As some readers will recall, I’ve long held the view that the Greens, in order to be taken seriously as a third force, need to demonstrate an ability to deal with the Liberal Party. Until they do, Labor will always be inclined to take them for granted and will face only minimal pressure to accept any of their demands.
Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim showed his awareness of this in the aftermath of the March state election, when he offered to negotiate in good faith with either side. Only when it became clear that the Liberals weren’t interested in the idea did he agree to back a Labor government.
The Greens will always be a party of the left, so it is logical that support for Labor should be in a sense their default option. But that should be compatible with establishing a working relationship with the other side of politics and, if circumstances dictate, being willing to co-operate with them in government. That is how the successful Greens parties in western Europe have learnt to manage.
Nonetheless, this is probably not an ideal time for the Greens at a federal level to be trying out that sort of flexibility. The first priorities for Adam Bandt, the new MP for Melbourne, are to establish his party’s identity in the House of Representatives and to secure his hold on his own seat. Both aims are served by supporting Labor, so it’s not surprising that he has clearly indicated he will be going that way.
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The people who do have an issue about being taken for granted, however, are the three rural independents. Their position is largely the mirror image of the Greens’: coming from the right, their challenge is to build a relationship with Labor, so as to avoid being locked into a position where the Coalition is seen as their only option. A group with only one option loses its bargaining power — a lesson the National Party has repeatedly had to re-learn.
Safe in their seats and with decades of parliamentary experience between them, the independents’ moment in the sun gives them the ideal opportunity to show that they are not wedded to the Coalition and are capable of dealing with Labor. In the long run it’s reasonable to see the Coalition as their more natural home, but they can always change their minds and go back there if it doesn’t work out; for now, flexibility could be the key thing.
Victorians should remember this dynamic, because it’s only eleven years ago that we were in a very similar position: after the 1999 state election, three country independents held the balance of power between the Coalition on 43 seats and Labor on 42. One was a Labor sympathiser, but the other two were natural conservatives; nonetheless it made sense for them first to stick together, to maximise their bargaining power, and then to go with the side that was less expected, to demonstrate their freedom of movement.
Liberal leader Jeff Kennett made the same mistake then that Tony Abbott seems to be making now: by asserting his right to form a government he effectively dared the independents to go against him. His arrogance aroused their worst fear, that of being taken for granted.
In negotiation of any sort, not just politics, you need to strike a balance between being completely predictable – in which case opponents can always anticipate your position – and being utterly unpredictable, in which case no-one will find you worth talking to at all. For the time being, the first is probably the greater danger for the independents. They could still go either way, but the need to preserve their flexibility may just be inclining them a little towards Labor.