The Greens and Labor’s crisis

Much of the Left has read Saturday night’s election result as one that limits the potential for progressive resistance to the official consensus of the last three decades. The party most identified with that kind of political alternative – the Greens – suffered a 3.4 per cent swing against it in the Lower House and 4.4 per cent in the Senate (at the most recent count). That’s a quarter and a third down on its 2010 votes, respectively.

In an excruciatingly evasive press conference, Christine Milne sought to minimise the scale of the setback by pointing to the against-the-odds return of Adam Bandt in Melbourne and the fact that the half-Senate vote had delivered an extra Senator in Victoria. In terms of the low overall vote, Milne replayed one of her pre-election themes, of the Greens having to battle a ‘conservative tide’ sweeping the country. Former leader Bob Brown went even further, saying that Abbott’s would be a ‘mean’ government, one committed to ‘privatisation and cutbacks across the board’, but that ‘Australians have voted for it with their eyes wide open’.

But it was a funny kind of conservative tide among voters that delivered only a 1.7 per cent primary-vote swing to the Coalition, and not much more on two-party-preferred estimates. In the Senate, the Coalition suffered a 1 per cent swing away from it. This is the resounding ‘achievement’ of three years of relentless attacks by the man who is allegedly one of the most effective Opposition Leaders in modern political history, aided by the full resources of the Murdoch media, against a minority government built around a deeply divided ALP.

Talk of a ‘conservative tide’ also legitimises the Right’s talk of having gained a ‘mandate’ for its program. As The Piping Shrike has pointed out, there is little sense of what such a program would be, especially as Abbott and Hockey seemed to spend most of the campaign downplaying substantive policy differences between themselves and Labor – in particular, the ‘budget emergency’ claim that supposedly marked them out as neoliberal austerity hawks. Even if many in the Coalition camp dream of taking up from when they were so rudely interrupted in 2006, there is not much evidence that there is a social basis on which they could do this.


Political contradiction and fragmentation

Understanding the Greens’ problems requires a closer analysis of the overall electoral outcome, one characterised by the further fragmentation of the national vote and a bigger rejection of the political class than we saw even in 2010. We can measure this along four axes.

First there is the rise of Clive Palmer’s PUP. It is telling that a party whose sole reason for existence seemed to be to troll the political system has won 5.6 per cent of the vote at its first attempt, including more than 11 per cent in Queensland. It is on track to have one lower house MP and two senators. Importantly, pre-election polling suggested that the party was mainly set to win disgruntled ALP voters, and post-election analysis shows that it has done best in suburban areas that are in economic decline. While Palmer is a mining billionaire with political origins in the National Party, his policies (including a progressive refugee policy that saw the Greens preference him ahead of the Coalition in most states) are a mixed bag. To understand his appeal as anything other than a negative one – a reductio ad absurdum of Queensland anti-politics that is so crazy it kind of makes sense – would be to lend coherence to his (ahem) agenda that it simply doesn’t have.

That Palmer was also systematically attacked by Murdoch’s flagship The Australian – fourteen negative Page 1 stories since 15 June, according to a sharp piece by Neil Chenoweth – undoubtedly added to his anti-politics appeal. More importantly, it undercuts the notion that Murdoch could swing the election to Abbott, as many in Labor and the Greens seem to believe.

The second axis is the dispersion of Senate votes away from the Coalition/Labor/Greens establishment. Together these parties scored 89.3 per cent in 2007, 86.5 per cent in 2010, but only 76.5 per cent in 2013. Perhaps this is slightly inflated by the ‘confusion’ over the Liberal Democratic Party in NSW, but the trend is unmistakable. That the main response to this by the political class (including some in the Greens) has been to call for a change in the rules to constrain so-called ‘micro-parties’ suggests that they want to declare the shift of votes at best ‘an accident’ or at worst ‘undemocratic’. Both these are process responses to a political problem the establishment wants to wish away.

The third axis is the level of informal voting, abstention and non-enrolment. It has been widely reported that something like a quarter of voters in the age group 18–24 were not enrolled to vote. Final turnout figures are not available so the level of abstention remains uncertain. Still, the informal vote is likely to be above its historically second-highest level of 5.5 per cent in 2010.

The fourth axis is the success of Andrew Wilkie (a progressive Independent who previously ran for the Greens in NSW and Tasmania) in Denison, alongside the Greens’ success in inner-Melbourne electorates. These results indicate that the problem for progressives is more complicated than some general anti-Left swing.

Overall the election confirmed the ongoing electoral consequences of a hollowing out of the social base of the traditional two-party arrangement. I discuss this in terms of its origins in the latest edition of Overland. The fact that labourism has been the key institution around which Australian politics pivots means that its crisis opened the potential for a political alternative to the Left of the ALP to emerge, an opportunity seized by the Greens. Saturday’s result makes clearer how the Greens’ success has rested on a dynamic tension between presenting itself as both the inheritor of an ‘old Labor’ tradition that the ALP no longer embodies, and as an anti-political alternative to the political class as a whole.

On Sunday, Milne got closer to the source of the Greens’ problems: ‘We recognise that there are some people who are disappointed by all of the shenanigans in the Labor party and that some of that has rubbed off on the Greens.’

Yet, this still evades why Labor’s ‘shenanigans’ happened and why they were so destructive. It is the basis of those ructions in a struggle over how the ALP deals with its long-run decline that is key here, something that Milne has lost the ability to attack by defending the Greens’ alliance with the larger party. Ironically for Milne, it seems she was unhappy with the governmental strategy bequeathed to her by Brown, but she was unable to simply perform an about-face for fear of the damage such a move could cause.



The Greens’ entry into the alliance was made possible because it took advantage of the rejection of both major parties in 2010, but with the ALP in crisis such an alliance could only taint the Greens by putting them in a position of defending labourism (as personified by Gillard) and of becoming identified with the political establishment voters increasingly revile.

