Support for the Greens has increased markedly since the beginning of 2008. Newspoll has shown an increase in the party vote over the 10% barrier for the first time, recently reaching 13%. State Newspolls have the party polling over 10% in all mainland states, with the Tasmanian Greens over 20%. Recent elections in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and the ACT have all seen marked increases in votes for the Greens, and the Greens came close to winning the federal by-election in Mayo.
At this time last year, nineteen Greens sat in Parliaments across Australia. This has now risen to 25, with the election of two extra MLCs in Western Australia, two extra MLAs in the ACT and one extra Senator, and the defection of Queensland Labor MP Ronan Lee. This is well in excess of the numbers elected by the Democrats or the Democratic Labor Party. This compares to 8 MPs belonging to conservative minor parties such as the DLP, CDP, Shooters’ Party and Family First.
Following the Greens winning three seats and the balance of power at last Saturday’s ACT election, Poll Bludger and Larvatus Prodeo have begun debates about the future of the Greens. The question stands: are the Greens on a path to become Australia’s third force in the long-term, or is the high vote simply an expression of a protest vote against the major parties?
The biggest change to take place before the swing to the Greens went into overdrive in January 2008 was the election of the Rudd government in November 2007. The Greens have suffered from progressive voters who sympathise with Greens policies voting Labor in order to defeat Liberal governments. Most voters do not fully understand the preference system, and this misunderstanding is encouraged by ALP politicians who tell voters that a vote for anyone other than the ALP risks a Liberal government. Labor governments tend to be markedly more conservative than Labor oppositions. This may also contribute to the Greens’ overall stronger performance in state elections, where they have been opposed to Labor governments.
So what sets apart the Greens from other minor parties in recent history, such as the Democrats and One Nation? The main difference lies in the development of the Greens. While the Democrats and One Nation rose to their peaks quickly (although the Democrats stayed at their relative peak for a long time), the Greens have slowly risen, gaining small swings at each election and gradually electing more members of Parliament. This has been accompanied by a reliance on a large grassroots membership, as well as much stronger presences on local councils and in state and territory parliaments. In contrast, the Democrats always had a relatively small membership base, with the party centralised on the Senate party room, with little in the way of local and state branch structures.
The Greens do not rely much on the Senate party room or its Senators. With over 10,000 members, an extensive network of local groups, local councillors and MPs in every parliament except the Northern Territory, the party is much less reliant on the performance of its federal representatives.
In particular, the New South Wales party relies much more strongly on the perfomance of its local councillors (now increased to 75 seats across the state) than on Greens Senators. The next generation of potential Greens MPs in NSW is largely composed of sitting or former councillors. This is particularly true of the seats of Balmain and Marrickville, where the Greens have tended to stand local councillors in an attempt to win the seats. The Greens also are growing on councils in Victoria and Tasmania. Two of Victoria’s three Greens MLCs are former councillors, with Greg Barber previously serving as Mayor of Yarra. With Victoria’s local councils slowly shifting towards a more favourable electoral system, the Greens should pick up more council seats in the November 28 election. In addition to giving Greens an opportunity to train up future MPs, councils give the Greens an opportunity to demonstrate competence in governing and to debunk
The Greens have also taken time to carve out a niche on the political spectrum to the left of the ALP, unlike the Democrats who struggled to attract progressive voters while maintaining a position at the centre of the spectrum and work constructively with all governments of whatever ideology.
While the Greens vote has increased, and current polls would give the Greens a strong chance of electing extra Senators in 2010, the Greens are looking towards winning lower house single-member electorates as the opportunity to cement their position as a third force. The Greens have had a number of close calls, polling strongly in the state seats of Marrickville (NSW), Balmain (NSW), Melbourne (Vic) and Fremantle (WA), with a number of other state seats also registering strong results for the Greens. The Greens came second in the federal seat of Melbourne in 2007 for the first time in a federal general election, although it is likely that a breakthrough will take place first in state politics. You would have to think that the Greens stand a very good chance of winning Balmain and/or Marrickville at the 2011 NSW election, and may finally get over the line in Melbourne in the 2010 Victorian election. If the Greens manage to win those seats they will have truly surpassed the performance of Australia’s historical minor parties.
So is the increase in the vote for the Greens a blip, or a long-term trend? It is true that the Greens have benefited from the poor performance of the major parties, but the major parties have been equally damaged by the rise of a credible party for people to cast a protest vote, even if the Greens are not yet seen as a credible alternative for government. There is no sign that those voters will turn back any time soon. Protest votes seem to be cast not so much against individual policy items or figures in the major parties but a culture of top-down control, arrogance and thuggery, something which is not likely to change anytime soon. Furthermore, once someone casts a vote for the Greens once, there is much less of a burden for them to vote for the Greens a second time.
The Greens’ performance in positions of balance of power, despite a media narrative which ignores history, has been relatively strong. While the Greens failed to hold onto long-term coalitions when they held the balance of power in Tasmania, the party managed to achieve parts of its agenda, and has survived the short-term decline that all minor parties suffer following a period supporting a government. Likewise, the Greens have generally acted responsibly in their time in the upper house balance of power in NSW, Victoria and Western Australia. Sure, they don’t just do what the major parties want, but that is exactly why their voters elected them. The first experience of Greens in the Senate balance of power suggests that the Australian Greens are performing well in their role of handling the power responsibly while mapping out their own policy agenda.
While there is no long-term future guaranteed for any minor party in Australia, the Greens appear to be on track for further gains and a significant role in Australian politics for many years to come. The Greens are no flash-in-the-pan.