green MLAs recently found themselves guests of the Canberra Business Council, described by the Speaker, the Greens’ Shane Rattenbury, as “each of us keeping company that a year ago would have been probably unthinkable.”)

It was not always an inevitable alliance. The Canberra Liberals made an offer, involving ministerial portfolios, which the Greens considered carefully. In a complex set of manoeuvres, the Greens and Labor negotiated a formal agreement, part of which involved Rattenbury taking the speakership. Labor, however, was miffed when he disregarded tradition and took on a shadow portfolio in addition to the Speaker’s job, which he explains simply as: “I didn’t come here just to sit in parliament.”

As Speaker, Rattenbury has had an immediate impact on the assembly, which can get very willing in its intimate confines. According to Labor he gives the opposition too much rein, but he counters with the argument that the Speaker is not part of the executive and has to strike a sometimes difficult balance between allowing dissenting voices to be heard and preserving parliamentary decorum. He has also incorporated Greens’ policy into the standing orders, insisting that ministers’ answers be not just relevant but “directly” relevant. Another innovation, not at all to the government’s liking, is his decision to allow multiple supplementary questions, which stemmed from an idea he brought back from a parliamentary conference in London. This has changed the dynamic of question time, not only forcing all members to listen closely, but also pushing the government to create a more dynamic role for its two backbenchers.

Parliamentary reform has ranked high on the Greens’ agenda and forms the first part of its two-part agreement with Labor. A key plank is the adoption of the Latimer House Principles on probity and accountability, so named after a Commonwealth conference at Latimer House, London, in 2004. At the root of the principles is a commitment to ensuring that the executive is held fully and firmly accountable to parliament, and that decision-making is transparent and takes proper regard of civil society.

The Labor Party does not pretend the relationship is an easy one. “They are not a party like us; they are four individuals,” says a senior party figure. “They are really a series of interest groups. And their staff come from those groups, so we have to keep very close tabs on what is happening, because the ground shifts.” Another common complaint from Labor is that the Greens are “manipulated” by the Liberals into thinking that government is a monolith and that ministers have only to snap their fingers to get action. Meredith Hunter denies this, arguing that the Greens’ long-term deep community roots ensure an appreciation of government decision-making and that the Greens are under no illusions as to the complexities of government.

The second part of the agreement focuses on policy, and – under the headings of climate change and energy, transport, waste, water, planning, housing, small business, justice, education and health – progress against stated objectives is regularly discussed not just between leaders but among all four Greens and the ministers they shadow. The state of play is then reported on the Greens’ website.

“We are in there working hard for the things we believe in, and we have made advances,” Hunter says. According to Rattenbury, the ACT Greens have learned from the Tasmanian Greens’ experiences in alliance with Labor two decades ago and, later and briefly, with the Liberals. “It was by no means all bad,” he says.

What eventually happened in Tasmania, however, was a conspiratorial backlash from the two main parties to try to curb the Greens’ influence by reducing the size of the parliament under the pretext of raising politicians’ pay and reducing their number. But the Greens have not gone away and indeed look poised to win more influence in the Tasmanian election in 2010, especially after having recently secured the deputy lord mayorship in Hobart.

For the foreseeable future, barring a Labor implosion, the ACT will be governed by a Labor–Green pact of sorts. It might yet furnish a blueprint for the Commonwealth. •