What Do Green Voters Want?


If parties continue to make swinging voters their sole priority, then more voters will become swinging voters, writes Amanda Rainey. 

In recent years, reform of the ALP has focussed a lot on primaries and direct election of the leader, and providing more opportunity for party members to participate in grassroots election campaigning. While making the party more participatory is a good thing, there is also a glaring omission from these development: policy discussion and values.

Of course in theory primaries and leader ballots should involve policy discussion, but in practice they tend to focus more on deciding who’s most likely to help us win: to appeal to marginal seat voters, to communicate well on TV, to play well with others in the caucus. And in theory grassroots campaigning should also involve policy discussion, but in practice campaigns are still focus-grouped for maximum appeal to swinging voters in marginal seats.

Into this context comes a series of electoral challenges by the Greens, in “safe” Labor seats and in the Senate. Labor members respond to these challenges by mocking and insulting Green voters, or by demanding they choose Labor and change the party from within.

We are essentially telling Greens voters ‘we might change, but you first.’

The recent vote on mandatory data retention provides a better perspective on the problem. Once the debate was over and the vote won, leaked stories emerged of how hard left wing members of caucus had fought against it.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlum didn’t have the opportunity to argue inside the Labor caucus and lose, but he did argue strongly and publicly for his position, representing the views of a large number of voters (including a large number of Labor voters). He still lost, but a widely held view was strongly articulated for the public record when it otherwise wouldn’t have been.

Demanding that the left vote for insider voices within caucus is both uninspiring and ignorant of what progressive voters actually want. We don’t just want to win a few votes against the right, we want to get our issues on the table and hear them publicly expressed in our parliaments.

We want to shift the entire debate, and if Labor won’t do it (because Western Sydney) then left wing voters will look elsewhere. If parties continue to make swinging voters their sole priority, then more voters will become swinging voters.

Voting for data retention out of fear of being wedged on national security is an acknowledgement that we lack confidence to defend our ideas in public. By limiting opportunities for debate, and trying to hide what exists of it behind closed doors, the vicious circle continues: marginal seat voters will continue to reject ideas that we’re too afraid to defend.

Building left wing numbers within the party is not enough if the culture doesn’t also encourage genuine, productive debate. The left will never be able to win change by numbers alone, we need open, continual policy debate aimed at changing minds within the party and outside it. Winning back votes from the Greens requires us to provide a positive alternative, not admonishments that it’s their fault we can’t change.

Former Western Australia Nationals leader Brendan Grylls argues: “Our supporters don't expect us to win every battle, but they do expect us to get a blood nose trying.” Until Labor remembers this we will keep losing voters, and seats, to the Greens.

Showing 13 reactions

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  • commented 2015-04-08 17:04:37 +1000
    Good words Amanda. I also believe in the public advocacy role the Left can pursue (obviously, since I post here regularly). And mocking Greens voters is not helpful (although I do indulge in that when I don’t think it matters).

    Neil, Nero is a perfect example. I saw rapturous congratulations at the Greens winning a few seats. Meanwhile, the State fell again to the conservatives. The bigger picture doesn’t seem to concern Greens, ironically.
  • commented 2015-04-08 16:47:42 +1000
    Thanks everyone for your comments. A lot of my responses to them are in my post already so I won’t repeat them, but I will limit myself to a few points!

    Firstly, let’s be honest, this is not about 90% vs 10% of the Australian public. If votes are what counts, then at best we’re talking 50% give or take 5% either way, or somewhere around 35% if we’re talking purely primary votes.

    I would like to move on from the Greens vs Labor debate because it always comes down to 3-4 of the same arguments. My argument is about what Labor should do better, that is what I am interested in. If a challenger – in the form of the Greens, or Palmer, or various independents – is good enough to win seats from us, it is entirely useless to demean or mock those who choose to vote for them. And if we persist in telling those people that they should vote for us to help us win the votes of the only swinging voters who really count, those in the mythical “middle Australia”, then we deserve their contempt. We’re telling them they don’t matter except as numbers.

    Lastly, we should acknowledge that our “change the party from within” argument will remain unconvincing as long as we refuse to fight publicly for things we believe in the most, even if we know we will lose. When it’s the only thing voters hear from us, it’s not unreasonable for them to assume the “compromise” position is our actual one.
  • commented 2015-04-08 16:17:38 +1000
    I will try and keep this on topic with Amanda’s excellent original post, though I am going to indulge in some response to Clinton’s reply to my comment. The assertion that the Greens disregard, let alone despise, 90% of the population is baseless, and presumably is deliberately provocatively insulting.

    The assertion that the Greens don’t “aim for Government” is similarly baseless. Obviously we haven’t succeeded and our progress is slower than I would like (or necessary to deal with climate change), but it is certainly the long term goal, and has thus far taken significantly less time than the Labor Left have spent unsuccessfully challenging the Labor Right for control of the ALP. From my perspective we already have conservative governments in seeming perpetuity, just with different branding and some variance in degree.

