A laboured alliance

The recent breakdown in the Labor-Greens relationship over the issues of voting reform and an alleged preference deal with the Liberal Party has highlighted the fact that it was electoral necessity, rather than ideology and values, which kept the two parties working together.

With a potential early, double-dissolution election just four months away, progressive voters might have expected to see more collaboration between the big centre-left parties in Australia, Labor and the Greens. After all it was only three years ago that both parties were in an effective coalition government together, working closely to implement carbon pricing and other reforms. Since the election of the Abbott government they worked together to defeat attacks on universal healthcare, social services and higher education.

But as an early election looms, the relationship has significantly deteriorated. The Labor Party accused the Greens of acting ‘like a cartel’ for their support of Senate voting reforms. Anthony Albanese declared the Greens had made a ‘cynical’ preference arrangement with the Liberals, while Labor Senator Sam Dastyari labelled the Greens a ‘cancer on progressive politics’. The union movement has also taken aim at the Greens, accusing the party of collaborating with the Liberal government to facilitate the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission, an anti-union inspectorate with extraordinary investigative powers.

There are a number of factors that explain the increasing hostility between the two parties, but one overarching issue is the lack of any serious attempt to establish some sort of longer-term alliance, or even short-term electoral détente, to help combat a relatively unified conservative opponent.

The issue of preferences is perhaps the most pressing in the lead-up to an election. The Greens and Labor both run candidates in all 150 House of Representatives seat. Unlike the LNP Coalition, there is no agreement to split certain seats between them to allow for better targeting of campaign sources. In fact, such an idea has never even seriously been considered by either Labor or the Greens.

In this context, the best thing each party can do is recommend that their voters preference the other party ahead of any Coalition candidate to maximise the chances of a progressive candidate being elected. This has historically been what has occurred. In recent elections, in the majority of seats and most crucially in marginal electorates, Labor and the Greens preferenced each other ahead of the Coalition.

But this time around it seems like this arrangement has broken down. Anthony Albanese declared last week that the Greens had done a deal with the Liberal Party that would see the former issue ‘open tickets’ (how-to-vote cards that make no distinction between the Labor and Coalition parties) across a swathe of Victorian marginal seats, in return for picking up Liberal preferences in winnable Greens seats in inner-city Melbourne and Sydney.

While senior Liberals have spent the past few days defending the idea of ‘loose arrangements’ with the Greens, the minor party has attempted to both deny a formal deal with the Liberals is in place, even as it simultaneously defends the idea of issuing open tickets in marginal seats, a retreat from usual practice in 2010 and 2013. Senior figures within the Greens are clearly concerned about the potential political ramifications of an arrangement that increases the chances of returning a Coalition government.

The available evidence suggests that there is probably some sort of arrangement being considered by both parties. It’s hard to see why they would otherwise risk so much capital by defending hypothetical arrangements that were never going to occur. It would be simple for the Greens to declare that they were placing the Liberals last on all how-to-vote cards around the country. Instead they are investing their time laying the groundwork for a strategy of issuing open tickets, arguing misleadingly that this has ‘always been the case’.

So how did we go from a Greens-Labor minority government in 2013 to a paradigm-shifting potential Green-Liberal deal in the lead-up to the 2016 election? The answer is technical, and again underscores the main issue being the lack of any attempt at developing a stronger political relationship between Labor and the Greens.

The Greens close preference relationship with Labor at recent elections was largely borne out of necessity and self-interest from both parties, rather than ideological coherence. The current Senate voting system encouraged the Greens and Labor to enter into tight preference swaps to maximise each other’s chances in the upper and lower houses. With a reform of the system about to be implemented, the Greens become less reliant on Labor’s Senate preferences, leaving them free to enter into arrangements with the Coalition.

If the Greens ultimately decide to enter a ‘loose arrangement’ with the Liberal Party for this election, it will represent the primacy of a technocratic approach to politics rather than one predicated on a broader ideological philosophy. The desire to win seats like Grayndler, Sydney and Batman in the short term will have trumped the desire to build and project a left narrative against the Coalition. If the government is re-elected, in part due to winning marginal seats where the Greens refused to recommend preferences to Labor, the Greens will be accused of handing Malcolm Turnbull the keys to the kingdom. It’s a risky proposition for a party that has built its core constituency by eating into Labor’s left flank.

