Further evidence today that the parties are starting to get serious about this year’s federal election: a story in The Australian reports that Senator Bob Brown is offering a comprehensive deal to give Greens preferences to the ALP.

“I’ll be talking to Labor as the year unfolds and pointing out that their job is to win government and our job is to win the balance of power in the Senate.”

In return, Brown wants Labor preferences in the Senate – not just ahead of the Coalition, which is a certainty, but ahead of minor parties such as the Democrats and Family First. It was Labor preferences in Victoria that elected Family First’s Steve Fielding in 2004.

Fielding hasn’t been a great success from the ALP’s point of view; he did vote against the IR legislation, but the Coalition had the numbers there anyway, while on media reform and student unionism he provided the critical vote for the government.

But that hasn’t stopped Labor dealing with fundamentalists. In last November’s Victorian election, Labor preferences elected a DLP member in the Legislative Council ahead of the Greens.

The Victorian deal made sense for Labor because it was in government, and a DLP vote gives it an extra option in much the same way that Fielding does for John Howard. But this strategy would have no such use federally; win or lose, Kevin Rudd will be a long way short of a Senate majority (Labor currently has 28 out of 76). The more Greens in the Senate, the better for him.

With Labor defending several of its inner-city Reps seats against Greens attack, of course, it might not see it that way: in return for Senate preferences, it might ask Brown to go easy on prominent frontbenchers such as Lindsay Tanner in Melbourne or Anthony Albanese in Grayndler. But success in the lower house is critical to the Greens’ long-term credibility, so they are unlikely to give ground on that point.

Failure to win lower house seats was one thing that always hampered the Democrats. But note also The Australian‘s curious coyness about their fate: “There is speculation the party could be wiped out”. Four or five years ago there was “speculation”; by now there’s an overwhelming expectation.

Peter Fray

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