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As the Greens draw up election maps, choosing seats they believe they can win, they are hoping the so-called teal independents will boost their chances of up to 12 senate spots. By Mike Seccombe.

Greens reveal their target seats

Greens leader Adam Bandt.
Greens leader Adam Bandt.
Credit: AAP / Mick Tsikas

The Australian Greens are drawing up their election plans. They believe they are on track to win 12 senate seats and will also target eight, possibly 10, lower house seats.

The party currently holds nine senate seats, and just one in the house of representatives, that of its leader, Adam Bandt.

And while the party’s path to greater representation in the lower house looks difficult, the chances of it increasing its numbers in the senate look good, for several reasons.

First, six of its current senators are not up for re-election, due to the fact that upper house members serve six-year terms, twice as long as members of the lower house. So the Greens need only replicate their performance at the 2019 election in order to double their numbers and, quite possibly, hold the balance of power on their own.

 

The three sitting Greens senators seeking re-election are Tasmanian Peter Whish-Wilson, who replaced Bob Brown in 2012 and who now is well entrenched, and two who were recently appointed – Lidia Thorpe from Victoria and Dorinda Cox from Western Australia, who were both selected last October to replace former leader Richard Di Natale and Rachel Siewert respectively. Given the current political climate in those two states, they look safe.

The party is also hopeful of taking new seats in New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.

It is buoyed by the fact that in Queensland and WA the contest will be between the Greens and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. And One Nation is not going well. Over the past 18 months, polls consistently show support for Hanson’s extreme-right party tracking at only 2 or 3 per cent nationally. While One Nation enjoys greater support in some parts of the country – it managed 7.1 per cent in the 2020 Queensland election – it also faces stiff competition from other fringe right parties, most notably Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, which threatens to siphon off One Nation support.

Furthermore, the Greens’ raison d’être – concern about the environment and climate change – is a matter of fast-growing concern among voters, particularly young, well-educated women.

Taken together, these factors suggest the party’s senate hopes are not unrealistic. Whichever major party forms the next government will have to deal with them.

The Greens will run candidates in all 150 house of representatives seats, but consider eight to be realistic possibilities. Four are currently held by the Coalition: the electorates of Ryan and Brisbane in Queensland, and Kooyong and Higgins in Victoria. Four are Labor: Griffith in Queensland, Macnamara in Victoria, Richmond in NSW and Canberra in the ACT.

Party polling suggests they are also performing well in two other Melbourne seats held by Labor – Cooper and Wills – but see them as more likely prospects at the election after this.

Historically, though, the Greens have not done well in the house. Interestingly, their sole member in the reps, Bandt, has turned his seat of Melbourne into the third safest in the country since he won it from Labor 10 years ago. He enjoys a margin of almost 22 per cent.

Political and demographic shifts make it ever more likely that the Greens will take more seats in the lower house.

According to the 2019 Australian Election Study – the most recent iteration of an academic, post-poll survey that has been regularly done for more than 50 years – the last election represented the lowest Liberal Party vote on record for people under 35, at 23 per cent. It was the highest vote for the Greens in that cohort (28 per cent), who were barely behind Labor (29).

“Over the past two elections those under 35 have become much less likely to vote for the Liberal Party, and much more likely to vote for the Greens,” the study found.

Counterintuitively, this presents a problem for Labor, at least in the near term. This is because Greens candidates are often helped by the preferences of Liberal voters, who can’t bring themselves to vote for their traditional political foe.

But while it appears inevitable that the political future holds more Greens in the lower house – and more hung parliaments – this election might not be their time, says ABC election analyst Antony Green, because it appears increasingly likely there will be a change of government.

“And when there is a change of government to Labor, the Greens’ vote tends to stall,” he says.

“In my view, there is an overlap between people who will vote Labor or Greens. And I’d expect that because it looks like there’s a change of government coming, more leftish voters might vote Labor in the hope of ensuring that Labor wins.”

The data bear him out. In 2007, when Labor last won office, the Greens vote declined sharply. In 2010, when progressive voters had become frustrated with Labor infighting, the party had its best result – 11.8 per cent of the national vote in the lower house and more than 13 per cent in the senate.

Given this history, the results of this week’s Newspoll, showing the party’s support down from 11 to 8 per cent, became the subject of considerable commentary.

