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Following unprecedented success in the house and the senate, Adam Bandt explains how the Greens orchestrated their strongest result with a campaign that stretched from doorknocking and community gardens to Grindr and ‘the chaos of the internet’.

By Mike Seccombe.

Adam Bandt on how the Greens triumphed

Max Chandler-Mather (left), the Australian Greens’ leader Adam Bandt (centre) and Penny Allman-Payne celebrate the Greens national campaign launch in Brisbane on May 16.
Max Chandler-Mather (left), the Australian Greens’ leader Adam Bandt (centre) and Penny Allman-Payne celebrate the Greens national campaign launch in Brisbane on May 16.
Credit: Dan Peled / Getty Images

The Greens’ campaign for the Brisbane seat of Griffith began long before Scott Morrison drove to government house to call the election. Years before, in fact.

The party’s candidate, Max Chandler-Mather, was the strategist behind the campaign for the state seat of South Brisbane in 2020, and before that for another state seat, Maiwar, in 2017, and before that for a local government ward within Griffith in 2016. All were successful. After the 2020 state poll, he and his team didn’t stand down; they kept knocking on doors.

But they did more than that, too. Last year, in response to plans for a private developer to build 855 high-end homes on former Defence department land in Bulimba in the electorate, Chandler-Mather enlisted the aid of some 100 supporters to build a community garden on the route of the proposed four-lane access road.

It was a symbolic gesture in support of his party’s demand that the land be bought back by the state and used for affordable housing, a new school and green space.

By the time the Omicron wave hit, the garden was producing fresh fruit and vegetables. “So we letter-boxed a lot of public housing in the electorate, just letting people know that if they were in iso, or doing it tough, we could drop off a free box of food, along with some toilet paper and other essentials,” Chandler-Mather says. “And a lot of that stuff was sourced from the community garden and our volunteer network.”

Then came the Brisbane flood in February, and again Chandler-Mather put out the word to his several hundred volunteers. “We put out the call and got all of these Gernis and gloves and materials … and then we sent out our doorknocking teams into areas that had been flooded and assessed need. We developed a whole roster of, you know, these houses need cleaning, these houses need food, these houses need packs of ice dropped off with Eskys because their electricity is not working,” he says.

“For three or four days we were going house to house, cleaning things out. Every evening we’d have a barbecue serving burgers and snags and fruit and veggies. And we got big lines for that.” One of his favourite moments, he says, was several days into the clean-up. “A council officer in his rapid response vehicle – it literally said ‘rapid response’ on the side of it – pulled up in Norman Park … and leaned out of the car and asked this resident I was speaking to, ‘You guys need any help?’ And the resident said, ‘Oh, no, that’s fine. The Greens are here to help’. And he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot.’ ”

The anecdote may be self-serving, but it helps explain why, last Saturday, Chandler-Mather won Griffith for the first time. He trounced the Labor incumbent, Terri Butler, taking 60 per cent of the vote after preferences.

He and his people didn’t just talk about climate change. They helped the constituents of Griffith deal with its consequences. All politics is local, even when it’s also global.

The Greens also won Ryan, in Brisbane’s affluent western suburbs, once a Liberal Party stronghold, and are highly likely to win another Liberal seat, Brisbane, although at time of writing it is still too close to call definitively.

The party identified those seats as likely pick-ups before the election, along with Richmond on the New South Wales north coast and Macnamara in Melbourne. The Greens army was big in those seats, too, although not as big as in Queensland, where they doorknocked roughly 150,000 homes. They narrowly lost to Labor in Richmond, but on current numbers still hold faint hopes for Macnamara.

Whatever the final count, the party leader, Adam Bandt, who held his seat of Melbourne for a fifth election with more than 60 per cent of the vote, will no longer be the only Green in the house of representatives.

Very likely Labor will hold a majority in the house, but if it does it will only be by one or two and that will be because it has won a couple of seats by wafer-thin margins against the Greens. Because of those margins, the new government will be very mindful of the need to be as accommodating as possible of the progressive party, lest it push more votes towards them.

If Labor falls just short – or subsequently loses someone – the party will likely find it shares more common ground with the Greens than it does with the teals. While those independents can be relied on to support stronger action on climate and integrity issues, they are an unknown quantity on economic and some social justice ones. They are, after all, basically small-l liberals, representing Liberal seats. As one observer put it: “Teal voters might drive a Tesla but they wouldn’t want public housing built in their neighbourhood.”

