A little hubris is a dangerous thing. And a large dose of arrogance can prove fatal. Yesterday in the Senate, Greens leader Bob Brown nominated his Western Australian colleague, Scott Ludlam, for the position of president of the upper house. The motion was defeated, with the Labor, Coalition and minor party senators supporting the Labor incumbent, John Hogg.

Senator Brown should note that an absolute majority in the Senate is 39 votes, which is a long way north of the Greens’ nine senators. It is much the same in the wider electorate. Of late, the Greens leader has been proclaiming the party’s support in the 2010 election, which led to it obtaining the balance of power in the Senate.

Certainly the Greens did well in the last election – obtaining 12 per cent of the primary vote in the House of Representatives and 13 per cent in the Senate. Another way to read the same outcome is to recognise that more than 85 per cent of Australian electors voted for a party other than the Greens. It is just that listening to the likes of Brown, his Senate colleagues Christine Milne and Lee Rhiannon and the Melbourne MP Adam Bandt, you get the feeling that they regard themselves as more than a small, albeit vibrant, party.

Such presumption could prove counterproductive. On SaturdayThe Weekend Australian ran a report of an interview with Brown as its front page lead. The message was that, within 50 years, the Greens will supplant Labor as one of the major entities in Australia’s two-party system. Since the Greens receive Labor preferences in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, and at present enjoy an agreement with the Gillard government, this seems an unnecessary provocation.

It is much the same with the Coalition. Lately Brown has been bagging the Liberals and the Nationals while exhibiting a special vehemence for Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. This overlooks one inconvenient fact: Bandt won his seat on Coalition preferences.

Abbott is not solely to blame for the Liberal Party’s decision to preference the Greens ahead of Labor. John Howard and Peter Costello supported this position in 2007, as did the Liberal Party’s federal directorate.

However, many Liberals are not happy with this decision – as the Tasmanian senator Eric Abetz made clear during a speech last month. In Tasmania last year, the opposition Senate leader got his way, and the Greens were placed behind Labor on the Liberal Party’s how-to-vote card. The same tactic is widely regarded as having brought about Ted Baillieu’s victory over Labor in last November’s Victorian election.

As the ABC election analyst Antony Green has documented on his election blog, if Rhiannon’s vote had been only 4000 votes lower when she needed a quota, she would have been elected on Coalition preferences. In other words, the Liberals decided before the 2010 election that Rhiannon was preferable to Labor’s Steve Hutchins for the sixth Senate vacancy in NSW.

But last Thursday, on Sky News’ The Nation, the Greens’ senator called for the coal industry to be closed down within 10 years. Such a view would be anathema to the overwhelming majority of Coalition voters.

The evidence suggests that Brown and his colleagues do not realise how dependent they are on support from one or both major parties.

They might benefit from a brief glance at Australian history. The Democratic Labor Party scored 10 per cent and 11 per cent in the Senate elections in 1967 and 1970 respectively, and held the balance of power in the Senate after July 1971. It had no senators after the 1974 double dissolution.

On the ABC’s Insiders program on the morning after the 2010 election, the former Democrat senator Andrew Murray sent a graphic to presenter Barrie Cassidy. It made the point that in 1990 the Democrats won 12.6 per cent of the Senate vote and enjoyed the balance of power in the Senate for some years. There are no Democrat senators today.

The fate of the DLP and the Democrats indicates there is nothing inevitable about the longevity of a political party that enjoys about 10 per cent support within Australian society. Then there is the issue of extremity. The DLP broke away from Labor and ended up a right-of-centre party that played a constructive role in the Senate. The Democrats, a left-of-centre party, also sought to play a positive role in the upper house.

The Greens are an essentially left-wing parliamentary party of a kind Australia has not seen before. Up until the 1980s there was a far-left faction within the ALP but this never dominated Labor. The unresolved question in Australian politics turns on whether the electorate will continue its present support for the Greens. In its balance-of-power position, Brown’s party will be pressured by those who do not agree with its attempt to de-industrialise Australia as well as those extremists who will accuse it of being too accommodating to Labor.

Rhiannon represents the pinnacle of the Greens’ leftist ideology. In my Media Watch Dog blog last year, I documented her long-time association with the Socialist Party of Australia and her role in editing the party’s magazine, Survey. As Mark Aarons wrote inThe Monthly in May, the SPA was essentially financed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. In response to my critique, Rhiannon declared that she was never a member of the Communist Party of Australia. She avoided the fact that the SPA split from the CPA because the latter was not regarded as sufficiently pro-communist and not sufficiently supportive of the communist dictatorship in Moscow.

It is likely that the Greens’ influence will last at least another two years. However, Brown has to balance his leftist and environmental wings while hoping to retain preferences from the major parties along with the support of the electorate. It will require much skill and an absence of hubris.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of the Sydney Institute.

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