Polswatch

Outlining a Progressive Future

Is Fremantle a Sign of Things to Come?

On Saturday the 16th of May the Australian Greens made history by winning their first lower house seat in any state or territory parliament (after winning the federal seat of Cunningham in 2002) and by winning the primary vote in an election for the first time ever. The Greens won the seat of Fremantle by outpolling the Labor Party by a 45-38% margin on primary votes and won the seat by 54-46% after preferences were distributed, sending Adele Carles into the Western Australian legislative assembly. With this victory under their belt the Greens are now turning their focus onto federal lower house seats, arguing that if the current trend continues federal seats such as Melbourne, Sydney, Grayndler and Fremantle will soon fall into Green hands. This is being followed by a number of analysts and political commentators who are now questioning whether the Greens have the ability to permanently break up the two party system in Australia.

Third parties in Australia have a history of falling. The Democrats, arguably the most influential third party in Australia’s history, collapsed dramatically in the last two federal elections raising serious questions about whether the two party system will ever be broken in Australia. Whilst theories around why the Democrats collapsed as they did are still debated, there is no doubt that their collapsed has raised serious questions about the ability of a third party to survive in the Australian system. However, the continued growth of the Greens since Bob Brown was first elected in 1996 and the extremely strong showings of the party since the 2007 election, in which they recorded over 1 million votes, are placing the Greens in a position to break down the two party system in Australia. Whilst many may be sceptical of the ability of the Greens or any other party to break down this systems the Greens are in an extremely unique position with many positive aspects that favour the possibilities of them to do so.    

There are five key factors behind why I believe the Greens will continue to grow in the future:

  1. Having a Strong Base: Unlike the Democrats who had no real natural base (being focused on those who were dissatisfied with the major parties), the Greens have a strong base, not only with the environmental movement but with the left as a whole. Whilst the Greens obviously began as a party based around the environment movement, a mix of hard work by Greens MPs on other issues as well as the general rightward shift in Australian politics (see below) has allowed the Greens to take the mantle of the only true ‘left’ party in the country. This gives the Greens a very strong base that continues to grow as the party continues to convince those in the left that they are not just about the environment. This ensures that as long as the Greens stat true to their ideals that they will have a continued base of support that will ensure continued parliamentary representation.  
  2. The Continued Rightward Trend of the ALP: Second to this, the Greens are also benefiting from the continued rightward shift of the ALP. There is no doubt that the ALP is upsetting many of those on the left who have traditionally voted for them as they continue to pursue or refuse to reverse many of the right wing policies introduced by the Liberal Party. The Greens are benefiting from this as they are being seen as the only real ‘left’ wing alternative. Whilst some may claim that this is just a sign of a ‘protest vote’ against the ALP that will eventually collapse,  it seems very unlikely that the ALP will return to its left wing beginnings any time soon, meaning that this ‘protest vote’ is likely to continue to solidify.
  3. A Desire to Govern: Unlike the Democrats, who biggest focus was on ‘keeping the bastards honest’, the Greens have a focus on creating a party that is strong enough to govern, not just to be in the balance of power. This is important as it puts the Greens in a position where they are seen to be more proactive in their role in parliament rather than being reactive to the major parties. This proactive nature of the party tends to create greater support within the public over the reactive nature that occurs when one is focused on balance of power situations.
  4. Having a Large and Extremely Democratic Membership: Somewhat unlike the Democrats, the Greens have a very large and democratic membership. The parties’ membership currently sits around 10,000 and is growing. This is important as it provides the party both a strong contingent to work and campaign for the party, as well as a large number of people who can be trained and recruited to run for office.
  5. Having Strong Roots in Local Government: In all states across Australia the Greens have strong roots and have campaigned hard for local government positions and hold many of these positions, especially in New South Wales and Victoria. Fighting for these positions has been a very important tactical move by the Greens for two reasons. Firstly, it has provided much needed training for Greens members in governance, which provides great opportunities for such members to advance to state and federal government. A large number of candidates in past elections have come from the local level and I suspect this trend will continue in the future. Secondly, having members in local councils provide members of the public a real and local experience with Greens politicians. This is important as it allows the scepticism some have of the Greens to be dashed when they see the real benefits provided by having Greens in Government.  

 These five factors put the Greens in a very good position to break down the two party system in Australia and continue to grow as a party in local, state and federal parliaments. The Greens are surging and unless major unforeseen circumstances occur in the future it seems very unlikely that this surge will end any time soon, leaving the party in a position to create real influence in all levels of parliament and grow to become the most influential third party Australia has seen.

