In terms of proportionality and editorial priority, The Age took a very pro-Labor approach in leading Monday’s opinion page with Shaun Carney’s attack on federal Greens MP Adam Bandt. Carney was fulminating over Bandt’s “garbage” prognosis of the Melbourne byelection on Network Ten’s Meet The Press:

“When the Greens come in second and win with the help of preferences, even if those preferences come via the Liberal ticket, everything’s fine and it’s a glorious victory. But when Labor is fighting the Greens and gets preferences, especially from people who voted Family First or really anybody else, it’s a dirty, sleazy backroom deal leading to a tainted result.”

In reality, there are some big differences between Bandt’s 2010 victory in Melbourne and Labor’s “whatever it takes” preference deal-making to save the Melbourne state byelection on Saturday.

The Greens did no deal with anyone on the political right to get Bandt into Parliament because Labor was placed ahead of the Liberals and other right-wing parties on the Green how-to-vote card. This is different from Saturday where Labor actively engaged with fringe parties, reached mutually beneficial agreements with them and then placed Family First at seven on its how-to-vote card, whilethe Greens languished at 15. Labor only won thanks to the donkey vote and preference flows from six of the seven leading minor candidates.

By contrast, Bandt gave precisely nothing in return to the Liberals when they unilaterally decided to preference him ahead of Labor in 2010.

While Labor Right figures such as Michael Danby and Joel Fitzgibbon seem emboldened in their determination to aggressively attack the Greens, they need to pause for thought. If the Victorian Liberals were smart at the next federal election they could do a deal with the Greens to shore up Bandt in Melbourne and undermine some key Labor Right ministers who are particularly hostile to the Greens.

Take Danby’s progressive seat of Melbourne Ports, which neighbours Bandt’s territory to the south. If Danby goes ahead and puts the Greens last behind the Liberals and Family First, he will seriously disenfranchise the 20.66% of voters who supported the Greens in 2010.

And if the Liberals ran a progressive candidate, why wouldn’t the Greens swap preferences with the Liberals to finish off a hostile character like Danby? Danby only polled 38.19% of the primaries in 2010, with the Liberals marginally behind on 37.8%. If Danby can only survive with Greens preferences, why is he threatening to put them last on his ticket?

Such an arrangement would not be done in isolation and presumably would only occur if the Liberals agreed to preference Bandt in Melbourne.

Federal Resources Minister and climate change sceptic Martin Ferguson is another high-profile, anti-Green Labor minister who could be knocked off if the Liberals and Greens swapped preferences. The primaries in Batman in 2010 finished as follows:

  • Martin Ferguson (Labor): 52.38%
  • Alex Bhathal (Greens): 23.48%
  • George Souris (Liberal): 19.9%

After preferences, Ferguson only won with two-party-preferred vote of 57.86%, so he’s well in line to be wiped out if the current polling holds.

While Tony Abbott might well take a view that Greens such as Lee Rhiannon are far too extreme in his home state of NSW and deserve to be put last everywhere, the Victorian Greens are noticeably more moderate. They may even be amendable to supporting a so-called decapitation strategy on future Labor leaders such as Bill Shorten, whose supporters never stop monstering the Victorian Greens.

Shorten polled 55.38% of the primary vote in Maribyrnong in 2010 with the Liberals second on 29% and the Greens well back on 11.85%. If part of the agreement between the Victorian Greens and the Coalition included Green preferences for a progressive Liberal candidate, it would force Labor to divert scarce resources into previously safe seats and also potentially remove Shorten from the Parliament if the landslide comes through as predicted.

Part of the Labor dialogue criticising the Greens in Victoria goes to intransigence, lack of flexibility and an inability to compromise. A mutually beneficial Green-Liberal lower house preference compromise in Victoria — the strongest mainland state for the Greens — would put that argument to bed.

Both sides could happily put each other last in the vast majority of lower house seats and every Senate contest, so there would be no substance to claims of a broader nationwide deal.

I bumped into Liberal federal director Brian Loughnane a couple of times on polling booths in Melbourne last week and mentioned this strategy in passing. His eyes lit up at the prospect of knocking off Shorten.

It’s obviously a long shot given the long Green history of refusing to preference Liberals anywhere, but the constructive and co-operative relationship between Melbourne’s Liberal lord mayor Robert Doyle and Cr Cathy Oke, the defeated Green candidate on Saturday, is instructive of future possibilities.

After all, don’t forget that this precise scenario happened in Britain when the most progressive party, the Liberal Democrats, teamed up with the Conservatives to knock off a jaded and cynical Labour machine.

Peter Fray

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