Where to after the Northcote by-election

The Greens’ victory in Saturday’s Northcote by-election in Melbourne is likely to send shockwaves throughout inner city Labor in Victoria. While some did not expect it after polling showed Labor winning, robopolling has previously failed to accurately predict other contests involving Greens, most notably during the 2015 NSW state election.

Despite a good candidate and substantial resources, Labor lost the seat in a double digit swing. The contest in South Brisbane this Saturday is likely to have some bearing on the discussion as to whether it is just a Melbourne specific phenomenon but either way it seems Victorian Labor may be headed towards a minority government.

Many are yet to fully process the implications of the result but it is likely to shape debate about Labor and the Greens for the next twelve months. There needs to be some deep and reflective thinking by both Victorian Labor and the Greens. Neither are prepared for a minority government situation and their relationship seems poisonous from afar. Majority governments reduced to a minority are almost never re-elected and it has the potential to be worse than the Tasmanian experience.

The danger is the Coalition may get more seats than Labor and neither Labor nor the Greens may be able to work out their differences. If there is a minority Victorian Coalition government after 2018, its path to majority will be by pointing to chaos and instability with Labor and the Greens as the alternative. Another scenario is a loose arrangement between Labor and the Greens where the Greens make a big fuss to differentiate, creating a division and chaos narrative for 2022, leading to a majority Coalition win. Either situation would be bad for progressive politics in Victoria.

The spectre of a minority government will also put a brake on the Andrews Government’s style of wearing its progressive agenda on its sleeve and curtail its ambition on a range of issues. Already the media is being briefed about abandoning the inner city for outer suburbia and the regions with a ‘bread and butter’ agenda, shaped by a view that Greens voters are not a detached part of Labor’s existing base but rather wealthy professionals with more in common demographically with Liberal voters.

The reality is both parties need to figure out how to relate to each other in a manner that does not feed a Coalition narrative of chaos and instability or else the Coalition may slip ahead and win. Both parties also must learn the lesson of the past decade of federal politics, that is the Coalition needs to be comprehensively beaten twice or they will not drop the agenda pushed by the hard right. Whether they will is yet to be seen.

What would a successful Australian left-populism look like?

I have previously written how I think the desire of some in the Australian Labor Party for an Australian Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn is likely to unlikely occur within the current institutional set-up. That desire for an Australian equivalent is not limited to Labor members though.

There are some on the Left outside the major parties who think they could be the beneficiaries of this current populist mood. For example, Senator Lee Rhiannon has been arguing that the Greens should tap into this populist moment by becoming more radical and anti-establishment.

Personally I don’t think the Greens can pull off a populist reinvention, left-populism will only come through a new political vehicle. The Greens aren’t seen as anti-establishment by those disillusioned with democracy and generally disinterested in politics as usual. They aren’t seen as representatives of the people or of the working class. They are more a vehicle of civic responsibility, the exact opposite of radical left-populism.

Furthermore, the belief that the Greens can change some policies to reinvent itself ignores that successful populist vehicles are very much centred around charismatic individuals who people believe are genuine outsiders. I don’t think many would see any elected Greens MP in that way. I would also add that much of the jargon and many of the actions (of not just those in the Greens but also the broader Left) are not what people do, use or talk about, it has no real mass populist appeal.

So what would a successful new left-populist vehicle look like and what would their platform be? I have a few thoughts.

Firstly, it requires some charismatic leaders who people believe are genuine insurgents (even if they are flawed). Successful populist parties are a personification of the leader. The leader would be dominant but the party would need to be seen as very democratic. Primaries would seem to be the obvious method of doing it, riding on the coattails of the leader.

For a platform, I wouldn’t talk about socialism or capitalism or left or right or the political centre. It is irrelevant jargon to most people. If it was me, I would talk about the need to break-up the cartels that control our country and how you don’t really have a voice. Everyone knows what you mean. In most major industries, you can count the main providers on your fingers. Virgin or Qantas, Woolworths or Coles, the big four banks. The rhetoric would be “the cartels have rigged the system and it’s time to give power back to the people.”

Policies could be using the state to take on the cartels that screw over Australia such as by setting up a people’s bank to challenge the big four and building a high speed train line to give people a choice when travelling.

A left-populist would go after people and corporations who avoid tax very hard. The line would be that tax avoidance is theft because every dollar in tax they don’t pay means one less dollar for pensions, one less dollar for Medicare, one less dollar for kid’s education, one less dollar for disability services. Subsidies and tax breaks for corporations that avoid taxes would be cut and CEOs would be jailed for defrauding the public and avoiding tax.

The anti-system stance would emphasise how the classes that control Australia all went to the same universities and they have a different life, detached from everyday people, and they have all know each other for years. If something is wrong for the connected, they can pay people off with favours. Them and “the cartel” need to be cleared out by banning lobbyists, requiring MPs to be accountable for every public dollar they spend, slashing public funding for political parties and restricting political expenditure.