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May 22, 2009 - Posted by | Analysing the Left, Democracy and the State, Monitering the Left | , , , , ,

14 Comments »

  1. The Democrats do have a natural base – progressive (little l) liberals, which includes the entire Christian Left, the vast majority of people from ethnic and rural backgrounds, highly educated professionals and a significant chunk of Gen Y. The Democrats’ natural base is significantly greater than the Greens’ base ever will be, they have just become disconnected in recent years.

    If you read the party’s objectives http://www.democrats.org.au/about/pages/objectives.php, it has has been in their constitution since establishment 32 years ago that it is the objective of the Australian Democrats to govern.

    And while the Democrats membership has fallen in recent years, they are currently rebuilding and recruiting with gusto. http://www.democrats.org.au/campaigns/democrats_rebuilding_project/

    Your assumptions are based on a false assumption – that the Democrats are dead. They’re not. The party did take it’s eye off the ball in recent years, but those wrongs have been righted and the Democrats are coming back.

    I do hope the Greens enjoy their moment in the sun – it is the highest point the Greens will ever reach, and still nowhere near the Democrats’ highest support levels.

    Comment by Kat | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  2. Great site, Simon! Will check regularly. Brenton.

    Comment by Brenton H | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  3. Kat, I have to say a large amount of the assumptions you make here are simply ridiculous. Firstly, the list of the ‘natural base’ of the Democrats you provide there is absolutely wrong. For example, if the Democrats had a base of the vast majority of rural backgrounds, why did they never win or even come close to winning any rural House of Representative Seats???

    Second, I think you have a major problem with the definition of what a natural base is. Just because a group of people once voted for a party is doesn’t mean that they make up a natural base. The idea of a natural base is that it is created by a particular set of ideologies that a party is founded upon, which are the same as a particular group of people in society. For the Greens it is an environmental/left base, for Labor it is/was a union/left base and for the Liberals it is a conservative base. However, the Democrats never had this natural base as they don’t have a particular set of ideologies that are built upon. Whether you like it or not, the Democrats were created to ‘keep the bastards honest by providing a middle ground’ and looking at their website this theme is still prevalent. You therefore simply can’t argue that the Democrats do have a natural base as ‘keeping the bastards honest’ isn’t a political ideology.

    Also, thank you for your point about the Democrats desire to govern. It is interesting that the Democrats have that in their constitution yet still focus heavily on the idea of the party being about ‘keeping the bastards honest’. Whilst, it may be in the constitution it means nothing unless they actually make it their goal, which they didn’t.

    Last, I do like your little jab about this being the highest point the Greens will ever reach, which is still nowhere near the Democrats’ highest support levels. I think you might need a little education in electoral history. Going over past stats one sees that the highest point the Democrats got to was 12.6% of the Senate vote in the 1990 federal election. Now, whilst the Greens haven’t reached that point yet they did record 9% of the vote in the 2007 election. I would have to say that this whopping 3.6% margin is somewhere near the Democrats highest point and with polls showing that the 2010 will provide much higher Greens support I think we may see the Greens come a lot closer to the Democrats support in the near future.

    Comment by simon2013 | May 23, 2009 | Reply

  4. The ideology is progressive (centrist) liberalism (please refer to line 1 of my comment). That is an ideology, I do understand what a natural base is, and the Democrats have always had an overarching ideology. Just because the party took it’s eye off the ball for a few years, and you’ve never seen the Dems in full force, doesn’t mean it was never there.

    Keeping the Bastards Honest is a mantra that many Democrats use as an easy way to say what we are about, and to give you half a break it does get over simplified in our sound bite world. It was always more than a balance of power role – just as it was always about more than pure accountability. It’s about defending the little guy in the face of powerful interests (classic liberal value: all must be free to live how they want to), and challenging the status quo with insightful and inspired policy (classic progressivism value: learn from what has gone before and move forward). Keeping the bastards honest is a old but successful slogan that pulls those two ideologies together, and when Don Chipp first used it he was talking about himself as being the bastard.

    The protest votes will come back to the Democrats once we get back on our feet – the Greens never got them all anyway, because there are many positions of the Greens too radical for most average voters to swallow. Not true of the Democrats, whose policy profile sits fairly neatly between the two major parties, challenging through innovation rather than extremism. Additionaly the reassertion of the Democrats in the Centre will push Labor back to the left, and the Greens back in to their ideological corner.

