What to make of a country turning Green?

Posted on July 29, 2010 by

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Watching the clearly stage-managed and quite underwhelming performance of the leaders of the two major parties in the debate on Sunday night, it is perhaps not surprising that the Greens are attracting unprecedented support in the lead-up to this year’s election. According to the most recent Nielsen and Galaxy polls, the Greens hold anywhere between 13-15% of the primary vote, a result which, if reflected on election day, would amount to a doubling in support for the Greens since the 2007 election. More significantly, it would almost certainly see the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, and potentially result in the party having a voice in the House of Representatives.

As Guy Pearse argues in his feature in the July 2010 edition of The Monthly, the sharp rise in support for the Greens cannot be merely considered a protest vote. While both major parties’ shying away from a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme , together with their commitments to offshore processing of asylum seekers, have certainly played a role in the Greens’ heightened popularity, there is a sense that the party is better mobilised than ever to present a viable alternative to Labor and the Coalition across a broad range of issues. Commitments to increasing mental health services, improving access to dental services through including them in Medicare, devising an exit strategy for the war in Afghanistan, introducing measures to protect small business, as well as of course advocating for immediate action on climate change are all proposals that would appeal to a wide range of voters.

In a democratic election policies are only ever as good as they are communicated, however, and that may be the only thing standing between the Greens and a sustained presence in the Australian parliament as they face inevitable attacks in the coming weeks. The most recent criticisms have revolved around the preference deal struck between Labor and the Greens. Despite Bob Brown’s espoused disdain for ‘behind-the-scenes’ directing of preferences, and pledge to reintroduce legislation to reform the electoral system, the charge will be repetitively levelled by the Opposition and others that ‘a vote for the Greens is a vote for Labor’. It is difficult to say just how many people will be dissuaded by such sloganeering; so long as Brown continues to take the moral high-ground, and speak as candidly as he has been, however, it is likely that most prospective Greens voters would not change their mind on that issue alone.

Perhaps the most vicious – and some might even say legitimate – charges in recent times, however, have concerned the Greens’ decision not to pass the Government’s proposed Emissions Trading Scheme. On the ABC’s Q&A program last month, South Australian Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young faced a barrage of criticism from Malcolm Turnbull, Graham Richardson and Craig Emerson for failing to compromise on the ETS, all arguing that some action was surely better than none. Few would disagree that the Greens came out of that harmed, painted as ‘absolutist’ and incapable of negotiation. In order to pose as a legitimate third party, the Greens need to be seen as open to dialogue and consensus- building; if their campaign becomes plagued by this issue, much will surely ride on the ability of the party’s representatives to clearly explain their reasons for voting the legislation down. Furthermore, if the Greens do achieve the balance of power in the Senate, as is expected, much of their future success will be determined by their performance in the next parliamentary term. With a sympathetic electorate, a number of capable candidates and a plethora of broad-based policies, the biggest immediate hurdle facing the Greens might just be their ability to diffuse criticism through effective communication. The next, we can surmise, will be their functioning in a balance of power situation.

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Posted in: Analysis, Dylan Bird