The cost of governmental alliance can be seen most clearly in Tasmania, where the party is also in Coalition with Labor at state level and has been responsible for implementing unpopular austerity measures. The Greens’ primary vote there plummeted by a staggering 8.5 per cent in the Senate, and a similar amount across the state’s five lower-house seats in its worst result since 1998.

My contention that the Greens’ peak vote in 2010 rested in part on anti-political appeal is strengthened by the pattern of votes in Queensland, the east coast state with the weakest two-party system and where the Greens have always been relatively weak. In 2007 the party scored just 5.6 per cent in the lower house and 7.3 per cent in the Senate. In 2010 it rocketed to 10.9 and 12.7 respectively, taking advantage of anger at Labor’s crises. In 2013, it has crashed to 6.1 and 6.2 per cent.

An interesting case study is the outer suburban seat of Forde (in Logan City) that Peter Beattie was parachuted in to contest, and which I happened to visit two weeks before the election. Contempt for politicians as a whole and dismay at Rudd having turned out be ‘just another politician’ were the clearest messages my father, a pharmacist in the electorate, reported he was hearing in his shop. In Forde the Greens rose from 4.8 per cent in 2007 to 12.2 per cent in 2010 (unusually high for this kind of seat) and then plummeted to 4.0 per cent on Saturday. Meanwhile PUP won 12.7 per cent, while both LNP and Labor lost support.

Conversely, the Greens did best in inner Melbourne, predominantly around Adam Bandt’s well-resourced and strategically adroit campaign. Bandt has been a strong extra-parliamentary campaigner on local issues; worked to build links with trade unions (mainly on clear Left and workers’ rights issues, but also winning points with the union bureaucracy more ambiguously around 457 visas); used the big ALP campaign against him and the Liberal decision to preference Labor to position himself as standing up against the major parties; and built a large, young and enthusiastic volunteer campaign staff to blitz the electorate. His particular electorate conferred two extra advantages on him: (1) It was in Victoria, where labourism as an institution has declined the least, so filling the social democratic gap left by the ALP has more purchase than states like NSW and Queensland, and (2) inner Melbourne is a place where the refugee issue could energise a larger activist base than was available to Greens elsewhere. It is not clear that a simple repetition of Bandt’s strategy is politically possible elsewhere, even if the unusually high level of resources available to him could be mobilised (which they can’t). In the demographically similar seat of Grayndler in Sydney, for example, the result was a small revival of Labor’s vote at the expense of the Greens. But Bandt’s success does point to the contradictory aspects of the current period for the Greens.

The shift of the Greens’ electoral influence from Tasmania to Victoria also has implications for how it might solve its current impasse internally, and move on from either a governmental alliance or balance-of-power strategy – both now unavailable to the party in the medium term (something that Milne seems unwilling to concede openly, so dependent has the party become on either for relevance).

So let me return to the despair at the Left’s fortunes that many have articulated. All of the above indicates several reasons to think that the Left’s problem has been a strategic one and not the sign of a deeper shift to the Right among voters. It should also underline the fragility of Abbott’s position, which is currently masked by the parlous state of the ALP, as well as the Greens’ problems. The point of looking at the Greens’ difficulties (and their small but significant successes) is not to write the party off, but to contribute to the process of thinking through what went wrong and what we might learn from that. There is a desperate need for more clarity on what the decline of labourism and the rise of anti-politics mean for those of us seeking radical transformation of society.

Until we have that, there is a great danger that the mood of the Left will be dominated by defensiveness, resignation, passivity and loss of interest in political intervention, despite the growing weakness of those who govern. The point is not to project false optimism about the difficulties we face but to think strategically about why we haven’t yet taken advantage of this state of affairs, and how we could do so.

Thanks to Liz Humphrys, Marc Newman and Thanasis Kampagiannis for their insights.

(Lead image, ‘Seeking Asylum is a human right – Refugee Action protest 27 July 2013 Melbourne’, by Takver.)

Tad Tietze

Tad Tietze is a Sydney psychiatrist who co-runs the blog Left Flank. He’s written for Overland, Crikey and The Drum Opinion, as well as music reviews for Resident Advisor. He was co-editor (with Elizabeth Humphrys & Guy Rundle) of On Utøya: Anders Breivik, right terror, racism and Europe. He tweets as @Dr_Tad.

More by Tad Tietze ›

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  1. Hi Tad,
    You will be horrified to learn that I agree with this analysis.
    But it’s also interesting that Palmer benefited on the hostility to the status quo and none of the microparties more associated with the Left did. There were, after all, a number of other voting options available — not just explicitly leftist tickets like the Socialist Alliance or the Socialist Party but also protest tickets like Wikileaks or the Pirate Party or the Sex Party. None of those, as far as I can see, did very well. Which seems to suggest that, in order to benefit from the current sentiment, you need to have a level of visibility and influence sufficient to be thought viable. Palmer possessed that because of his wealth, which i guess is why he did much, much better than either Katter or Pauline Hanson.

  2. Palmer’s wealth and votes gained is a sign pointing to a future US type Presidential system, possibly, which would be game over for grass roots party politics. There have been suggestions too that Palmer “bought” his votes.

  3. Must be a red letter day because I agree too! The other thing I would add is that I also think Bandt’s victory can be attributed to Bowtell’s lack of lustre. In an email to supporters today she wrote:

    “…good policy on asylum seekers will not come about by calling people who disagree with us cruel and uncaring. We need to find a way to talk about asylum seekers that appeals to middle Australia.”

    To me, that’s not the kind of rhetoric that would win people away from the Greens. I wonder if they had put up a better candidate – indeed one that highlighted some of the actual differences between the bases of the Greens and ALP – whether there might have been a different outcome. But I can’t actually think of a candidate like that so maybe that’s the problem.

    I think it’s obvious why the Wikileaks Party tanked (the Ludlam debacle plus a lack of transparency, despite it being their key political focus). Less so the Pirate Party, who suffered from a lack of visibility but their philosophy and focus should have attracted a larger number of people as primary voters, I would have thought.

