Features Australia

Preferencing the Greens

What ‘seemed like a good idea at the time’ has a chance of seriously backfiring

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

14 May 2016

9:00 AM

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Now preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor across the latte belt and in tree-change territory at the July 2 poll might be one of the most risky election gambles the Coalition could take.

‘Think of it as a Corbynisation strategy,’ one senior Liberal said, chuckling at his wit. ‘It will push them so far left it will make them unelectable.’ But that was back in December, when the Labor primary vote was stuck on the same woeful 33 per cent primary it received at the 2013 election for two Newspolls in a row.

Now with the parties neck and neck and open talk of a hung parliament the tactic risks pushing the entire battleground Australian politics is fought over permanently to the left.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Moves to give Labor rank and file members greater power are pushing the party inexorably to the left. Their choice for leader was Anthony Albanese. It was only the weighting given to the votes of the federal parliamentary party that secured the position for Bill Shorten.

The leftward move was on full display at the national conference last July, when delegates voted to abolish a conscience vote on same sex marriage and Shorten was booed in his opening speech when he defended turning back asylum seeker boats.

At the same time the Greens are continuing to gain votes in what was once solid blue-collar territory, increasingly gentrified and electorally volatile with every wave of social change from the birth of student share house terraces in the sixties to the arrival of hipsters on their retro bicycles in this decade.

Indeed, the Greens are even threatening more recent ALP gains; steadily increasing their vote in old Nationals seats that have fallen into Labor hands in the past two decades in places such as the hippie havens of northern New South Wales.

After taking Melbourne (with Liberal help) in 2010, the Greens are now breathing down the back of Labor’s neck in more than half a dozen seats; Batman and Wills in Melbourne’s inner north, Gellibrand in the inner west and the inner bayside seat of Melbourne Ports and in New South Wales in the electorate of Sydney, the inner-western seat of Grayndler and hard up against the Queensland border in Richmond.

With the exception of Richmond – the hereditary home of the Anthony family of Country Party and Nationals fame – all these seats figure large in Labor lore. They have not just been held by former leaders and party titans. They include its birthplace, the Unity Hall Hotel in Balmain. They take in the industrial areas of the old ports and central city fringes where so many pioneers of the union movement in Australia first organised, where they founded their trades halls and where their stalwart successors lived and worked for decades.

While the Liberals are in many ways just a means to power, Labor is a cause. It is an emotional party. Its members know its history and honour their forebears. And this is where the Liberals saw their opportunity.

Many Labor members and supporters still live in these electorates but they are members of the new class David Kemp described in his classic seventies studies of electoral behaviour as ‘the knowledge elite’. They are tertiary educated professionals, work in academia, the media, the arts, the creative or caring professions or hold secure well-paid positions in the public sector.

Former Labor senator John Black has described them as ‘the Don’s Party group’ – and they are barely distinguishable from the Greens. Their concerns are far removed from the day-to-day cares of battler Labor voters in the suburbs, on the city fringes and in the regions. Yet they still parade as not just the heart, but the conscience of the party – and as they have both power and influence their voices are loudly heard, amplified by the members of their ranks who work for the Fairfax media and the ABC and regard their views as simple mainstream thought.

The Liberal preference plan was simple. Put the Greens ahead of Labor in the ALP’s spiritual heartland and watch the war unfold on the left – and reap the benefits across the middle ground, in the marginals. It might have been worth a shot as recently as the start of February when the Coalition had a 12 point primary vote lead on Labor in Newspoll, 46 to 34 per cent.

Now it would be just foolhardy. It would not only risk ending the careers of figures from the pragmatic Left of Labor – Albanese in Grayndler – and put pillars of the Right such as David Feeney in Batman and Michael Danby in Melbourne Ports in jeopardy. It would risk the creation of a hard left block in the House of Representatives, ready to join with populist soft left independents such as Cathy McGowan and, perhaps, Tony Windsor to put Labor into power – at a price.

‘I think we can enter into an arrangement with the Labor party to support them in government,’ Richard Di Natale said in an interview last October to mark six months as Greens leader. ‘You offer confidence and ask for key policy outcomes and you do that election by election,’ he continued.

But there was more. ‘We should be open to cabinet posts,’ Di Natale added. ‘I would relish the opportunity to be a health minister in a future government… why couldn’t we see Larissa Waters as an environment minister in a future government?’

Preferencing the Greens risks a radical remaking of Australian politics, a lurch to the left that would see the traditional values of Labor moderates ditched as old and fusty.

The argument that it might boost preference flows to the Coalition is a furphy. Study after study has shown Greens supporters are among the least likely to follow how to vote cards.

The tactic would simply invite retaliation in the Liberal electorates with an above average Greens vote; Kooyong and Higgins in Victoria, Brisbane, Curtin in the West, North Sydney and Wentworth in NSW and Mayo in South Australia – creating a problem that could compound at polls to come.

Christian Kerr is a former adviser to two Howard cabinet ministers and a Liberal state premier

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