The decision by the Greens to walk away from their formal relationship with the Gillard government signed after the last election has been frequently characterised by the media as a marriage that ended in divorce. It has furthermore often confidently been alleged that the relationship was always destined to end in failure.
In fact, though, what happened was a strategic decision by the Greens to end a formal relationship that they deemed to be hurting them electorally while guaranteeing support to the government until the next election. Both parties were down in the polls, though Labor more so.
The relationship linked the Greens to a declining asset and was bringing them more hurt than benefit as the election approached. However, the formal terms of the relationship had not been breached, despite conflict between the two parties on issues such as asylum seekers, coal mining and same sex marriage. They had achieved much of what they set out to do together.
There were other factors on this occasion. One certainly was Bob Brown’s retirement last year. He, not new leader Christine Milne, had entered the marriage of convenience and while he continued as Greens leader the formal alliance may have survived despite the larger factors pointing to the advisability of dissolving the relationship.
Labor welcomed the abrupt ending of the relationship in a way that implied it had wished it had taken the initiative itself, though it could not. In doing so, Julia Gillard fuelled the interpretation that this was the inevitable dissolution of an unsuitable partnership.
She characterised Labor as a party of government and the Greens as a party of protest, going on to say that the Greens were a party of complaint rather than solutions. In doing so she was building on earlier attempts she had made to distance Labor from radical Greens in the minds of the public.
There is some truth in her characterisation but it is an exaggeration. All parties are some sort of mix of the above ingredients. The Greens have not long emerged from their birth in the progressive social movements of the 1970s and retain strong links to environmentalists among others. This can be a weakness for them in parliamentary politics but it can also be a source of strength.
It gives them an active community base that invigorates them, though sometimes putting them in conflict of interest situations as has happened in the ACT when they have been confronted with illegal social movement tactics.
The major parties once had such an element to their persona, too and were better for it, but have largely lost it as ageing sets in and membership declines. They have both settled down into a comfortable middle age.
The Greens are also still inexperienced and as a minor party have had relatively few chances to learn from life in government. Some Greens don’t want to ever gain that experience and would regard the gist of Gillard’s remarks, if not their wording, as a compliment to them. They also make mistakes and can be inflexible in decision-making.
For its part, Labor looks down on the Greens in much the same way as the Liberals often look down on the Nationals, their junior partner. Labor is much bigger, considerably older and radiates the arrogance and sense of superiority that comes with being the big kid on the block.
Labor and the Liberals are both house-trained in the disciplines of modern governing and cautious in the way that neither the Greens nor the Nationals are.
The latter have more rough edges and are more often outside the social and economic mainstream. Their bigger partners would wish them away if they could. There have been plenty of occasions when Liberal leaders could have spoken frankly about the Nationals in the same way that Gillard speaks about the Greens.
This attraction to protest and complaint works in different ways in the two minor parties but there are similarities. Economic orthodoxy on matters such as free trade and corporate power is less embedded in the Nationals psyche than in the Liberals, as Barnaby Joyce shows from time to time. Bob Katter too, while no longer a National, represents thinking that resonates among many Nationals.
In the long run, Labor and the Greens will inevitably be in a relationship ‘till death do us part’. It may not be a traditional marriage but it will be some sort of relationship. Ultimately, Labor and the Greens, like the Liberals and Nationals, can’t do without one another. This applies at elections, in Parliament and to some extent in government.
While the Greens continue to exist as a minority party attracting about 10 per cent or more of voters to their cause, largely from the Centre Left and left of the political continuum, Labor and the Greens will stand side by side against the parties on the Centre Right and Right.
They are natural parliamentary allies and, when the Greens can win lower house seats as they do in Tasmania and the ACT, natural allies in government. In some situations that will involve a formal alliance or marriage while in others it will involve a looser, more flexible relationship.
Only the death of one partner will end the relationship. There are those who expect the Greens to wither away before long like the Democrats before them, but that is unlikely.
Even if it were to occur, however, there will always be a significant number of voters on the Left and Centre Left that Labor cannot satisfy. Partnerships on the Left are as natural as coalitions on the Right.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor of political science at the Australian National University.