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.)
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