Greens With Envy

For many young and not-so-young voters, the Greens have become a new hope in Australian politics. Before global warming became the “greatest moral challenge of our time” and was promptly superseded by the economy, stupid, the Greens made the transition from environmental protest group formed in the wilds of Tasmania to modern, progressive political party. With the 2010 federal election marking a high-point in their electoral fortunes, the Greens and their supporters aspire to become the major left-of-centre force in Australian politics. However, the party’s tenuous link with electoral reality may prove to be a barrier to their future success.

In the aftermath of last month’s Melbourne by-election, federal Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt told Channel Ten’s Meet the Press that the seat of Melbourne “has turned Green for the first time ever.” Based on a comment like that, one might be forgiven for thinking that Greens’ candidate Cathy Oke swept to power on a groundswell of support, becoming the party’s first representative in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. Unfortunately for the Greens, this was far from the case. As Bandt knew when he made the comment, Oke was unlikely to wrestle the seat from Labor, but no harm in being positive, right? Wrong.

Melbourne had “turned Green”, Bandt claimed, because Oke had won the largest slice of the primary vote. Labor was ultimately only able to win the seat through a campaign “based on dirt” and preference deals with right-of-centre parties such as Family First, according to Bandt’s interpretation. Assertions like this are designed to do nothing besides cast doubt in the mind of the electorate over the legitimacy of Labor’s win in Melbourne. Bandt’s opinions demonstrate even the holier-than-thou Greens are capable of talking shit, like everyone else in Canberra. The federal member for Melbourne doth protest too much, methinks.

Let us cast our minds back to November 2010. Ah, those heady days when Clive Palmer dyed his hair and Andrew Bolt was confined to newsprint. At the federal election, the electorate of Melbourne returned the first Greens candidate to the House of Representatives. Following the poll, newly elected Adam Bandt smiled broadly for the cameras with Greens leader Bob Brown, the 2010 “greenslide” apparently sending a strong message to both major parties. A “greenslide”? With 12 per cent of the vote?

Hang on a second; did Bandt win the primary vote for the federal seat of Melbourne? Nope. To ensure victory, he was forced to rely on the flow of preferences from other candidates. By Bandt’s recent logic, the federal seat of Melbourne continued to be “red” in 2010, with Labor’s Cath Bowtell securing a majority of the first preference vote. But let’s not allow facts to get in the way of a good story.

For those of you who missed Dr. Nick Economou’s PLT1020 (or read the Herald Sun on a regular basis), government is formed in the House of Representatives and members are elected by a system of preferential voting. You might know it best as the small piece of green paper you get on election day, not the large unwieldy one. This system, introduced in 1918, sometimes means that the candidate with the largest primary vote doesn’t always win the seat. If this is news to you, dear reader, please consult Wikipedia’s page on the Electoral system of Australia – democracy will be the better for it.

Still, the Greens seem to be living in electoral la-la-land. With almost 12 per cent of the primary vote in 2010, the Greens have continued their call for a new voting system that would net them a commensurate number of seats in the lower house. Essentially what they are calling for is a system of proportional representation, as used in many countries around the world. In Australia, proportional representation is used for Senate ballots, but not for the House of Representatives, or lower house, where government is formed. The lower house instead uses a system of preferential voting. This is how the Greens have been able to consistently win seats in the Senate, but not in the House of Representatives.

In short, it doesn’t matter if the Greens won the primary vote at the Melbourne by-election; this isn’t the electoral system Australia uses. For Bandt to claim Melbourne had “turned Green” is not only hypocritical, but breeds an unnecessary contempt for an electoral system which has served this country well for almost a hundred years. If the Greens want a system that is more democratic, perhaps they should speak for a larger slice of the electorate than 12 per cent.

Of course, if the primary vote is so important to the Greens, perhaps they should look at the UK’s first-past-the-post system, a system that Liberal Democrat deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has labelled undemocratic and illegitimate. This system has ensured candidates with as little as 26 per cent of the vote are elected. Incidentally, this “undemocratic” system is the most favoured lower house voting system among Australians, according to a 2011 Essential Media poll.

For the Greens to be a permanent fixture in the Australian political scene, they need to adapt to electoral reality. Government is formed by the party with the majority of seats in the House of Representatives. That is the system; there is little prospect of changing it. Is this fair? No, not really, but each electoral system has its drawbacks. Proportional representation can and does result in political deadlock, necessitating the assembly of volatile coalitions. If the Australian electorate can’t handle one term of minority government, I doubt they’d take kindly to weeks of coalition building. As the Olympics has shown, we love a gold medal winner, not silver underachievers.

Not that the rest of the population cares much about the system. A recent Lowy Institute, only 39 per cent of 18 to 29 year olds view democracy as “preferable to any other kind of government”. The aforementioned publication of record, the Herald Sun, had to place this note in a story about Melbourne candidate Cathy Oke: “If elected, Dr. Oke would have to secure votes from the rest of parliament to effect…her policies because she would hold the only Greens Lower House seat.” Thank you, News Ltd. for explaining the whys and wherefores of the Westminster system.

Although their goal is ostensibly to be a force in national politics, the Greens seem completely disconnected from the real world. Our majoritarian system is not supportive of minor parties and instead of whinging about it, or supporting impossible change, the Greens should learn to deal with the system as it is. Without this dose of reality, they are unlikely to reach the lofty goals to which they aspire. The Greens’ genesis is as a protest party, but unless they adapt, it seems they may go the way of the Australian Democrats and that would be a loss for electoral diversity.

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Richard Plumridge

The author Richard Plumridge

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