With polling indicating a vote heading towards 17% and the prospect of taking the balance of power in the upper house, the Victorian Greens are full of confidence about the upcoming November 29 state election, with official statements about the rising volunteer effort ahead of the campaign season proper.
Within the party however, there has been major differences of opinion about the strategic choices that have been made by the party apparatus and endorsed by the state council — a strategy that prioritises an assault on the Liberal-held lower house seat of Prahran over a concentration of resources on an inner-northern seat such as Brunswick or Northcote.
Some members have also alleged that the state office was in organisational disarray for some time, until a restructure last year, and that this has left the party with a degree of catching up that might prove fatal in a close result.
The most likely lower house seat to fall to the Greens will be Melbourne, currently held by Labor’s Jennifer Kanis. The Greens topped the poll in a 2012 byelection for the seat (the Liberals did not field a candidate) but were defeated by the Labor preferencing of a slew of minor parties and independents.
Beyond that, there have been political and strategic differences about where a second seat can be won, with many suggesting that the most likely win is in Brunswick — where former Julia Gillard associate Cindy Dawes gained a 30% primary for the Greens against Labor’s Jane Garrett, on 36%. However, others believe Garrett is too strong and high-profile a member to make a win based on demographic shifts likely.
The strategic shift to target Prahran, held by Liberal Clem Newton-Brown, has been explored, in part due to a slowing of the rate of gain in votes in the inner-northern seats, with their mix of an old Labor working-class vote and a rising class of culture/knowledge professionals, who choose between the Greens and Labor. “We’d tried those seats three or four times. It seemed time to try a different strategy,” said one Greens strategist.
Crucial also was the decision of the Liberal Party in 2010 to no longer preference the Greens. “If they were going to do that,” said Greg Barber, Greens leader in the Legislative Council, “then the only thing to do was to find the best prospect to knock off a Lib. Of course whether Labor will preference us is another question.”
Prahran is the only seat that really approaches a three-way contest in a preferential system, with Newton-Brown on 47%, Labor on 28% and the Greens on 20%. If new candidate Sam Hibbins can take a few votes from Labor, and 2-3% from the Liberals, the Greens can take second place and win with Labor preferences. Labor’s temptation to exclude the Greens would be tempered by the knowledge that many Labor voters simply would not obey the direction to preference Liberal.
“People called up to volunteer and no one answered the phone. Or the name was taken and forgotten. It went on for years.”
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However, experienced Greens operatives in the inner-north seats are sceptical of the claims made for Prahran, arguing that the branch and existing political infrastructure aren’t sufficient to run a full-bore campaign. Following his stunning re-election victory in 2013, federal member for Melbourne Adam Bandt announced that the Napthine government’s hated east-west link would provide a rallying point whereby one big campaign could be run across the four state divisions — while also buttressing Melbourne itself and the federal seat of Batman.
But as one Victorian Green strategist who disagreed with the Prahran push said, “Politics isn’t just numbers. You’ve got to work out what politics is, where there’s a campaign.”
State director Larissa Brown argues there was no real strategist dissent, but it was “inevitable that everyone would want their branch or region to get resources”. Barber questions the premise, saying that “resources aren’t finite” and then reels off a list of campaigning events taking place across the state tonight — “campaigning in Kallista … a training night in Hampton Park … meeting in Camberwell … a –” — until I ask him to stop. He points out that Greens have been on the ground in key seats already. “We knocked on a thousand doors [south of the river] last weekend, and Labor weren’t out there, because we would have seen them.”
The idea that campaigning in new zones draws out new resources is nothing new, but the Greens can often be Pollyannaish about how much scope there is for such growth — and how much use volunteer foot soldiers are with relatively thin infrastructure.
There has also been longstanding disquiet about disarray in the Victorian state office, with thin resources often stretched even thinner — and, say some, badly placed. “People called up to volunteer,” said a former staffer of one MLC, “and no one answered the phone. Or the name was taken and forgotten. It went on for years.” A former strategist noted that the position of volunteer co-ordinator had been left unattended to for so long, “people forgot we’d ever had one”.
The state office was reorganised in 2013, with a new position of state director being established, joining admin and strategic functions that had once been separated. However, Brown’s appointment was not universally welcomed — having spent a long time in the wider environmentalist movement, she has very little grassroots Green political experience, with much of her experience coming from an MA in political management and communications. In a recent move, West Australian Jess McColl has been drafted in as campaign manager for the upcoming election. A political veteran, McColl managed Scott Ludlam’s campaign in the Senate do-over, translating his high-profile and public support to a 16.6% quota-winning result. Ludlam praised her as “the best campaign manager in the world”, in his victory speech.
Whether she can help the local team get over the hump for that elusive victory — and a win in either western (rural) or eastern metro in the upper house to take the balance of power there — remains to be seen. If the strategy and the energy bears fruit, the Greens will be in their most powerful position yet. However, if the Prahran strategy fails and is perceived to have sapped the inner north of resources with which the Greens could have won, there may well be a period of struggle for the future direction of the party in the offing.