While Labor is no doubt concerned about the implications of any preference deal, it has other reasons for ramping up its attack on the Greens. Current polling shows that since the last election the Coalition vote is down by about 2.5 per cent, but in net terms almost all of this has been picked up by the Greens, not the Labor Party. Labor is desperate to boost its primary vote in the lead up to the election, in part to defend itself from Greens challengers in the inner-city, and has decided that one strategy of doing that is to peel some of its voters back from the Greens. This is the calculus that has led to ferocious attacks on the Greens for supporting Senate reform and the construction of a narrative that the Greens are on a right-wing trajectory under Richard Di Natale.

Both progressive parties are currently embarked on a path that sees more of their energy and resources being directed at each other than at the Turnbull Coalition government. The changes to Senate voting laws, and the shift in tact from the Greens as a result demonstrates that previous alliances between both parties were a result of base political necessity rather than ideological collusion.

The only winner in a brutal fight between Labor and the Greens, immediately prior to an election, is the Coalition. There clearly isn’t the appetite within those parties to have a serious debate about how to work cooperatively over the long term, alongside other progressive organisations such as unions, to articulate and implement a clear left agenda. Perhaps its time progressive voters demanded it, in the interests of creating a fairer Australia.

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Osman Faruqi

Osman Faruqi is a Sydney writer and broadcaster.

More by Osman Faruqi ›

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  1. I would argue that factor behind the sectarianism on the progressive side of politics is that many activists involved (particularly those outside the union movement) don’t have good personal relationships with anyone in the other party.

    That helps to cement a highly partisan mentality because you never have to work with others who you share aims with but disagree with. The only experience is conflict with one another and running against each other.

  2. Just how progressive are the two parties discussed here – more particularly, the ALP? What is a progressive voter – who do I vote for to become progressive?

  3. The whole idea of an alliance is predicated on the notion that there is a lot of common ground when, in fact, there is precious little. Workers’ rights is about the only major issue the two parties really agree on, and even here there are significant differences.

    On top of this, there is simply no will in Labor for an alliance. They believe that they are the only progressive party in the country and that the Greens are non-serious pretenders (either loony left protesters or ‘tree tories’, depending on the party wing). They also believe, right or wrong, that forming a government with the help of the Greens undermined their own legitimacy as a party.

    The two parties should certainly not be attacking each other more than the Libs just before an election, but any kind of formal alliance is doomed and probably not likely to be all that helpful in any case.

  4. If only it was possible for the left of the Greens and the left of the ALP/unions to split and form a new genuinely social democratic party. Neither is going achieve its aims tied to their respective right wing factions.

  5. There are some interesting points here about whether interactions between Labor & Greens to date have been driven more by electoral imperatives or philosophical similarities (at least when compared to the Libs). I’ll leave comment on that for another time and will address some of the statements made about preferences.

    I don’t enough about what the Greens have done in other states in recent times, but I am absolutely certain that it has usual practice to have open tickets in some marginal seats in recent times – including at least one marginal seat (possibly more, memory isn’t precise enough on that). The reason for that has not been about any preference agreements with other parties, but rather due to the relevant branches have a strong philosohpical preference for not favouring either party and not being seen to tell the voter how they should vote.

    One of the reasons why the Greens leadership can’t categorically rule out any how to vote cards showing open tickets is because those decisions haven’t all been made yet & the decisions are sometimes made at local level. And as I stated, it has happened before, for reasons that had nothing to do with any alleged deals with the Libs, so it would unwise to guarantee – at least at this stage – that it won’t happen again this time somewhere in the country.

    For state elections in Qld (which are optional preferential), decisions on how to vote card numbering (or lack of numbers) have been driven more by the members/branches warmness (or lack thereof) towards Labor at the time (which potentially risks making Labor’s current over-the-top tirades against the Greens something of an own goal).

    Speaking of which, preference decisions by the Qld Greens are strongly guided by a ballot of all members indicating what they wish to see on how to votes. It perhaps won’t be helpful for Labor that that ballot was being voted on by Qld Greens members over the last two weeks when Labor abuse of the Greens was at its peak. The result of that will not be driven even a tiny bit by any potential deal with the Libs.

    As for the Libs, until the last election they always put Labor last on their how to votes. They have plenty of good reasons to revert to doing that this time around without the Greens needing to do anything else. Of course they also have some different but valid reasons to be the Greens last again this time.

    We’ll see what happens there, but it will be a while yet before the Libs decide on that. What the Greens might do with their how to votes is unlikely to have any more than a marginal impact on what that decision ends up being.

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