After years of being outplayed and outmanoeuvred, those in the ALP who think of themselves as electoral tacticians have finally realised what has been clear for a long time: that the Greens constitute a fundamental challenge which must be dealt with. The question now is: have they left it too late?
Given that the Greens make no secret of their goal of supplanting the ALP on the Left of Australian politics, it is surprising how slow the hard men in the ALP have been to reach this not-very-surprising conclusion. Presumably this is because the bulk of the primary vote for the Greens in the House of Representatives comes back to the ALP in preferences. Indeed, as the Green primary vote has grown, so has the proportion of it returning to the ALP. For example, in 1998, when the Greens drew only 2.2 per cent of the vote, 73.7 per cent of Green preferences went to Labor. (In contrast, the Democrats polled 5.5 per cent, and 56.7 per cent of their preferences went to the ALP.)
Since 2004, with the effective demise of the Democrats, about 80 per cent of Green preferences have gone to the ALP. The Green primary vote in 2010 was 11.8 per cent, indicating that the Greens have absorbed the old Democrat vote as well as a part of the ALP vote.
But the crucial weakness of the ‘why worry?’ approach is the possibility that the Greens could reach the point where they win seats from the ALP, and that an alliance with the Greens would eventually drive a wedge between the two parts of the Whitlamite coalition of working-class voters and inner-city progressives. In this sense, the problems generated by the Gillard-Brown agreement are only the latest and clearest symptoms of a long-standing illness.
After all, the Greens are not popular in the national electorate. They might trumpet their success and claim a mandate for their policies, but 11.8 per cent remains, in the larger scheme, a fairly small figure. In the Senate, only Bob Brown and Christine Milne from Tasmania and Richard Di Natale from Victoria have won quotas in their own right.
While the NSW ALP conference made much of its decision not to automatically preference the Greens, this could turn out to be mere window-dressing. In particular, it is difficult to imagine Julia Gillard saying that ALP voters should preference Tony Abbott ahead of the party with which she has a signed agreement. And the ALP has a long history of saying one thing and doing another. It is entirely possible that, after huffing and puffing in the run-up to the next election, the ALP will again put the Greens above the Coalition on their preference list.
Possible, yes, but not certain. If there is a widespread feeling within the ALP that an overwhelming defeat is inevitable, then the tacticians might decide that the best course is to knock out the Greens, removing them as an existential threat. In other words: if they can retain their place as the only anti-conservative game in town, then they might — might — be competitive in 2025. If the anti-conservative vote is permanently split by a Green presence in the House, then there might never be another majority Labor government.
There is another wrinkle to this line of strategic thinking. With the Malaysian Solution legislation passed through the House and rejected by the Senate, there is an outline for a double dissolution election. If the government was to put the legislation before Parliament again with the same result, it would have grounds to send the House and the whole Senate to the polls. This would seem to be very much a case of turkeys voting for an early Christmas, but the Gillard government, judging by some of its statements on the issue, appears to have talked itself into the belief that the Malaysian Solution is actually popular and desirable. (This is the same sort of delusion that makes them believe that the carbon tax is an electoral winner.)
In a double dissolution, if the ALP and the Coalition preferenced each other above the Greens, could the Greens survive? On the 2010 numbers, and looking at the high Coalition vote indicated in the current opinion polls, the Greens would probably emerge with only four seats, and perhaps only one.
In the House, the position of the Greens would depend on Liberal preferences. If the Liberals allocated their preferences to the Greens ahead of Labor (as they did in the seat of Melbourne in 2010), then the Greens could possibly win several ‘safe’ Labor seats.
Of course, the Liberals might choose not to give direct preferences to the Greens. One option would be to negotiate a deal with the ALP, offering to swap preferences in the House for preferences in the Senate. Not a bad deal for Labor, in terms of reducing the Greens to a rump, but the sting in the tail is that it would give the Coalition control of the Senate, probably for six years.
Another avenue for the Liberals would be to allow preference decisions to be made at the local level, with each branch/candidate/member making their own choice. Decisions regarding Senate preferences could be made by each State/Territory division. It might throw up some peculiar outcomes but it would probably strengthen Tony Abbott’s reputation within the party ranks.
However one looks at it, the road ahead for the ALP looks dire, a choice between mid-term disaster and long-term catastrophe. In fact, the ALP is starting to look like a party on the verge of panic, desperately searching for scapegoats and excuses. Their wounds, however, are entirely self-inflicted. The issue now is whether they can agree on a way to staunch the bleeding.
Derek Parker is a regular contributor to The Spectator Australia.Tags: iapps