Great pictures. But what about the message? Last week the Prime Minister announced the formation of her government’s climate change committee with a joint Labor-Greens news conference.
There was film and photographs of Julia Gillard with her colleagues Wayne Swan and Greg Combet and the Greens senators Bob Brown and Christine Milne.
In the Herald on Tuesday, a shot by Andrew Meares featured Gillard talking with the Greens leader close by. It is the kind of footage normally associated with a leader and deputy leader. But he is the leader of the political party intent on winning seats from the ALP in the lower house.
In the medium term, the success of the Gillard-Brown images and Labor-Greens agreement will depend on interpretations in the electorate. Gillard’s tactic will work for Labor if voters accept that she is leading a minority government that is all about resolving key policy issues, such as climate change. But the tactic will fail if it has the unintended consequence of giving legitimacy to the Greens, especially if there is no ultimate negotiated agreement between the parties on climate change.
Gillard Labor’s climate change committee underlines the problem. The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, has refused to fill the two places offered to the opposition. There are three Labor representatives (Gillard, Swan, Combet), two Greens (Brown, Milne) and the rural independent Tony Windsor. This means the Greens have a third of the places on the committee, despite receiving 11 per cent of the vote in the House of Representatives at the election.
The committee will be meeting when Victoria and NSW go to the polls in November and March respectively. In these elections, the Greens have a real chance of winning lower house seats in inner-city Melbourne and Sydney, provided the Liberal Party puts the Greens ahead of Labor on its how-to-vote cards. This is how Adam Bandt recently won the seat of Melbourne from Labor. Andrew Wilkie, the former Green who is now a “small green” independent, also won the Hobart seat of Denison on Liberal Party preferences.
It is understandable why Gillard reached an agreement with independent MPs Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor to form a minority government – and she tried to do a deal with the independent Bob Katter. Yet the rationale for the Labor-Greens deal was never obvious.
Bandt has a record as a leftist and he indicated before the election that he would support Gillard in the event of a hung parliament.
Bandt was never going to support Abbott. Nor was Wilkie. Nor were Oakeshott and Windsor, although Gillard could not be certain of this.
Sarah Ferguson’s program “The Deal” on Four Corners last night demonstrated a certain naivety on the part of the presenter and her producer.
Ferguson was convinced by the two independents that they made up their minds to support Labor at the very last moment. But Windsor was on record as equating the National Party with a cancerous condition. And, as Claire Harvey reported in The Sunday Telegraph last weekend, Oakeshott formed the view a decade ago that the Nationals were imbued with racism.
In view of this, it is highly unlikely that either man would have backed a government in which the National Party leader, Warren Truss, was the deputy prime minister.
Unlike Bandt and Wilkie, who won Labor seats, Oakeshott and Windsor had reason to maintain they were open-minded since they held conservative seats. Gillard could not afford to take a risk with either. But she and her advisers did not need to embrace what the Coalition has labelled the Labor-Greens alliance.
The last election showed Australians were almost equally divided over whether Gillard or Abbott should be prime minister. Labor is strongest in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania and the Coalition performs best in Western Australia, Queensland and NSW.
Some Labor operatives erred in underestimating Abbott and it would be unwise for the Liberal Party to underestimate Gillard’s ability to revive Labor.
If the divide prevails, the next election will probably be decided in the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne, in the seats now held by Oakeshott and Windsor in northern NSW, on the NSW central coast and in northern Tasmania. This is where there is likely to be a greater concern about rising power bills than the Greens’ climate change agenda, which is popular among the party’s radical middle-class base of inner-city professionals, academics, public servants and superannuants.
To win again, Gillard needs to increase Labor’s vote in the suburbs and regions. These are the parts of the Australia where the electorate is least impressed by photos of a Labor-Greens unity ticket.