Bob Brown on Australian Green Party’s role in new parliament

Bob Brown, former Australian senator and leader of the Australian Greens, wrote this article for the Guardian on the Greens’ recent election successes and role in the coming parliament:

The new parliament will have more Greens, and more parties, than ever before. It will test the patience of the press gallery which lives for the simplicity of two-party politics and the jousting of personalities above the contest of ideas for Australia’s future.

The Greens held Senate seats in Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia. In Victoria, Janet Rice picked up a new Senate place and the party’s deputy leader Adam Bandt consolidated his hold on the house of representatives seat of Melbourne despite weeks of predictions that he would lose.

Bookies and pundits alike got Melbourne wrong, none more so than the ABC’s psephological guru Anthony Green, who abandoned reasonable precaution on election eve to pronounce Bandt dead, finished and out.
The non-eponymous Green has form when it comes to the Greens. In 2007, he predicted that Sarah Hanson-Young in South Australia would fail in her bid for the Senate. She won. This time, he predicted her downfall. Wrong again. A day after the election, his own analysis showed that Hanson-Young will win the fourth of six seats.

So the Greens will go into the Abbott dominated parliament stronger than ever, yet the Greens vote was down 3% across the nation. How can that be?

Firstly, Bandt’s victory came from a support base which has flown and grown beneath the press gallery’s radar. I went to a Bandt campaign meeting six months ago, after Julia Gillard set the election date as September 14, and was delighted to see 600 people turn up. Journalists were absent. They were also missing when Bandt’s team knocked on 10,500 Melbourne doors the weekend before the election. The electorate appreciated his attention, the Greens vote went up, and the rest is history.

A second factor is the meteoric rise of billionaire Clive Palmer‘s Palmer United Party (PUP). It took a lot of votes from the Greens, not least because Palmer has a humane approach to refugees not unlike the Greens policy. For the first time since the heyday of the Australian Democrats, the Greens’ senate vote was less than that for the lower house. Both parties enhanced their final result with preference arrangements that did not favour the two old parties.

Perhaps the two parties, which hog the attention of the Canberra gallery, will now take seriously the Greens’ long-held advocacy for preference voting above-the-line (for at least seven parties) in the Senate, instead of leaving the preferences to party dictate.

In 2010, I urged the Gillard government to ban preference deals between parties and candidates by getting rid of the legal requirement for parties to lodge Senate preference directions with the Australian Electoral Office. Labor would have none of it. Nothing is more likely to have major parties act on electoral reform than seeing other parties beat them at their own game, so the time is right to get rid of party preference deals.

The relentless Murdoch press attacks on the 2010-13 minority government, and The Australian newspaper’s editorial demand at the outset that the Greens be destroyed at the ballot box, worked out in Labor and Greens vote losses in 2013. In unison with Abbott, Murdoch campaigned ruthlessly against the government – not least prime ministers Gillard and Rudd – and that campaign spun through much of the rest of the media. It perversely highlighted the Jeffersonian idea that information is the currency of democracy.

Exclusion works too. As Oscar Wilde observed, the one thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. So, for example, Murdoch’s Adelaide Advertiser found almost no space in its election coverage news columns for the Greens’ Hanson-Young.

Greens leader Christine Milne was not only excluded from SkyTV’s leaders forums in the campaign, but a compliant ABC TV management kept her out of the Rudd-Abbott debates. These dull affairs would have been enlivened by Rudd and Abbott having to contest Milne’s policies like backing the Treasury-recommended mining super profits tax, opposing the dumping of coalport dredge spoil in the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area, and insisting on the legal and humane treatment of refugees here on Australian soil.

tasmania forest
Liberals pledged to log World Heritage forests. Photograph: George Apostolidis/AP

Senators sit for six years and come up for re-election every second election. So how they fared in 2013 should be compared with how they fared in 2007, rather than 2010 when the Greens got a higher vote. The Greens narrowly lost in Victoria in 2007 and narrowly won in 2013. In Tasmania, while the vote almost halved from Milne’s huge vote in 2010, it was closer to the more modest vote for me in 2007. It was sufficient to see my replacement, economist and wine-grower Peter Whish-Wilson, elected in his own right.

There is a lot of local speculation about the federal result being a pointer to the Tasmanian state poll outcome next March. The theory is that both Labor and the Greens, who share government, will be pulverised and the Liberals will romp home instead. This speculation is a tad premature.

On Sunday, straight after Abbott’s win, his Senate leader Tasmanian Eric Abetz emerged from an almost invisible election presence to rail against the Greens and the Gillard government’s World Heritage listing of a small fraction of Tasmania’s native forests. Abetz and Abbott want the popular global recognition removed and the forests re-opened to the loggers.

Next are coming cuts to the public service which will disproportionately hit Tasmania, a thumbs down to Hobart’s light rail proposal, a review of Labor’s plan to ban foreign supertrawlers from the southern fishery, and Abbott’s headline promise to abolish the Milne-inspired Clean Energy Act which is bringing Tasmania a $70m per annum windfall. Over the next six months, the Tasmanian Liberals may see the Abbott wrecking-ball swinging through their own election expectations.

Back in Canberra, the Milne-Bandt Greens team of 11 will be the largest of any third party since 1923. It will use the Senate’s constitutional powers to act as a moderator in the most right-wing government in living memory. And Abbott, who has made a virtue out of refusing to negotiate with independents and “minor” parties, will knuckle down to dealing history’s most diverse polyglot of parties in the Senate.

For its part the press gallery, which lives for two party simplicity, faces the same large contingent of political parties. It may find itself pining for the days when it thought the Greens and a handful of independents was a bothersome aberration.

Dave Schwab

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