    1. I guess what I meant is that if you look at the NSW senate results the Socialist Alliance received a tiny 1700 votes. Now here’s a group that’s actively involved in whatever campaigns are happening, unambiguously running against the political system as a whole — and yet it scored less than Australian Voice or Future Party (about whom I know nothing whatsoever).
      Ok, so clearly you have to a have a certain critical mass to register on voters’ radar. But, given the small size of the far Left, this is actually quite an important consideration.
      In any case, the comparison between Wikileaks and Palmer is also interesting. Yes, the Ludlam debacle no doubt hurt Wikileaks. But, then, I wonder how many people who weren’t political junkies actually followed that (it barely made the mainstream media). Surely, for most disgruntled voters, Wikileaks would have been one of the most recognisable brand names on the ballot sheet. If Palmer could get an audience despite — or, indeed, because of — his crazy antics, why couldn’t Wikileaks?
      Seems to me that this all points to the difficulties the Left faces in capitalising on this sentiment.

      1. I am also inclined to agree with Tad’s analysis here. On the question of the Left minor parties, its high time this wasteful and continuously unproductive strategy of running in Federal elections was abandoned. Even in terms of using candidature in the elections as a propaganda platform this has produced little or no benefit.

        1. I also think the far left – socialist alliance in this case – is wasting time and effort running in the elections. I’m sure they could defend it better than I, but I’m sure they would claim benefits beyond actual votes: connection with different ‘communities’ in Brunswick etc. Like anything it has benefits and negatives and you’d have to weigh it up agains other priorities. Seems to me though that the space is largely taken up by the Greens and that won’t change soon. More interesting, I suppose, is the decision to run for council positions, where there has been some success.

          1. OK, well ever the contrarian (and clearly upset that Jeff and Lizzie are agreeing with me about something, anything!) I disagree with the idea that electoral campaigning should be dropped.

            The problem I see is that the Socialist Alliance is not a serious electoral project, and there is in fact no strategy on the radical Left about how a serious revolutionary or anti-capitalist electoral project could be constructed.

            I don’t see electoral projects as the kind of thing you only start thinking about once you reach some arbitrary critical mass or there is some arbitrary level of extra-parliamentary struggle going on. If there is any hope that they can be effective, the starting point has to be an actual critique of existing bourgeois politics (and its crisis), not just a dismissal of it as “the other”. That critique has to be carried out now, while revolutionaries are still small and marginal, or else we will stay small and marginal in political terms, even if we manage to gain “influence” in “the movements” or “the unions” or whatever.

          2. That may or may not be the case but surely this election shows exactly how difficult the terrain is. Here was a mood of thoroughgoing dissatisfaction with the political establishment and yet none of the ‘protest’ parties in any way veering to the left managed to capitalise on a sentiment that mostly benefited a buffoonish billionaire. Assange is an international figure and yet the Wikileaks party made also no impact at all. God, you might even have expected the Sex Party to do considerably better. If you are not perceived as in some way a viable force, I think even the dissatisfied voters bypass you.

          3. How to become a viable force requires taking bourgeois politics more seriously. It is the gaping hole in the radical Left’s approach.

            Not saying it’ll be easy, but comments above suggest people would rather not try, or it’s simply not on their radars.

          4. Hmm. Well, let me say that (perhaps unlike some other commentators here) I think that another Left tendency winning any serious vote in parliamentary elections would be phenomenal.
            But if you are going to be so polemically critical of current approaches, surely you need to acknowledge how often this has been tried, without very much success.
            Indeed, in some ways the recent election reminds us of that.
            You say the Socialist Alliance is not a ‘serious electoral project’. Ok, fair enough. But the other interesting example is that of the Socialist Party, which has been assiduously running in local elections for some time. They have a few council seats, which they have successfully recontested, and a serious presence in the local area. But whatever the long term prospects of this — and it does seem like a pretty serious approach — it doesn’t translate automatically into the federal arena. So what exactly would you do differently?
            I’ve been thinking about it a lot and it seems to me that, alongside the widespread hostility to conventional political structures, we’re also seeing a massive lack of confidence in people’s ability to change anything. That manifests itself in a search for saviours. Hence Palmer — in all the interviews with his supporters, what comes up again and again is that he’ll be able to sort things out cos he’s a wildly successful billionaire. Everything’s disastrous — but Palmer will fix it.
            In order to have that appeal, you need to wield some kind of authority. I reckon that explains why Palmer benefited from the disillusionment with Labor and other groups (especially those on the Left) didn’t.
            After all, when you think about successful Left outsider campaigns, they’ve generally been structured around an equally messianic figure, whether Galloway and Respect or Sheridan and the SSP or whatever.
            Of course, the invocation of those two names points to the structural difficulties in such approaches, in that the front men are usually innately unaccountable and generally go off the rails.
            That’s relevant to the question of the Greens, IMO. I totally agree with Tad’s argument about the Greens suffering via association with the Labor Party. You could see it on social media — the oscillation between attacking Gillard and defending her record. But surely another issue is an appreciation by Greens activists of the difference institutional authority gives the party, a sense that, perversely, they need senators and representatives in order to play the outsider role. Bob Brown heckling Bush in parliament is, in some respects, a defining image. On the one hand, it boosted the perception of him as qualitatively different from other politicians; on the other, he could only create that impression because, unlike other activists, he was allowed in the chamber.
            I guess what I’m saying is that it does seem a very difficult terrain to negotiate.

          5. Jeff – maybe I’ve been overly dismissive of what the SP are doing in Melbourne; I simply am not enough across what they do, precisely because of their constrained local situation.

            On the SEP, the less said the better.

            But my criticism of Socialist Alliance — who, incidentally, I voted [1] for on my below-the-line Senate vote — remains. Not because I think SA doesn’t take standing in elections seriously (it really does and I think it would be wrong to simply drop that project in reaction to poor votes), but because I don’t think that SA have a serious analysis of bourgeois politics. Yes, the comrades have an analysis, but it is the same kind of general and somewhat abstract analysis that we/I were guilty of in the ISO when I was a member.

