Background: 2010 - 2018.
Note: The Australian Greens is abbreviated to AG herewith
Following the 2010 election the AG were at the peak of their powers. Issues that under wrote this and preceded this success were
- The rise of global climate change politics in the mid 2000’s invading Australia, drawing genuine mainstream prominence to this emerging ‘one issue party’;
- The stock piling of refugees on Manus Island and Narau getting frequent media attention;
- The consequent expansion of the AG supporter base, adding economic conservative ‘doctors wives’ voters swinging to a party taking on climate change and now refugee advocacy, along with ‘leftie’ voters frustrated with the ALP drift to centre of economic liberalisation [think Lee Rhiannon], and
- the popular reputation of their leader, the straight-shooting political savant Bob Brown.
In federal political power terms, the post 2010 election state of the AG was both unprecedented and unlikely to be repeated.
- Double digit voter support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate;
- A consistent and genuine influence in a Senate hosting nine AG members
- A strong media profile
– reporters attending their daily ‘pressers’ in droves, and
- the election of the first ever House of Parliament AG member [Adam Bandt], which placed the AG at the heart of Australian politics, contributing to the forming of a ‘minority government’ with the Labor Party.
With a smile on his face, AG Leader Bob Brown went out a winner, leaving his Party in a position even he may not have dreamed of before he retired in 2012.
Unfortunately for the AG, this party was not meant to last.
From 2013 when the Coalition won Government, the AG maintained a seat in the House of Representatives in Adam Bandt and an impressive number of seats in the Senate, .. in 2013 and 9 in 2016.
- the minority government status of the AG went out a House window with Labor, the voter support of the AG fell below double digits to 8.7 percent in both houses;
- Along with the Coalition and Labor, AG votes were leaking to a raft of emerging ‘micro-parties’ that surfaced in the 2013 election;
- Consequently, Adam Bandt found himself competing for political air and power with the likes of Clive Palmer in the House or representatives and
- In the senate, the still prominent collection of AG senators found themselves far less relevant and powerful.
The AG were no longer needed to pass legislation. The AGs minor party role could now be played by a host of ‘micro party’ Senators including
three from Palmer United.
- ‘Micro Parties’ that emerged in the 2013 election
-PUP, Liberal Democratic party, Democratic Labour party, Family First party, Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party- were either added to or replaced in the 2016 election by other new kids on the block such as the Derryn Hinch Justice Party and the renamed, revitalised Pauline Hanson One Nation Party.
The emergence of micro-parties leaking votes from both the major parties and the AG minor party was in some ways beyond the control of the AG.
- The Coalition had ceased its policy of preferencing the Greens ahead of the Labor Party so they would never again contribute to the election of an AG to the House of Representatives, Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne (circa 2010).
- The Labor Party sought to distance itself from the AG to avoid further allegations of a permanent Labor-Green coalition, and
- Bob Brown, the popular forebear of the AG who led the Party with distinction and integrity had retired to the back blocks of civilisation.
However, there went things that the AG did have responsibility for that did damage to AG brand and voter loyalties after Bob Brown retired.
The most perplexing was the Christine Milne lead decision to vote down the introduction of an Emissions Trading Scheme prior to the 2013 election.
The Greens were thereafter widely characterised in media profiling as
(1) A party that had ‘sold out’ on climate change affective policy in favour of ideological dreams of something better
(2) A party of well-to-do inner-city hipsters, soft of aspiration and hard on ideology; and
(3) A party falling apart following the Constitutional dismissal of co deputy leaders Larissa Waters and Scott Ludlum in 2017 and the demise of socialist Lee Rhiannon in 2018.
Rhiannon fell foul of the AG executive for interfering in Gonski 2.0 negotiations. Rhiannon consequently lost pre-selection for the 2019 election before she resigned.
One final note of concern for the AG leading to the 2019 election was a 2018 by-Election.
Dr Kerryn Phelps ran her campaign on things the AG typically support
– climate change, LGBTI rights, anti- discrimination policy and refugee advocacy.
Phelps won the seat as in Independent in a Liberal held seat vacated by a dismissed Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull.
In this 2018 by-election, the AG primary vote fell to 8.5 percent compared to the 14.8 percent result in the 2016 general election.
85 percent of AG preferences flowed to the Independent, but the AG lost 6.3 percent of their own primary vote to an Independent spruiking issues once the bastion of the AG voter base.
