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Sometimes, for us New South Welshmen with our excellent and prosperous government, our great Premier, Kristina Keneally with all her refreshing ideas and progressive reform agenda, it is difficult to acknowledge that there are other States within our Federation.

One such State is Victoria, a small to middling State to our south whose economy appears to run on boutique bars and something called ‘culture’. Victoria had a State election yesterday and the results are still too close to call. It appears overwhelmingly likely, however that the Liberals have won an outright majority government. The last I checked (and I can check no further, as the VEC website has been overwhelmed by traffic), the count was 44 seats to the Liberals who need 45 seats for an outright majority.

I haven’t been following the Victorian election at all, so I’m not aware of any of the details. It sounds like your dreary ordinary State campaign where each party makes boring pronouncements on transport, health and education which seem surprisingly similar to the other. Despite this, perhaps we New South Welshpersons must acknowledge that Victoria can have an impact upon our fair State.

Ramifications for NSW

There are two important results from the Victorian election I wanted to highlight. Firstly, the ramifications on the Gillard Federal Government and secondly, the ramifications for the Greens.

The Victorian Labor Party has been one of the strongest performing sections of the ALP. Unlike the belaboured NSW Government, the Victorian government has been performing reasonably well (as far as I can tell). Although, as a Labor Party, it is riven by internal factions and machine men, it is not as blighted as the NSW Labor Party which is famously incompetent and poll-driven.

Julia Gillard herself is from the Victorian branch and draws many of her supporters from the area. Victoria was one of the States which swung towards the ALP during the last Federal election. For the Victorian Labor government to lose is a blow to Gillard – but I do not want to overstate this point. It contributes to a weakness in Gillard’s internal support, but her position as leader of the Federal Party remains (as it always has) secured by her performance as PM and is only marginally affected by State affairs.

I want to distinguish those factors from what I am about to say next. Julia Gillard’s reform agenda depends crucially upon the Victorian State Government. Much of her agenda is not (exclusively) within the realm of  Commonwealth power. Her the National Curriculum, the NBN, Murray-Darling Basin reform, taxation reform, health, uniform regulatory reform etc etc. All these are Federal initiatives which will be implemented by the States or require State consent of some sort.

Because of some of the above factors, the Victorian government has been a leader in COAG, backing Julia Gillard on many of these reforms (notably excepting Murray-Darling Basin reform). Losing the Victorian government is a savage blow to Julia Gillard’s reform agenda because it will make it that much harder to implement. And when it is implemented,she will have to fight every step of the way. So although, policy-wise she may achieve everything she wanted, she will be denied favourable media coverage for achieving exactly the same things she would have been applauded for had a Labor Government been in power in Victoria.

And finding and being able to articulate a coherent vision for government will be essential to Gillard keeping her job. Many commentators (particularly those on the Right) are saying that Gillard has only another few months to display some sort of plan or vision in order to cement her reputation as a Prime Minister. Without the compliance of Victoria that all becomes quite a bit more difficult. And, with the looming loss of NSW and probably Queensland it seems as though the major States will be opposing the Federal Government later in her term. And, let us not forget, the special circumstances of the hung Parliament. Gillard must consistently remain a strong performer lest the independents or (as is far more likely) her Labor colleagues will quickly oust her from power.

Frustratingly for Gillard, perhaps she will have to find a reform agenda within one of the 39 heads of power granted to her by the Constitution. But not s 51(xxi) (marriage). That would never do.

No Green Victory

Despite much hype leading up to the Victorian election, the Greens did not far particularly well. And, despite what the Greens will say, it is not only because the Liberals did not grant them a preference deal. The Greens achieved a first preference vote of 10% – which is half their first preference vote in the Federal election. They achieved only a 0.6% swing in their favour from the last election (compared to a 0.9% swing in favour of the Democratic Labor Party). That is completely unaffected by the lack of a preference deal. According to the ABC website, they have not won any seats (though the votes are still being counted).

So it becomes clear that talk of a permanent structural shift away from a two-party dominated Parliament is wrong. The story (as always) is far more nuanced. There has been a structural shift in the political paradigm – there are now certain pressure points the Greens can push to gain votes, but it appears that it is harder to push those buttons than we first thought.

The extremely strong support for the federal Greens stems from a confluence of events in the factual matrix. Firstly, in the Federal sphere there are many more issues that are naturally Green issues. The issue of gay marriage, euthanasia, environmental protection, foreign policy (ie withdrawing from Iraq), an emissions trading system were all very strong  policy issues on which the Greens could campaign at a Federal level. (It might be worth briefly pointing out that under a strict Constitutional point of view, these issues did not always fall within Commonwealth power. My point is simply that they do, for whatever reason). Secondly, we had two major parties which had no positive agenda for the country. One had recently backstabbed its leader and backflipped on the greatest moral challenge of our generation. It was pressing an unconscionable line on migration. The other presented absolutely no policy alternatives beyond jingoistic slogans. Thirdly, the electorate didn’t know what a Greens balance of power looked like. The experience of third parties (especially the Democrats) shows that every time your primary vote creeps above 15% and you get actual influence your vote plummets once the electorate finds out how you will wield that influence.

Let us contrast that with the Victorian campaign. The Greens did not have any easy values-based policies to campaign on. In NSW, they might campaign on secular ethics classes but that’s about it. They can talk about campaign finance reform or other political ethics reforms, but that requires a great deal of nuance that is unsuited to the Greens’ campaign style. They can talk about environmental protection issues but that invariably loses as many votes as it gains (outside the Greens’ core constituency).

