A battle between Liberals in NSW and Victoria has pulled apart a precarious ‘deal’ with the Greens and recast preferences for the election. By Karen Middleton.

Inside the Greens federal election preference ‘deal’

Victorian Liberal Party President Michael Kroger.
Victorian Liberal Party President Michael Kroger.

On Friday night a week ago, senior New South Wales Liberal Party figures had a discussion about preferences.

Candidate nominations had closed the day before and were made public that morning. With how-to-vote cards to be printed over the weekend, and pre-poll voting opening on Tuesday, decisions had to be made.

Their Victorian counterparts had been entertaining a preferences deal with the Greens in certain Melbourne seats. But in NSW, the party was adamant this wouldn’t happen – not in its state and not anywhere else, either.

That message was conveyed to the Liberal Party’s federal director Tony Nutt, but he was already well aware. Indeed, he shared their views. So did Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. 

Any move that could be interpreted as throwing a lifeline to the Greens would make the Liberal Party’s conservative base extremely unhappy in the leader’s home state and elsewhere – and that, in turn, posed a clear, present and future danger to Turnbull.

On Sunday, standing in Sydney’s sunny Centennial Park, Turnbull confirmed that on its how-to-vote cards in every seat across the country the Liberal Party would put the Greens below Labor.

“This is a call that I have made in the national interests,” Turnbull said at a news conference. “Let us be quite clear about this. The big risk at this election is that we would end up with an unstable, chaotic, minority Labor-Greens-independent government as we had before.”

Labor negotiators had been told of this decision the day before.

Their federal Liberal counterparts had indicated they were willing to advise Liberal voters to direct second or subsequent preferences to Labor ahead of the Greens.

In return, they wanted Labor to preference the Liberals ahead of the Nationals in several “three-cornered contest”. Labor preferences only really have the potential to matter in Murray, where the Liberals are worried about losing to the Nationals. In the West Australian seats, they would only have an effect if Labor ran third, which Labor sources believe is unlikely. 

But the Liberal preferences were hugely valuable to Labor, helping protect four seats under threat from the Greens: Batman and Wills in Victoria and Grayndler and Sydney in NSW. 

Labor agreed. 

In sealing the national arrangement, the Liberals weren’t so much making a deal as killing one.

Also on Saturday, the federal Liberal Party advised its Victorian wing that negotiations with the Greens had to stop. 

Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger had been talking to Australian Greens state director Larissa Brown off and on for a year about the possibility of some kind of arrangement in particular seats.

But the message from Canberra was clear and final. Kroger was told the party had more to gain nationally from casting the Greens as a threat than seeking to co-operate with them – and it couldn’t do both.

The move has seriously undercut the Greens’ chances of securing more seats, especially in Victoria.

“Nothing brings the Coles and Woolworths of politics together like a bit of competition from outside their cosy duopoly,” Greens leader Richard Di Natale said on Thursday.

1 . Greens playing to win

Despite suggestions to the contrary from the Liberals and from other Greens, a Greens spokeswoman told The Saturday Paper there was never any deal.

“Labor tried to run a smear campaign but the Greens always said there was no deal with the Liberals and there wouldn’t be one. The Liberals were always going to allocate their preferences according to their own self-interest, not the national interest. It’s no surprise they’ve found more in common with the Labor Party.”

She said the Greens were running to win seats in their own right. They have made no secret of their ambitions in the house of representatives.

The Greens launched their national campaign in Grayndler and early on declined to rule out a preferences arrangement there, forcing Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese to spend more time in his local seat and less out helping others campaign. From early on, Albanese talked up a Greens-Liberal “deal” to flush out a denial.

Sydney’s Daily Telegraph also did its bit for him in Grayndler, publishing a front-page plea to its readers to “Save our Albo”.

In the Liberal Party, messages opposing helping the Greens have been flowing from the conservative end for much of the year. Back in March, former prime minister John Howard warned against making a deal.

“I hope this doesn’t presage some kind of understanding about preferences in the house of representatives election between the Coalition and the Greens,” he said on ABC TV’s 7.30.

After this week’s federal intervention, former Howard government minister Peter Reith endorsed the federal decision.

“It’s a very basic thing about politics: never let these ones on the extremes of politics… never give them a platform, which is why John Howard took this position, which is why I’ve publicly taken this position,” Reith said on Sky News. 

“Look, I know people get excited about preferences and all this sort of stuff but you’ve got to go back to values, you’ve got to go back to the things that really count in our society and what we don’t want is a whole bunch of wackos out to the left or out to the right … Don’t give them an inch. Don’t give them any support.”

But in Reith’s home state of Victoria the Liberals have given the Greens support on numerous occasions. 

At then prime minister Tony Abbott’s insistence, the Liberals preferenced Labor ahead of the Greens in all house of representatives seats nationally at the previous federal election.

2 . Changed times

But it wasn’t always thus. In 2004, 2007 and 2010, the Liberals put the Greens ahead of Labor in most seats, except for a handful on each occasion where they had agreed to preference deals with Labor.

In Victoria, in the wake of the 2010 federal election and ahead of the then-looming Victorian state election, the state Liberal Party directorate returned to putting the Greens last.

Ahead of that decision, the then senator Helen Kroger – ex-wife of Michael, who was formerly state Liberal Party president – warned her party colleagues they’d face an internal backlash if they started cosying up to the Greens.

“I hope that the state Liberal leadership, in its considerations, will ask what service to Victoria’s future would be done by delivering seats to the Greens with Liberal preferences,” Helen Kroger wrote in the Herald Sun newspaper on October 28, 2010.

“Greens policies need to be exposed for the radical fringe they represent.” 

In 2012, ahead of the federal election, she repeated her view: “There is a Victorian army of supporters who demand that the Liberal Party remain true to its values. I can’t conceive any scenario that would require a different approach.”