            The result is that there is no systematic attempt to think through the contradictions of bourgeois politics, and therefore potential places the radical Left could intervene to build political influence and its own side. For SA the current period is not seen as one of deep political crisis, and people’s horizons are set relatively low as a result. The exercise is really one of “concrete propaganda”, not of political intervention.

            I recognise how bloody hard the project is in practice, and I don’t want to say that it’s a lack of hard work or commitment to electoral work that’s in evidence with the comrades of SA. The opposite.

            But I think the question needs to be posed the other way around: What are the consequences of the crisis of politics for the radical Left, including in terms of how it would seek to build its intervention into official politics?

            That’s a very concrete national question, one that cannot simply look at overseas examples and pick the one that seems the best fit or appeals to radicals the most. I hope Left Flank’s analyses of the Greens and the ALP help to contribute to that thinking through. We certainly don’t have an easy formula/solution to promote.

          6. I’m not convinced that socialists can make much of a breakthrough in the context of the Greens electoral successes in the last ten years. It may be that over time SAll slowly builds its support such that it might gain a breakthrough in an area like Brunswick, say, but in the last 20 years (and I’ve been involved in some of those election campaigns during that time) there’s no evidence of that. It’s clearly very, very hard. So – as their activists say – the success must be measured in other terms. Only they can say if they have grown, for example, or been able to build alliances with various communities, unions, places like asylum seeker centres, or indeed journals like Overland, and so on. I think, rather than Tad’s emphasis on a need to develop a political analysis, the challenge is to develop a political strategy capable of building such alliances and blocs. It’s not easy, but I think the left has a mixed record on such things – perhaps even stemming from their lack of ‘strategic and concrete analysis’, as Tad would have it. But it seems to me the analysis isn’t as much the issue as the practical strategy.

      2. According to this story in the SMH, Clive Palmer spent $12 million on his Party’s campaign.

        How much did Wikileaks or any of the left wing groups spend? Wikileaks for one, has been under a embargo enforced by the USG enforced through financial institutions. I doubt that any of the other left groups spent more than a few thousand on their campaigns.

    2. I reckon the thing about Bandt has more to do with two things. Firstly, as you can observe with things like the various networks around Trades Hall, Laborism is quantitatively less degenerated than in most other states, and Bandt has increasingly captured that millieu electorally. This gives the old Labor style ideas that Bandt projects to a stronger appeal, greater material weight. PNG gave him an easy foil to Bowtell. But I do think the killer edge was the way Bandt’s campaign owned the Liberal and Labor attacks, in the same way that Rudd briefly capitalised by owning the attacks from inside the established political elite while he was on the outer.

      1. I don’t think I agree with your point about labourism. Bandt captured the bulk of the ‘broad left’ and liberal left, including many current (or ex-) socialists, who live in inner city Melbourne. He was able to: 1) present himself as a left opponent of the ALP and Libs, as you noted; but also 2) run a campaign which captured the imagination of various communities in his area. I’m amazed by the number of people I know who campaigned for him. But none of them are from the background of labourism. The main ‘influence’ of labourism came from the union donations he received on the back of his industrial policy.

        1. I’m more with Marc here. Labourism as an institution doesn’t just mean the inner circles of the union bureaucracy and ALP machine. It means thousands of people on the Left who identify with that (now weakened, eroded) set of institutions as “their” institutions.

          Most of the feminist campaigning for Gillard was several steps removed from core Labourist institutions, for example, yet its ferocity rested on identification with the old Labor project as one for women’s rights. Of course the hollowing out of that project made the pro-Gillard feminism pretty hollow too.

          1. Hmmm. No, I don’t really agree. Especially not with the term ‘labourism’, which means more than just the people who used to vote or identify with the ALP. It means, precisely, those middle-level layers in the unions or ALP-linked NGOs, and so on: as Marc says, those networks around Trades Hall. I think the Bandt campaign relied much more on the diffuse liberalism of the social movements (who always a stronger relationship to the Greens) and ex-activists of various sorts. I think it’s misleading to call this somehow ‘labourism’.

          2. I’m going to press on this point. The question is not whether there were direct links in every instance between social movements and the core of Labourist institutions. The question is what material political relationships and institutions provided the structure through which the concerns of such social demands could be channelled and encapsulated. And there should be no question in our minds that the key place that those demands were channelled after the 1970s was the ALP. They were often loose associations but they could not have existed unless the unions-ALP nexus was real.

            The remarkable thing about the Greens — for all the vague social liberalism in the ideologies of those who make up the party — is how much they have depended on trying to recreate or be parasitic on the historical strength of Labourism as a material political entity. The fact that Adam has spent so much effort emulating old-style Labour campaigning should tell us something. To read the success of the Greens as somehow separate to this strikes me as odd (although I’m sure many Greens think they have done something amazingly “new” in building the party on the basis they have). This is not a criticism of what the Greens have done — it seems to me that they could only have grown to such influence if they so tightly related to the decay of Labourism.

  4. Lizzie, what the hell would you know? I wouldn’t be prognosticating anything based on an email from a candidate you can only have just read. Bowtell was a good candidate, and talk to voters who voted for her or not, and that’s a common enough assessment in the electorate.
    What killed the ALP in Melbourne was by my analysis the NTEU pro-Bandt campaign. Over 70% of households in Melbourne have a connection to Melbourne Uni or RMIT. At my booth there were hundreds of people all day long taking only the NTEU material. The swing back to Bandt was very late, but very significant and under those circumstances I think you can look to a single causative factor.
    I wouldn’t be drawing too many long-term conclusions based on the Melbourne result, beyond the single biggest thing Bandt has done to hurt the ALP is to hive off crucial relationships with the unions – ETU, NTEU and fireys in particular. (While the realistic upside for those unions remains abstract at best).