    The aggressive rebuilding plans will have most of the rebuilding work completed and new faces and policies in place for 2010, meaning that if we do it right we will take your protest votes back, as well as a good chunk of the centrist liberal and labor votes, and the Greens will have to come up with something really amazing to ever see double figures.

    Comment by Kat | May 24, 2009 | Reply

  5. Oh and rural house seats are usually held on the basis on the individual candidates personality – pretty hard to break through with anything less than about 30 years lead time, but we’re working on it. A much higher proportion of rural people voted for their local National or Independent in the lower house, Democrats in the Senate, than their regional or metro counterparts.

    Comment by Kat | May 24, 2009 | Reply

  6. Kat, sorry to have to inform that you “are in fantasy land!” The next SA election will see the loss of the last Democrat elected to the state or Federal Parliament. I am one of the voters who will NOT be returning to vote Democrat. I stopped the day Meg Lees was photographed with John Howard in regard to the GST. I also soon realised that the Federal Democrat politicians were putting the knives into Natasha’s back after she was elected leader. Many of the Democrat voters WERE LEFT of centre, it was very easy to move to the Greens. I cannot see a big return by voters to a centre party. The Greens will continue to grow because virtually every other political party in Australia is a conservative party. The Democrats had many fine Members of Parliament, but those elected Members once infighting started helped to quickly destroy the party. It is very easy to say you have a plan to rebuild. So the Democrats still have a few members who are keen. But what you have to do is get the Australian voting public to support you again. I cannot see that happening. The Greens are an international movement. I cannot see them disappearing soon. When Green Parties havent done so well in elections overseas they are soon reelectd back next time because the public know that they are very good value in a greedy and uncaring world (eg German Greens) I still preference the Democrats second but I definitely will be voting Greens 1.

    Comment by Brenton H | May 24, 2009 | Reply

  7. To have a ‘natural base’ they have to vote for you. The Australian Electoral Study showed that Democrats voters were constantly shifting and very few consistently voted for the party. In contrast, maybe 5% of the population now vote for the Greens at every election. That is what is meant by a ‘base’.

    Also, a base has to vote for you to be your base. By definition, your base cannot be larger than the number of people voting for you, and at the moment practically no-one votes Democrat.

    The Greens have over 100 councillors around the country, including 75 in New South Wales. The Democrats never came close to those numbers. The Greens have 21 state and territory MPs, much more than the Democrats ever reached.

    In terms of federal votes, the Democrats polled 11% in the House of Representatives in 1990, and that was certainly impressive, but outside of that election never polled over 7%. The Greens have polled over 7% for the last two elections.

    The Democrats also always had a much larger differential between their Senate vote and House of Representatives vote. In contrast, the Greens vote is similar in both houses and in some cases we have polled higher in the lower house. That indicates much more commitment to the party.

    Comment by Ben Raue | May 24, 2009 | Reply

  8. Ben,

    I find your point about the state and territory MPs as an important and interesting point about the difference between the Greens and the Democrats. I just went over some numbers on state and territory MPs and it looks a little something like this. In the over 30 year history of the Democrats they only managed to elect 15 people to any state or territory legislature; which is 6 less than the 21 MPs the Greens currently have and the 37 MPs that have been elected as Greens in state or territory parliaments in their history. Now if we add federal parliamentarians to these number we see that in their history the Democrats have had 41 people elected to an Australian parliament, which is compared to the 47 people that have been elected as Greens. So, on these numbers alone one can argue that the Greens have now surpassed the support and influence of the Democrats.

    Comment by simon2013 | May 24, 2009 | Reply

  9. The Democrats always had a smaller core vote than the Greens, but also a larger pool of people who looked at them as a real possibility. This meant it was easier for their vote to reach high levels, particularly in the Senate, but also that it was more vulnerable in bad elections and they often did badly at state level. Even before their recent troubles we saw the dramatic collapse in 1993. The Greens are not likely to suffer that kind of slump without a major split amongst key people. On the other hand, we would have had great difficulty getting to the vote the Democrats got in 1990.

    Which of these is the stronger starting position is I think open to debate. However, the Greens have an advantage of being on the rise at a much better time for a 3rd party. When the Democrats peaked in 1990 there was no proportional representation in Victoria, and NSW and the ACT used less favourable systems than today. More importantly, a larger portion of the population was still wedded to a major party. The Greens are in a position to capitalise on having state MPs and an electorate increasingly ready to move away from their parents’ party, and as a result may be able to achieve things far beyond what the Democrats managed.

