One week down and three to go in the Victorian election campaign, and still the media just can’t get enough of the Greens. In Friday night’s leaders’ debate, the first questions were all about the other parties’ attitudes to them (perhaps as a sort of backhanded apology to the Greens for not being invited). Then yesterday the Greens’ official campaign launch gave them extra attention and a new crop of media stories.

For Labor, this is all a giant distraction, albeit one that it’s largely brought on itself. It won’t lose the election in the inner city, but it could well lose it in the outer suburbs and regional areas if it fixates on the Greens.

For the Coalition, by contrast, it represents opportunity. Every day that Labor spends worrying about the Greens is a day that it’s not trying to beat its actual opponents. And Opposition leader Ted Baillieu clearly realises that, needling John Brumby on the issue with evident relish on Friday.

Brumby got himself into trouble with the assertion that Labor would come first on primaries in the inner-city seats, with the Greens second and Liberals third. Baillieu called this “an extraordinarily arrogant assumption” — with some justice, since in Melbourne and Richmond it’s quite possible the Greens will lead the primary vote. The substantive point, however, was correct: Labor will not come third, so its preferences have no relevance; they will never get counted.

But that doesn’t get Labor off the hook. For a major party, preferences are usually just symbolic anyway, which is why the Liberals are happier dealing with the debate at that level. If the Greens are really the evil monsters that Labor is trying to paint them, why not make the symbolic gesture of preferencing against them, even if it will have no effect?

Labor will do no such thing. The Greens will certainly get Labor preferences, although Prahran is the only lower house seat where they might be any use. But if Labor won’t make even a symbolic gesture against the Greens, it just risks looking foolish when it tries to bully the Liberals into making a preference decision that would have real costs.

Labor and the anti-Baillieu camp on the right are trying to make out that the Liberals will face a backlash from their own supporters if they give preferences to the Greens. But that’s nothing compared to what they’ll face if their preferences re-elect two Labor cabinet ministers who would otherwise have been ignominiously defeated.

One day, of course, the Liberals may have to deal with a Green threat in their own seats; by 2014 the Greens, with Labor preferences, will be snapping at the heels of the Liberals in seats such as Kew, Hawthorn and Malvern. But Liberal strategists typically have a range of vision extending to about a week, so it will be some time before they start worrying about that.

And that’s what gives the Liberal position its great strength. At a fundamental level, they just don’t care about the Greens; for all the shadow-boxing about preferences, they can happily treat the whole thing as a side issue. For its own good, Labor should do the same — but because the inner city is its ancestral heartland, it’s incapable of doing so.