The limits of Green identity politics

It’s not often that, during a state election, voters receive letters from an interstate federal Opposition backbencher. But that’s what happened to electors in the seat of Melbourne during the recent state election campaign, when letters from Peter Garrett arrived warning of the preference deal that the Greens had done with the Liberals.

This is the ALP and Garrett using their knowledge of left-wing politics to political advantage. While handing out how-to-vote cards for the Liberals, I overheard several voters asking the Green campaigners about the so-called deal with the Liberals (it’s actually quite rare for voters to ask questions). In reality, as can be seen on the Green website (pdf), the Greens were preferencing Labor in the vast majority of seats, and not directing preferences in other seats. And of course Green voters are free to preference any way they choose.

But Garrett and Labor know that left-wing politics is not just about achieving political outcomes, but also about personal identity and making a statement. For many left-leaning voters, opposing the Liberals is a matter of principle, and they are attracted to the Greens because they appear to be a party of principle, free of the compromises the ALP must make as a party relying on mass support.

The political reality, however, is that the Greens must do deals if they are ever to be more than a fringe cause. Even in their best hope, Melbourne, their primary vote was only 27%, just 5 percentage points ahead of the Liberals who ran only a token campaign. They were only in the race because the Liberals were preferencing to them. In the upper house, the Liberals decided to preference against the Greens, jeopardising Green prospects in a number of regions, as the Green website rather bitterly notes:
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