Inside Story

Triumph of the Greens

Twelve years into their coalition with Labor in the ACT, the Greens are stronger than ever

Tim Colebatch 24 October 2020 1318 words

Refreshing: ACT Greens leader Shane Rattenbury. Jamila Toderas/Canberra Times

The Greens had luck running their way. Sometimes everything just comes together: you play the perfect game, cook the perfect meal or make the perfect coffee. In the ACT, the Greens just had the perfect election.

They went in aspiring to treble their representation from two members to six in the Legislative Assembly. By the time final preferences were distributed last night they had done exactly that, winning two of the five seats in the central electorate of Kurrajong and one seat in each of the other four electorates.

The twenty-five-member ACT Assembly will have ten Labor members (compared with twelve in the old Assembly), nine Liberals (down from eleven) and six Greens (up from two).

At first sight, that’s a remarkable result, even unjust. On first preferences, Labor won 37.9 per cent, the Liberals 33.9 per cent, the Greens just 13.4 per cent, and others 14.8 per cent. But no minor party or independent candidate won a seat, so it is the three-party vote that explains the result.

It’s a vital electoral statistic, but in a Senate-style election it’s only possible to make rough estimates. This time, minor-party and independent preferences split almost equally among the three parties. On my estimate, Labor won roughly 43 per cent of the three-party vote (down 1 per cent from 2016), the Liberals won 39 per cent (down 3.5 per cent) and the Greens won 18 per cent (up 4.5 per cent).

That’s the critical number, because in a five-member electorate, the quota for election is 16.67 per cent. In the past, the Greens were often unlucky, falling just short of the quota. This time they were seriously lucky, winning just above a quota almost everywhere — or else less than a quota but still more than any other candidate left in the race.

Three of the five electorates ended in close contests. The nail-biter in southern Brindabella (Tuggeranong) ended with the Greens’ Johnathan Davis, a young, fresh-faced, openly gay real estate agent, riding across the line just eighty-two votes (0.15 per cent) ahead of his Labor rival Taimus Werner-Gibbings — whose preferences then catapulted him 520 votes (0.97 per cent) in front of Liberal MLA Andrew Wall to claim his seat.

In northern Ginninderra (Belconnen), Liberal ranks received a much-needed boost of brainpower when Peter Cain, a school principal turned senior government lawyer, edged out Labor’s attorney-general Gordon Ramsay by 167 votes (0.30 per cent). The Greens’ Jo Clay had already claimed a seat from one or other of them, leaving Cain and Ramsay to fight for the last lifebelt.

In inner-suburban Kurrajong, the Greens’ stronghold, minor-party and Labor preferences ended up helping the Greens’ second candidate, Rebecca Vassarotti, wrench the final seat from Liberal MLA Candice Burch to win by 407 votes (0.80 per cent). Kurrajong now has two Labor members, two Greens and just one Liberal.

Twenty years ago, in broadly the same electorate, the Liberals held three of what were then seven seats, and a pro-Liberal independent, health minister Michael Moore, held a fourth. Its losses in Kurrajong are another sign of the alienation of educated Australians from the Liberal Party — typified in this campaign by the juvenile stunts of Liberal leader Alistair Coe, and his refusal to explain how he would finance his campaign promises.

In all, the Greens took two seats from Labor in the north (Ginninderra and Yerrabi) and two from the Liberals in the centre and south (Kurrajong and Brindabella). Two members retired (Cain replaced respected Liberal veteran Vicki Dunne), and one Liberal and one Labor MLA were unseated by their running mates. A third of the Assembly will be new members, quite a rejuvenation.

(There was no change in the fifth seat, Murrumbidgee, covering Woden/Weston Creek. A close result last time, a favourable redistribution for the Liberals, and the retirement of the sitting Greens MLA Caroline Le Couteur had created an expectation in the media that the Liberals would take a seat from the Greens. Far from it: the Greens’ Emma Davidson won the seat comfortably from an independent, community activist Fiona Carrick. The Liberals weren’t even close.)

It is arguably the best-ever Greens result in an Australian election. Translated to federal parliament, their almost one in four seats in the new Assembly would give them thirty-six seats in the House of Representatives, or (more realistically, since it uses a similar voting system) eighteen seats in the Senate.

It should be a result that reverberates among Labor’s leaders throughout the nation. Note carefully: rather than going ballistic about the Greens taking seats off Labor — as his counterparts in Melbourne or Sydney would have — Labor’s chief minister Andrew Barr has been quite relaxed about it, arguing that it shows the strength of their coalition government.

And he’s right. The real story of this election — in my view, as the only media commentator who tipped anything like this result — is that the Greens offered an alternative for those voters who are browned off with Labor, which has ruled Canberra since 2001, but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for this version of the Liberal Party. You don’t have to share all the views of Greens leader Shane Rattenbury to find him impressively genuine and caring, a relief from the spin offered by other leaders.

By contrast, on issue after issue, the Liberals refuse to put themselves on the right side of history — or the Canberra electorate. Scott Morrison will one day rue the opportunity he wasted when he shrank from doing the obvious in the wake of the bushfires — using it to drag the Coalition into a genuine policy to tackle climate change urgently, as most of the conservative parties in Europe have done. Alistair Coe might one day ask himself why, in his mid-thirties, he was the only Australian major-party leader who voted against marriage equality in the referendum.

One footnote: the result of the election appears to have swung the balance in the Liberal party room significantly towards the moderates, previously a minority within the opposition. It will be interesting to see what follows.

The broader message for Labor should be clear, from both the ACT and New Zealand. Like it or not, Labor and the Greens are on one side of politics, and the Liberals and Nationals on the other side. The Liberals and Nationals have their differences, but they have combined to form coalition governments for almost a hundred years. Labor and the Greens can do the same if they choose to.

In the ACT, their coalition has lasted for twelve years in one form or other, and the partnership has grown stronger with each election. It has survived electoral ups and downs on both sides — the Greens won four seats in 2008, lost all but one in 2012, came back with two when the Assembly was enlarged in 2016, and have six this time. Some of those elected this time will probably lose their seats next time.

But as in New Zealand, the partnership has worked well. It’s not a bad way of governing. In the ACT, it has delivered a form of zero carbon emissions in the electricity sector and the legalised civil unions that paved the way for marriage equality, and it is the only government that is phasing out stamp duty on home purchases rather than just talking about it.

With the Queensland election looming on Saturday week, a similar coalition could be needed if a government is to be possible after the election — despite the ritualistic statements by party leaders that they will not be part of a minority government.

Queensland has a single-member electorate system designed to favour big parties. But the Greens broke through in 2017 to win the inner Brisbane seat of Maiwar, and came close in two others. From afar, it looks possible that in Queensland too, some might want to send a message to Labor but can’t bring themselves to vote for the LNP. Might the next Labor–Greens coalition be in Queensland? •