On the rise of the Greens

The strength of the Greens was underestimated in last weekend’s NSW state election, with the party picking up three lower house seats, and the possibility of another one still on the cards.

This big showing is seen as a major problem for Labor, with former progressive supporters abandoning the party en masse, delivering Labor’s second lowest primary vote ever, save for its decimation in the 2011 state election.

Before the election Labor’s Verity Firth was quoted as saying that rival Balmain Greens MP Jamie Parker was ineffective as “one lone voice”. Firth probably wishes she didn’t say anything, because Parker has now been joined by two additional voices in Newtown’s Jenny Leong and Ballina’s Tamara Smith.

The NSW Greens’ win in the inner city seats of Newtown and Balmain isn’t all that surprising considering the supportive inner-city demographics and the threat of the WestConnex toll road looming. Similarly, the outrage against coal seam gas has been the obvious driver of swings against the Nationals into the Greens hands up North, though not many expected the swings to be so impressive considering these are Nationals seats through and through. Here Ballina has fallen to the Greens and Lismore remains on the precipice. Tweed Heads has been retained by the Nationals, but it suffered a similarly large swing of 18.5 per cent, though to Labor.

Aside from these key battlegrounds, there were also many very affluent seats, including Vaucluse, Coogee, the North Shore, Lane Cove and Pittwater, where the Greens received large sections of the primary vote, with many candidates coming in in second place.

But why have the Greens done so well in these conservative places? According to NSW Greens state campaign manager Chris Harris, it hasn’t been a case of going after affluent seats, but rather demographics that are becoming increasingly in tune with the party’s policies, particularly on social issues.

“We’ve pursued a strategy internally… to identify the demographics that are likely to be most sympathetic to the Greens’ causes,” he told The Fifth Estate.

So what does a typical Greens voter look like? According to Harris, they are tertiary educated, young and often non-religious. In the conservative areas, there’s another type emerging.

“A lot of people on North Shore identify with the social issues of Greens, but they’re economically conservative so they don’t want to vote for Labor,” he says. These areas therefore become a “natural constituency” for the Greens.

But why vote Greens over Labor if they have conservative economic values?

These people are the “small l liberals”, Harris says, “Fraserites” if you will, who would be reluctant to vote for Labor due to their connection with the labour movement and unions. They don’t, however, want to vote for an “extremely socially conservative” party.

The Greens position on issues such as refugees, human rights and foreign aid had won over these voters.

Less votes overall

While the party has enjoyed these lower house wins, the primary vote has stagnated, and perhaps may drop slightly both in the lower and upper houses.

On the upper house result, where there is currently a -1.6 per cent swing against the Greens, Harris says most commentators expected the party to go backwards due to how exceptionally well the party did in the 2011 election – “a natural return to Labor”.

However, the return hasn’t played out as strongly as predicted, and the swing from the Greens may be even less than indicated now, because Greens voters tended to vote below the line, and the results would take a little longer to come in.

The lower primary vote could also be due to a more targeted campaign. Harris says the Greens had to be much more strategically focused than the major parties because they didn’t have the money to spend trying to reach people that probably wouldn’t vote for them anyway.

The electorates were divided into tiers, based on their strategic importance. Tier one seats were Newtown and Balmain. Tier two included Ballina, Lismore and Summer Hill, all of which saw increased Greens votes.

A changing game

The massive swings in stalwart Nationals seats on the North Coast has sent a strong message to the National Party. Whether they are listening is another matter, Harris says.

Obviously a large factor has been the community campaign against coal seam gas, where Harris says the Nationals have “hugely alienated their own natural voter base”.

“The Greens have been able to connect with a constituency they otherwise haven’t been able to, because of work on coal seam gas,” he says. And there’s a broader trend of regional voters abandoning the Nationals, with lower results in other parts of NSW and a strong regional vote for the Greens in the Victorian election.

It is also, Harris thinks, an indication of the “breakdown of the natural two-party system”.

The political system that has existed for more than 100 years is now fracturing, he says. The game has changed, and it’s taking other parties by surprise. A sense of general disillusionment has sent voters to micro-parties, but it has also meant that people are less rusted on to particular parties. There are more swinging voters, and these are now a target for the Greens.

It’s not just Labor seats the Greens are going to target, either, Harris says. The conservative Victorian seat of Prahran recently fell to the Greens and of course now there’s Ballina. In the future, he predicts NSW seats like Coogee, the Blue Mountains and Heffron could be taken.

