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.