    1. The upside for the NTEU campaigning for the Greens is that they don’t reward the party, Labor, that has cut over $2 billion from the higher education budget.

  5. “crisis opened the potential for a political alternative to the Left of the ALP to emerge, an opportunity seized by the Greens”

    I didn’t see too many true left platforms campaigned on during the election, and I’d place the labor campaign right of centre right which made the greens some sort of centre right quasi neoliberal regime, as was labor

  6. It maybe doesn’t help the Greens that their most visible campaigning in the last few years has been on asylum seekers, which is obviously a great issue for mobilising the left, but doesn’t seem to shift many voters in the centre towards any party.

  7. Another nice piece, Dr T. Always a fan. You didn’t mention the Indi result, but it is another example of dissatisfaction with the majors. If this piece (link below) is to be believed, it is also a good indication of what a difference organisation makes. I wonder if that is the secret sauce, rather than perceived viability, as Jeff suggests? Or if the quality of their organisation provided the perception of viability?

    1. Thanks for the comment. I had meant to mention Indi but didn’t feel enough across it from over here in Greece. That article is fascinating, isn’t it?

      I think more than just organisation that article points to a strategic perspective, developed collectively, that’s central to such a project. The Australian radical Left has failed to articulate that kind of strategic perspective at the level of politics. Electoral interventions thus end up being (at best) an add-on to what is seen as the “real” task of building the extra-parliamentary struggle. This cedes the ground to the reformists from the start.

      It is telling that the key “regroupment” project on the far Left is being articulated on a hard “revolutionary unity” basis, whereas in my view the real test of the far Left’s ability to seriously influence politics will be in how it organises itself in the field of, er, politics.

  8. Well, you might think there’s a crisis that has to be solved, but that’s only really a crisis for disaffected ALP voters (or, even more implausibly, the advice coming from conservatives). Most Green voters I know don’t think there’s a crisis. They are just voting for a platform that seems to make sense to them. The fact that there may have been a few extra percentage points of votes coming from people making an anti-political stance in the last election doesn’t really matter to most. So I think a better analysis would start with a clearer articulation of why the Green base votes the way they do rather than what is happening with marginal voters. Most Greens see their political future through building a base in the longer term through environmentally-based policies (and not labour-based policies, though there is agreement on a shared source of explotation), rather than bettering the scorecard at the next election.

    A second factor is that Green parties are an international movement, albeit in various shades, and most Green voters are aware of and oriented toward global issues, and sometimes involved in international networks. (“Think global, act local” being one of the inaugurating slogans after all). So again, using the national political calculus as the main way of understanding the strategic situation or “crisis” also can’t get any traction on this.

    Everyone supporting the ALP or the Coalition or the climate sceptic nutters wants the Greens to “own up to their performance”. From a Green POV there is simply no upside to accepting the terms of this debate. “Oh, we really must move back to the mainstream…” “Oh, we really must make a critique of the Coalition that is acceptable to the rest of the Left.” Those simply won’t work for the party in its own terms, its only real future comes from holding a distance from the two-party system and continuing to work out, in its nascent, confused way, what it is about and who is prepared to join it.

    1. “Most Greens see their political future through building a base in the longer term through environmentally-based policies”

      That isn’t a recipe for building a base, it’s a recipe for shrinking a base. It isn’t environmental policies that get the Greens around 10% of the national vote. Their base is urban lefties who vote for them because their social and economic policies are to the left of the major parties. Apart from climate change, environmental issues aren’t a major concern for those people.

  9. At the booth where I handed out for the Greens, PUP did not have even How To Votes, let alone a person. And still they outpolled the Greens. Voters were obviously looking for someone other than the old parties – and I think they now include the Greens in that, to vote for.

  10. The Greens association with the ALP Government has probably not helped, but in Queensland there is clearly a tendency to seek out characters and not parties, Jo, Hansen, Katter and now Palmer. Ships that pass in the night, although it was long night with Jo, who still resonates with Queenslanders. I had one guy come up to me on Saturday and said he always voted for Jo. When I pointed out that he long-dead he look surprised and confused. Palmer fits into the Jo mould, but will probably self-destruct. I do not think we can generalise about the Greens poor showing without looking at the various local/regional situations, but to me we were unfairly associated with an “unstable” ALP government by the media, and must re-group to come again.

  11. Purely speculative, but interesting (to me at least) to consider the result a non-compulsory vote may have thrown up. That way, apathetic 18-24 year olds and those not bothering to participate in the political process are cast aside, and it would come down to the vote of those most committed to either keeping or getting what they consider the best party in (or keeping the worst party out). My crystal ball tells me the vote would be, to use the standard cliché, lineball, if not reversed, as the main parties would be playing to more politically engaged audiences, the sizes of which would come down to a range of nerves, political and moral, and not just the hip-pocket one. (Doubtless though, new forms of rorting would take root.) Just a thought – if not a just thought.

    1. “apathetic 18-24 year olds”
      .. oof. The people I know in this age bracket are anything but apathetic and most take their responsibilities as electors pretty seriously. If we restricted voting to those under thirty years of age, we would have a Labor/Greens coalition government and the LNP would be dead in the water.

      Anyway – not endorsing electoral democracy here, just want to spear a few unhelpful myths about ‘the yoofs’ that stop us from seeing where the real problems lie.

      The people who I saw on polling day clearly voting with their hip pocket in mind were the middle-aged, middle-class white guys in polo shirts holding LNP how-to-vote cards in the line for the polling booth. Maybe save a few kicks for them, idk.

      1. I respect that age group as well and was simply going along with the post: “It has been widely reported that something like a quarter of voters in the age group 18–24 were not enrolled to vote.”

  12. Just as a by-the-way, the other issue happening in Melbourne is building of the East/West link by the state government, which fit in with the ‘build the roads’ plank of the federal Liberals and is of course to receive funding from them. The Socialist Party is making a lot of the running on this campaign locally but Bandt has been also prominent at every public meeting over the last few weeks. Not sure that the former managed to translate this campaigning and their presence in Yarra council etc into a significant vote.

