Last year’s state election loss came as a major surprise to the Victorian ALP (and to most commentators), so there should be plenty to say in a review of what went wrong. And the review just completed, by federal MP Alan Griffin, blames a range of factors, including a “significant level of dysfunction” at head office. (Due credit to the party, by the way, for posting the review on its website.)
But what really seems to have captured the imagination of the media, funnily enough, is the role of the Greens. The review’s comments on Greens preferences were covered in The Australian on Monday and Tuesday as part of its continuing war against the Greens. Then this morning The Age, which had already looked at the review yesterday, ran a follow-up piece specifically focused on the Greens.
Most observers thought that the importance of the Greens in the election had nothing to do with their preferences, but rather in the way that Labor obsessed over them, drawing attention and resources away from its contest with the opposition and giving Ted Baillieu additional publicity for his stand against the Greens. That’s the point that Bill Shorten, for example, made immediately after the election.
The Griffin review, however, is largely silent on that question. Tucked away on page 53 is this paragraph:
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“The vast majority of fundraising for the scaled-up inner-city campaigns was conducted locally and where possible did not divert resources from other aspects of campaigning across Victoria. However, the intense inner city campaign effort did mean that Labor’s strong inner city FEA’s were less able to assist marginal seat Party Units and some unions placed a greater emphasis on assisting the inner city compared to outer urban marginal seats.”
But there is no recognition of the fact that in a close election this could easily have been the difference between victory and defeat, and no recommendation that it should be reconsidered for the future.
Instead, there’s a three-page analysis of the impact of Greens preferences. I haven’t redone all the mathematics, but the conclusion seems basically correct, and is fully in line with what I and others have been saying for a long time: that it makes very little difference whether the Greens run an open ticket or direct preferences to Labor.
Greens voters are not sticklers for following how-to-vote cards (many probably never get to see one), and about three-quarters of them preference Labor regardless of what the how-to-vote card says. The review quantifies the difference that the recommendation makes as about 1.1% of the Green vote, or an average of about 50 votes per seat.
Now in a close election, 50 votes are still well worth having — Labor’s 11 years in office only began because in 1999 they won a seat by 16 votes. But it’s fair enough for Griffin to say that a Greens threat to run more open tickets is not something Labor should get too worried about.
What neither he nor the media seem to have noticed, however, is that this point undermines the main thrust of Labor’s campaign against the Greens. Labor ran hard against the Greens in the inner city on the basis that a vote for the Greens would help the Liberals, and that the Greens were covertly and treacherously supporting the Liberals in marginal seats.
This was basically fabricated out of whole cloth. But if Labor itself is now telling us that Greens voters are mostly sympathetic to Labor and keep preferencing its way regardless of what they’re told, it’s hard to see how it could have any credibility for running the same sort of campaign again.
Note again here the basic asymmetry between Labor’s position vis-a-vis the Greens and that of the Liberals. The Liberals can reasonably assume that their voters regard Labor and Greens as enemies; they don’t have to offer some extra justification for directing some of their fire against the Greens.
But Labor does, because many of its supporters would otherwise regard the Greens as natural allies. It has to go much more out of its way to smear the Greens if it wants to rally its voters against them. And of course the more it does so, the more it can kiss goodbye to those 50-odd votes per seat that really will go the other way in preferences.
The alternative would be for Labor to stop worrying so much about the inner city, concentrate on the outer-suburban marginals that really matter, and start treating the Greens the way the Liberals treat the National Party. But that’s not a message that Labor is yet willing to hear.