John Warhurst July 19, 2012
Illustration by Ian Sharpe.
The 'war' on its ally has more to do with protecting the brand for middle-of-the-road voters than winning back true believers
Political parties criticise one another all the time. Not only do they have genuine differences but they are in direct and indirect competition for voters, activists, donors, media coverage and so on. But at times the level and tone of the criticism ramps up and at the moment the particular target of both major parties, Labor and Liberal-National, is the Greens.
The intense criticism of the Greens as far-left extremist, loopy and/or the One Nation of the left, has erupted at the moment primarily for electoral reasons. There are other factors, such as recent failed compromises and deep-seated competing values and personalities, but positioning with an eye on voting and elections is the core motivation. The rest is secondary.
Position all political parties on a left-right continuum to start. The Greens are on the left, Labor on the centre-left, the Liberals on the centre-right and the Nationals somewhat further to the right. Remember that there is overlap of voter allegiance at the edges.
This is a very rough and ready guide and doesn't take into account how parties move around or the range of positions within any party. Politics is not one-dimensional. But for all its limitations this continuum is helpful in understanding just what is going on in this controversy.
The rise of the Greens' vote to about 12 per cent nationally has largely come at the expense of Labor, despite some Green voters coming from other parties further to the right. The considerable damage to Labor's first-preference vote from this development has been counter-balanced to some extent by the large number of Greens voters who distribute their second preferences back to Labor.
Nevertheless Labor must increase its first-preference vote, either on the left or in the centre, to retain government. Some of this current tension between Labor and the Greens follows from the contest between these two parties for the loyalty of voters on the left end of the continuum. Labor wants to win back some of their erstwhile supporters now voting Green.
But that is a small part of this story. Even if you include the added element of winning back young activists, especially among women and in inner-metropolitan areas, this element is still secondary.
The bigger part is the battle for middle-of-the road voters. That is where elections are won. Labor, especially the Labor Right, is criticising the Greens because they identify danger in the growing identification of Labor with the Greens. This part of the story is connected to the close relationship between the Gillard government and the Greens, both objectively and subjectively in the eyes of the electorate. It involves two elements: the alleged ''greening'' of Labor policies (policies like the carbon tax) and the reliance on Green parliamentary support.
It depends, furthermore, on the Greens being viewed negatively by middle-of-the-road voters. In this account the Labor ''brand'' is being damaged by this relationship through guilt by association.
Both major parties would like to eliminate the Greens, not just to increase their own Senate and House of Representatives vote, but to make life easier for them overall. Major parties don't like minor parties and would welcome a return to the good old days of the two-party system. For the Coalition parties there is not only the direct benefit of damaging the Greens but the indirect benefit of damaging Labor.
The idea of Labor trying to divorce itself from allegedly unfavourable associations is not new. Ironically, given that Labor trade union leaders like Paul Howes are leading the attack on the Greens, there is a parallel with some past Labor leaders criticising trade unions, like Kevin Rudd did when he won government in 2007.
The ingredients are the same. 1. Trade unions are unpopular. 2. The opposition links Labor with trade unions (not difficult as Labor is a trade union party) to damage the Labor brand. 3. Labor leaders then criticise trade unions to try to distance the party from unions.
Labor tried the same sort of guilt by association itself when the One Nation Party was around by linking the Coalition and One Nation together in popular imagination. In turn the Coalition had to try to distance itself from One Nation by refusing to allocate it useful preferences. So it is an old political tactic. Labor also regularly tries to link the Coalition with unpopular big business leaders for electoral gain.
The likely impact of all this criticism on voting patterns is not clear, however. It depends, firstly, on how important to voters the issue actually is. The ''Greens'' issue is actually far from Labor's biggest problem with the electorate. Some commentary speculating about Labor's vulnerable marginal seats seems to assume that it is a proven high priority with voters. Maybe the Greens are just an easy target.
On the left side, if the criticism does lead to Labor attracting some erstwhile Green voters then that won't change the final result too much so long as previously Greens voters do vote Labor and that voters who stick with the Greens continue to give their second preferences to Labor.
In the centre, some traditional blue-collar voters and some cost-of-living voters may be impressed enough by Labor distancing itself from the Greens to forego voting for the Coalition parties. But it is not clear that white-collar voters concerned about refugees and asylum seekers, action on global warming and same-sex marriage will be similarly impressed. Yet that is the calculation Labor strategists are making. Traffic is rarely one way with voters. Labor's attack on the Greens may have unintended consequences or no impact at all.
John Warhurst is an emeritus professor at the Australian National University.