Risky Business – War on the Greens Will Hurt Labor

Moves by leading figures in the ALP to ‘declare war’ on the Australian Greens appear to be part of a strategy of political product differentiation that risks further undermining the former’s electoral appeal.

In recent days Labor politicians have derided the Greens as “extreme” and “immature” and some in the ALP have even advocated directing preferences to the Coalition and Family First ahead of the minor party at the next federal election.

This seems to be based on the belief that by attacking the Greens Labor can return some of its disillusioned base to the fold. While Labor’s Left faction may argue this represents an opportunity to break the minor party’s hold over left-wing politics in Australia, the political antidote they propose is in effect a shift to the right in the form of a Labor/Liberal pact to ‘lock-out’ the Greens.

Ultimately this strategy fails to recognise one of the key factors contributing to the haemorrhaging of Labor’s primary vote; that is the long term policy convergence of the Labor and Liberal parties. This process began during the Hawke and Keating years as Labor embraced the economic rationalist agenda traditionally associated with the conservative side of politics. Over the last 3 decades this has precipitated a slow but steady leakage to minor parties to the left of the spectrum, including the Nuclear Disarmament Party, the Australian Democrats and now, the Australian Greens.

While traditionally this only threatened Labor in the Senate (as preferences from progressive minor parties usually flowed back to the ALP in the House of Representatives) the Greens have succeeded in escalating this threat to the Lower House with the election of Adam Bandt. The 2010 election saw support for Labor fall to historic lows and the Greens were the main beneficiaries, winning a swing of more than 4 per cent (versus just 1% to the Abbott Coalition).

In this context, moving closer to the conservative side of politics and attacking the new home of so many former Labor voters is not the way to arrest Labor’s electoral decline (as the Prime Minister discovered last year when her admonishment of the Greens and by extension, Green voters, provided no poll bounce for her party). Rather this latest salvo has the potential to further support the Greens’ claim that Labor is bereft of principles and reinforce the broader frame that the Gillard Government will do whatever it takes for its own political gain. It may thus vindicate the assessment of many traditional Labor voters that their party has lost its way. Voters could be forgiven for concluding that a party that needs to define itself by reference to what it is not is in the grip of a profound identity crisis indeed.

This aggressive new strategy is not, of course, without risk to the Greens. Any decision to starve the minor party of preferences could prove instrumental in a number of senate contests however this would ultimately aid the Coalition, rather than the ALP. There is also the potential for minor parties to the right of the spectrum (Family First and Bob Katter’s Australia Party) to gain a foothold in the Senate – courtesy of Labor preferences. Such an outcome would surely not serve the interests of Labor in Opposition. Conversely, should Labor confound the opinion polls and prevail at the 2013 election, it risks saddling itself with a hostile Senate where the Coalition and micro-conservative parties could play a significant role.

Further, it should be noted that the Greens are no strangers to coordinated-assaults from the major parties. After all, the party suffered a setback in Tasmania in 1998 when the ALP and the Liberals conspired to reduce the number of seats in the parliament and thus the quota required for election in an attempt to knock-out the Greens. While this proved a barrier to Green candidates in the short-term, changing the goal-posts failed to extinguish the party. Ultimately the move galvanised members and supporters and the 2010 state election saw a surge in support for the Greens as they secured more than 20 per cent of the primary vote.

Labor may wish the Greens weren’t around. But in trying to tear down the minor party it risks cutting off its nose to spite its face.

This piece was first published on On Line Opinion on the 16th July 2012. 
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