After protesting for weeks that it was a matter for the party machine, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull claimed credit on the weekend for the decision to preference Labor ahead of the Greensin every lower house seat.

The decision, which Turnbull claimed was “taken by me” in conjunction with the Liberal Party federal director, Tony Nutt, and was “in the national interest”, stymies the minor party’s march on Labor in several inner-city seats. It prevents a repeat of the situation that led to the first ever Greens MP, namely Adam Bandt, being elected to the House of Representatives on Liberal preferences.

At first glance the decision could be seen as a sop to the Coalition’s right wing, which would have been horrified at the prospect of the Government aiding and abetting the rise of the Greens.

After Bandt’s election in 2010, the former prime minister and demigod of the right, John Howard, warned about giving preferences to the Greens. Howard claimed the Greens were “worse than Labor”, “fundamentally anti free enterprise” and had “terrible foreign policy attitudes”.

Accordingly, opposition leader Tony Abbott made a “captain’s call” in 2013 to preference Labor above the Greens in every lower house seat at that year’s federal election. The move was also designed to contrast the Coalition with Julia Gillard’s Labor, which Abbott’s opposition claimed had sold its soul to the Greens in order to form minority government.

Howard repeated his counsel more recently, around the time Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger floated the idea of giving preferences to the Greens in those inner-city seats where the minor party had a good chance of knocking off Labor.

Noting that the principal beneficiaries of reforms to Senate voting were the Greens, the former PM said he hoped the Greens’ support for the reforms did not “presage some kind of understanding about preferences in House of Representatives elections between the Coalition and the Greens.”

Interestingly, Government supporters did not necessarily hate the idea, with Newspoll finding 47 per cent of self-described Coalition voters approved of putting the Greens ahead of Labor on how-to-vote cards. Then again, perhaps this was simply a case of preferring “my enemy’s enemy”.

And now the Prime Minister has emulated his predecessor, making his own decision about giving preferences to Labor over the Greens. Admittedly, Turnbull claims there was a lot of discussion with colleagues and state divisions of the Liberal Party before the decision was made, so it was not necessarily an Abbott-like captain’s call, taken in isolation from the party’s wiser heads.

A closer consideration of the decision also suggests it is more about election campaign tactics than a nod to the philosophical leanings of Liberal conservatives.

In recent times, the Prime Minister and his key spokespeople have ramped up their rhetoric against minor parties and independents, warning “chaos lies that way”.

This is clearly a shot across the bows of voters considering a “pox on both your houses” protest vote. It is also intended to give pause to Coalition voters reportedly confident the Government will be returned and possibly contemplating a protest vote with a non major party on the assumption it will not result in the election of a Labor Government.

The Government could ill afford to be warning off voters from directing votes to the Greens if a preference deal with the minor party resulted in the Coalition doing the very same thing. The announcement to put Labor ahead of the Greens on how-to-vote cards could therefore be seen as a necessary alignment of Turnbull’s deeds with words.

However the announcement also suggests Coalition strategists are increasingly confident their parties will be returned to government.

If the hard heads in campaign HQ thought the Coalition would lose, they would likely have no compunction stacking the parliament against a new Labor Government with an obstreperous and obstructionist crossbench.

In putting Labor ahead of the Greens, and in some cases all but ensuring the election of Labor candidates, the Government is clearly unconcerned about losing its majority.

It is concerned however about being beholden to a crossbench of minor party and independent MPs in the lower house.

Considered in this light, Kroger’s gambit takes on an entirely new dimension.

In making little effort to hide his “dalliance” with the Greens, Kroger not only forced Labor to redirect precious campaign resources to threatened seats. The wily campaigner’s moves may have also softened up Labor to give the Government a better preference deal than it would have otherwise, had it not had to “bid’ against the Greens for the right to Coalition preferences.

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