Never won an election, but won every battle he fought

Never won an election, but won every battle he fought

A little-remarked upon aspect of this most recent Australian federal election has been the performance of the Greens. It’s not surprising that the media don’t report on the Greens’ results, since they hate the Greens and they can’t take them seriously as a party, but it is a little disappointing that they haven’t commented on the Greens’ performance in this particular election, since in many ways the last three years have seen their coming of age as a party, and this election presents strong evidence that they are a mature and robust member of the electoral mainstream.

By way of comparison, let’s consider the Australian Democrats, who in 1999 passed the legislation for the Goods and Services Tax (GST) through the Senate, in support of the Liberal government of the time. This decision was made under the leadership of Meg Lees, who had taken the position in 1997 just before the 1998 election, and was determined to stamp out the Democrats as a responsible party of the mainstream. The GST was extremely unpopular, and in the 2001 election the party lost 12% of its vote and one senator. At the following election the Australian electorate took them out the back and quietly shot them, as the saying goes, and now they no longer exist as a party. Basically, the party had shackled itself to an unpopular government and specifically an unpopular piece of legislation, it was struggling to define itself after the loss of a charismatic leader (Kernot, 1997) and in its flounderings it slowly destroyed itself.

The Greens took found themselves in a similar position in 2010, but in spades: having won a seat in the lower house they explicitly joined a minority government with Labor and passed a very unpopular piece of legislation, the carbon price, and they also experienced the loss of an inspirational and visionary leader – their founder, Bob Brown – just after forming government. So they went to the 2013 electorate shackled to an extremely unpopular government, identified directly with an extremely unpopular policy, and with a leader the electorate didn’t recognize. They suffered a swing against them of about 3.2% (about 25% of their total vote) but they retained their lower house seat with a swing against them of only 0.7%, and gained a Senate seat (they had 9 in 2010 and now have 10). Furthermore, the swing to them in 2010 was 4.0%, so despite their position in the minority government and the unpopular carbon price, they haven’t lost all the gains of the 2010 election. So although the swing against them is not pretty, they are still in a better position than when they went into the previous election (unlike the Democrats in 2001), they have shown themselves able to hold a lower house seat, and they have improved their representation in the Senate. This result arose despite them having been continuously painted as reckless by the major parties and the media, a very strong campaign against them in their lower house seat, the arrival of a new and seriously cashed-up independent party campaigning strongly federally (the PUP), and the Liberals preferencing them last in every state. The Democrats have never faced an electoral landscape as hostile as the Greens, and yet the Greens have survived and gained relative to 2010.

One interpretation of the swing against the Greens is that a proportion of their vote is simply anti-mainstream-parties protest voting, and that once PUP arrived on the scene some of those protesters switched. I think this is only partially true – a large portion of that vote loss is protest against the carbon price and the Greens’ role in minority government. But in this lies the key difference between the Greens and the Democrats. The Democrat rank-and-file largely opposed the GST, and Lees voted for it against the interests of her base. The Greens performed largely in the interests of their base during their period of minority government, and somehow where they voted pragmatically or compromised they have been able to communicate effectively with their voters about this. And most specifically, in exchange for all the compromises of government they won the thing they and most of their supporters most wanted, an effective carbon price. There were other policies they failed to deliver – they wanted the resources tax to be stronger – but by securing a few key gains they managed to convince their voters that they were working for their vision.

In a very well written and thoughtful essay in the Guardian recently Julia Gillard, ex-PM, stated that the most important thing for a political party is to show purpose and to stick with its purpose. For all her and her government’s faults this was a strong and clear principle of her time in office – on the whole she sailed a steady course and didn’t allow policy to be dictated to by polls or fancies. In comparison her predecessor and successor Rudd made policy like a weather vane, pointing whichever way the wind blows. I think the Greens have confirmed the truth of Gillard’s simple principle, and it can be seen in comparison with the Democrats: by sticking with their principles in minority government, explaining clearly to their voters why they do what they do, and not allowing themselves to be governed by flights of fancy or concerns of popularity or media trifles, they have retained their core vote and advanced their agenda. I am confident that the Greens would have been willing to accept electoral destruction in exchange for a sustainable and effective carbon reduction scheme, but they have shown that by sticking to what you believe and acting responsibly and rationally you can make progress in politics. I think this has marked them out as a mature and responsible party in a way that Labor under Rudd definitely was not.

A corollary of this is the possibility that Labor could have done better at the election under Gillard. I still think this could have happened – she might not have won, but I think she would have done no worse. Then at least the ALP could sit in opposition with their heads held high. Sadly, that wasn’t to be. Perhaps it’s time they took some lessons on responsible government from the Greens.