    I do agree that we need progressive politics that inspires “the masses”, aka people, though would ask for some evidence that that is something the Labor Left can do, and if you can why haven’t you been lo these many years? In fact you have admitted that “yes, Labor’s Left has failed” though qualify that with a criteria of assessing in absolute terms though I struggle to think of any incremental successes. The contrast seems to be the Greens’ slow progress versus the Labor Left’s continuing absolute failure to stop the ALP moving ever further to the right.

    The original posting highlighted that the Labor Left strategy of fighting the Labor Right behind closed doors isn’t going to be effective or inspiring. Pairing that with publicly defending and voting for right-wing policies, and no small amount of time and resources attacking the Greens who publicly promote progressive policies, and I don’t see the basis for Clinton’s claims of an inspiring ALP Left.

    The Greens may as yet only have the support of 10% of the population, and that obviously isn’t a majority, or even close to the lesser threshold of the numbers necessary to form government (though one in ten people shouldn’t be so easily dismissed). In contrast however the Labor Left have effectively no public support as it cannot publicly be differentiated from the Labor Right who dominate your party and determine your policy positions. I don’t see how that can change unless it breaks away and form a separate party, as the entrenched structures of the party make effective reform essentially impossible.

    Political parties, like corporations, don’t have a natural lifetime. There is a reason that evolution has programmed in competition and death, because they make room for new innovations. The now mature Greens as an institution have some issues that could be improved, for instance some stemming from the fact that the party formed just before the internet became widespread that parties like the Pirates formed more recently have been able to take advantage of in their structure.

    However the Greens cannot but compare favourably to the more than a century of accumulated institutional baggage accumulated by the ALP, legacies dragging down the party like the AWU and SDA, and various other insults to the concept of democracy and progressive values. The ALP has a structure and culture that have been built up over that time and proven effective and resilient in ensuring the right wing of the party and allied opportunists remains forever in effective control of the party.

    The ALP can sustain such deformities that put it so far out step with the electorate due to forming a duopoly with the LNP, and the tendency of most voters to retain their party affiliation despite the object of that identification changing substantially.

    What this discussion comes down to effectively is an argument about at what point do you abandon throwing good resources after bad in trying to reform the ALP in the hopes that it will be an effective mechanism for achieving progressive outcomes.

    People in the Greens who might have considered the ALP (I might have joined the ALP in the time of Whitlam, and many Greens members were previously in the ALP, and most Greens supporters previously supported the ALP) say at some point before now (generally long before, if ever), and people in the ALP Left effectively saying at some point in the future (seemingly a bit further off than fusion power).

    My argument is that there is no proof that even (the occasional) victories for the ALP Left internally can be shown to have led to any actual progressive outcomes. Despite decades of factional warfare there seems no realistic prospect of the ALP Left vanquishing the ALP Right or effectively reforming the party, and some doubt that even if it did very much would change given institutional problems of the Left itself.

    That being the case progressive people in the ALP are in effect spending their time propping up the right, and by extension or often actively opposing progressive politics.

    PS Clinton I am pretty sure your Nero reference doesn’t make sense.
  • commented 2015-04-07 17:09:14 +1000
    Thanks Neil for your considered reply. I think I used the wrong term when I said small target strategy. What I meant to say was niche strategy—appealing to only 10% of the population and willfully disregarding (if not despising) the other 90%.

    The Greens have not, and will never, aim for Government. So any attempt to imitate them means conservative governments in perpetuity, being my point. We need progressive politics that inspires the masses: something Labor’s Left can do. Something the Greens can’t do. When I asked the other fellow why the Greens are so unpopular—and you can’t blame someone else—he, without hesitation, blamed someone else. A long list in fact.

    And yes, Labor’s Left has failed. If you look at success in absolute, winner-takes-all terms. Which we should do with the Greens too. I look forward to the Greens stopping WestConnex, increasing investment in renewable energy, and improving gay adoption in NSW. If they don’t achieve these things in the next four years, they will be a failure.

