The Victorian Liberals’ decision to preference Labor ahead of the Greens will smash the Greens’ hopes of wrestling state seats off Labor later this month but it won’t do the Greens’ image any harm at all. It only confirms what most voters, even those who wouldn’t vote Green at gunpoint, know instinctively — that the Coalition and Labor offer only small variations of the same politics.

The Greens are offering something other than politics as usual — not always in a good way, by any means — but that’s why the Greens aren’t just a protest vote that will return to the comforting fold of Labor once the latter get their act together. The Greens are here to stay, for better and for worse.

The current focus on Labor’s existential crisis, in which everyone but Karl Bitar acknowledges that there are real questions about what the point of a Labor Government actually is, reflects in part the decrepitude of the NSW Labor Party, which has overseen an unprecedented trashing of the Labor brand and infected the Federal Party with the same disease that is likely to see the Coalition in power in NSW for a decade from next March. But it also reflects a problem that has been developing for Labor since the 1990s — as both the major parties embraced the same economic agenda, how does a party of the Left differentiate itself?

That is, when your essential political offering is managerialist competence and increasingly arcane economic reform, and the other side offers the same, how do you attract electoral support?

The Coalition, which faced less of a problem in this regard because of its (unwarranted) stronger branding in competence, found ways to differentiate itself in office. It exploited national security and xenophobia to keep voters scared, angry and focused on issues other than itself (similar to the treatment the Coalition itself had received at the hands on One Nation). Labor has tried to differentiate itself with a focus on education and health, but neither possess the rich possibilities of appealing to the reptilian brain inside each of us.

But this isn’t merely about the long-running complaint that the major parties are Tweedledum and Tweedledee, which has been around since the Hawke years (and, probably for some particularly cranky lefties, since the time of Bill Hayden). We’ve entered what now might be termed post-reform politics, in which the basic political narrative of the last thirty years, of engineering prosperity through endless economic reform, seems to be losing its electoral appeal.

Despite being delivered significant rises in living standards by successive generations of reformist politicians, voters remain immensely discontented, constantly finding new reasons to harp about the failure of governments to Do Something. Currently it’s the purported rise in the cost of living, which is actually only a rise in the cost of aspirational lifestyle choices, but if it wasn’t that it would be something else.

The fact that our current generation of politicians seem but pale imitations of their reformist forebears — Julia Gillard is a pinchbeck Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott a poor copy of Howard, mocked by Peter Costello — exacerbates this problem: voters see the huge gap between their rhetoric and their actions. But try this counterfactual — if the current crop of politicians were every bit the enthusiastic economic reformers of the 1980s and 1990s, would voters be any happier with them?

Or would many voters — like One Nation supporters and regional communities a decade ago — regard yet more reform with anger and fear?

It isn’t just the politicians. The Press Gallery’s traditional focus on a bi-polar political struggle (remember, for example, how Bob Brown went the entire election campaign without an interview on the ABC’s flagship TV programs) and fetishising of endless economic reform reinforces, rather than exposes or examines, a form of politics that is plainly unsatisfactory to growing numbers of voters.

Labor’s problem in post-reform politics is that it seems unable to promise more than managerial competence and economic reform. Its response on the GFC and the NBN demonstrates it is capable of thinking outside the narrow confines of the Washington Consensus when confronted with historic examples of market failure. But other than those two cases, it embraces the same business-as-usual politics on offer from the Coalition.

The Greens, on the other hand, sit well outside the world of small government, efficient markets, privatisation and fiscal self-flagellation. Their agenda is mocked in the media as a distraction from “the real issues”, but they offer voters the sense that politics is about more than managerial competence and endless economic reform that delivers prosperity and yet not, apparently, greater contentment.

They offer a combination of rigorous economic rationalism — their positions on a carbon price and mining tax are economically superior to those of the major parties — with trips down to the fairies at the bottom of the garden. But more than that they offer an activist, interventionist, leadership role for government, in contrast to the peculiar standoffishness of the major parties, who combine an eagerness to respond to voters’ demands that they Do Something across a range of issues with an unwillingness to do anything unmarket-like, which has created an array of clunky hybrid sectors in the Australian economy where apparent private sector activity masks a risky reliance on government.

The status quo is best summed up by the, indeed, Tweedledum and Tweedledee-like, appearance of Karl Bitar and Brian Loughnane on the National Press Club last week for the increasingly sanitised and irrelevant post-election campaign summary. First there was a professional apparatchik in, apparently, complete denial about his party’s existential problems. And then there was an angry ideologue, offering only appeals to the malicious streak in the national character. Neither seriously addressed why the most significant swing had been away from the major parties and the big rise in informal voting.

The Greens may not be the permanent or even the long-term answer to post-reform politics, but they’ll continue to prosper while the major parties offer up what we saw last week.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey