Remember the republicans who campaigned for a ‘No’ vote in the 1999 Republic referendum? They wanted a directly elected president and they promised a vigorous campaign for a “real republic” after the referendum was defeated. Did we ever hear anything further from them? Of course not. They were full of hot air.
I’m in politics to achieve outcomes. In the real world that means accepting a few painful realities. Achieving progressive change can be very hard. Sometimes you have to settle for partial improvements, or wait for more opportune times. I’m a direct electionist, but I supported a ‘Yes’ vote in 1999.
Last weekend the Greens won 21% of the vote in the Tasmanian State election. They will now exercise a critical influence in shaping the new government.
This is a portent that Labor ignores at its peril. Because we are the Greens’ real target, not the conservatives.
My seat of Melbourne has been vulnerable to the Greens since 2001. I now hold it by only 4.7%. Anthony Albanese and Tanya Plibersek are only slightly more secure in Grayndler and Sydney. There are three Labor seats in my area at risk of falling to the Greens in the forthcoming Victorian State election.
Why is this happening?
The Greens are harvesting growing support from a particular demographic that first emerged as a key part of Labor’s support base in the late 1960s. The quirks of our electoral system make them a genuine threat once they get around a quarter of the vote, because they then get ahead of the Liberals, and benefit from Liberal preferences.
Essentially the rising Green vote is a product of increasing tertiary education. Green voters are typically either tertiary educated or undergoing tertiary education. Their support is heavily concentrated amongst tertiary disciplines that are focused on much more than just making money.
Unlike most Australians, these voters tend to be secure and comfortable enough to be able to put aside immediate self-interest when assessing their political options.
Unfortunately for Labor, their viewpoint is increasingly at odds with the perspective of Labor voters who aren’t tertiary educated. On issues like asylum seekers, gay marriage, forests and civil liberties, such differences can often be stark. It’s these differences that the Greens seek to exploit.
To win government and implement reform, Labor has to do a lot more than appeal to its most progressive supporters. Retaining the implicit support of a majority of the Australian people requires compromises that tend to upset Labor’s natural supporters. Without any responsibility for stitching together a governing coalition or actually implementing any change, the Greens are able to ruthlessly exploit the opportunities created by such disappointments.
Whatever Labor does, it’s never quite good enough for the Greens. Even when we’re withdrawing troops from Iraq, repealing Workchoices, apologising to indigenous Australians, or legislating to tackle climate change, they still attack Labor for their own cynical political purposes. If the Greens had voted with Labor, the Senate would have passed the Government’s climate change legislation, because two Liberals crossed the floor to vote with us. We’re now left with no legislation at all. The Greens’ political posturing took precedence over the need for action on climate change. The Greens’ policy would have absolutely no chance of getting through the Senate, even if Labor supported it.
The real impact of the Greens is exposed by the fact that the Liberals direct their preferences to them. In my area, they routinely get almost 80% of Liberal preferences. This split in the progressive vote is a godsend to the conservatives, as it draws resources away from the main national contest. It isn’t Liberal seats that are threatened by the Greens. Just like the progressive 'No' campaigners in 1999, they end up in de facto alliance with arch-conservatives like Tony Abbott.
A secret Greens report on the campaign in my electorate in the 2004 election made it very clear what their agenda is. It stated: “Since we had to rely on the expected high flow of Liberal preferences to win, our broad goal was to attack the ALP vote and allow the Liberal vote to be preserved.” It also admitted that the Greens Victorian campaign committee had directed that “getting rid of the Howard Government was not explicitly part of the campaign strategy.”
The Greens are not some kind of benign ginger group loosely allied with Labor. They’re not a middle ground party keeping both major parties honest, like the Democrats. And they’re not a group of idealistic activists changing the world.
They’re just another political party. And they’re no less cynical or manipulative than any of the others. They relentlessly feed off Labor’s need to make compromises in order to marry progressive reform with majority government. All their energies are directed to attacking the Labor Party, not the conservatives. It might seem like a good idea to support those who yell the loudest in favour of progressive causes, but it’s unlikely to produce good outcomes. For all our flaws, Labor remains the only worthwhile option for achieving progressive change through parliamentary politics. It might sometimes be a bit piecemeal and gradual, but it beats the hell out of doing nothing.