So what did the Greens end up campaigning on? Here’s a Greens campaign video that constitutes a good summary. Although, no doubt the policies would be more left-wing than the ALP or the Liberals, they didn’t sound too different from either party. It didn’t tap into the cache that the Greens have built up, except for a stronger emphasis on reducing carbon emissions. The Greens ended up campaigning on the bread and butter issues of health, education, water and of course, the environment. It makes the voter ask – why should we trust the Greens with these issues? Yes, you want to redirect $Xm to schools or roads, but where will you get the money from?

Turning to the second factor, the ALP and the Liberals both had policies. Yes, the Liberals ran a negative campaign, but it also put forward some policies (from what I gather). It wasn’t enough to inculcate the ‘pox on both your houses’ attitude created at the last Federal election.

Turning to the third factor, the horror of the 17 day interregnum at the start of the hung Parliament and the realisation that the Greens might actually gain influence probably swung many voters against the Greens. In fact, many of those self-same individuals who voted for Adam Bandt in the first place. I think a crucial factor was the Greens’ attempt to push legislation to directly regulate bank interest rates. The inner cities may be full of lefties, but they aren’t hippies. They tend to be youthful professionals who understand basic business concepts. Whatever you think of more bank regulation, direct regulation of interest rates is the dumbest way of achieving it. And, when the idea comes from the Greens, it raises the spectre of socialist ideology – which would deter as many yuppies as it attracts. Moreover, it was a departure from the softly-softly approach taken by the Greens in terms of their other initiatives. Will the Greens force a withdrawal from Iraq? No, we’ll have a one-day debate. Will the Greens legislate for gay marriage? No, we’ll just have a motion encouraging members to do it. Will the Greens legislate to regulate the banks? Yes, we will. And we will block any other attempts by the ALP or Liberals unless they accept our amendments.

What the Greens can do in NSW

So, given all the above, I don’t think its impossible for the Greens to make significant gains in future State and Federal elections. What it shows is that raising the Green vote is about managing perceptions. In this case, it is very much about maintaining the perception that the Greens are not cynical politicians (a fact the Greens readily grasp – as seen by the language they use during interviews). That must be matched by their actions in Parliament. They should only seek to influence, rather than forcibly negotiate for their bills. That brings them down to the level of gutter politics of the major parties. The Greens, in order to expand beyond their core constituency, must allow people to forget their radical past. That means, they should stay wisely silent on economic issues and continue to use the muted language they have employed in more recent times. They’re not pushing for gay marriage (or for equal rights etc) they’re removing discrimination from the Marriage Act. That difference in language is meaningful and somewhat less corny than calling it ‘marriage reform’ or something equally bland. Of course, when I say silent, I mean that they should obviously answer interview questions directly but in a way that will not garner media attention. It is possible, though difficult, since the focus will always be on the major parties and not on the Greens. They simply have to avoid saying anything controversial and the media will ignore them.

In terms of more specific things the Greens should do to perform strongly in the NSW election, they will need to pick up several key policies. Preferably these should be of a values nature, rather than substantive policy areas. Ethics classes. A Greens vision for parliamentary procedure reform (though, as I said, this can be a tricky area). A drug rehabilitation centre. Reform of prison sentencing so that it is more compassionate. The trick is to find policy areas that can wedge the ALP without losing votes yourself. Euthanasia laws, for instance, are unlikely to be  (strongly) opposed by progressives. On the other hand, sentencing reform might be opposed by (some) progressives and thus you run the risk of wedging yourself as well. A brilliant policy area is to find an area where homosexuals are significantly disadvantaged and use that. Or, perhaps even to try to legislate for State gay marriage (as George Williams has argued is possible).

The NSW Greens have the advantage of no longer having Lee Rhiannon on board. She is apparently, an awful woman, who constantly blocked any useful legislation in the upper house and also apparently one of those ex-communists who infest the NSW Greens in particular. The new leader, John Kaye, seems to be a much more presentable person and has a more nuanced approach. I think, with him in charge, the Greens can stand to make substantial gains.

PS: I have spoken in very cynical terms about the political strategies the Greens can employ to gain votes in the upcoming election. That is not to demean the Greens -> all politicians, whatever ideology or party, must be sufficiently cynical to gain votes. The question is whether, having won those votes, they use it to do good. The Greens, to their credit, are at least attempting to enact those policies they believe are good for Australia (whether you and I agree with that assessment is another matter entirely…)

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2 Comments

  1. At the next federal election we’ll have Coalition state govts in Nsw, Vic, Qld, and WA, making Julia’s re-election chances quite high. Although I agree that implementing parts of her agenda, especially health difficult.

  2. Oh lol, I forgot to finish writing this. Oh well, I’ll do it tomorrow lol

    Hopefully by the time of the next Federal election, Gillard will have a federally-based reform agenda rather than doing the States’ dirty work for them. I was thinking more in the context of the hung Parliament that Gillard needs to constantly maintain a strong and successful reform agenda lest she is ousted either by the independents (or as is far more likely, evil Labor party powerbrokers).


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. By NSW Election wrap-up « The Jackal’s Codex on 18 Mar 2011 at 8:29 pm

    […] commented in a previous blog (mainly here but also here) on the likelihood of the Greens sweeping NSW given their performance in Victoria. I […]

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