The framing narrative would be Australia can be better than what we have now. It was once a place where you could get a good job, a house with a block of land, you could relax on weekends. It was possible once to have a good life and we can make it that way again but “the cartels” and self-interested political class are stopping it. We need to do the right thing by other Australians because we haven’t been, those in charge have just been doing what is convenient for them.*

That vision would be tied in to rebuilding Australia because those in charge have given up on parts of the country. Rather than focusing on a post-work agenda, there would be a job guarantee so whoever wants to be employed will be and contributing to the community.

The structure, platform and narrative I outlined have their problems but broadly I think it would be necessary for a left-populist party to be successful enough in Australia to get parliamentary representation. Kickstarting it is another question though. The environment currently is conducive to anti-establishment politics but there is no spark (as yet) to set it off and then someone who take advantage of the momentum. It would require some kind of movement to really get off the ground and we have not seen anything like that as yet.

* (This framing narrative is problematic because of the oppression and dispossession of Indigenous Australians but a variant of it is needed).

UPDATE: Reinforcing my point that the Greens are not seen as the vehicle for left-populism, Essential polling shows Greens voters are even less likely than Labor supporters to believe the system needs fundamental change. 

Labor and the Greens

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.

The contagious effect of directly electing the party leader

Earlier today, the ABC reported that the Tasmanian Greens are considering a series of reforms to democratise their party.

The Tasmanian Greens are notorious as the least democratic branch of the Greens. With no rank-and-file input into preselections, the Tasmanian Greens make the Labor Party look like a vibrant participatory democracy. This is in contrast to almost every other Greens branch where One Member One Vote rank-and-file preselections are the norm.

Amongst the reforms is a proposal for party members to directly elect the leader and have the ability to remove them. While no detail has been provided about the proposed model, the fact that they are proposing this change is important.

In their 2012 book, Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders, William Cross and Andre Blais point out that almost all the established parties that have democratised leadership selection after a disappointing electoral result, something the Tasmanian Greens have just experienced, and that there is a contagion effect “inducing parties to converge in the way they select their leader.”

At the time, Cross and Blais concluded there was no clear indication of a contagion effect in Australia and New Zealand while they identified one in Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom. Australia was cited as an example of the contagion effect in reverse with many politicians interviewed citing the example of the Australian Democrats as a reason why direct election would not be adopted.

This however seems to be changing. New Zealand Labour adopted direct elections last year while federally and all states (bar Victoria and South Australia to date) have adopted the direct election of the Parliamentary Labor Party leader.

The coming debate within the Tasmanian Greens about the direct election of leader suggests there is a contagion effect at play in Australia. The success of Labor’s direct election after a disappointing election result has meant that the idea of direct elections is being seriously considered across party lines.

If the Tasmanian Greens do adopt direct election of the leader, it is likely that other state branches will follow. It may also only be a matter of time before the Coalition joins in and directly elects their leader but it will all depend on electoral results and grassroots pressure.

UPDATE 15/9/14: I have been informed that other than federally, in Tasmania and in Victoria, there is no formal leader. It may be that direct elections are intertwined with the creation of a formal leader role in other states.

A lack of trust is the greatest barrier to Left unity

Despite harbouring some doubts, I spent last weekend at the National Left Renewal Conference, organised by the SEARCH Foundation.

The stated aim of the conference was to build greater unity amongst the broader Left and there were participants were from a broad range of groups including left-wing unions, parts of the environmental movement, the Labor Left, the Greens as well as some far left groups.

While there were some good sessions (hearing from Kosta Isychos of SYRIZA was a highlight) something bugged me throughout the Conference. No one actually addressed the biggest obstacle to any Left unity: a lack of trust.

During the final plenary, many speakers spoke about how “the Left” could agree on a programme and that we needed to create framework to unify the Left against Abbott and the Coalition. The proposal of a network to help create an alliance to co-ordinate the Left was raised. Personally I am sceptical that a network will emerge, let alone co-ordination, without addressing this fundamental issue of trust.

Trust is the starting point for unity. If you do not trust someone, it is hard to work with them, even if you agree on many things. Without trust, the Left cannot be united and there was no evidence of any trust during the Conference. There were digs at the Greens, an inference that it would be great if the ALP collapsed like PASOK, shopping lists about how terrible Labor is and how they were barely any difference from the Liberals. My impression was that many participants seemed more interested in talking at each other than having any honest and uncomfortable conversations.

A major cause of the lack of trust between Left groups is electoral. Doug Cameron pointed out the difficulties in creating unity when growth either comes at the expense of Labor or the Greens. It is a zero sum game that fuels a lot of the tensions. Anything less than greater proportional representation is unlikely to change this situation. However, even where proportional representation does exist, such as in local councils, it is no guarantee that the antagonism will disappear.

Trust does not happen overnight and will not happen in six months. There are, however, some hopeful signs for the longer term, most notably co-operation between Labor Left, Greens and broader Left activists on campuses. It is those kinds of working relationships that will be the basis of any future Left unity, not some framework that an outside organisation tries to establish.

I haven’t yet concluded whether the Conference was a wasted opportunity or at least the beginning of a conversation that many need to have about pluralism on the Left. I guess only time will tell.