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Those in glass houses: The Greens’ difficult path to majority

Those in glass houses: The Greens’ difficult path to majority

Friday 15 July, 2016
We saw minor parties and independents place higher than ever before…but where do kinda-almost-but-not-quite-third-party, The Greens, stand, as the noise of 2016’s federal election finally quietens?
The story starts here...

The election that may never end is finally over. Malcolm Turnbull has, in a very loose use of the term, claimed victory, whilst Bill Shorten is celebrating just how close he got against the odds. We’ve seen the master plan to clean out the Senate and replace it with one that was more co-operative spectacularly backfire, leaving us wondering whether a single piece of legislation will actually pass through the upper house. We saw the rise of the minor party with Nick Xenophon’s team taking out at least one lower house seat in the Liberal fortress of Mayo. But what about the Greens?

The Greens, by their own admission, are focused on becoming the third major force in Australian politics. Under the leadership of Richard Di Natale, they have expanded their policy offerings to appeal to more than their traditional far Left. They have managed into introduce an element of pragmatism to complement their long standing idealism. They set their eyes on a very large section of the voting population who currently feel significantly under-serviced by the two major parties…the middle grounders: those that don’t label themselves as “Left” or “Right” and who believe that a social and environmental conscience doesn’t have to be in opposition to our traditional economic metrics, but rather, can be synergistic.

I spent some time in August last year having a good look at “The changing face of the Greens” and was extremely interested to see how this transition would translate to an election campaign, and an election day.

So how did they do?

Well, despite Turnbull claiming victory and Shorten conceding defeat, the election count still has a way to go in terms of final result. As it stands, with around 83% of the vote counted, we see the Greens with a shade under 10% of the primary vote. Assuming that this stays the same, it is an improvement on the hit they took in the 2013 election which saw their vote reduce to 8.6% from the 11.7% high they enjoyed in the turmoil of the 2010 election.

They have also retained their sole lower house seat (held by Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne) and still hold an outside chance to pick up the Melbourne Ports seat from the ALP. Whilst unlikely at this stage with 80% of the vote counted, they may even take the seat of Batman from the ALP as well, off the back of their 9% swing in that seat.

This election saw the highest primary vote count for minor parties and independents in Australian history…the message from the Australian public has been loud and clear: more of the same is just not good enough.

We may not get full Senate results until August however most predictions indicate that the Greens will win nine seats but may scrape through with ten which is exactly what they currently hold. So, on the surface, a reasonably lukewarm result for them that could result in them having roughly the same level of representation across the country that they did prior to the election. That could all change, however, if they manage to win Batman, Melbourne Ports (or both), giving them additional, precious lower house seats.

At the end of the day, this is the goal. If the rhetoric coming out of the Green’s camp for the last year is to be believed, then the endgame here is a three party system instead of two. The only way to achieve that is to increase representation in the lower house. In many ways, success or failure in this election for the Greens comes down to that simple metric.

But, is it as simple as that?

The answer, in my humble opinion, is not by a long shot. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are major political parties. Any strategy with a view towards mainstream acceptance requires long term thinking and patience; any movement forward in the lower house is progress in that direction. Should the Greens end up with an additional lower house seat (or two), then Di Natale can justifiably claim a victorious election campaign. Even if they don’t, coming as close as they have also represents a win.

The potential loss of a seat in the Senate isn’t ideal for them, but in the current circumstances and climate, doesn’t really represent attrition. This election has seen the senate absolutely turned on its head. A result that doesn’t include a major loss of representation is also a victory. The likely makeup of the new senate, if anything, plays into the hands of a long term Green’s strategy as well. The reintroduction of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation gives them a firm target in the upper House and practically hands them the moral high ground – her extremism will make The Green’s look like the moderate, balanced option that they so desperately want to be – particularly as her credentials, position and rhetoric is ludicrous in the eyes of the vast majority of the population.

What we do know, is that this election saw the highest primary vote count for minor parties and independents in Australian history. What we also know is that the combination of a razor thin majority for the Government combined with a deeply divided Liberal Party will likely see this trend continue. The Libs will continue to be undermined by the powers that be in the far Right of the party, which will continue to prevent them from developing good, well balanced legislation. The Labor party will continue to tow the Liberal line on issues like border security for fear of losing precious momentum from the many voters that have had slogans about “boats” drummed into them so much that they now believe the propaganda. (In other words, for the majors, things will likely worsen, or at best stay the same.) The message from the Australian public has been loud and clear: more of the same is just not good enough.

There are a multitude of other factors that will decide whether the forward momentum, however small, that The Greens have achieved in this election will continue to strengthen. The Xenophon team have already hurt them in South Australia, however their long term sustainability is yet to be proven. The amazing six month turnaround that Shorten and the Labor party experienced leading up to the election may or may not continue as it is largely reliant on continued stability within the Labor party ranks, and continued instability within the Libs. Given the far closer policy alignment with Labor that the Greens have, compared to that with the Liberal Party, any continued strengthening of Labor will inevitably steal votes back from The Greens.

The 2016 election has been an absolute roller-coaster. However, it is far too early to tell whether it was a one off, or a catalyst for major change. Should Labor and Liberal steady their own ships, then the public might start to forget the last decade of volatility and return to more traditional lines. If they don’t, then major political change in this country will truly be upon us. As for The Greens, they just need to keep doing what they are doing and hope the two majors do exactly the same.

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