  13. How many Lib preferences did Bandt get in Melbourne? Given the Libs ran a virulent campaign on that, and presumably handed out in that seat too, that’s interesting. Across the rest of the country the reasons their vote dropped I’d say were: The lack of Bob Brown combined with Christine being susbstantive but lesser media performer, the association with labor dysfunction that was somewhat spectacular, the murdoch factor, maybe not huge but real, and less dollars. Some of that can’t be changed, but some can, and I think will prior to the next election. As for the further left, I think they need to find a useful niche…I don’t think electoral politics is it.

  14. I agree that neither of the two electorally registered socialist groups, Socialist Alliance or Socialist Equality Party, has a significant electoral presence. The Greens (despite the recent decline in vote) still dominate that space. In this election, Wikileaks Party and a number of other progressively labelled small parties (some of which were not progressive at all) also took a bit of the progressive vote that the Greens have been prying away mainly from the ALP. The process has to unfold with further with the Greens and I think there could be more twists and turns ahead with their vote. Assessments that the Green vote is in some permanent decline are presumptious. I think the Greens did pay some price in votes for both being associated as players of politics of the old kind, associated with the ALP crisis and (especially in the case of Tasmania) associated with a government responsible for some painful cuts to services.

    As to the value of Socialist Alliance keeping registration and running in elections, I can only say we do it because we think it helps us move forward in the difficult struggle for the socialist left to break out of its marginalisation in what is one of the world’s richest and most comfortable countries. Electoral work remains just a part of our broader political intervention but intersects, usefully we think, with other areas of work in movements and on the streets. The election of Socialist Alliance’s Sam Wainwright to Fremantle City Council and Sue Bolton to Moreland City Council presents us with anchance to try and use those positions to slowly extend political influence and to demonstrate that we are practitioners of a politics-of-a-new-kind. Well, “new” to current Australian electoral politics anyway. Our inspiration is old, our elected councillors seek to use their positions to build the movements and participatory democracy in the communities and generally to act as “tribunes of the people”. How well we manage to do that is up to others to judge. But we are giving it our best shot.

    In short, modest as our presence is electorally we are not giving up this spot. One the rest of the left, mostly we see two other errors: chronic electoral abstention (often hyped into a vulgar rrr-revolutionary fuck-the-system sloganeering) or adaption to the old-style electoral politics of the Greens or (these days less so) ALP.

    1. Hi Peter. Thanks for commenting.

      Please also see my reply to Jeff above, re: my appreciation (and vote) for SA.

      I’ll just underline what I think is the main problem I have with SA — a lack of attentiveness to the concrete political conjuncture and how that should inform what kind of intervention into politics that anti-capitalists should try to build.

      So it is a question of a different political perspective. I think that understanding and intervening in official politics is central to building a new type of political project. But I think the Australian Marxist Left has under-theorised politics, and so doesn’t actually concretely analyse politics as it really is.

      Left Flank is a small attempt to work on that rather large problem.

      1. I think there is a lot of work that Socialist Alliance has to do to get its interventions, electoral and non-electoral, more in tune with actual conditions. But I am not sure I agree with your under-theorising analysis. Maybe it is my strong anti-intellectual prejudice showing again but I think the far left is over-theorised, over-ideologised and needs pull its head out of its arse a bit more and go to the coal face of struggles. Less blah-blah and more engagement and trial and error. Less fancy talk and more bread and butter socialism and practical approaches to climate change.

        On a more practical level I think the bi-partisan lurch towards the right on asylum seekers (including the fig-leaf for racism that is the fake concern for refugees drowning at sea) would have made a dent in the Greens’ vote, which grew fast in the last few years but was far from consolidated and even less ideologically consistent.

        1. If there is an ‘overtheorisation’ – and I’m not sure I agree with you here Peter – surely it’s a result of the fact that there are questions that remain unanswered. The chief one: how does a socialist group make the leap from 300 people to the next level of a few thousand. You might answer that it’s a practical question and we need more of the same, but hasn’t that been the approach for twenty years, and doesn’t it result in: ‘we have to wait for the upsurge.’? Maybe that’s right, but the sudden rise in the Greens should give us pause for thought. I’m not sure we should ever be dismissive of attempts to seriously think about the Left’s position.

  15. Just some points of correction on Jeff Sparrow’s observations on the Socialist Party’s electoral efforts. They have one councillor, Steve Jolly, on one council Yarra. They briefly had another on this council resulting from a ‘count back’ when the Labor mayor entered state parliament, but lost this at the subsequent election. Jolly was originally elected in 2004 with an identical vote, 12%, to a Socialist Alliance candidate for nearby Moreland Council, who missed out. Jolly is a very effective campaigner and increased his vote in 2008 and 2012 (at that time an impressive 28%) and got a very respectable over 9% in the 2010 state election, but all other Socialist Party candidates have in my recollection got very modest votes. So the organisation, whose material appears to me very similar to Socialist Alliance’s, doesn’t necessarily appear to have any great genius for electoral work beyond the Jolly factor (granted developing effective and locally established leaders is important). In any case I’m sure they have some important experiences that could add to a more effective socialist project in Australia if they showed much interest in unity, which they currently don’t seem to.

  16. Another factor that I think needs to be factored in is the impact of the Greens defending the clean energy future package, aka ‘the carbon tax’.

    Let us for a moment put aside the issue of whether carbon trading is an effective way to tackle climate change,or whether taxing consumers rather than regulating emissions or having a carbon ‘mining tax’ on profits might be more effective.

    Lets assume for the sake of argument that the clean energy future package did represent some kind of small step forward.

    What was the Greens’ strategy to keep mobilising the climate movement after this small victory? One of the insidious aspects of ALP governments is the extent to which they demobilise the trade union movement. Rudd came to power off the back of the massive YRAW protests in 2006-07 however once the ALP were in it was ‘mission accomplished’.

