So here we are, teetering over the cusp of 2012. This is the year that apparently will make or break the major party leaders, Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. It’s the year that kicks off the long countdown to the next federal election, which is due anytime from 3 August 2013 to 30 November 2013.
We’re told it’s the year we’ll see whether Gillard can rebuild her battered leadership credentials, whether Rudd has enough mongrel to bring his own party down, and whether Abbott can recast himself as an alternative Prime Minister worthy of our respect.
We were presented with some fascinating entrails in 2011 from which to divine what might occur in 2012. We had two current major party leaders with substantial net dissatisfaction ratings and the opposition commanding an excruciating opinion poll lead over the government. There were two failed party leaders throwing bungers at their colleagues from the sidelines and a realignment of parliamentary deckchairs that variously affected morale, depending upon how much more or less voting power the change bestowed upon certain parties and individuals.
But an equally fascinating, and rarely discussed political artefact from the year 2011 concerns not the major parties, but the party which seeks to differentiate itself from them. Despite notching up a number of policy successes in the parliament due to having the balance of power (either partly or entirely), the Greens have singularly been unable to convert this success into voter support. It begs the question whether the Greens have already peaked, and whether the 2013 election will return to being a contest only between the major parties.
The numbers are quite clear. At the last federal election 16 months ago, the Greens polled 11.8%. Since then, across all the credible published opinion polls, their support has been around 10–12%. While this number may go up or down a few points from week to week, the change is always within the margin of error and the trend over time shows that support for the Greens has not budged since election day.
The Greens have not won any additional supporters, despite delivering on their icon issues. They secured a carbon price to battle climate change and $10 billion for the renewable energy industry, helped to ensure that refugees who arrive illegally by boat can remain in Australia while having their asylum claims assessed and raised awareness and acceptance of gay marriage amongst members of parliament from other parties.
All of these achievements would appeal to progressive Labor and swinging voters, and should have been enough to entice them to tell pollsters that they will vote Green at the next election. But this has not been the case. Perhaps that’s because most progressives already vote Green and the voters over which the major parties are battling are more interested in “kitchen table” issues such as jobs, interest rates, health and education.
This is borne out by the numbers. Voters disgruntled with the Labor Party have not gravitated to the Greens, but the Coalition. Think about that: on election day Labor polled 38% of the primary vote, the Coalition 43.6% and the Greens 11.8%. Eight months later, on 8 July, 11% had left Labor (27%), 5% of those went to the Coalition (49%) but none went to the Greens (12%). This was Labor’s lowest primary vote ever, even below that recorded when Keating was PM. Since then, voters have begun to return to Labor (34%) from the Coalition (47%) but still the Green vote remains unchanged.
This suggests the Green vote is already maximised and there’s very little the party can do to attract new voters. In addition, it’s likely that the major parties will do preference deals at the next election that edge out Green candidates in favour of each other. Mutual animosity, it seems, is outweighed by mutual resentment when it comes to the Greens having the final say in parliament.
There’s no doubt that 2012 is going to be a year to watch Australian federal politics. There’s the possibility of a surplus budget in May, compensation for the carbon price will be delivered to many Australians as a lump sum in June and the carbon price regime will commence on 1 July.
The question then will be whether we’re more parsimonious with Julia’s carbon compensation than we were with Kevin’s $900? Only time will tell. Additional compensation will come into effect in June 2013, just in time for the REAL federal election campaign.
Perhaps by then, we’ll have come to accept the carbon price as we did the GST.
Rudd may again be Prime Minister and we may have a new opposition leader. Who knows, almost anything is possible in politics, except for the Greens expanding on their primary vote.
The party was led by a wizened political warrior who spoke compellingly about the major parties being out of touch. His party advocated environmental protection, recognition for indigenous Australians, law reform for gays and equality for all Australians.
The party offered Australian voters a third force in politics and vowed to impose accountability upon the major parties.
Over time, the party grew in popularity and its candidates won enough votes to secure the balance of power in the Senate.
Do you know which party this story is about?
Well think again, because this party, the Australian Democrats, held or shared the balance of power with other minor parties or independents in the Australian Senate for nearly 25 years (1981 to 2004). At their peak, the Democrats also held the balance of power in the upper houses of several state parliaments: NSW from 1988 to 1991, SA from 1979 for the following two decades and WA for one term following the 1996 election.
Today they hold no seats – in any Australian parliament.
How did this happen? And more importantly – could it happen again?
This is the question that should be occupying the minds of the Australian Greens right now, as they prepare to take up the Senate balance of power on 1 July 2011.
There are both similarities and differences between the Democrats and the Greens. Both parties positioned themselves where there was a perceived absence of political representation. The Democrats were considered a centrist party, attracting the first preference votes of the disillusioned major-party faithful, who then returned to the fold with second preferences on a roughly 50-50 basis.
Despite campaigning on many of the same issues, the Greens have positioned themselves to the left of Labor, with around 80 percent of their second preferences heading back to the Labor Party.
Perhaps the most significant similarity between the two minor parties is the amount of voter goodwill and accompanying high expectation that each party generated.
It was the Democrats’ inability to fulfil this voter expectation that ultimately proved to be their undoing and this should be a salutary lesson for the Greens.
Many observers point to the Democrats’ decision in 1999 to support passage of the GST in the Senate as the beginning of the end. This is instructive in itself, for the Democrats took a pro-GST policy to the preceding election. Nevertheless, the decision was portrayed as a sell-out of Democrat principles, reinforced by a number of Democrat Senators crossing the floor to vote against the tax. This undoubtedly contributed to the leadership tensions and internecine manoeuvrings that wracked the Democrats from that time onwards, until they lost their last Senate positions in the 2007 Federal Election.
When the Greens attain the balance of power in July this year, they will discover, as did the Democrats, that it is much more difficult to be a political or policy purist when your vote actually counts. Negotiations will inevitably lead to concessions, sometimes on the part of the Government but also of the Greens. The Greens will need to manage member expectations better than the Democrats did to avoid the pitfalls that decision-making can bring.
This article first appeared at The King’s Tribune.