29 October 2010

Why the Liberals should preference the Greens

Australia's two biggest states will go to the polls over the next six months. Labor will want the Liberals to preference them ahead of the Greens, while the Liberals will be tempted to mess with Labor for short-term gain. In both states, the Liberal position is strong: somewhat stronger in NSW but over the next term, even if Brumby scrapes back in you have to fancy the Liberals' chances over Labor's.

There is no reason why the Liberals should engage in a pas-de-deux with the ALP. Labor only do this in moments of weakness, and the Liberals never benefit. It becomes hard for a Liberal opposition to become a Liberal government when they've cut so many deals for quick, little wins; some Lib staffer gets a public sector job while Liberal frontbenchers never become ministers. If the Liberals preference Labor and Labor preferences the Liberals, how do they create a competitive advantage? Brumby's bellowing at the Victorian Liberals, demanding that they preference his government, reminds me of Morris Iemma demanding that Barry O'Farrell back him on electricity privatisation. For Baillieu to accede would be the end of him.

Andrew Norton wrung his hands over his local electorate before eventually deciding to preference Labor on particular Federal issues. What of the longer term, the bigger picture?

The reason why the Liberals should preference the Greens is because it is in its interests to shape the left in such a way that makes left governments structurally weak. A strong Liberal leader, one determined to be in power for a long time, would intone gravely that the Labor Party is in such a dire state that it cannot be supported. The Greens have the kind of political vigour that the ALP lacks, and to recognise this and build bridges over the long term is in the best interests of the Liberal Party. The future of the left in Australia belongs to both Greens and Labor, and it is a pragmatic recognition of this for the Liberals to preference the Greens.

Of course, this would drive Labor crazy. The foundation of the ALP is that it is the only political force on Australia's left capable of holding government. It has guarded this jealously, inventing the notion of the "rat" which has latterly been taken up by post-Howard Liberals. It has seen off international communism, sharply limited the application of Leo XIII Catholicism, and ran rings around the Democrats who threatened to deny Labor centrist votes. The Greens represent a force so substantial and so sharp that it can act as a pincer for Labor, if the wit is there for the Liberals to use it thus. The idea of putting the future of the left in the hands of the non-left is a political advantage for the ages. It threatens to break a generational cycle where Liberals have been equal or inferior to Labor in winning state elections.

In both NSW and Victoria, Labor MPs vulnerable to the Greens in inner-city seats are highly-regarded ministers. If they are beaten by Greens, local Labor branches will not be capable of finding quality candidates to run against them next time; they will be the usual random duffers Labor fields in other marginals. Labor won't be able to replace those people quickly from anywhere else in the short term. The Greens, meanwhile, will have political momentum and will therefore attract quality people not focused on money, continuing to put the lie to the idea that political competence is necessarily expensive. If Labor lose Melbourne or Balmain to the Greens, they will suffer a blow from which they will not recover easily or quickly.

Worse, the future for a proud party thus defeated would be to form a coalition with its tormentors. True, the Libs and Nats have their tensions but they also have a culture of symbiosis that is lacking in both jealous Labor and we-shall-overcome Greens. A future Green-Labor government would be fraught to the point where it will take ten, twenty years for each to learn to live with the other. For the Liberals, ten or twenty years is a long time in government.

Having forsaken the inner-cities, the future of Labor is taking on the Liberals in the suburbs and regions, engaging in law-and-order auctions and urban planning issues: issues that favour the Liberals, especially if they are the incumbent government or challengers to a tired, dispirited and exhausted government.

Five years from now, the baby-boomers will be gone from Labor, and with them the party's electability:

  • The NSW Coalition government will be headed for re-election against a gutted ALP;
  • If Victoria's Liberals don't win next month, they can't but win next time;
  • Anna Bligh, Andrew Fraser and the brothers Dick will have slid into history - regardless of how bad a Langbroek government might be, Labor won't be able to regroup to take advantage of it;
  • Colin Barnett is the supreme politician in WA state politics; fawning from his own side, and such opposition as there is can only be described as feeble; John Howard syndrome; and
  • The wheels will fall off Rann, again with little prospect of regrowth, to the point where not even the Libs can botch it.
Tassie is anyone's game, though something tells me Hodgman could yet outwit Labor there - and of course the Feds speak for themselves. Gillard can keep Labor together long enough to fob off Abbott, but beyond that a sensible Liberal leader should be able to build a genuine understanding with the Greens that cuts Labor out of the game, leaving them with the sort of union-official zombies they have warned themselves of for a generation. 

I think it is one of the great tragedies that Deakinite liberals were replaced by dull-witted tinsmiths, autodidactic cabinet-makers, Billy Hughes and other randoms under the Labour League banner, many of whom would later desert the ALP anyway (there is nothing so traditional as trouncing Labor traditions). The Greens look set to give Labor the same medicine. All of your Freudenberg flatulence can't help Labor deal with the next few years; fundamental restructuring and accommodation with what now seems impossible is their only hope. The Liberals' only hope is to force these changes on their opponents before they're ready.


  1. David Irving (no relation)31/10/10 3:57 pm

    Andrew, I think you're mistaken about the baby boomers deserting Labor in the next 5 years, or if so, it'll be to the Greens rather than the Coalition. It's not a given that people over 65 are more conservative than they were at 55.

    It's more likely that, as the current generation of senior citizens pop their clogs, it'll be the conservative side of politics that loses support.

  2. The reference to the baby-boomers was to the MPs, David. NSW is one Labor-governed jurisdiction where Gen X is in the drivers' seat - and particularly clueless examples of same. The other in Tasmania, where Labor has learned to work with the Greens.

    I doubt whether anyone from the Brumby government - of whatever generation - will be able to share power with anyone at any time. Accepting that the future of the left-of-centre is a Labor-Greens future will require quite some adjustment on the part of Labor people. The Libs will probably not take up the considerable opportunities that exist while that mental adjustment takes place.

  3. David Irving (no relation)1/11/10 5:30 pm

    Ah. I see what you mean, now. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

  4. It's the ALP that's demographically buggered - just look at the last few demographic Newspolls before the election. The ALP is actually behind the Coalition in the 18-34yo age segment because the Greens have pinched so much of the ALP's base. The Coalition is collecting its customary 35-39% in that age group.

    Or you could just look at the ten-point primary gap in the most recent Newspoll. Or you could look at the Coalition's steady primary vote (cyclically adjusted or not) over the past few decades.

    Andrew's right - the ALP is finished in terms of mindshare, although they will linger on because the Greens don't do well (yet) in Labor heartland seats, so a big chunk of that Greens vote is, as it currently stands, wasted in safe Liberal areas where the Greens will never achieve much.

  5. If you mean 'finished' in the way that Telstra is 'finished' as the monopoly provider of telephony, then I suppose it is. Labor's mindset means that it can't handle sharing power on an ongoing basis, and it will just have to change that mindset.

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