It was greeted enthusiastically by right-wing pundits in the Murdoch media, who variously described it as a “collapse”, “good news” and an indication of voter concern about “a radical Greens–Labor alliance”.

But party strategists were unconcerned. “It’s just one poll. We’ve been on 13 in Newspoll as well,” one tells The Saturday Paper. “Newspoll’s constantly jumping around for us. It was margin of error.”

The party would be more concerned if the poll showed a commensurate lift in the Labor vote, he said. When Greens voters drift, it is Labor that typically benefits. But there was no indication of that in the Newspoll. Labor remained on 41 per cent of the primary vote and the Coalition on a disastrous 34.

Some analysis interpreted the result as evidence the Greens were losing support to a raft of so-called climate independents – high-profile candidates who have emerged over recent months, almost all women, running in Coalition seats. Fifteen of them have received funding from the Climate 200 group, set up by Simon Holmes à Court.

And it is true that during the past six months or so polls have recorded an increase in support for the category of candidates lumped together as “other”. Between the 2019 election and last August, Newspoll showed the “other” group averaging 8 or 9 per cent. Then it jumped into double digits, and in this week’s poll stood at 14.

No doubt some of these voters belong to the anti-vaxxer demographic being courted away from the right flanks of Labor and the Coalition by Clive Palmer. But it’s highly unlikely the Greens are losing votes in that direction.

There are, however, precedents to indicate the party is vulnerable to competition from other progressive candidates.

Consider the example of Warringah, the affluent Sydney seat formerly held for the Liberals by Tony Abbott.

At the 2016 election, the Greens candidate, Clara Williams Roldan, won 12.2 per cent of first preference votes, just behind Labor on 14.8 per cent and an independent candidate, James Mathison, a former television host whose campaign also focused on the Greens’ big issues of climate change and same-sex marriage, on 11.4.

Preferences boosted the Greens’ tally by a further 26 points. Abbott, who won a bare majority of the primary vote – 51.7 per cent – got less than an additional 10 per cent of preference votes.

And while he still won pretty comfortably – 61.5 to 38.5 – the swing against him was more than 9 percentage points.

As Abbott’s stocks continued to decline among the electors of Warringah over the subsequent three years, the Greens had high hopes for the 2019 election.

But they were dashed. Their vote crashed to a little over 6 per cent, and an independent candidate, Zali Steggall, won convincingly, simply by attaching her considerable profile in Warringah to a small subset of issues the Greens have championed for years or decades: climate change, the treatment of women, greater integrity in government.

It was a similar story in another of the Liberals’ blue-ribbon seats, Wentworth, long held by Malcolm Turnbull.

Turnbull was a liberal moderate, not a reactionary like Abbott, but, even so, across three elections from 2010 to 2016, the Greens averaged more than 15 per cent of the vote, just a few points behind Labor.

In 2018, when Turnbull was rolled as prime minister by the Coalition’s right wing, largely over the Greens’ core issue of climate change, and replaced by social conservative Scott Morrison, the Greens might have had cause for hope. The electors were angry. Climate was the big issue. If they could just finish ahead of Labor, they might snatch it.

But in the Wentworth byelection they won just 8.6 per cent of the primary vote. Another independent, Kerryn Phelps, won it.

The Greens vote did not improve, either, at the 2019 general election, when the Liberals’ Dave Sharma narrowly won Wentworth back from Phelps.

But here’s the interesting thing. Even as the Greens’ share of the vote for those two lower house seats tanked, the party’s senate vote went up, as numbers provided by Antony Green show.

In Warringah in 2016, they won 12.8 per cent of the senate vote. In 2019, it was 15.7. In Wentworth, it went up from 14.4 to 16.3.

For this reason, says the Greens strategist, they see the climate independents movement as, on balance, a positive thing.

“We want to see the Liberals turfed out and if they can contribute by knocking off two or three Liberal seats, that’s great,” he says.

“And, more importantly for us, they elevate the climate issue at the election. The more climate is talked about, the better that will be for us electorally.

“The Liberals want the debate to be about national security and the economy. Labor wants the debate to be about better social services, childcare and the cost of living et cetera. We want it to be on climate and the environment.

“We want to have a good showing of other issues as well, of course, but really, the more voters are going to the polling booth thinking climate is an important issue to vote on, the better outcome we’re going to get.”

