Sometimes politicians are deauthorised not so much by defeat as by their response to failure. The late Liberal Party leader Billy Snedden never recovered from his comment, after his defeat by Labor”s Gough Whitlam in 1974, that the Coalition had not really lost the election. It had.
The deputy leader of the Greens, Adam Bandt, should be held up for similar ridicule following Labor”s victory at the weekend in the Victorian state seat of Melbourne. Late on Saturday evening, Bandt said: “”On the results we”ve seen so far, Melbourne has turned Green for the first time ever – we have won the primary vote.””
The following morning, on Channel Ten”s Meet the Press, Bandt had another Snedden moment when he claimed again that “”Melbourne has turned Green for the first time ever””. Yet all the available evidence indicates that, in spite of the expectations of Greens supporters, Labor”s Jennifer Kanis has narrowly held on to the inner-city seat by about 51.4 per cent to 48.6 per cent after the distribution of preferences.
On Saturday night, on Sunday and again yesterday Bandt blamed the Greens” lower than expected vote on Labor”s “”preference deals with the likes of Family First””. This is quite disingenuous. As of Saturday night, Labor”s primary vote was 33.3 per cent to the Greens” 36.4 per cent and Family First”s 2.9 per cent.
If all Family First”s preferences had gone to the Greens” candidate, Cathy Oke, her vote would still be a long way short of a two-party preferred majority. What Bandt did not say was that the preferences of Berhan Ahmed (chairman of the African Think Tank) and Fiona Patten (founder of the Australian Sex Party) went primarily to Labor. Both candidates scored many more votes than Family First.
In any event, Bandt knows Victoria has a preferential vote system. So does the Commonwealth Parliament. In August 2010, Bandt was elected on Liberal Party preferences. It is uncertain whether the Liberals will make a similar strategic error at next year”s election.
Labor did not do well in Melbourne. But it held the seat. This is good news for the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. However, the Labor/Greens battle in Melbourne had the unintended consequence of highlighting Gillard”s – and Labor”s – essential problem.
This turns not on the Greens but rather on the Coalition and, in particular, Tony Abbott. Labor”s association with the Greens – formalised in the agreement signed by Gillard and the (then) leader of the Greens, Bob Brown, in September 2010 – is bleeding votes to the Liberal Party and the Nationals. Meanwhile, across Australia, the level of support for the Greens remains relatively steady at just over 10 per cent.
On the Sky News Australian Agenda program on July 15, sometime Labor speechwriter Dennis Glover maintained that “”the vast majority of Labor supporters and members would prefer to see the party aligned with the Greens than aligned with a party to the right””. If this is the case, then Labor”s support should have risen since the Gillard/Brown deal was consummated. It has fallen.
Australian voters are smart. Middle to lower-income groups, living in the suburbs and regional centres, know that the inner-city left looks down on them and secretly would like to see the secondary and primary industries where they work (in particular, timber and mining) close down. The inner-city left”s agenda also favours higher energy prices as part of its agenda to reduce human-initiated climate change.
Likewise, social conservatives in the suburbs and regional centres who are religious believers resent being sneered at by the inner-city left because of their faith, or their decision to support non-government schools, or on account of their opposition to same-sex marriage.
The problem with Gillard Labor”s carbon tax turns not only on its perceived impact on energy prices and the Prime Minister”s broken promise. There is also the fact that many voters have lost faith in eco-catastrophists such as Tim Flannery. Flannery”s scare campaign that the dams supplying Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne would never fill again has been discredited by the ending of the drought. Nevertheless, he was recently appointed as the chief commissioner of the Climate Commission.
Many journalists and academics predicted that Malcolm Turnbull”s replacement by Tony Abbott in December 2009 would be disastrous for the opposition and, in particular, the Liberal Party. But the evidence suggests that, under Abbott”s leadership, the Coalition is gaining votes from Labor.
Abbott”s views have much more support in the wider electorate than those of most journalists and academics. That”s why many commentators have failed to detect the damage to Labor”s brand caused by its association with the Greens.
Labor is in political trouble because its policies are not popular. Consequently, Labor”s current difficulties will not be overcome by dumping Gillard for someone else – any more than they were resolved by dumping Kevin Rudd for Gillard two years ago.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.