    If the Democrats can manage to pick themselves up off the floor they may also get to take advantage of the times. I doubt it, but if they can re-elect an MP in South Australia next March, which is a possibility, they might get the psychological lift that makes the next step possible.

    Comment by feral sparrowhawk | May 25, 2009 | Reply

  10. Hi all,

    I think the comments here by our learned colleague from the Democrats clearly illustrate that the Democrats have only ever consistently agreed with two things:

    1. the Greens are irrelevant: their continuously growing vote, hundreds of local councillors, seats in state/territory parliaments are just blips that will soon be erased by the Democrats (who took their eye off the ball)

    2. whatever problems the Democrats have, its probably the Greens fault.

    Oh and by the way – thanks for the GST, selling Telecom and the Workplace Relations Act (1996).

    Word.
    JH

    Comment by James | May 26, 2009 | Reply

  11. It’s funny James as to some extent I would agree with the second assertion there – whilst there were many many other problems with the Democrats that caused their failure, part of it was the Greens. In their peak the Democrats did manage to pick up a number of left wing voters; not because of their policies but because at the time they were the only party that were not the ALP or the Liberals. With the rise of the Greens however, these voters found both someone who wasn’t the ALP or the Liberals and was left wing – a great deal! So, to some extent the fall of the Democrats was the Greens fault, but only because the Democrats had these inherent problems that meant that all their left wing voters ran from them as soon as they were betrayed and there was another option available for them.

    Comment by simon2013 | May 26, 2009 | Reply

  12. Actually I don’t think there are any Democrats who blame the Greens. We screwed it up ourselves, and we know that, we learned from that, and we are moving on.

    Sorry, I should add a disclaimer there are actually some really bitter ones who get very pissed every time the Greens claimed environmental successes as theirs when the Democrats did all the heavy lifting on the issue back in the days when the Greens only had Bob and were begging the Dems for a merger. But they are a minority.

    The Greens found some clear air when we faltered and that’s fine and good. That doesn’t mean that air will still be there when we come back to claim it again. Don’t assume, as Democrats have in years past with the very obvious punishment, that your vote is solid. Learn from our mistake that in order to keep your base, you have to keep talking to them and not take their votes for granted.

    The assertions made in the original post that we have no base, no large democratic membership, never wanted to Govern and that the Greens are somehow fundamentally different are wrong – had the post talked about the rise of the Greens without comparing every point to false assumptions about the Democrats I would not have bothered commenting.

    BTW – it used to be absolutely taboo for parties to be involved in local politics – Labor and Libs still have issues with the concept too see for example http://www.news.com.au/couriermail/story/0,23739,23345951-3102,00.html

    There are many local councilors who are members of the Democrats, but do not campaign or stand under the party banner. That will most likely change as part of the rebuild, but there are still lots of older people who really don’t like it or think it is appropriate for parties to be involved in local govt politics.

    Comment by Kat | May 26, 2009 | Reply

  13. Kat,

    First of all I would like to note that the Greens definitely aren’t taking their ‘eye off the ball’ when it comes to holding onto their base and this is one of the many reasons why the Democrats aren’t going to be coming back any time soon.

    Second, I wrote the post comparing the Greens to the Democrats as it is the best way to do it. Simple put, the Democrats had major problems within their structures that made them fail. They had/have no natural base as they have no uniform underlying ideology (and if they do they are prone to betray it), they were never perceived to have any desire to govern (and if they did have that desire they weren’t very good at telling the public about it) and they never had and never will have any roots in local and state governments.

    Next, I love your claim that the Greens constantly claim credit for environmental victories that the Democrats did heavy lifting on. If I remember correctly it was the Democrats who passsed the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act in 1999, which has set up one of the worst conservation bases that this country could possible hope for and has ensured the continued destruction of Australia’s wildernesses ever since it was implemented. Great environmental credibility there!

    Lastly, on local councils. Whilst people may have a problem with parties being part of local councils, I disagree with that. Local councils are just as important as state/federal politics in Australia and it is to the credit of the Greens that they have recognised this and condition to campaign for these positions. It is the Democrats own fault that they didn’t do so.

    Comment by simon2013 | May 26, 2009 | Reply

  14. By the way, I have noticed that I made a mistake when copying and pasting this post in and left out one of my five reasons that the Greens will continue to grow. It has now been added.

    Comment by simon2013 | May 26, 2009 | Reply


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