Once voters break the habit of supporting a major party and vote according to the issues most important to them, they tend to vote on the basis of that in both houses. Thus, for example, someone who casts a vote for Zali Steggall in the house of representatives on the basis of her promise of stronger action on climate change is then more inclined to vote those same values in the senate.

“When we look at actually what’s happened in previous elections where independents have run, our senate vote has gone up in those seats,” the strategist says.

In any case, the Greens and the climate independents are not competing for the same seats, except against Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Kooyong.

The Greens are mostly targeting left-wing voters in inner-metropolitan marginals – the main exception being the northern NSW coastal seat of Richmond – while the climate independents have positioned themselves as centrist candidates, essentially small-l liberals, and are targeting traditional conservative heartland electorates.

Although they are targeting different seats for different reasons, the so-called teal independents are running largely on the three core issues that have also occupied the Greens – climate change, greater integrity in government and gender equality.

For example, the Greens have pushed for the establishment of a federal anti-corruption commission for many years. Indeed, a decade ago when the current leader of the party was a first-term member of the house, he introduced a bill for the establishment of a powerful, independent national integrity commission. Bandt’s bill was introduced in May 2012 but was removed from the notice paper in February the following year after it failed to get support from either of the major parties. Six years later Labor promised it would establish such a body if elected. The Coalition followed, but its proposed model has been widely condemned by experts as unacceptably weak. Attorney-General Michaelia Cash conceded this week that the government had pushed plans to legislate for a commission beyond the election.

On the matter of political party funding, the Greens have pushed for decades for tighter controls on donations and greater transparency. Under current electoral law, individual donations must be declared only when they exceed $14,500, and details are made public only up to 18 months after they are received. Furthermore, donations are often split into smaller amounts to avoid disclosure.

We saw an example this week, when it was revealed Zali Steggall’s campaign failed to properly declare a $100,000 donation from the family trust of former coal company director John Kinghorn. The money notionally came in eight separate donations, which would have passed under the declaration threshold were it not for the fact it arrived in the form of a single cheque.

In fairness, the matter was rectified more than a year ago, after the Australian Electoral Commission drew it to Steggall’s attention. But it serves to highlight the inadequacy of the law and the dilemma facing progressive minor parties and independents: how do you compete financially with major parties if you don’t exploit the same system?

At the National Press Club this week, when Holmes à Court challenged the major parties to increase funding transparency by lowering the disclosure threshold from the current $14,500 to $1000, he was in turn challenged to lead by example.

Climate 200 would continue with the higher declaration threshold, he said, because “This is a David-and-Goliath fight and asking David to tie his hands behind his back and put his slingshot down while Goliath is standing there with the bazooka and heavy artillery – sorry, we are trying to get these candidates in and, when they’re on the crossbench, they will be able to implement integrity measures.”

The Greens, by contrast, have long shown greater courage of their convictions. The party’s by-laws stipulate that it make public “at the end of each three-month period all donors and the cumulative total of their donations to AG over the previous twelve-month period where those cumulative totals amount to $1,500 or more”.

Likewise, they are more ambitious in their proposed response to climate change. They advocate, for example, a moratorium on all new fossil fuel projects in Australia.

Both major parties have dismissed the call – although the scientific evidence and the International Energy Agency says there can be no new mining if climate change is to be contained to 1.5 degrees. Zali Steggall is expected to support the Greens soon. Perhaps other climate independents will follow.

The point here is that even though the Greens still occupy a political position to the left of the new crop of independents – and a far more progressive one than the current government – there is a degree of symbiosis.

Perhaps Green preferences will get some of them elected to the lower house. And perhaps some independents will help elect Greens. Quite possibly, some combination of the two will see neither major party with a majority in the lower house. And, quite likely, the Greens will be helped by independent preferences to a greater presence in the senate.

Despite their differences, they have a common aim. As Adam Bandt tells The Saturday Paper: “It’s great to have more candidates and MPs who want to take climate action, and Greens voters’ preferences will be part of that. An expanded crossbench would be good, as long as it helps kick out the climate-denying Liberals.”

He believes the time is ripe, given the circumstances of this election, for the election of non-major-party candidates. “Between a corrupt and venal government that’s got to go, and a small-target opposition moving to the centre, I think people want someone who is bold and straight-talking with a big vision for the country.”

It remains to be seen just how many people agree and whether he is talking to more of the country than Newspoll suspects. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 19, 2022 as "Green without envy".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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