Tuesday 17 September 2013

Grayndler and the Greens’ dilemmas

By Hall Greenland

In the days that followed the election perfect strangers were constantly bailing me up to express their congratulations and commiserations. They were aware our vote in the seat of Grayndler had dropped compared to our 2010 result - three percentage points as it turned out - and were disappointed (and wary of the Abbott victory) but they were not despondent.

They were right. The drop in Grayndler was nowhere near as large as the overall fall in the Greens vote across the country (see the accompanying table at the end). And if we take a longer view, the Greens vote in Grayndler is up 20% on our 2007 vote (from 19 to 23 per cent). Undoubtedly also injecting some optimism into the reaction was the magnificent victory in the seat of Melbourne, the re-election of Senators Scott Ludlum and Sarah Hanson-Young and the extra senator (Janet Rice) in Victoria.

The local reaction reflects the certainty that we won the political debate during the campaign. There was, after all, no convincing Labor answer to the criticisms of their punitive refugee policy, or the cuts to single parent pensions, or the slashing of university funding, or the promotion of coal exports, or the approval of fracking, or the failure to protect iconic wilderness areas and farmland.

The positive vibe also had much to do with our campaign. We definitely won a few rounds during the run-up, including the Meet-the-Candidates debate in Marrickville Town Hall. It is little wonder that the sitting member Anthony Albanese refused our challenge for debates during the campaign.

The wins during the campaign were important because at the beginning of this year the Greens in Grayndler were in the doldrums after the setbacks in the local elections last year. In all the municipalities within Grayndler, the Green vote went backwards – in some cases by as much as 25%.

Early in the campaign we were buoyed by exaggerated hopes (based on 2010 figures) of actually winning the seat. However that close-run thing in 2010 was the result of receiving Coalition preferences and five weeks out from this election Tony Abbott announced that Labor not the Greens would be getting Coalition preferences this time. It was testament to the strength of our campaign team – and our campaign coordinator Lesa de Leau - that we did not falter.

Our media people, to cite one example, were terrific. We received a number of front pages in the local press and our social media and internet presence could not have been better. The campaign videos were also consistently interesting and garnered positive feedback.

This local and social media presence was important because Anthony Albanese received a charmed ride from the liberal mainstream media. The ABC and SBS rallied to Albanese’s defence with soft treatment on everything from Radio National to the Hamster Wheel to the Observer Effect.

The Grayndler Greens campaign was well-funded compared to other Greens lower house campaigns in NSW. But to put it into perspective, we only had about one-tenth of the resources of the Greens in Melbourne and less than half the resources committed to the key seats in the last state election.

Why then didn’t these strengths translate into more votes? The short answer is we should not underestimate either the strength of our Labor opponents or the mood of our electorate. We were pitted against the deputy prime minister and long-term incumbent, who had comparatively huge party, union and media networks to draw on as well as solid vote banks in the local ethnic and sporting communities.

As for the mood, the most common reaction I encountered from sympathetic voters when I was doorknocking was, “Yes, I like the Greens but the important thing is to stop Tony Abbott, so I’m voting Labor”. This defensive, fear-of-Abbott mood largely explains the continued strength of the Labor vote in Grayndler which was relatively impervious to reminders of how right-wing Labor had become, or to explanations of how preferences worked, or to assurances that the Greens would never support an Abbott government. It completely overwhelmed any impact the Greens official campaign messages might have had.

Yet it is important not to miss the first part of that doorstep declaration – “Yes, I like the Greens…” It is that which is also a source of our measured but upbeat reaction. There is much goodwill towards us in the ranks of Labor voters, which is no surprise as most of us are former Labor voters.

This raises the strategic question of how the Greens relate to Labor now. The experience of the past three years is instructive. There was no real alternative to guaranteeing confidence and supply to the minority Labor government after the August 2010 elections. It was the best government that was available in the prevailing circumstances. It was also right to secure concessions from the minority government. What went wrong – and the work of Tad Tietze & Elizabeth Humphrys and Tony Harris is pretty valid on this subject - was to get cosy and close to that government and to oversell the concessions. Any unpopularity of that government was also sure to rub off on us.

We needed to keep in the front of our minds that the minority Labor government was committed to an unsustainable model of capitalism, its policies were neoliberal to the core and it was a toady of Washington in foreign affairs. Fortunately the party room in Canberra has now reclaimed its freedom of manoeuvre.

While a dynamic, critical, alternative approach to the Canberra consensus is always in order, there is no guarantee that it would have produced better results in the political circumstances of a general shift to the right among voters. The magnitude of this shift is being overlooked in too many quarters: the combined Greens-Labor vote in 2007 was 52%, 50% in 2010 and 43% in 2013.

This problem of relations with Labor remains a real political dilemma for us as we will need to attempt some kind of cooperation with Labor in resisting the Abbott government’s bid to reverse climate change action, undo environmental safeguards, turn the screw on refugees and accelerate redistribution upwards.

The dilemma is thrown into sharper relief by the current Labor leadership ballot. We in Grayndler know how fake or limited Albanese “progressivism” is – given his support for the imprisonment of refugees, promotion of coal exports, privatisations of public enterprises, local Council alliances with the Liberals etc – but his victory can make resistance to Abbott stronger in that it could revivify the long-suffering Labor base who will almost certainly vote overwhelmingly for Albanese as the most “progressive” candidate.

We are now entering a new period. It is to our advantage that Senator Lee Rhiannon has kicked off the discussion amongst us about how we proceed after the election setbacks. Left Flank and Antony Loewenstein are weighing in as well. The virtue of the Greens party room’s present position is that the Greens can regain their freedom of political independence and initiative. What the issue or issues will be that arouse important parts of the citizenry to action is yet to be determined but already climate change has joined refugees as causes around which people – and certainly the Grayndler Greens - are willing to act.  

14 September 2013
My initial response to election result https://www.facebook.com/greensforgrayndler

The Greens’ percentage of the vote: House of Representative/Senate

2007 election
2010 election
2013 election
7.79 / 9.04
11.76 / 13.11
8.33 / 8.58

7.88 / 8.43
10.24 / 10.69
7.76 / 7.57

8.17 / 10.08
12.66/ 14.64
10.32 / 10.70

13.5 / 18.13
16.82 / 20.27
8.08 / 11.37

South Australia
6.95 / 6.49
11.98 / 13.30
7.99 / 7.03

Western Australia
8.93 / 9.30
13.13 / 13.96
9.54 / 9.78

5.63 / 7.32
10.92 /12.76
6.03 / 6.09