I can’t find a reference and don’t remember where I first heard it, but Robert Menzies is supposed to have replied to those who accused him of not standing up to the Country Party (now the Nationals) in something like the following words:

“If you’d been in the Duke of Wellington’s place before Waterloo, instead of worrying about the French you would have turned on your allies, the Prussians. And you would have beaten them, too. But you would then have lost to Napoleon.”

The Greens, of course, are the Labor Party’s Prussians, and Ted Baillieu is their somewhat unlikely Napoleon. The risk was already clear two months ago:

“The plain fact is that the election will not be decided in the inner city. It will be decided by Labor versus Coalition contests in marginal seats, and anything that draws Labor’s attention and resources away from them threatens its chances.”

But Labor not only wasted resources in the inner city (as Bill Shorten, for example, has been pointing out), it allowed the Greens to dominate the narrative, and in the suburbs — where votes actually mattered — that was always going to be a lose-lose proposition.

Baillieu gained in stature from his decision to preference the ALP ahead of the Greens; many have identified it as the turning point in his campaign. But it was Labor that gave the issue traction in the first place. Baillieu was able to be seen as the man of principle, willing to do what Labor seemed to want to do but didn’t have the nerve for.

That doesn’t mean Liberal voters agreed with his strategy — many of them didn’t. (In 2006, when told to preference the Greens, about 75% of inner-city Liberals did so; this year, told to preference Labor, only about 70% complied.) But voters are hungry for politicians who actually stand for something — ironically enough, that has been a major factor in the rise of the Greens — and they respect a principled decision, or even a dummy-spit that looks principled.

Yesterday I pointed out the importance to Baillieu of having mended his relationship with the National Party. If Labor is to survive and prosper, somehow it is also going to have to come to a working arrangement with its fractious potential partner. It certainly won’t be easy: study the first 30 years of the Country Party’s history to see how hard it can be. But the alternatives for Labor are much worse.

This was a bad election for the Greens; their vote rose by less than 1%, much less than the polls and August’s federal result had indicated.

But their position vis-a-vis Labor has strengthened significantly. There are now two Greens voters for every seven Labor voters; the Nationals have not scaled those sort of heights since the 1940s.

The geographical pattern tells the story. South of the Yarra, where the Liberals are competitive, the Greens vote is stagnant: in their 12 best seats there, their vote fell by an average of 0.5% (only Brighton and Sandringham showed significant growth).

But in the 12 best Greens seats north of the Yarra, where Labor is their only rival, their vote is still growing — by an average of 3%, including such impressive swings as 7.6% in Williamstown, 7.3% in Footscray and 6.4% in Preston. (These figures are not final, but late counting won’t change the overall pattern.)

The prospect of a Greens challenge in safe Liberal seats has now receded. Liberal voters who were flirting with the Greens have been returning to the fold — aided, no doubt, by a Liberal leader who was not openly hostile to progressive values. But Labor’s position is getting worse rather than better; without Liberal preferences, it would have to worry about six or eight of its own seats.

In other words, the Liberals were able to make the Greens into a winning issue precisely because they did not feel threatened by them — they could treat it as a matter of pure symbolism. Labor cannot. But it is yet to find much of an alternative.

Peter Fray

72 hours only. 50% off a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

Our two-for-one offer with The Atlantic was so popular we decided to bring it back.

But only for 72 hours.

Use the promo code ATLANTIC2020 and you’ll get 50% off a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year of digital access to The Atlantic (usually $70). That’s BOTH for just $129.

Hurry. Ends midnight this Thursday.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

Claim Now