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Sep 13, 2013

Greens post-mortem: back to 2004, and questions to be answered

The Greens election result has taken them back to 2004 in terms of their national vote. They need to determine how it went wrong after Bob Brown left.

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Bob Brown

The Greens have undone all the work of the last six years and achieved a vote level barely above their 2004 result last Saturday.

The Greens’ national first preference Senate result of 8.6% is lower than their 2007 result of just over 9% and less than 1 percentage point above their 2004 outcome of 7.7%.  Even if the Greens’ very good 2010 vote is now to be considered as an unusually strong result for the Greens and unlikely to be repeated, their failure to match their 2007 result suggests emerging problems.

In NSW, the party’s 7.6% result  is well below 2007’s 8.4% and barely above the 7.34% achieved in 2004. Only Victoria stood out as strong for the Greens: the 10.7% result was a swing against them of nearly 4% on 2010 but still ahead of 2007. It means an additional senator, Janet Rice, will join the party in July next year.

In Queensland, the Greens are now more than a point below their 2007 result on 6.12%. But in Western Australia, despite a 4% swing, they’re still above their 2007 result, and their 9.82% result is likely to be enough to keep Scott Ludlam in the Senate. Ludlam was first elected in 2007; the fact that he outperformed most of his colleagues despite being up against it in a tough contest in the west says a lot for the reputation he has developed as a politician with substance and gravitas, while others have focused on cultivating a media profile.

In South Australia, despite the considerable attention attracted to Sarah Hanson-Young’s campaign by the support of people as different as Bill Kelty and Malcolm Fraser, the Greens underperformed compared to other states, with a 7% result — though that’s still above the 6.5% achieved in 2007 and likely to be enough to get Hanson-Young over the line. But it was the biggest anti-Green swing outside Tasmania.

Tasmania was a full-blown disaster for the Greens: 2013 was the first time since 2004 that the party failed to achieve a Senate quota by itself, with an 8.9% swing that reduced the Greens to 11.4%, their worst result since 1998.

There are a number of one-off factors that affected the Greens’ result. In Tasmania they were hit by the twin problems of a deeply unpopular link with the Tasmanian Labor state government and Bob Brown being replaced on the ticket by Peter Whish-Wilson. Whish-Wilson, who replaced Brown after his retirement, will be an excellent senator, but has had a low profile since he arrived. The Greens’ vote will undoubtedly lift next election in Tasmania if Christine Milne stands, especially given the Greens will no longer be in league with a disliked state and federal government.

And in Queensland the Greens, like the LNP and Labor, were up against the Clive Palmer juggernaut, which significantly exceeded predictions and scored 10.2% in the Senate — albeit lower than in the Reps.

“… neither [success] should distract them from taking a hard look at what’s happened to the party since Bob Brown called time.”

When Brown retired, the Greens vote stood at 11% (based on Essential’s House of Reps voting intention poll). Between that point in April last year and the election, it dipped as low as 7% before, seemingly, being revived in the lead-up to the election after Kevin Rudd announced his “PNG solution” on asylum seekers. Given the election result, in retrospect, the revival appears to have been illusory.

Brown was a hard act to follow, but  Milne was the best person to do it, because she’d done it before in Tasmanian state politics and was enormously experienced at coalition governments. But in electoral terms, she failed to deliver. Her worthwhile attempt to shift economic debate away from the restrictive framework of GDP toward a more family-friendly and environment-friendly framework never made any headway in the febrile atmosphere of the last parliament, and a late rejection of the Greens’ agreement to support Labor failed to put sufficient distance between them. And ultimately, Milne couldn’t convince the voters who’d come to the party for the first time in 2010 to stay with the Greens.

There’s also a question over how sensible the Greens’ allocation of resources was. The party spent big on saving Melbourne for Adam Bandt — $1 million is Labor’s claim, but the Greens say it was less than that. But what was the point of saving Bandt’s seat in the face of an incoming Abbott government? Bandt will sit quietly in the lower house for three years with no influence or role beyond the occasional question.

How much more effective would the money spent on saving his seat, a substantial proportion of the Greens’ entire campaign expenditure, have been if put to use trying to get Senate hopeful Cate Faehrmann over the line in NSW, which would have made Tony Abbott’s chances of legislating over July 1 even more difficult, or shore up the campaigns of Ludlam or Hanson-Young? Bandt is deputy leader, of course, but can hardly become leader given all of his colleagues are in the Senate, and in any event as deputy leader he must take some share of the blame for the Greens’ poor performance.

Interestingly, however, the jury is still out on the Greens’ long-term strategy to boost their vote in regional areas. In the state where the most work has been done to engage regional communities and work with them on issues like coal-seam gas, NSW, in regional electorates Greens candidates actually had a swing to them, or if there was a swing against them, it was far smaller than the national swing. This was particularly pronounced in the coastal seats in northern NSW; in contrast, the stereotypically green inner-city electorates swung harder against the Greens. The swings against the Greens were also smaller in regional Queensland electorates as well.

So there are two small positives for the Greens from an overall bad result: they’ve been able to hang onto their seats despite a big swing against them, and they’ve continued to make headway in regional communities, albeit slowly. But neither should distract them from taking a hard look at what’s happened to the party since Bob Brown called time.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

Bernard Keane is Crikey’s political editor. Before that he was Crikey’s Canberra press gallery correspondent, covering politics, national security and economics.

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14 thoughts on “Greens post-mortem: back to 2004, and questions to be answered

  1. FelineCyclist

    I am intrigued by the comment that, because Adam Bandt can’t form minority government this time around, he has nothing to do for the next three years. That comment:

    a) reflects the waste that is the lower house with its “winner takes all” approach;
    b) could apply to any sitting MP who is not in government; and
    c) is another take on Labor’s mantra of “a vote for the Greens is wasted because only Labor can form government” – an argument soundly rejected in the seat of Melbourne.

    Voting a member to Parliament is not just about who will or won’t form government. In this election, another seat to Labor wasn’t going to change government. Why shouldn’t voters choose someone who is going to represent their interests, by lobbying, asking questions and assisting constituents navigate through problems with government bureaucracy. Hardly sounds like nothing to me.

    As to the argument of cost, I think that there is value in the Greens making a real effort to get more voice in the House of Reps. Yes, it’s more expensive – yet another downside of single member electorates. But without it, the Greens will always be seen as having a cap on its potential, thereby limiting it to a protest party. The Greens are building a movement, which is the only way to be sustainable as a party over the long term. The Greens cannot rely on just protest votes but has to build a support base that will support them in both the House and the Senate. It’s hard, it’s expensive, but it’s why they’re there.

  2. CML

    @ FC – I do not agree with your analysis. For the foreseeable future the Greens will remain a ‘protest’ party ONLY. Maybe in 30-50 years they MAY take over the centre-left position in the Australian parliament, but my guess is that they will either disappear completely, or remain a small splinter group, during that time.
    A far better option for those contemplating joining the Greens, would be for them to join the ALP and change it from within – bring it back to its original ‘roots’ on the centre left. It is far more likely then that the ALP will remain a strong alternative for government. That is more than can be said for the current situation.
    Another point that is missed by people like yourself is that the electorate has moved to the ‘right’ over the past 20-25 years, and we need a strong alternative voice to make a lot of people re-think their attitudes and values. The Greens ARE NOT accepted by the vast majority of people in the community as that voice of reason, but with the changes that have begun in the Labor party (membership vote for the leader etc.), it might just be possible to reconstruct the ALP to become that alternative.
    As I have said many times before, politics is the art of the possible, and until the Greens learn to work with others and compromise on issues, just as every other party has to do most of the time, they will remain idealogically pure, but ineffective. Yes, they have just had the opportunity to have a say in the last hung parliament, but really all that has happened is that they have helped to return yet another useless Coalition government. And after that experience, it will be a very long time before we see another ‘hung’ parliament, federally.
    Not a good outcome!!

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