Labor breathed a sigh of relief after holding off The Greens in the July 21 by-election for the state seat of Melbourne. Victorian Labor feared that the series of verbal attacks on The Greens, begun by members of the NSW Labor Right faction, would cost them the seat.
The Greens came close, topping the primary vote with 36.4 per cent. Labor only won on preferences from Family First and the Australian Sex Party.
Labor is facing an increasing challenge from The Greens in progressive inner city seats. But the thinking behind Labor’s assault on The Greens is that the party should chase right-wing votes and decry The Greens’ left-wing policies. Their message to anyone on the left thinking of voting Greens has effectively become, “we don’t want you”.
But having held Melbourne, the party will now feel confident to continue their war on The Greens, thinking they can do so without sabotaging their chances in the inner city.
Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews claimed the by-election victory was a vindication of a slightly different approach, of attacking The Greens as unable to realistically achieve change. Only Labor could form an alternative government, he said, while The Greens simply spruiked, “unfunded uncosted policies, telling everybody what they want to hear”.
But this is simply an effort to tailor Labor’s message to different electorates, presenting a more left-wing face in seats where The Greens are challenging Labor. Labor’s overall plan remains to race Tony Abbott to the right, with the hope this will win Labor voters in marginal seats. It’s exactly the approach that has cost them their support in the polls and undermined their base inside the working class—and has pushed voters to The Greens.
Challenges for Greens
Labor can hardly draw too much relief from the result in Melbourne. Its campaign focused on attacking Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu’s cuts to TAFE and the public service. Federally Julia Gillard is still plumbing the depths of poll ratings under 30 per cent.
The chance of The Greens picking up further lower house seats at next year’s federal election remains real—if The Greens can capitalise themselves on the discontent with Labor, and make sure Tony Abbott and the Liberals are not the only beneficiary.
But too often The Greens have let the quest for electoral respectability and influence dilute their criticisms of Labor. Even after the Melbourne by-election Greens federal MP Adam Bandt was still defending Julia Gillard, saying Labor’s attacks on The Greens were destabilising the government and “white-anting the Prime Minister”. But the thing “white-anting” the government is their own policies—like backing away from taxing the mining bosses, slugging voters with a useless carbon tax, and refusing to properly fund public schools, for example. Defending the record of the Gillard government won’t win The Greens any more support.
The Melbourne result shows the limits of a purely electoral strategy for The Greens. Almost every other candidate directed preferences away from them. When the Liberals run a candidate, as they declined to do in Melbourne, this makes getting over the line even harder. Greens like Adam Bandt will need a very high primary vote to take lower house seats in the next federal election.
The Greens also found it difficult responding to Victorian Labor’s campaign that attacked them for their lack of ability to govern. While Labor campaigned against Victorian Premier Baillieu’s cuts to TAFE, The Greens focused on talking up their own policies around issues like public transport. When Labor accused them of being unable to implement policies they had little response.
This reflects The Greens’ focus on winning change via increasing their influence gradually through parliament. Chances for The Greens to enter coalition governments, like that resulting from the hung parliament federally, are rare. Asking voters to wait two or three elections for sufficient parliamentary representation is hardly an inspiring prospect.
Nor is there evidence such coalitions deliver real results. The Greens’ have very little to show for their parliamentary horse trading with the current Gillard government. The pressure is on them to look influential by agreeing to Gillard’s plans in exchanges for a few minor concessions—an approach that has seen them champion the carbon tax.
The Greens can be a force for winning change if they look to fight at the grassroots against state government cutbacks and against Gillard’s continual drift to the right. This means getting more serious about building movements of resistance on the ground.