A recent AIMN article by Sir Scotch Mistery included the following quote:
Some vote Green, but the vote is meaningless we are told, even though almost 12% of the population vote for them. Why is the 12% so meaningless? Labor gets into bed with Bob Brown and others with ethics and vision, and are immediately held up as some sort of traitors. But no one, even Antony Greene, of the ABC, can explain why that vote is wasted.
This struck some resonances with me and prompted a comment in response to the article that became the basis for this article. As a fringe dweller, more an observer than a participant, I’ve got a few (shamelessly partisan) thoughts about the Greens. My former Federal MP Lindsay Tanner apparently agreed with the ‘experts’ Sir Scotch refers to. Tanner liked to say that voting for the Greens was just “shouting from the sidelines”. Of course that was just before the shouting got a little louder in 2010 and his Labor successor in the prized ALP Seat of Melbourne was defeated by Adam Bandt. In 2013 of course the shouting became positively deafening when Bandt repeated this feat without the aid of Liberal preferences.
The most recent Age-Nielsen Poll has the Greens on 17% nationally (up 5%) mostly apparently (and counter-intuitively) on the back of disaffected L-NP voters. In WA apparently the Greens lead Labor in the polls 27% to 20% currently and over the weekend with Labor still engaged in its own life and death struggle to reform itself, Christine Milne called for reform of the Greens constitution to give more power to members in formulating policy. This in a party that (in Victoria at least) already formally and regularly, as a matter of course, invites the participation of members in policy formulation.
After the decline in the Greens vote experienced in the 2013 and yet another tiresome round of finger wagging predictions of the end of the ‘accursed Greens’ both in the MSM and online, Scott Ludlam’s re-election in the WA Senate rerun and a bit of good news in the polls is welcome to an ageing Green like me. But just as the doomsayers are continually wrong with their predictions of the end for the Greens so the cheerleaders hoping for the triumphant rise of Australia’s social democrats would be wise to take a deep breath.
Despite these positive signs it would not be sensible to get too optimistic. No-one should assume, either that the the size of their vote will correspond closely with the number of seats they win, or that their vote will continue to grow steadily. It is a striking illustration of how uneven the Australian political playing field is that around 10% of the primary vote delivers a single lower house seat (out of 150) to the Greens while 4.29% of the primary vote delivers nine seats to the Nationals.
The Greens have experienced such swings in the polls in the past only to fall back to what appears to be the baseline 10% of the primary vote. Nevertheless, The Greens vote is complex. People vote Greens for all sorts of reasons. Many find a policy agenda that prioritizes environmental responsibility, social justice and compassion attractive. Some ageing social democrats like me, who believe this is what the Labor Party should stand for but increasingly doesn’t, are encouraged to find it is still possible to vote for a party that reflects these principles and is not simply the least-worst option. Many find it energizing and refreshing to be around an organization with a positive agenda that still, in the face of darkening times, has faith in the possibilities of the future and the potential for positive change rather than offering up continually reheated versions of the same-old same-old that has failed us in the past. The irreducible core of the Greens vote, about 10% of the electorate seems (to me) to be firmly based on these factors.
Then there is a soft vote that will come and go. Some whose natural habitat is either the steamy L-NP swamp or the scorching ALP desert have found themselves so disturbed by individual policies on, for example asylum seekers or climate change that they have moved to the Greens at least temporarily.
Some have voted for the Greens simply because they are not either of the two old parties that so many Australians are so very tired of. A large chunk of this group (which is politically pretty disengaged) is fundamentally conservative. These deserted the Greens in the last election when Palmer showed up on the horizon offering them a conservative alternative to the L-NP. Others (who are basically Liberal ‘wets’) close their eyes tight and vote for the Greens because they profoundly disapprove of what Abbott and his bunch of goons are doing to their Party and they can’t bring themselves to vote for Labor – the old enemy.
Others have voted for the Greens because they have seen them as the new-on-the-block-little-guys sticking it up the tired old tweedle dum and tweedle dee parties in Canberra. For these people the sight of the Greens actually wielding some power both in Canberra and Tasmania (Oh no they are a political party after all!) was disturbing and at the last election these voters deserted for The Pirates, the Animal Liberation Party, the Sex Party etc.
The breakdown of the most recent Age-Nielsen Poll is informative. While about a quarter of Australians between the age of 18 and 39 suggest they will vote Greens, the percentage of older Australians who would do so falls away strongly until apparently only about 10% of the oldest cohort (55+) votes for the Greens.