Main Sources David Heatherington. Is the Party over for Australian Greens? 1 March 2015. https://percapita.org.au/our_media/is-the-party-over-for-australias-greens/
Scott Bennett (2008) The rise of the Australian Greens Research Paper no. 8 2008–09 Politics and Public Administration. Sectionhttps://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/rp/rp0809/09rp08
On 7 September 2013, a hipster party in an inner-city Melbourne warehouse marked the political high-water of the Australian Greens. The election-night revellers celebrated the re-election of the party’s rising star, Adam Bandt, who that night became the first Green to hold a seat in the federal House of Representatives.
These achievements included
- double-digit support in both houses at federal elections,
-cabinet seats in state governments
- a formal agreement promising policy consultation from a minority national government
- . The party was now a consistent and influential presence in the Senate, providing nine members in the 76-seat house after the 2010 election.
- In terms of popular support, media visibility and political power, the Greens were now a genuine third force in Australian politics.
- The Greens had been the most powerful new arrival in national politics since the Democratic Labor party in the 1950s.
This rise was propelled by three factors,
1 -The emergence of global climate politics in the mid-2000s: they might have been a single-issue party but the issue of the day was their issue.
2 Broadening disillusionment with the partisan politics of both the mainstream political parties.
This disillusionment allowed the Greens to build their base in two distinct areas of the electorate, beyond single-issue environmental supporters. One was the so-called “doctors’ wives”, affluent economically liberal voters who historically voted conservative but whose vote swung on the twin social issues of climate change and refugees.
The other group was more traditional “left-wing voters” who felt that Labor had drifted too far to the centre in its embrace of economic liberalisation. The Greens’ adoption of economic policies to the left of Labor attracted candidates such as Lee Rhiannon, a high-profile former member of the Socialist party.
3 The leadership of Bob Brown, a long-term environmental campaigner widely regarded for straight-talking and integrity. In an era where spin prevails over substance, Brown combined an unpretentious style with strategic nous.
What’s more, as the Greens and Labor could not provide a blocking majority in the Senate, it was clear that the Greens’ effective influence over the new conservative government was close to zero – if the government could win over the micro-parties, it would carry the Senate.
Suddenly, it seemed, the Greens had been dealt out of the game. How had this happened?
Ironically, the root cause of the Greens’ decline was that they had become part of the political establishment as they had always dreamed, but at exactly the wrong time.
They had cemented their place as the third “major” party in Australian politics, at a time when major parties were haemorrhaging trust.
They had stopped being a “minor” party at a time when around the world, minor parties were taking on the establishment from left and right, including the Tea party, the United Kingdom Independence party, Syriza, Podemos, and National Front.
In Australia, the rise of the micro-parties has been helped by the compulsory preferential voting system which, when combined with distaste for establishment parties, throws up unpredictable results in the Senate: a professional “preference whisperer” has built a reputation for guiding unknowns onto the Senate benches.
All these factors have played against the Greens, but in fundamental ways, they have contributed to their own decline.
Both voters and commentators remember that the Greens, the party of climate change, rejected an ETS because they felt it was not ambitious enough.
As it transpired, Labor enacted a weaker scheme in the subsequent parliament which was then disbanded by Tony Abbott’s government in 2014.
Had the Greens not shunned that first opportunity, it is likely Australia would have an enduring, successful scheme today, with millions of tons of emissions saved.
Then, when they supported Labor’s minority government, they failed in the public’s mind to secure distinctive policy achievements. Under attack from the conservative Murdoch press for pursuing a “Greens-Left agenda”, Labor actively moved to distance itself from the Greens, further weakening their political impact.
Ultimately, having failed to deliver on climate change in the previous parliament, this demonstrated an inability to move beyond a narrow agenda of climate change and refugees.
The departure of Brown as leader in 2012 did not help their cause; his replacement, Christine Milne found his shoes difficult to fill.
Fundamentally, the Greens succeeded because they combined issues politics on climate change and refugees with an occupation of the traditional social democrat space vacated by Labor as it has moved to the political centre.
It is possible that the pendulum will swing again, and that the Greens can recapture their standing as political outsiders driven by values. Then again, Labor could close off this avenue by reoccupying the social democrat ground with an appeal to those same values.
Given the speed at which Australian politics has moved in the last 15 years, no sensible observer would discount either possibility.