Pure are the Green at heart—but progressives need Labor.
The Greens’ victory in Prahran and Melbourne at the 2014 Victorian election represents a turning point for progressive politics in Victoria. Despite their state-wide vote remaining static between the 2010 and 2014 elections, the Greens have managed to translate it into significant victories in both Houses of Parliament.
The results in Prahran and Melbourne suggest that the Green vote is becoming entrenched and that future seats like Richmond are at risk of falling once and for all.
To date, the Greens’ political success has almost entirely depended on the clever exploitation of the tension between the interests of Labor Party’s inner city voters and its blue collar and suburban voting base. Prahran is no exception. The Greens have taken enough votes from Labor to win the seat and now its residents are lucky enough to have a representative that cannot advocate for change within the Labor Government.
Bob Brown’s stated ambition is for the Greens to replace Labor. This is a perfectly legitimate aspiration for a political party but it is also very damaging for the broader cause of progressive politics.
If seats like Richmond, Brunswick and Northcote were to fall to the Greens, then the Labor Party would be faced with two choices: first, forming minority or coalition governments with the Greens; or secondly, finding seats elsewhere to replace those lost in the inner city.
Neither of these choices is good in actual terms for progressive voters.
The first choice might be superficially appealing but, as experience at state and federal levels has demonstrated, it is a recipe for dysfunctional and politically unsuccessful government that pleases neither Green nor Labor voters. Experience also demonstrates that a coalition or minority Labor Government with the Greens will be replaced by landslide Liberal-National Governments.
As we have seen federally, these short-lived Labor Governments also won’t be able to implement enduring progressive policy changes that long periods in Government require. While it was Gough Whitlam that introduced universal healthcare, his time in Government was brief, and the policy was repealed by Malcolm Fraser. Instead it took the electoral successes of the Hawke-Keating Government to entrench universal health care. Recall that John Howard was elected in 1996 on the back of a promise not to repeal it.
If the Greens take over Labor’s inner city seats, then the best option for Labor is to find seats elsewhere to replace them. Given the tightness of the electoral map, which sees elections decided in half a dozen swinging electorates, finding these seats will be hard work. Labor will need to re-orientate itself to appeal to more conservative swinging voters whilst losing progressive Members of Parliament from inner city seats to the Greens.
The result will be, on the one hand, increased Greens representation in Parliament based on success in a handful of inner city seats and, on the other hand, more Liberal governments or relatively conservative Labor governments.
The prospect of increased Green representation might bring cheer to the heart of its voters but, in fact, the more conservative Labor Governments that might result (assuming Labor can secure a workable majority) will be a poor result for progressives.
So, whilst supporters of the Greens Party might be celebrating their genuine success at the Victorian election, now might be the time for them to pause and consider whether the split in the left vote is actually good for progressive politics.
After all, it is hard to point to many tangible and independent achievements by the Greens in the past, and it is highly unlikely they will gain enough seats to form a successful Government that delivers progressive policies in the future.
The Labor Party undoubtedly disappoints some of these progressive, inner city voters with its positions on some issues like refugees and public transport. But unlike the Greens, Labor has to appeal to a broad and often contradictory section of the community. If the Greens are to meet Bob Brown’s ambition of winning Government then they will also have to appeal to these voters by addressing their concerns.
Do any Greens voters really think this will occur? I suspect that most progressive Green voters don’t think about it, and those that do believe that they will win these suburban voters by demonstrating to them that they know what is best. Just as they have done so effectively with the politics of climate change.
Now is the time for progressive, inner city voters to reflect and ask: do they want a party that must appeal to a broad cross section of voters or a party that restricts itself to narrow enclaves? Do they want a party that governs or a party that crusades?
As Gough Whitlam said of the Victorian Labor left long ago, “the impotent are pure.” For the Greens, that observation remains apposite today.
Timothy Wilson is a Member of the ALP. He is a former adviser for Martin Ferguson in the Rudd and Gillard Governments.