The recent Victorian election has been seen as a historic breakthrough for the Greens in the Lower House, winning two seats. The Greens now hold Lower House seats in five out of nine jurisdictions and have held a Lower House seat in every jurisdiction bar the Northern Territory.
The upcoming New South Wales election will be another big test. Will they hold Balmain and win Newtown? It seems quite possible that they will continue to hold at least one Lower House seat and will increase their Upper House representation to six.
While unlikely that the Greens’ vote will come close to the Labor Party any time soon, Labor supporters must realise that they are not going away. Though their vote has not significantly increased since 2010, their vote is likely to stay around 10% and the concentration of their vote inner city areas has strengthened (on the back of heavily resourced campaigns). They also have not had the baggage associated with government at a state level in NSW or Victoria. In Victoria, any unpopular decisions by the new Labor Government may mean further seat losses at the next election.
The question is how to manage this divided centre-left bloc of voters. Labor and the Greens see one another as competitors, fighting over the same votes, particularly in the inner city. The nature of our electoral system combined with compulsory voting tends to mean that it is a zero sum game. However, not all Labor or Greens voters would prefer the other party. It is worth remembering that at least 10-15% of those who vote Green wouldn’t vote Labor which can be important in close contests (as shown in Prahran). In a sense though, they both need each other.
With Labor’s declining primary vote, they are increasingly reliant on preferences from parties like the Greens and the more outlandish ideas from the Greens also allow Labor to position itself as far more moderate and centrist. The Greens, on the other hand, rely on Labor being in Government to achieve reforms and to chip away at their vote to build their own.
Some suggest that they should work together more often as greens & social democrats do in Europe, however the experience has been that both Labor and the Greens take a hit when they are in coalition or have a formal agreement. Results in Tasmania, the ACT and the federal sphere all have shown this. Each sees more to gain electorally in going alone.
Overseas, social democrats have accommodated green parties. Both Sweden & France have red-green governments, as do many states in Germany. However in Australia, the Greens are treated more like the post-Communist parties than the green parties of Europe. For example, critics of the German Greens have described them as “neoliberals on bikes” and many segments of the radical Left perceive them to be a bunch of eco-capitalists. While there are radical left critics of the Greens, this critique is far less widespread. The lack of a “Left Party” with the Greens taking on that role of a Left oppositional party (especially in NSW) is a partial explanation.
A regular formal alliance of Labor and the Greens is unlikely in the short-term, unless necessary in parliament, but the two different experiences of Labor-Green Governments in Tasmania and the ACT illustrate the conditions needed for constructive co-operation. Shaun Crowe has highlighted that resource extraction and social issues as the two big divisions. The lack of industries such as mining and forestry as well as the socially progressive nature of Labor (across Left and Right) has meant that clashes between Labor and the Greens have been relatively minor in the ACT. It makes the ACT an exception rather than the rule.
The reality is that a competitive relationship is likely to continue, encouraged by our electoral system, with any co-operation at a parliamentary level on an issue by issue basis. While Labor should treat the Greens as an electoral competitor, it needs to rethink how it reacts to them. The antagonistic way that Labor treats the Greens won’t help Labor in the long-run. Attacks on the Greens as small l-liberals in disguise, NIMBYs or “watermelons” may dissuade a few voters from the Greens and make Labor supporters feel better but for many these critiques do not resonate and in the longer run will alienate many more. Victorian Labor MP Kelvin Thomson was right when he said:
…our attacks on to the Greens is short-sighted and counter-productive. It dismays our supporters and delights our opponents. It elevates the Greens to equal billing with us.
Rather than continue with its current strategy for dealing with the Greens, it might be good for Labor supporters to heed Thomson’s advice that:
…if we seriously, genuinely, want to…return to a time when we didn’t need to talk about the Greens at all, much less talk about them as an existential threat, then we have to be tough enough to wear a certain amount of childish name-calling from our political opponents, and humble enough to give the voters what they want.