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:

There’s a lot at stake here and the Western Metropolitan Region is particularly significant. If the Greens don’t win this seat, Labor will
get control of the Upper House, thanks to the Liberals who preferenced Labor ahead of the Greens.

It’s likely that a Liberal decision to preference the Greens is more valuable than the other way around. The Australian Election Survey (for federal elections) indicates that nearly two-thirds of Green voters say they would make up their own mind about preferences anyway, compared to a bit over one-third of Liberal voters. So while some Liberals (such as myself) do preference Labor above the Greens, overall the Liberal how-to-vote card can deliver a lot to the Greens. While I won’t follow the how-to-vote card, I accept that the party leadership needs to make a tactical decision. It’s hard to imagine many voters being put off the Liberals because they were preferencing the Greens. Voting Liberal is not political posturing in the way voting Greens is political posturing.

As I argued after the 2004 election, the fact that the Greens are working from a sizeable soft left subculture means that they have a sociological base that the Democrats lacked. But that base is also a limitation because it does not see politics in pragmatic terms, and will resist moves to make the compromises needed to improve the party’s elected representation and policy clout.

23 thoughts on “The limits of Green identity politics

  1. “This is the ALP and Garrett using their knowledge of left-wing politics to political advantage…. 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.” [and morality].

    Was it to their political advantage? Green voters may be voting Green to send a message to the ALP, but it’s just that kind of sleaziness which could push them further from the ALP. I usually vote Green and preference the ALP, but I’ve voted informally just to avoid giving a preference to an ALP candidate too awful to support. Perhaps with that misrepresentation the ALP have sullied the reputation of their celebrity ‘green’ attraction.

    Who thinks optional preferential voting would be A Good Thing ?


  2. I always put the Greens last. I can’t stand those guys.

    The antics of their followers at G20 confirmed all my prejudices.

    I also voted Family First in the Upper House because I have a soft spot for them.


  3. Like Andrew I always put Labor ahead of the Greens on the lesser of two evils basis. When the Dems were relevant I used to put them behind the ALP and ahead of the Greens.

    I’d be interested in hearing Sinclair’s reasoning for favouring the far left against the “we don’t know what we are” party.


  4. Boris – I’ve slightly changed the wording to remove an ambiguity; my point was that only a small percentage of Green votes are likely to flow to the Liberals in the lower house regardless of what the party itself puts on how-to-vote cards. Therefore their promises aren’t worth much in total number of votes in the seat – though as you suggest possibly decisive in a very tight Labor-Liberal contest. However, in the seats where the Liberals come third Liberal preferences will flow at a fairly high rate and are the Greens only hope. However, since there are more tight Lib-Lab contests than Green-Lab contests, Green preference decisions could be the difference between government and opposition rather than the difference between representation and no representation, and you are right to correct my statement that the former is more valuable.


  5. In the lower house (and where I live) the Greens are an irritation and won’t be elected. (That’s probably true for most seats and for all minor parties). The real contest in lower houses is between the ALP and Liberals (or Nats). The others are ‘also-rans’. So I vote for the Liberals and against their opposition, hence Libs go 1 and ALP goes last.


  6. From most observations it seems that Green voters preference 67% to the ALP and 33% to the Liberals. If Optional Preferential voting was introduced into Victoria, preferences would flow less but it is possible that things become more like a defacto first past the post ballot with candidates pushing just vote one.

    It this then likely that a major party candidate could win the ballot with only 40% of the vote which is not a strong mandate from the people. Compulsory Preferencial voting also allws parties with less resources such as the Greens, Democrats and Family First a chance at gaining a seat. With an Optional voting system the major parties blitz anyone with less resources.

    It comes down to how we view democracy. A winner takes all, or giving divese voices a say. I would like to see a Parliament proportional to what the people want.



  7. The problem I have with preference voting is that somebody else’s second, or third choice, is as good as my first choice. A candidate that gets, say, 45% of the first preference should have a ‘better’ mandate than someone who gets, say, 30% but wins on (second) preferences.

    I’m not sure about the ‘the Greens, Democrats and Family First a chance at gaining a seat’ – how many seats do these parties hold in the lower houses? What the preference system does do is favour the coalition. Voters have two chances to vote for the coalition – which is why, in electoral terms, they should never merge and why the PM et al. worked to undermine the Queensland merger proposal of a few months ago.


  8. Anand – I don’t agree: if you want “a Parliament proportional to what the people want” why force people to give a vote to candidates they don’t want representing them? Optional preferential voting is surely more likely to reflect what people want. It might also encourage the parties to find more attractive candidates and really work for a vote.

    If a candidate wins with only 40% of the vote it will be a useful indication of how much support he really has.

    Sinclair – I think my second choice is as good as your first choice – it seems more in the spirit of democracy that I don’t get knocked out of the game in the first round. It’s a process that keeps people’s preferences involved in determining the outcome, and thus more reflective of the community’s wishes.


  9. Sinclair – my vote, finally, only counts once. (Not entirely true if the Greens get some funding out of my first preference vote). But I can say that if I can’t have the party I want, well, then I prefer the ALP to the Liberals: democracy in action.


  10. my vote, finally, only counts once

    No. You were counted twice. Once for the Greens (say) and once for the ALP (say).


  11. As someone who has voted in three countries, I think preferential voting is the best by a mile. Yes, it can be argued that it’s better to have one gets all, but that means we may have someone winning say 26% and getting elected (if all others get less).

    Yes we get not our first choice but a lesser evil. Well, in my view, that is the best you can hope for – in ANY system!


  12. I’ve read about voting systems where a second preference is worth 1/2 of a vote, a 3rd preference is worth 1/3 of the vote, and so on…


  13. Bring Back Currency Lad, preferences are always counted – Even if a candidate gets more than 50%+1, they are counted in order to get a 2 candidate preferred result in the seat.


  14. two points.

    Officially they are not if the winning candidate gets 50% plus 1 but they are counted now as the AEC likes to get 2PP as you stated. This rarely happens by the way.

    previously they were not so in most elections we do not the full 2 PP result.


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