So it turns out that in Tasmania’s post-election saga it was Greens leader Nick McKim, who seemed to have played the coolest hand up to that point, who blinked first. By signalling that, in the absence of other alternatives, he would support a minority Labor government (even one that refused to talk to him), he gave Labor leader David Bartlett and governor Peter Underwood the necessary cover to send Bartlett to parliament next week as premier, despite his promise to resign.
It’s in many ways a logical outcome. If neither side is willing to deal with the Greens, it makes sense for the incumbents to stay put until something new happens. Moreover, distribution of preferences has shown that Greens voters did on balance favor Labor over the Liberals, although by a narrower margin than in the past. But it’s not at all clear that it was in the Greens’ interests to reveal their decision so soon.
McKim’s goals were twofold: to lure either or both of the other parties into dealing with the Greens as serious partners, or, failing that, to force them to support each other in parliament, thus presenting the Greens as the real opposition. By trying a little too hard to force the Liberals into negotiations — something that was never likely in the short term — the Greens seem to have missed the chance of achieving the second goal.
As I (and others) have said before, for the Greens’ long-term future it’s essential that they demonstrate an ability to work with the Liberals — otherwise Labor will always take them for granted.
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Paradoxically, putting Labor back in government could be the best way of achieving that, since the Greens and the Liberals will both be in opposition and their common interest may eventually draw them together.
But one of the important lessons a party has to learn if wants to play in the major league is that short-term and long-term interests can conflict. In the short term, many Greens are deeply apprehensive about being seen to co-operate with the Liberals in any form.
That’s especially the case on the mainland. In Victoria, where the Greens have hopes of winning lower house seats at this year’s state election, there is a palpable fear that any Greens-Liberal accord in Tasmania would be used by the Victorian ALP against them.
This may be a misunderstanding of how smear campaigns work: as has been demonstrated in the past, truth is by no means an essential ingredient.
Two years ago, the Victorian ALP had no qualms about telling voters in the Kororoit by-election that “A vote for Les Twentyman is a vote for the Liberals” — which could best be described as a bare-faced lie. Even if there is no Greens-Liberal agreement, their opponents may simply invent one.
But it does mean that the Tasmanian Greens could well reassess their position after the next year’s round of elections (federal, Victorian and New South Wales) is over. If by that point the Liberals are tiring of opposition, and if Bartlett’s promise to “put the past behind us and build trust” turns out to be as hollow as many expect, then new possibilities could present themselves.