    Had the ALP used its institutional capacity to keep the trade union movement mobilised post 2007, it may have actually had the social backing to implement the proposed 40% mining tax.

    Instead, the ALP tried to implement this reform in the absence of mobilised trade union and community action. The faceless men were quick to flee the fight that would be required to get the mining tax up and rolled Rudd.

    The other thing happening at the end of the Howard years though were the Walk Against Warming rallies and the rise of the grassroots climate movement. These were quite big protests! And they continued, albeit on a slightly smaller scale, during the 2007-2010 Rudd/ Gillard government.

    However come the clean energy future package, and the appeals / coercion of getup and the greens to ‘say yes’, a false dichotomy was created. Either you support climate action, in which case you support this scheme for 5% cuts by 2020 using a combination of a tax on consumption leading later to a subprime carbon ponzi scheme, or you are an Abbott denier fossil scumbag.

    Or, if you look at it another way, a false dichotomy was created between supporting a “small positive reform” versus being on Abbott and Bolts side.

    Either way – whether you see it as a ‘small positive reform’ or a flawed reform – what was the Greens strategy to keep their base mobilised?

    I for one saw a proliferation of “Carbon tax – our kids are worth it” placards showing up at climate and coal rallies. Thats a slightly differrent headline message to be taking into the movement than “climate emergency”. The former is a slogan that seeks to defend what could at best be described as a small reform. The latter points toward an urgent need for quite a deep going and radical reshaping of our energy systems, and by implication a radical reshaping of who makes decisions about what sort of energy, transport systems etc we are going to have. I.e. not the fossil fuel mafia / 1%.

    What I’m trying to tease out here is that big social movements like YRAW and the 2007-2010 ‘first wave’ of the Australian climate movement are the sort of thing that inoculate the broader population against Murdoch and co’s brainwashing. They point to an alternative vision of society and form an ideological forcefield pushing back against the neoliberal ideas of the right.

    Once those movements die down the brainwashing cancer sets in.

    I don’t claim to have all the answers but it strikes me that the Greens need to have some sort of clear strategy for keeping the climate movement mobilised even as small gains are made ( which is not to say that I see the clean energy future package as much of a gain, except perhaps for the establishment of ARENA).

    The climate movement in the streets, as my friend Paul stated, “breathes oxygen into the Greens”. It was pretty visible pre-2010 but has been fairly absent in the last three years…

  17. Those who mark down standing in elections should perhaps join the hustings some time for the sake of the interface that is on offer.

    It is not just about the number of votes garnered ( by socialists) on polling day.

    It is also worthwhile remembering that the Greens electoral status is a product of the mid 80’s break through — driven by the ‘No Dams’ campaign in Tasmania and the success of the Nuclear Disarmament Party channelling the disarmament and anti-uranium movements.

    It wasn’t just because they copyrighted a colour.Their genesis had contemporary political substance (aided by Hare-Clarke).

    Nonetheless, I think that for the time ahead socialist campaigns may make steady –albeit small– gains at the local government level in some centres. What that will mean more broadly I don’t know.

    But then:If we don’t try we won’t know….

    However it would be disingenuous to argue that what the ‘Left’ needs is a profiled Wikileaks Party style husting or an aggregation that only happens for the poll.

    The complication is that people ‘expect’ any viable political alternative to generate electoral traction under bourgeois state rules….as though that in itself was a certification of relevancy.

  18. Well, well, well … Now PUP’s in crisis too, with the one seat Palmer seemed likely to win, Fairfax, now in doubt, and even he is crying foul play and corruption by the AEC. Seems new school wealth, a seemingly authoritative business profile and the hint of media saviness is no match for old school, big end of town money and electoral gerrymandering. Surpise, surprise.

  19. Couple of points.

    Firstly, I’m not sure that Palmer’s vote was simply anti-political – there were three other factors in it:

    1 – an alliance with specific ethnic community leaders in specific electorates, who ran as candidates, and could mobilise a block of votes

    2 – a libertarian/growthist vote, especially in queensland. Not sure why you see Palmer’s policies as incoherent. They advance the idea of low tax and a return of cash to the system to fill a consumption gap, more openness to boat arrivals as part of a ‘big australia’ policy, and a whole lot of small things like school choice and autonomy. seems perfectly consistent to me, and part of his vote may be people who don’t like Abbott’s statism going there.

    3 – grabbing some of the votes that Katter had already hived off from the major parties. Though there’s big differences the Katter and Palmer parties share one thing – an argument that Queensland is being starved of growth by high taxes and charges, greentape, and carbon tax on-costs. Palmer spent millions on his message, Katter had zip. So people went with Palmer – mainly on the coast i suspect. He would have got a lot of votes in the tourism industry, many of them small business operators who feel the slight slowing of the Oz economy very keenly.

    4 – the Forde example is interesting, but it’s impossible to tell how much is a direct Greens-Palmer transfer, rather than the transfer Greens-Labor-LNP-Palmer (and also a Labor-Palmer) transfer.

    So asking why votes flowed to Palmer etc, rather than to other parties, including left ones, on protest/anti-political ones, seems misplaced, because the initial premise is wrong. PUP has a class base, and a section of his vote is a policy-conscious electorate.

    Secondly, regarding the Greens vote, it’s worth asking if this result and its distribution is actually a better fit with the Greens social base than the long period of high votes in Tasmania was. Presumably, hopefully, that will bounce back once the Greens are out of power, but that may take a long time. But the vote now reflects, pretty evenly, the distribution of the knowledge class.

    Thirdly, the Socialist Groups would do better electorally if they followed the example of US groups who formed the Working Families Party, and consciously made their language much simpler, less jargonistic and their first order policies more concrete. An umbrella group like that, with a minimal common programme, could score 2-3% of the vote and – under the current rules – leverage towards a Senate seat. Whether that is a good idea or not, or whether the point is to make a more explicit socialist message is another question. But if a Senate spot were the aim, that is how it could be approached.

