The latest Herald/Nielsen poll had the Coalition ahead of Labor by 53 per cent to 47 per cent and the Greens with 15 per cent of the primary vote, a result which ignited some media hyperbole.
On ABC2 News Breakfast, journalist Melissa Clarke declared: “People don’t want to vote for either of these leaders.” She said this helped to explain the rise in the Greens’ primary vote.
The Monash University academic Waleed Aly queried whether the Greens are “emerging as a viable third party in a way that the Lib Democrats did in the UK”. Earlier, on Insiders, the Greens leader, Bob Brown, staked a claim for his party to be in the leaders’ debate, maintaining “that’s common practice in Europe”.
Now for a dose of reality.
Certainly the Greens’ vote appears to be increasing – from 8 per cent in the 2007 election to about double that in the current Nielsen poll. However, contrary to Clarke’s claim, some 33 per cent of voters in this survey expressed an intention to vote Labor with 43 per cent favouring the Coalition. Approval for Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott is at 41 per cent each.
In short, it is exaggeration to assert no one wants to vote for Rudd Labor or the Coalition under Abbott’s leadership.
It’s much the same with the discussion on the Greens. On current levels of support, the Greens should be expected to win one Senate seat in each of the six states. But no more than that. This would almost certainly give the Greens an unchallenged balance of power status in the Senate – when one or other of the major parties supports their position.
The Greens are essentially the party of the affluent inner-city professional class, many of whom work in the public sector or who enjoy generous taxpayer-subsidised superannuation. An increase in the Greens’ primary vote makes it possible for the party to defeat Lindsay Tanner in Melbourne and Tanya Plibersek in Sydney and maybe Anthony Albanese in the inner-metropolitan seat of Grayndler.
Such victories would depend on the Liberal Party giving its preferences to the Greens ahead of Labor.
There is no compelling reason why the Liberals should do this. It would be most unwise for the Liberals to give preference the Greens without receiving a reciprocal deal in some key marginal seats.
Even if the Liberals make it possible for the Greens to win, say, three seats, the Greens would have no greater representation than enjoyed now by independents Bob Katter, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott. Brown’s pitch that the Greens’ support warrants them a place in the leaders’ debate overlooks the fact the party does not have a single member in the House of Representatives who could hope to become prime minister.
Moreover, Aly’s comparison of the Greens with the Liberal Democrats ignores the reality that the latter have 57 seats in the House of Commons and consistently score more than 20 per cent of the primary vote. As Private Eye documented in April, British journalists have a history of falsely predicting a surge in the Lib Dem vote. Nevertheless, their vote has stabilised at a level well above what the Greens achieve in Australia. Also, Britain has a first-past-the-post electoral system. Aly’s comparison between the Greens and the Lib Dems is at best wishful thinking.
If Labor keeps its inner-city seats, despite a decision by the Liberals to preference the Greens, this will partly reflect the political nous of Tanner, Plibersek and Albanese. But it will also be due to the support Labor receives from lower socio-economic groups, including the residents of inner-city public housing.
A few academics and journalists predicted a big vote for the Greens in last December’s byelections in the suburban seats of Bradfield in Sydney and Higgins in Melbourne. Robert Manne canvassed in The Australian the possibility of the Greens’ candidate Clive Hamilton winning Higgins. On the morning of the poll, The Age ran a large photograph of Hamilton with his bicycle. Hamilton made no impact on the Liberal vote and, being based in Canberra, had a bigger carbon footprint than any candidate in the contest.
For all the current media hype, this year’s election looks like a not untypical close encounter between Labor and the Coalition – with both parties hoping to maximise preferences from the Greens, minor parties such as Family First and independents.
The Greens might win House of Representative seats and just might have a role to play in a hung parliament. But it is unlikely Bob Brown and his colleagues will be anything other than influential senators.