The feds, dazed and confused… are changing fast

On Monday morning the federal government launched its white paper on tax reform from the offices of the Australian Council of Social Services.

ACOSS got first look at the paper, exclusively, and was the “talent” on the ABC morning show on Radio National, ahead of everyone else.

The Australian newspaper reported on Thursday that Social Services Minister Scott Morrison is “seriously considering a proposal from peak welfare body ACOSS to tighten eligibility for the part pension rather than indexing future payments to just inflation”.

According to the wily Australia Institute, which keeps a keen eye on the pulse of politics in this country, the language of lifters and leaners has gone from the Abbott government’s vocabulary and “there’s no more talk about poor people having to take it in the neck”.

Expect, eventually, a similarly radical shift in the agenda on the environment and yes, one that includes a carbon tax.

According to executive director of the Australia Institute Richard Denniss, Abbott has misread the electorate and his role in his own victory.

“I think the Abbott government made the mistake of interpreting the frustration built up with the Gillard government as endorsement of a radical conservative agenda,” Denniss says.

“Ironically he fuelled the fans of frustration when Julia Gillard was PM by talking about the importance of trust and then having won the election proceeded to renege on a wide range of promises, from cutting the ABC to scrapping the [renewable energy target].”

What does this mean for the environment?

A lot, according to Denniss.

“They will absolutely be moving on green issues; the only question is whether it’s Tony Abbott or the next prime minister that recalibrates.

“The Australian people didn’t vote to destroy the environment at the last election.”

Denniss says it’s clear from recent wins by the Greens that support for the environment (and other social interest questions) isn’t just coming from Labor’s support base.

Clever tactics by the Greens

In Sydney Jamie Parker surprised Labor by hanging onto his seat of Balmain. But the big surprise was how much support he picked up from the Libs.

According to a report on the ABC website posted on Thursday, Parker’s how to vote card was royal blue in colour and said: “If you’re voting Liberal 1, give Jamie Parker your number 2.”

If the Libs are paying attention at the national level they will know their reform agenda 2015 needs to be maintained.

And as the ABC commentator said the implications of Parker’s actions “won’t have escaped the attention of federal Labor”.

Denniss says none of this support for a Greens agenda from both major political parties is a surprise.

“The public has systematically reported it was willing to pay more tax to get quality services since polls have been collected.”

The agenda to push aggressively to small government, lower taxes and lower services comes not from the majority of the electorate but from the more conservative elements in politics.

So who in particular? Probably wealthy people who will probably never send their kids to public schools or have to use a public hospital, Denniss says.

They call it “starving the beast” in the US, he says: give tax cuts when times are good – as the Howard government did during the mining boom – and cut services because of lower revenue during the tougher times.

Dennniss says a carbon tax or something like it is inevitable and makes so much sense – a tax we collect on pollution.

But does Denniss think that we’ve entered a new era where “anything is possible” because of the rise of minor parties and the potential for disruption? Certainly not, he says.

“Anything has always been possible,” he says. You only have to think of the “chaos Malcolm Fraser caused in the Senate” and the power of feisty independents such as Nick Xenophon, Brian Harradine, Mal Coulston, the Shooters in NSW to force through legislation that suited their objectives.

Denniss had just come from the launch of a new book by Clive Palmer and Nick Xeonophon on exactly that topic.

“The whole point is it’s in no way unusual and indeed is what our constitution anticipated.”

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  1. The form of carbon pricing that can make sense to all parties except the big polluters is the “Fee and dividend” policy recommended by Dr James Hansen (planetary atmosphere physicist and author of Storms of my Grandchildren) and endorsed by 350.org and Citizens Climate Lobby. In the USA it is already being endorsed by a growing number of Republican congress reps. A fee is collected for carbon released, all the funds go into a single purpose trust (not into general government coffers) and are distributed equally to everyone of voting age via the tax or social security transfer system as your personal'”carbon dividend”. It is revenue neutral in the economy. It is not being “gamed” by wall street and it is not available to politicians to play with. Hence people trust it. Tea Party types see that it does not add to big government. In pricing carbon and giving that to the population at large the rest of the transition is left entirely to enterprising innovation and market forces. The carbon fee starts low at say $10 and grows by a set amount every year over ten years. Sensible adjustments are made for cross border trade issues. See citizensclimatelobby.org. The CCL is now getting moving in Australia.