By contrast Labor scores around a third of the vote across all four age groups. The L-NP coalition captures about a third of the vote from the two youngest age groups but this increases until about a half of the oldest age group say they would vote for the mad monk and his band of merry pranksters. If this breakdown were to be maintained for a decade or so natural attrition would see the Greens steadily increase their vote to somewhere north of 20% Labor marking time in the mid 30s and the Coalition falling back to Labor.
The Nielsen poll is consistent with research for the Whitlam Institute carried out in 2011 by Dr Ron Brooker which examined the voting intentions of young voters (18 – 34 age group) prior to a series of Federal elections from 1998 to 2010. This showed the following:
- Those intending to vote for the ‘old’ parties declined by about 10%, from somewhere north of 40% in 1998 to around 35% in 2010.
- Those intending to vote for the Greens increased by about 18%, from around 5% in 1998 to roughly 23% in 2010.
The study shows that young voters are the natural core of support for the Greens and perhaps the vehicle for expanding the vote. It notes the ‘substantial, possibly determinative, impact’ of the youth vote ‘on the outcomes of the 2001, 2004, 2007 and 2010 Federal elections.’ However it also notes the volatile nature of the youth vote as reflected in dramatic swings both to and from the Greens over the whole period.
The study argues that the electoral volatility of young Australians reflects that they ‘are strongly values driven and their attachment is to issues rather than traditional political organization.’ They ‘tend to … make decisions based on whose proposal or offer best fits their values on their issue of priority at a given time.’
The youth vote is electorally powerful but volatile. However it is also increasingly disillusioned with the political process. Half a million of them did not register to vote in 2013 and many more of them are presumably among the roughly 3% of Australians who deliberately voted ‘informal’. The rewards are rich for the political party that captures the attention and support of this group, particularly those currently opting out. The conservatives, in government, are focused on the establishment of ‘Australia Inc.’ for the benefit of their backers. Factions permitting, Labor in opposition might finally seriously begin to address its own deep structural and spiritual malaise. With the attention of the ‘old’ parties focused elsewhere and support for both falling among young voters anyway, neither are likely to make headway growing their support among this group. Both Scott Ludlam’s and Adam Bandt’s re-election campaigns bore strong similarity to independent Kathy McGowan’s successful community based campaign to unseat the unspeakable Sophie Mirabella in the Victorian rural seat of Indi. Taken together with the steady flow of emailed invitations from Adam Bandt’s office inviting participation in issues-based door-knocking and letter-boxing campaigns this suggests to me that the Greens’ approach to consolidating and strengthening their vote aligns precisely with what is most likely to attract the crucial youth vote.
I assume that as the crisis deepens (as it surely will) and both L-NP and ALP show themselves to have no remedies (as I expect to happen) support for the Greens will grow. I believe this will occur not only because of the revealed shortcomings of the ‘old’ parties but also because of the perceived strengths of the Greens. In a piece for Fairfax media discussing the current good news for the Greens Michael Gordon notes that they are ‘being rewarded for not wavering in their policies and priorities.’ I think this is self-evident but this, of course is also the characteristic that marked the Greens as ‘unfit for government’ in the minds of granite brained, finger wagging, conservative political pundits and desperate Labor politicians in the dying days of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd soap opera.
However for Greens’ ‘policies and priorities’ to have any effect will mean coalition of some sort with Labor. For this to happen a number of things must change. Labor will have to realize that a Labor primary vote in the mid 30s and a Greens vote in the mid teens (eminently possible in the current climate) might just translate into some sort of progressive coalition government but in the absence of this would probably deliver power narrowly to the coalition.
Labor cannot simply assume that they can continue to disparage their progressive potential allies and float into power in their own right on a raft of Greens preferences. Those days are probably gone. Nor can they assume that they can get their primary vote back up into the 40s from where they might just achieve power in their own right. The breakdown of the Nielsen poll discussed above and the decades long decline in their primary vote to its current position in the mid 30s both suggest that ALP governing in its own right is increasingly unlikely.
They should get busy exploring the possibilities for co-operation and get used to the idea of shared power as an acceptable Plan B. Brad Orgill argued this in his eminently logical but (to me at least) hopelessly politically naïve book ‘Why Labor Should savour its Greens’. They should start exploring the possibilities for re-educating the Australian public who have been conditioned to believe that coalition with the Greens equates to a communist takeover or a pact with the devil. The Greens for their part must learn the hard political lessons of a couple of stints in power in Tasmania and the part they played in the Rudd-Gillard Federal era all of which ended in tears and recriminations.