Beyond the house, though, what will really change the complexion of the new parliament is the Greens’ increased presence in the senate.

The outgoing senate leant heavily to the right. The Coalition parties had 36 of the chamber’s 76 seats and could for the most part count on the support of the two far-right members of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. It had to woo a vote from one or other of the moderate conservative minor party senators to get legislation passed.

The incoming senate will be a lot more progressive. While the final count is incomplete, Labor looks set to maintain its current representation of 26 – that is, 12 shy of a blocking majority and 13 shy of a positive majority. The Greens, who went into the election with nine seats, came out with 12.

Labor will need just one more vote to pass legislation, which could come from Jacqui Lambie and her new fellow Tasmanian senator Tammy Tyrrell or, more likely, former rugby union star David Pocock, who campaigned on a decidedly progressive policy agenda. The votes of One Nation or any equivalent representatives of the right-wing fringe will be irrelevant. There is still a chance Labor could get to 27, in which case it would only need the Greens.

That progressive crossbench will be enormously powerful, the Greens in particular. So how did the Greens get themselves almost 1.25 million votes and those extra three senate seats? By a combination of big policies and very clever and unorthodox campaigning.

Policy first. Climate and environment have long been the main concern of the Greens and the major point of difference between them and other parties. In the three years since the previous election, Australia has experienced Black Summer bushfires, east coast floods and other climate change-influenced disasters. Australians have heard the increasingly dire warnings of the scientists and seen other governments, global corporations and financiers moving rapidly away from fossil fuels. The Greens’ policies look ever more aligned with reality, and those of the major parties ever less so.

The Greens’ contention is that Australia must immediately stop approving new fossil fuel mining projects. National policy on coal and gas, says Bandt, will be “where the rubber meets the road” in this parliament.

“The UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, is leading the global push to phase out coal; US President Joe Biden is urging the world to sign the pledge to cut methane,” Bandt tells The Saturday Paper. “There is a very clear push going on from Australia’s allies around the world to get out of coal and gas. We are the biggest exporter of coal and gas pollution. The Pacific Islands … are calling on Australia to stop expanding coal and gas.”

The International Energy Agency – hardly a radical body – says there can be no new mines. “That’s just scientific reality,” says Bandt. He notes that “at this election the parties that backed coal and gas went backwards. The Greens and independents who tackled coal and gas saw the vote increase.”

Bandt sees large areas of climate policy – like a faster rollout of renewables driving new export industries in green steel and hydrogen – as areas where there is significant crossover between Labor and Greens policy. But he readily concedes Labor’s desire to continue opening new mines is going to be a big sticking point.

The reason for Labor’s reluctance is easily understood. In 2019, voters in coal seats arguably were a major factor in the party’s loss. In this election, too, progressive parties made no substantial inroads in those areas, and will not do so as long as people whose livelihoods are dependent on those dirty industries are fearful for their futures.

Bandt acknowledges that. How those people are supported through the transition, he says, “needs to be an issue that gets discussed in Australia. And it is also an issue that people are ready and wanting to grapple with, and none of the others were prepared to grapple with.”

His consistent message – which he took into those seats – was that “coal and gas workers are not the enemy”. He says the Greens were part of a broader social movement that “really destroyed the social licence of coal” during the life of the previous parliament. “But what we wanted to supplement it with this time was a clear economic plan for affected communities. We put forward a plan that, for the first time ever in Australian politics, included a comprehensive package to support coal and gas communities through the transition.”

Indeed, that was part of a broader pitch on social justice than the Greens have previously advanced. They promised a million new, publicly funded, affordable homes over 20 years, the wiping of student debt, funding dental and mental health through Medicare, and a raft of other measures, to be paid for with increased taxes on big corporations, particularly mining companies, and billionaires.

While the big parties talked about cost-of-living pressure largely as a function of short-term inflation, the Greens emphasised it as a long-term structural problem. “I think it’s probably the first time the Greens have done that: deliberately and clearly campaigned on cost of living,” Bandt says.

“On the doors, when we were having conversations with people, they were astonished to learn that Labor was supporting the [Coalition government’s] stage three tax cuts – giving tax cuts to millionaires and billionaires. When we explained the cost to the budget of doing that, and the manifest inequality of it, they were dumbfounded. There is a growing understanding in the community that cost-of-living pressures are part of a widening inequality.”

Having big, bold policies is one thing. Getting people to know that you have them is another. Faced with a media that largely ignores the Greens or is actively hostile to their agenda, the party took a different route this campaign.

