Features Australia

Return of the Three Elevens

The rise of the Greens threatens to take federal politics back to the turn of the century. The last century.

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

30 May 2015

9:00 AM

Stuck in the unforgiving traffic congestion of Melbourne’s inner north, near where the tunnel which would have fixed it should be, I was confronted by a startling sight. Directly in front of me, also enjoying the slow poke along Punt Road was a driver in a shiny new Audi sporting a ‘Vote 1 – Greens’ sticker.

As someone who lived for many years in Erskineville and Newtown, I was used to seeing these stickers and placards adorn run-down share-houses as well as the rusty, smoke-belching combi vans of Sydney’s Greens heartland. Ditto for Fitzroy and North Carlton when I returned south.

While conservative commentators have agonised for years about the protest-drunk radicalism of ‘Watermelon’ Greens (‘passionate’ environmentalists without, unreformed socialist revolutionaries within), it’s actually the Good Life Greens who are laying the foundation for that Party to emerge as a mainstream force in Australian politics. By combining both the vain moral posturing of the self-sufficient Tom Good with the aspirational lifestyle of his neighbours Margot and Jerry from the late ‘70s British sitcom, they are most likely to usher in a period of instability and realignment similar to the ‘three elevens’ period following Federation, 1901 – 1909.

Alfred Deakin characterised his first term as Prime Minister (1903 – 04) as being similar to ‘three elevens trying to play in the same cricket match.’ While there were two broad strands of political thought represented in these early parliaments, liberalism and socialism, the liberal camp was split into two parties – the socially progressive but economically illiberal Protectionists led by Deakin, and the laissez-faire Free Traders of George Reid. In the 1903 parliament, these parties had 24 and 26 seats respectively, while the Labour Party (it would change its name to ‘Labor’ in 1912) was the socialist standard bearer with 22 seats.

Sharing common interests in industrial protection, the Protectionists governed with Labour support for most of this early period. This Protectionist and Labour alliance was primarily responsible for securing the political settlement that shaped Australia until the 1960s – centralised wage fixing, tariffs, state paternalism, continued imperial links, and the White Australia policy.

The Protectionists hoped to shore up their unsteady political standing and curtail Labour’s rise by wedging the latter into the junior role against the Free Traders. Labour led by Andrew Fisher instead cleverly supported the alliance while undermining it, presenting its successes as evidence of ‘the tail wagging the dog,’ leading to his Party’s increasing popularity. Alarmed Protectionists sought rapprochement with the Free Traders and the ‘fusion’ of the parties saw the formation of the first broad-based Liberal Party in 1909, bringing the ‘three elevens’ period to a close, and giving us the two-party system we have today.

Those arguing that it would be impossible for ‘three elevens’ to again fight over who should be out in the middle assume that the Greens will draw votes only from Labor, splitting that Party’s vote in a similar manner that the DLP did in the 1950s. This ignores the genealogy of Greens supporters and that Party’s rapidly-improving election results.

The IPA’s Richard Allsop has observed that the Greens are a ‘profoundly middle class party,’ who were ‘a more comfortable fit for a disillusioned Deakinite Liberal than Labor can be.’ This is due to the Good Life Greens being drawn from the burgeoning class of business and public service bureaucrats, academics and artists that emerged from Menzies’ university system, as well as the arts bureaucracies championed by his successors.

Ironically, Menzies himself understood that the benefits this group enjoys were largely obtained by taxing the ‘Forgotten People,’ the middle class small business people, farmers and wage earners he championed.

The recent election successes of the Greens clearly indicate that the ‘three elevens’ could happen all over again. Despite their share of the federal vote shrinking from the highs of 11.76 per cent in 2010 to 8.65 per cent three years later, Greens preferences helped deliver Labor forty-eight of its seats in the federal parliament, far more than the paltry seven which Labor won in its own right. And the Greens’ electoral prospects have only improved since. In the 2014 re-run of the WA Senate election, they gained 15.60 per cent of the vote, up from 9.49 per cent only seven months earlier.

In the 2014 Victorian State Election, they picked up two seats, Melbourne and Prahran. The former, covering the inner city and University was no surprise. In the latter, however, they have crept into the Liberals’ eastern suburbs heartland. Prahran is overlaid federally by the safe seat of Higgins, which has been represented by two Prime Ministers – Harold Holt and John Gorton, as well as our most celebrated Treasurer, Peter Costello.

At the 2015 NSW State Election, the Greens finished in the top two in eleven seats, up from eight in 2011 and four in 2007. Of these eleven seats, they won three. Of the remaining eight, only one is held by Labor. Another is held by the Nationals and six by the Liberals, including the Premier’s seat of Manly.These recent successes have given the Greens momentum, helping attract ambitious up-and-coming MPs like Adam Bandt and Scott Ludlam, who would not have been out of place in Labor two decades ago. And in their new federal leader Richard Di Natale they have a latter day Tom Good – a former doctor who lives the ‘good life’ on a farm, making his own wines and olive oils when he isn’t too busy confirming the Greens as ‘the natural home of progressive, mainstream voters’ instead of Labor.

While the Liberals risk losing the Turnbull-Fraser voters (the ‘Mal-contents’) to the Greens, the big loser of any period of instability and realignment is likely to be Labor. Out of power, out of ideas, and dependent on Greens preferences, their biggest assets are access to union financial support and the goodwill of the media, which is rapidly being eroded by the Greens.

Given its role in exploiting and killing-off the Protectionists, maybe Labor should have kept in mind that we should all ‘do unto others …’

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