  20. Just some facts on the Green vote in Melbourne’s inner north. The national Green vote fell, but the Green vote in Adam Bandt’s Melbourne electorate increased, as well as increasing in the two electorates to the north: Batman and Wills.

    For the last 3 years Bandt has effectively been in campaign mode attending events, resolving constituent enquiries, with a heavy Green volunteer presence. No-one believed he could win with the Liberals directing preferences to Labor. His campaign had a similar grassroots flavour to Cathy McGowan’s Voice for Indi campaign.

    At least 3 issues were important in his campaign: refugee rights, marriage equality, and east west link. On each of these issues Labor candidate Cath Bowtell also made the running, but had the noose of Labor policy in the first two areas working as a hindrance. Climate action and education funding were also important issues that resonated with voters, highlighted by the NTEU votesmart campaign which worked to the benefit of Bandt.

    The percentage of the vote for the Greens increased slightly more in Batman possibly due to the parachuting in of Labor Senator David Feeney to that seat. Voters prefer local candidates than to candidates foisted upon them. Labor primary percentage vote decreased with Feeney suffering a 9% primary swing. The Greens spent campaign money on billboards in Batman for extra advertising, but very little in Wills.

    In Wills Kelvin Thomson is a dedicated and astute political campaigner tending to the left on many policy issues withinn the Labor caucus. This tends to rob policy oxygen and standing from those further left. Still he suffered a 5% drop in primary vote down to 46%, the lowest it has been since first elected in 1996 defeating left labour independent Phil Cleary. The Greens marginally increased their percentage of the vote but failed to overtake the Liberals this time. The Liberals also suffered a slight drop in their percentage as compared to 2010.

    While there is a definite national swing away from the Greens, one should always be mindful of local issues and circumstances which demonstrate a counter current.

    Socialist Alliance ran in Wills but achieved only 1.26%, a disappointing total. They put in substantial effort in public forums, advertising in the local newspaper, and even matched the letterboxing of Labor and Liberal pamphlets in the northern suburbs (I failed to receive a Greens one). But connecting to people in suburbia is extremely difficult. The Greens also have this problem.

    1. In Wills the Greens actually lost a percentage point, in Batman they increased their vote by 2%. Socialist Alliance vote was low but we actually increased our vote by 0.5%. Socialists tend to get higher votes in state but definitely council elections. We were the only ones who put forward the question of public ownership, a key necessity for wealth redistribution and environmental sustainability. The Greens won’t go near this issue but it struck a chord with people and I am glad we ran. Some Green volunteers voted for us precisely because of our clear message on the economic front (nationalisation and public ownership) Our work in the federal election campaign has been useful in growing our profile in Wills ( Sue Bolton got elected on council last november). I call it ‘fertilising the soil’ :). And it was fun seeing Kelvin Thomson get red in the face and having to defend the ALP,not from the Greens but our message

    2. In Wills the Greens will probably just slightly overtake the Liberals (perhaps only by a few hundred votes) and mainly due to flow of donkey vote through from the Independent/Save the Planet’s Dean O’Callaghan. The Greens had a well-qualified and articulate candidate in Dr Tim Read and would have benefited in Wills from the spillover of a huge advertising blitz in neighboring Melbourne electorate (e.g. Flemington Road billboards) and clear message ‘Standing up for What Matters’ cf. Labors very silly ‘New Leadership’. Kelvin Thomson is well regarded locally but his primary vote dropped due to Labor being on the nose nationally (and disastrous campaign run by Rudd) and increase in popularist minor parties such as PUP and Sex Party. The two-party preferred vote for Labor in Wills is currently the strongest of any Labor seat, but might be slightly higher in Grayndler if Greens overtake Liberals in Wills once preferences are distributed. The Socialist Alliance is wasting its time in Wills but at least Margarita Windisch showed up to candidates debates, which is more than can be said for the Liberal Candidate.

  21. I think Guy it right on the Greens. With their support of Local Law 8 banning public drinking so many years ago, squarely aimed at the parkies, the Greens contributed to the dispersal of the parkies, the rapid and now total yuppification of Smith Street and up around Gertrude to Atherton Gardens. The Greens and of course the ALP helped contribute to a situation whereby the only poor people in the seat are in the commission housing. Of course there are plenty of reasons those in commission housing would be motivated to vote left of the ALP, but I do think much of the self-congratulation about the amazing vote in Melbourne blind to this reality. I think the vote is more a reflection of the success of the mini-intervention in Smith St, which drove out not just the parkies but the majority of the divey cafes and hang outs of Melbourne’s lumpenised. Smith St is now safe for those who mostly work in either the knowledge sector or welfare: those who love to help the parkies and the lumpenised but sure as fuck don’t want to live next door to them.

  22. The space taken up by the Greens and Labor is going nowhere, so where could any leftist breakthrough come from, as it won’t come from Social Alliance? Fremantle has mostly always been a safe Labo(u)r seat, built upon the more traditional dominant working class / trades hall / union understanding of labourism, and with its changing social demography, is now a marginal Labor seat. As elsewhere, the traditional working class base no longer exists (what constitutes a working class these days? does a working class even exist?), along with the Communist Party and other far left parties, whose positions have been subsumed somewhat by the Socialist groups. In the 2013 election any gains made on Labor by the LNP in 2010 were mostly cancelled out, the Greens took over a 6% swing against them, and the motley collection of other parties made slight gains. So the Greens were the big losers. It seemed to me of what I saw of them that both the Greens and Social Alliance put in single issue candidates, which worked against them. It’s hard to know what to appeal to in Fremantle these days, which has pockets of wealth, pockets of artisans, pockets of those on social welfare, and a big middle class constituency attuned mostly to money and greed, and it might make for a good absurdist drama, but it is absurd to associate that group with anything radical, in the hope that they might overthrow their own safely ensconced positions in favour of a step down the social ladder in support of a platform to the left of the Greens, or the Greens as they currently stand even. So, stasis and more stasis for the left.

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