Whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. For evidence, look no further than this morning’s Age, and a story by Paul Austin on further plotting by the Victorian ALP against the Greens:

“Senior ALP figures, furious at the Greens’ assault on the ALP’s inner-city heartland, want Labor’s election review panel to look at ways to destroy the minor party’s prospects of winning seats in the lower house.”

Caveat first: this could easily be no more than some loose talk among a few disgruntled Labor people (Melbourne MP Bronwyn Pike is the only one quoted by name), amplified into a story by The Age’s war against state Labor — which seems in no way to have been appeased by the latter’s electoral defeat. Indeed the attitude of The Age, a generally left-leaning paper, is itself symptomatic of the opinion shift among the educated class that has also led to the rise of the Greens.

But the fact that such a story comes with even superficial plausibility is a measure of Labor’s Green obsession.

Much post-election commentary has cited the Liberal Party’s decision to preference Labor ahead of the Greens as one of the turning points of the campaign. So it’s not surprising that the question might be raised within Labor as to whether they could duplicate the trick and preference the Liberals.

But a moment’s thought should reveal the problem with this. As I pointed out a month ago, the great strength of the Liberals’ position was that they had no fundamental interest either way in the fate of the Greens: they could cheerfully treat the whole issue as symbolic. Labor has no such detachment.

Liberal strategists could assume that their voters regard Labor and Greens as enemies, so the decision between them was always pragmatic.

For Labor voters, however, the Liberals are the enemy but the Greens are potential if unruly allies. To preference the former against the latter would risk mass disaffection.

The problem would be compounded if Labor preferences were to actually elect Liberals ahead of Greens — already likely in the upper house, and possible one day in the lower house. That would be just making a gift of seats to their opponents, exactly as if the Liberals were to preference Labor ahead of the Nationals —  something not even the most fanatical anti-Coalitionists have suggested.

Austin’s story starts by referring to the Greens’ “role in the Brumby government’s shock defeat”. The problem, however, was not the Greens but the way Labor reacted to them. It was Labor’s own choice to pour money and attention into its inner-city seats instead of the suburban marginals; if that indeed cost it the election, it has only itself to blame.

A look at the figures suggests that Labor was hurt not by the Green vote being too high, but too low. Statewide, the Greens gained 1%, but in the 12 seats Labor lost, the Greens went backwards by an average of 0.5%. It looks as if many Greens voters were scared back to the Liberals — votes that otherwise might have ended up with Labor as preferences and could have helped it hang on to the seat or two it needed.

But Labor’s anti-Greens movement is consumed by two inappropriate analogies: One Nation and the DLP. Their hope is that the Greens can be destroyed the way One Nation was, by a concerted attack from the major parties; their fear is that the Greens will keep them out of office for decades the way the DLP did.

Neither makes sense. One Nation was a classic protest movement, appearing out of nowhere and vanishing almost as quickly, while the Greens have slowly built an infrastructure and a voter base over 20 years. The DLP was a  tightly disciplined party that took traditional Labor votes and delivered their preferences to the Liberals; Greens voters, however, are notoriously resistant to doing what they’re told, and most of their preferences go back to where they came from.

Ironically enough, many of those now attacking the Greens from within the ALP would themselves have lined up with the DLP 40 years ago, including representatives of the ex-DLP unions readmitted to the ALP in the 1980s. But that just shows again that what appear to be debates about tactics are more often about a party’s identity: is the ALP to be a progressive party or not?

If the answer is to be no, then the drift of its left wing to the Greens will only accelerate. If yes, then some sort of modus vivendi with the Greens will have to be reached.

Peter Fray

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