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ACT Greens: Protest party or here to stay?

The Greens have come a long way in their twenty years of being a registered national party. But student journalist Charlotte King asks, with ten Federal MPs and a 3.9% swing in their favour at the last Federal election, what’s with all the prophesising that they’re over?

Student journalist Charlotte King reports on how the ACT Greens have lost three quarters of their representation in the ACT, and asks the question, does this necessarily spell doom for the rest of the party?

Well, for those who missed it, the ACT election just happened. And with it came a 4.9% swing away from the Greens. Alone it could be put down to local issues (and that’s one line currently being spun) but it follows swings against the party in the Northern Territory three months ago, and Queensland back in March 2012.

These downward trends follow upward swings at the four State (and the one Federal) elections that were held during 2010 and 2011.

Dr Robin Tennant-Wood, an Assistant Professor of Government at the University of Canberra who came out in support for the Greens after the ACT election, says each negative swing can be accounted for without needing to assume the Greens are on a downward trajectory.

Dr Tennant-Wood says the 2008 ACT election was the anomaly, in which the Greens received some of the protest vote against Jon Stanhope’s Labor Government. She believes these votes have now returned to Labor, “partly as a vote of confidence in Katy Gallagher and partly as part of the national trend towards the right”.

“The very small swing against the Greens in Queensland must be viewed in the context of the 14% swing against Labor,” says Dr Tennant-Wood. “It was the Labor government that people in Qld were rejecting, not the Greens.”

Dr Tennant-Wood added that it was the same at the Northern Territoryelection. So is this a fate the Greens are destined for: to lose supporters every time voters are dissatisfied with Labor, and hence the Left in general?

Are the Greens going for good?

Dr Tennant-Wood dispels the idea that the Greens are merely a ‘protest party’ destined to fade away like the Australian Democrats have. She attributes this to their being part of a global green movement, and because they have always presented themselves as a “viable alternative” to the major parties.

As Bob Brown told the Melbourne Press Club back in 2010, the Greens are not in Parliament “to keep the bastards honest; we are there to replace them”.

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This throwback to Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp’s 1980 election campaign shows that the Greens realise they need to find a place in politics that will not become obsolete in several elections’ time. (ABC psephologist Antony Green wrote a whole blog post back in 2009 that, complete with tables, compared the two parties.)

But Dr Peter Brent, founder of politics blog Mumble (now hosted by The Australian) and Visiting Fellow at the ANUSchool of Politics and International Relations, believes the tide is turning against the Greens.

“My feeling is that it’s part of a general, national movement away from the Greens that probably even predated Bob Brown’s departure,” Dr Brent says.

Following the ACT election, Dr Brent wrote that the Greens are like any minor party, saying that they “come and then they go, not always for reasons we can properly identify”.

Despite this dire outlook (the Australian Democrats went from receiving over 10% of the vote for both Federal houses in 1990 to less than 2% for each houses in 2007), recent national polling from Nielsen,Galaxyand Newspollsuggest that first preference support for the Greens has remained stable this year.

This is despite Bob Brown’s resignation in April, which Dr Robin Tennant-Wood believes with “no doubt” was timed to allow Brown’s successor, Christine Milne, sufficient time to “rebuild the party around her”.

The Post-Bob Era

Dr Brent and Dr Tennant-Wood think, respectively, that Milne lacks the “warmth” and the “charisma” of Bob Brown, but the swing at the Queensland election occurred before he resigned.

Bob Brown told Channel Ten two months ago that downward polling trends were to be expected when a leader resigns, but that he has faith that the Greens will bounce back.

And it seems they might be bouncing back already, if recent by-elections in Sydney and Melbourne are anything to go by. The Greens recorded a +4.6% swing at the Melbourne state by-election in July, a +4.4% swing at the Heffron state by-election in August, and a a +4.9% in the Sydneystate by-election several weeks ago.

But, by the same rationing used to justify the negative swing in the ACT, these could be put down to local issues and be completely useless as a national indicator.

As for the Greens’ future, Dr Robin Tennant-Wood says it depends on whether or not Labor goes ahead with party reforms and become a“renewed ALP with broader appeal”, or continues to lose disaffected voters to the Greens or the Liberals.

In other words, who really knows?

Back in 1996, when Bob Brown had brown hair and wore round glasses, he made his maiden speech to the Australian Senate. In it he advocated for the adoption of the proportional representation system in Federal elections:

“I would favour the Hare-Clarke system being exported from Tasmania, across the Bass Strait—a gift to the people of Australiato give them better representation,” he propositioned at the time.

He said the system means that on the day after an election,“everybody wakes up to find that somebody she or he voted for is in the parliament to represent them”.

Well, at least he can’t blame the ACT voting system for the ousting of three-quarters of the ACT Greens last month.

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