    Their targeted seat strategy was successful. But I guess Nero considered his fiddling successful too.
  • commented 2015-04-07 16:44:58 +1000
    Clinton Barnes has made a somewhat confused assertion by saying “we shouldn’t be wanting to imitate the Greens’ small target strategy”. This suggests that the Greens’ (of whom I am a member) quite successful targeted seats strategy in NSW is a small target strategy. I think we can safely say the ALP also targets resources in seats they are more likely to win, which is not a small target strategy, but really just a prerequisite of any kind of strategy at all. The usual understanding of the term `small target strategy’ is an Opposition strategy of seeking to avoid taking a position on anything, or if taking a position taking a position as close as possible to the government to avoid differentiation or media criticism, and then hoping the government loses. It seems to have become widely used in relation to Howard’s first successful campaign in contrast to the relatively full disclosure of the preceding unsuccessful Hewson campaign. It is often reported as an increasingly popular strategy with Oppositions ever since and can legitimately be said to be being currently employed by the ALP lead by Bill Shorten at the federal level, and frequently by the ALP around the country at the state level. The Greens have never attempted a small target strategy, which makes sense not just because we are a smaller party outside the comfortable duopoly of the ALP-LNP and so can’t anticipate that the pendulum will inevitably swing back our way, but also we are generally the party that is most targeted regardless of what we do or say… and of course actually standing for things. What Clinton (who admittedly the sum total of my knowledge of is his posts here) in effect seems to be saying is that the ALP shouldn’t try and appeal to left leaning voters as they are too small a constituency, though I am not sure that is his intent. I presume this because Clinton is presumably at least nominally on the left at least as that is understood in the context of the ALP, but also as the Liberals have charged ever further to the right and the ALP dominated by the Right have desperately chased after them the electorate have pretty much stayed where they always were, meaning lots of potential support on the left. I can’t speak to the mystery that is the ALP Left, who going by the reports above are to some extent continuing the good fight behind closed doors, though from my perspective have nothing much to show for adhering to this strategy in living memory.
  • commented 2015-04-05 07:10:34 +1000
    At some stage in the not too distant future there will be a sustainability incident that will cause the extreme right of any party in all countries as well as the moderates and the lefties to take a stand against the reckless endangerment to the little blue rock. This will transcend left-right politics as we know it and will probably freeze the oil-gas-money lending fraternity out onto the marginal territory than green politics now enjoy. Let’s hope the incident is not planet destroying.
  • commented 2015-04-05 04:14:02 +1000
    Hear Hear!!
  • commented 2015-04-05 01:36:23 +1100
    So if there is any fault to the Greens, it’s their inability to get the message out there and engage voters. But it’s just a fallacy to say that the Greens problems are entirely their own, when it’s clear that the Australian media and press have such a massive, absurd bias against the Green party and the vast majority of Australians couldn’t even name a single Greens policy that isn’t some absurd strawman presented by the Australian media.
  • commented 2015-04-05 01:28:06 +1100
    “I just wish for once a Greens supporter could tell me why they are so goddamn unpopular without it being someone else’s fault.”

    Easy, the Greens have a relentless campaign against them from all sides of the media and political discourse. The entire media doesn’t even engage with ideas from the Greens, but makes a “Green strawman” and attacks that. Rarely if, ever have I seen an article from the mainstream media in Australia actually deal with any policy or real issues that the Greens bring to the table, it’s always just “The radical Greens with their radical policies that need to be moderated to be tolerable” what are these radical policies, care to name them? No, of course they don’t, every single time, it’s a strawman they build up and attack, even the ABC engages in this petty nonsense. Last time I looked, a party that follows Keynesian Economics to the book and their tax policies almost matched 1:1 the Henry Tax Review, doesn’t actually seem that radical at all, but again and again, the media refuses at all to recognize the Greens are anything but a “extremist hippy party” or engage with a single one of the Greens actual real policies or ideas and this follows through to the public.

    Almost every debate I have with ordinary Australians online or in person about the Greens, they have these absolutely insane ideas about the Greens that are just totally divorced from reality and don’t actually match any actual real Greens policy, hell most people think the Greens are a single issue party FFS, i’ve heard this from Greens campaigners themselves. This shows that no matter how much the Greens campaign, no matter how much they try present rational policy (again, when the HTR came out, it matched Greens tax policies almost 1:1) unless they are able to be taken serious by the Australian media which has right wing-far right wing bent, they will never, ever get their message or policy across when nobody is even willing to invite them to the discussion.

    Honestly I don’t even know why Socialist Left is still part of the Labor party and hasn’t jumped ship to the Greens, The modern Labor party does not care about Social reform (2015 and still against Gay Marriage FFS) nor does it care with engaging left wing politics (how is sucking off US multinational corporations in the TPP going?).
  • commented 2015-04-04 17:07:47 +1100
    Greens vote is consistently around 10% but it’s always someone else’s fault, isn’t it? Murdoch, media, manta rays. But if Labor doesn’t win, you’re here to enlighten us all on all the many intricate things Labor does wrong.

    I just wish for once a Greens supporter could tell me why they are so goddamn unpopular without it being someone else’s fault.
  • commented 2015-04-04 16:58:00 +1100
    Great comment Clinton.So perceptive. I’d never thought that the Greens were following a small target strategy. And here was me thinking they were being shut out by the media. :-)

    And your right, our vote didn’t go up this time. I guess we didn’t have the massive desertion of Labor voters that happened in 2011. But then, we don’t seem to have lost ANY back to Labor either. :-)

    I think Amanda’s analysis is a lot less dependent on wishful thinking.
  • commented 2015-04-04 16:52:47 +1100
    Now that is what I call a sensible, decent reaction. Lost me to the Greens ages ago, and could never return to Labor while it has traitors like Martin Ferguson and Graham Richardson still as members. And it needs to be a lot stronger on climate change. And for dog’s sake, sell your good policies.
    But you could stem the increasing leakage if you followed Amanda’s advice.
    Or Amanda could join us, so in a few years she would stand a better chance of being an MP!!
  • commented 2015-04-04 16:39:42 +1100
    While I wish we could have more open debate, where left MPs could put forward a sizeable minority’s view, we shouldn’t be wanting to imitate the Greens’ small target strategy. Their vote didn’t increase in the NSW election; they were just more targeted, more narrow, in their campaigning.