In order to get a handle on how the party did that, it helps to understand something about the demographics of Greens voters and potential voters. At the last election, research shows, 37 per cent of voters aged 18-24 voted Greens, more than double the 15 per cent who voted for the Liberal Party and almost as many as voted Labor. Among those aged 25-34, the respective proportions were 24 per cent Greens and 27 per cent Liberal. The Greens vote fell away sharply with age.

No doubt during the past three years, as the climate crisis has become ever more apparent, that percentage will have increased across the age groups. More detailed analysis will be released shortly, but the fact remains that Greens voters tend to be younger. They are also significantly more likely to be women and be highly educated.

The Greens’ strategists were alert to the fact that there would be well over half a million first-time voters at this election. These people were a ready-made demographic, largely onside with, if not actually engaged in, activism such as student strikes for climate. And the mainstream media that demonises the Greens largely does not reach this cohort.

This election, the Greens’ social media campaign was huge, targeted and unlike anything we’ve previously seen in this country. While they had a strong, paid-marketing strategy – and one notably more positive than Labor and the Coalition, which were mostly attack ads – they also, as Bandt puts it, “actively embraced the chaos of the internet”.

Some of this was formalised and targeted. On the gay hook-up app Grindr, for instance, they ran a series of double entendre messages such as “You always come first with the Greens” and “Spice up Canberra with a third”. Other aspects were more anarchic.

“We empowered a team of primarily younger people … allowing them to take the reins and lead a campaign,” Bandt says. “It involved a fair bit of letting go from my perspective.”

He relates the story of how he was taken outside Parliament House one day by a couple of his young team members “who asked me to stand and look at where the flagpole is, and nod meaningfully. I had no idea what was coming next.”

These campaign workers later inserted a giant green Shrek looming over the building – Shrek being the basis of countless memes – and put it out on TikTok before Bandt’s senior communications staff even knew they’d done it. “And the result,” Bandt says, “was one of the best-performing pieces of the content of the campaign.”

Similarly successful was a meme featuring a packet of instant noodles, and the words: “If your student diet consisted of this, you will not be affected by the Greens plan to tax billionaires and corporations”.

A lot of the online campaign was produced without the involvement of the formal campaign team, says one of the Greens’ key strategists. “We encouraged people who were volunteering for us or our young candidates to make their own content. We made a deliberate decision to try and create a resource hub, give people access to all the tools and make all the brand elements available and let people go … Much of it came from Memes for Teens, over which the party had no control.”

For a political party, this is a remarkable decentralisation. In the main, though, it worked. “They made a huge amount of content, some of which was not good, some of which was amazing,” the strategist says. “The bits that we loved, we were like, ‘Let’s share that.’ We just showered them with love and encouraged them. That’s really about embracing the community.”

There were other factors, too. GetUp!, for example, was active in a number of marginal seats, organising Tele-Town Hall meetings and making robocalls informing voters about the climate policies of Coalition, Labor and Greens, pushing them to vote Greens.

The organisation’s strategy was different this election from last. In 2019, GetUp! targeted the most right-wing of conservative incumbents, with little success. This election, says its outgoing national director, Paul Oosting, they decided to target the most vulnerable.

On election morning, they texted voters in five marginal Labor-held seats, 16 Coalition-held seats and six seats with large Indigenous populations, encouraging them to vote for progressive candidates – Greens, teals or Labor, depending on the individual circumstances of the seat.

They also sent text messages hoping to influence senate races in states where they thought the sixth seat could determine the composition of the crossbench – Tasmania and South Australia – informing people how they could vote for the climate.

In the electorate where I live – Reid, in Sydney – the message said the best way to ensure “climate leadership” was to place the Greens candidate first, Labor second, the small, leftish Fusion Party third, a Liberal-turned-independent fourth and the incumbent MP, Fiona Martin, fifth. As elsewhere, it was strategically designed to remove members of the Coalition or shore up more progressive incumbents.

While the final composition of the new parliament is not yet entirely clear, it’s clear enough. The conservatives have been routed.

“And that,” says Bandt, “gives us massive opportunities. I’ve been reaching out to a number of the independents and look forward to talking to any new senators that are elected as well. I think there’s real prospect here for progress on issues like climate and integrity. There’s going to be the numbers in the parliament to get things done.” 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 28, 2022 as "Beautiful one day, Greens-held the next".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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