Four years later, she had conceived of such a scenario – or rather, Michael Kroger had.

For months, publicly and privately, Michael Kroger has been floating the prospect of an agreement with the Greens in certain seats. Under the proposal, the Liberals would advise their voters to put the Greens ahead of Labor and in return the Greens would issue “open tickets”. 

Instead of directing their voters to put Labor before the Liberals as they regularly do in most seats, they would instead make no recommendation – raising the chances that a greater-than-usual number of second-preference votes could be directed the Liberals’ way. 

Being discussed were the seats of Batman and Wills, which the Greens had a real chance of taking from Labor, and the Liberal-held seats of Deakin and La Trobe, which were in danger of falling to Labor.

In more recent weeks, the seats of Chisholm and Bruce entered the frame as well – marginal seats with retiring Labor incumbents that the Liberals hoped to take. In Bruce, their candidate is Helen Kroger.

Two weeks into the eight-week campaign, she was asked in a television interview what she thought about a preference deal with the Greens. At that point, there was no nominated Greens candidate standing against her. That subsequently changed, making Greens preferences more relevant.

“Yes, I’ve been outspoken on this in the past, but different circumstances prevail,” she said. “And political parties aren’t static. You actually have to move with whatever [are] the circumstances that prevail at a particular point in time.” 

She revealed a second dimension to the deal about which her ex-husband was hinting at the possibility of a preferences deal with the Greens. “As a candidate, if it means that [Labor] money is going to be redirected from my seat of Bruce … towards inner Melbourne seats – I say bring it on.”

Kroger was full of praise for her former partner. “People might think this strange, talking about a former husband – an ex-husband – but Michael has got the most extraordinarily fantastic strategic brain. I actually think he’s one of the best political minds in the country and I’ve got every confidence that whatever is finally determined, it will be in the best interests of the party.” 

Although talking up the possible deal did have the impact of forcing Labor’s campaign funds into what used to be safe Labor seats, some, especially in NSW Liberal branch, were unhappy that Michael Kroger was portraying the Greens as reasonable when three years ago he had called them “a poisonous and insidious influence”.

In March, in his weekly commentary spot on Sky News, Kroger had declared that Di Natale was more moderate than his predecessors. 

“You’ve got a doctor who owns a farm who doesn’t come from this mad environmental background,” Kroger said. “He’s helped the government get legislation through the federal parliament. So you look at the Greens through a slightly different lens these days because they’re not the nutters they used to be.”

But with the federal campaign insisting that’s exactly what they are, this was seen as unhelpful. 

“The idea that I floated was that we need to have a discussion about whether we automatically put the Greens last,” Kroger said after his plans were quashed this week. 

“In the end it was decided, ‘Look, it’s better to try and stop minor parties getting more seats in the reps and Australia can’t afford that.’ And that was what was behind the decision.”

3 . Morrison’s assault

On Wednesday, Treasurer Scott Morrison launched the party’s all-out assault on what he said was the prospect of a “Labor-Greens-independent government”.

He and Turnbull both included the word “independent”, to also scare voters about the rise of South Australian senator Nick Xenophon, whose candidates are polling strongly in house of representatives contests, especially in the normally safe Liberal seat of Mayo.

They also see former independent MP Rob Oakeshott’s decision to contest Cowper as a gift.

“Rudd, Gillard, Rudd and Rob Oakeshott and Tony Windsor – the caravan of chaos,” Morrison said. “There’s another cast looking to assemble as we speak.”

The anti-Greens campaign has an eye to two hitherto-safe Liberal seats in Melbourne also under threat from the Greens: Higgins, held by Assistant Treasurer Kelly O’Dwyer, and Resources and Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg’s seat of Kooyong. 

While the Liberals have been worried, particularly about Higgins, sources have told The Saturday Paper they now believe both incumbents will be safe.

But muttering about the whole Liberal-Greens Victorian negotiations is not confined to the Liberal Party. 

There are also those inside the Greens expressing unhappiness at how things were handled. 

Some who supported securing Liberal preferences are deeply frustrated that the whole thing has now fallen apart.

They are complaining privately that some in the now-dominant Victorian branch of the party got ahead of themselves in contemplating victories in house of representatives seats beyond the seat of Melbourne, which Adam Bandt has held for the Greens since 2010.

They point to Bandt’s ABC Radio interview on day two of the campaign, in which he talked up the possibility of being part of a Coalition government with Labor.

“There’s a prospect of more Greens getting elected to the lower house and that may then result in … as in 2010, no side wins,” he said. 

“In that instance we’d be more inclined to have discussions with Labor.”

The Coalition seized on the suggestion. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten rejected it outright.

“Can I put it another way to Mr Bandt and the Greens – tell ’em they’re dreaming,” he said.

Labor suggested the only deal was between the Liberals and the Greens.

Liberal Party federal director Tony Nutt responded that “various parties have various discussions” and decisions would be made when nominations closed.

“Preferences are allocated consistent with the electoral interests of the party, our values, principles and priorities, and the best interests of the Australian people in having an effective national government,” he said.

Now, having lost the prospect of any preference arrangement with the Liberals, the Greens’ best chance of an additional lower house seat is in Batman.

Richard Di Natale was there with candidate Alex Bhathal on Thursday.

“I’m very bullish about Alex’s chances,” he said. “I think what you’ll see on election day is that Adam Bandt has a bit more company in the lower house.”

Not as much as he might have, had the federal Liberals not stepped in and the Kroger deal prevailed.

But the Liberals’ decision to put the Greens behind Labor is about survival – not just of the Coalition government, but also of Malcolm Turnbull.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 18, 2016 as "Inside the Greens preference ‘deal’".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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