Has Labor found a way to fend off the threat of the Greens to their inner-city seats? Probably not, but it appears having a high-profile candidate, and relying on the Greens’ divisions, is working a treat so far.

In 2016, the Greens went all-in on Grayndler in Sydney, thinking they could knock off Anthony Albanese. In some quarters he was written off; some suggested he move seats, but Albo was having none of it. The Greens deployed huge resources into the seat, but in the end Albanese won easily. The Greens, in part, were cruelled by the disastrous candidate selection of an out-and-out Trotskyite from the NSW party’s far-left faction, which has been at war with more moderate forces for years.

In Batman on the weekend, there was no incumbent Labor MP, but the hapless David Feeney — who would almost certainly have lost the seat to the Greens had he stuck around until the next election — was replaced by Ged Kearney, who is better known than Feeney and a far better fit for Batman. Unusually, Labor actually gained from a departing MP. Parenthetically, it’s interesting that the Greens and Labor served up two strong female candidates at a time when the Liberal Party is visibly struggling to keep its female parliamentarians — there are just four female Liberal Victorian MPs and senators. Over in South Australia, Steven Marshall fielded a shadow cabinet nearly 80% male.

Much was made, including by the Greens themselves, of the internal undermining of Alex Bhathal by local enemies, but how much that actually affected her vote isn’t clear. It’s the sort of thing that gets the media and the politically engaged interested, but ordinary voters are unlikely even to have been aware that she was the target of an internal destabilisation campaign.

What it did illustrate, however, is that the most important difference between major parties and minor parties is that the big ones normally have the institutional resources and structures to cope with the factionalism and division that is inevitable within any political party (or for that matter any group endeavour). They can prevent it from undermining election campaigns, whereas smaller outfits simply don’t have the people or administrative structures to cope. 

Worse for the Greens, though, was the ill-judged decision last week when Richard Di Natale tried to exploit Labor’s dividend imputation refundability policy and appeal to wealthy retirees by posing as the guardian of their shareholdings and tax handouts. Di Natale subsequently appealed to Liberal voters to back the Greens while speaking of “Bill Shorten’s attack on so many people in this community”.

For the party that has — particularly since the arrival of Peter Whish-Wilson — bolstered its economic and fiscal credentials and advanced the economic debate by championing policies such as negative gearing reform, later adopted by Labor, it was an instant shredding of carefully-won policy credibility. With their eyes on the prize of winning a second Reps seat, the Greens leadership was happy to pander to wealthy seniors benefiting from a literal taxpayer handout that costs billions a year.

It also undermined Sarah Hanson-Young, who had earlier backed the policy on Adelaide radio:

I think actually Labor has done some good work here… If you’re rich enough to put your money into shares, and to be able to distribute them across various different companies, in order to get all those [franking] credits, I suggest that you are probably not down the bottom of the pile when it comes to pensioners who are doing it tough every day.

From “good work” to “Bill Shorten’s attack on so many people” in just a couple of days.

Labor loves being able to link third party opponents to the Liberals. Their persistent attack on Nick Xenophon is that he regularly voted with the government in the Senate; now they have evidence from the Greens themselves trying to appeal to the Liberal Party base of wealthy retirees.

Expect some variant of “tree-hugging Tories” to be thrown at the Greens by Labor at the next election. And what passes for the brains trust in the Greens will need to start thinking about how to regain its policy credibility.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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