Is the party over for Australia’s Greens?

March 1, 2015

By David Hetherington

26 February 2015

On 7 September 2013, a hipster party in an inner-city Melbourne warehouse marked the political high-water of the Australian Greens. The election-night revellers celebrated the re-election of the party’s rising star, Adam Bandt, who that night became the first Green to hold a seat in the federal House of Representatives.

The revellers had good reason to party as hard as they did. The achievements of the party over the last decade almost certainly exceeded their most ambitious dreams. These achievements included double-digit support in both houses at federal elections, cabinet seats in state governments and a formal agreement promising policy consultation from a minority national government. The party was now a consistent and influential presence in the Senate, providing nine members in the 76-seat house after the 2010 election. In terms of popular support, media visibility and political power, the Greens were now a genuine third force in Australian politics. While Australia has a long history of minor parties, it is arguable that the Greens have been the most powerful new arrival in national politics since the Democratic Labor party in the 1950s.

This rise was propelled by three factors, two external and one internal. The first was the emergence of global climate politics in the mid-2000s, best symbolised in public consciousness by Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and in policy circles by Nicholas Stern’s landmark 2006 report. This played directly to the Greens’ strength: they might have been a single-issue party but the issue of the day was their issue.

The second factor was broad disillusionment with the mainstream political parties around the same time. By 2006, John Howard’s conservative government was out of energy and out of ideas after a decade in power. Yet Labor was struggling to provide an effective opposition, having changed leaders four times in five years. This disillusionment allowed the Greens to build their base in two distinct areas of the electorate, beyond single-issue environmental supporters.

One was the so-called “doctors’ wives”, affluent economically liberal voters who historically voted conservative but whose vote swung on the twin social issues of climate change and refugees. The other group was more traditional leftwing voters who felt that Labor had drifted too far to the centre in its embrace of economic liberalisation. The Greens’ adoption of economic policies to the left of Labor attracted candidates such as Lee Rhiannon, a high-profile former member of the Socialist party.

The final, internal factor that underpinned the Greens’ success was the leadership of Bob Brown, a long-term environmental campaigner widely regarded for straight-talking and integrity. In an era where spin prevails over substance, Brown combined an unpretentious style with strategic nous and strong management of a sometime fractious party room. You might not agree with him, but you knew where he stood and had no doubt of his conviction.

Brown’s last campaign was the 2010 election where the Greens supported Labor to form a minority government in return for firm policy commitments. He went out a winner, retiring in 2012, and the warehouse party the following year seemed a resounding, if flashy, celebration of all he had built. It was not to last.

In the days following that party, several things became apparent. Despite Bandt’s re-election, the Greens had suffered major swings against them on election day. Their vote in the Senate fell from 13.1 per cent to 8.7 per cent and in the House from 11.8 per cent to 8.7 per cent. They actually increased their number of seats in the Senate by one, but this was because they were replacing their 2007 cohort, rather than the 2010 group, due to Australia’s half-Senate election system.

Once the final results were in, it was clear was that the Greens would no longer play the pivotal role they had held in the previous parliament. Alongside the defeat of the  Labor government, the story of the 2013 election was the rise of the micro-parties.  On the crossbenches of the new Senate, the Greens were joined by the Palmer United party, the Liberal Democratic party, the Democratic Labour party, the Family First party and the quaintly titled Australian Motoring Enthusiasts party. What’s more, as the Greens and Labor could not provide a blocking majority in the Senate, it was clear that the Greens’ effective influence over the new conservative government was close to zero – if the government could win over the micro-parties, it would carry the Senate.

Suddenly, it seemed, the Greens had been dealt out of the game. How had this happened?

Ironically, the root cause of the Greens’ decline was that they had become part of the political establishment as they had always dreamed, but at exactly the wrong time.  They had cemented their place as the third “major” party in Australian politics, at a time when major parties were haemorrhaging trust. They had stopped being a “minor” party at a time when around the world, minor parties were taking on the establishment from left and right, including the Tea party, the United Kingdom Independence party, Syriza, Podemos, and National Front. In Australia, the rise of the micro-parties has been helped by the compulsory preferential voting system which, when combined with distaste for establishment parties, throws up unpredictable results in the Senate: a professional “preference whisperer” has built a reputation for guiding unknowns onto the Senate benches.

All these factors have played against the Greens, but in fundamental ways, they have contributed to their own decline. Both voters and commentators remember that the Greens, the party of climate change, voted down Australia’s best chance for a meaningful emissions trading scheme in the 2007-10 parliament, because they felt it was not ambitious enough. As it transpired, Labor enacted a weaker scheme in the subsequent parliament which was then disbanded by Tony Abbott’s government in 2014. Had the Greens not shunned that first opportunity, it is likely Australia would have an enduring, successful scheme today, with millions of tons of emissions saved.

Then, when they supported Labor’s minority government, they failed in the public’s mind to secure distinctive policy achievements. Under attack from the conservative Murdoch press for pursuing a “Greens-Left agenda”, Labor actively moved to distance itself from the Greens, further weakening their political impact. Ultimately, having failed to deliver on climate change in the previous parliament, this demonstrated an inability to move beyond a narrow agenda of climate change and refugees. The departure of Brown as leader in 2012 did not help their cause; his replacement, Christine Milne, has found his shoes difficult to fill.

So where to from here? Fundamentally, the Greens succeeded because they combined issues politics on climate change and refugees with an occupation of the traditional social democrat space vacated by Labor as it has moved to the political centre. It is possible that the pendulum will swing again, and that the Greens can recapture their standing as political outsiders driven by values. Then again, Labor could close off this avenue by reoccupying the social democrat ground with an appeal to those same values. Given the speed at which Australian politics has moved in the last decade, no sensible observer would discount either possibility.