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Mike Seccombe on the challenges facing Australia’s third party, and what kind of power they might wield after the election.

What happened to the Greens?

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Climate change might be one of the biggest political issues on the agenda for the upcoming federal election, but the party most associated with environmental policy is struggling to cut through.

According to the latest opinion polls, the Greens are finding it hard to connect with voters - even though some of the issues they’ve championed for decades are now considered part of the mainstream.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on the challenges facing Australia’s third party, and what kind of power they might wield after the election.

 

Guest: National Correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

 

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

 

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Climate change might be one of the biggest political issues on the agenda for the upcoming federal election, but the party most associated with environmental policy is struggling to cut through.

 

According to the latest opinion polls, the Greens are finding it hard to connect with voters -  even though some of the issues they’ve championed for decades are now considered part of the mainstream.

 

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on challenges facing Australia’s third party, and what kind of power they might wield after the election.

 

It’s Wednesday, February 23. 

 

[Theme Music Ends]

RUBY:
Mike, as we get closer and closer to the federal election there’s been a lot of focus, quite rightly, on the contest between the Coalition and Labor. But you've been looking into the Greens and how they’re expected to perform. The last time that the Greens really had significant decision making power in the Australian parliament, was all the way back in 2010 after that election. So let's go back there. Remind me of how it all played out? 

MIKE:
Well, first thing is, the 2010 election was important for a couple of reasons. It was the first time neither major party had won enough seats to form a government in the lower house, and that was in 70 years since 1940. 

So Labor had been in power for three years. They'd switched leaders from Kevin Rudd to Julia Gillard, and they were under assault from Tony Abbott and on the left are facing pressure from the Greens, who accused Labor of capitulating on climate and refugee policy. So the Greens achieved an extraordinary result in that election. They won 13 percent of the National Senate vote.

Archival tape -- News:
“There was one person unambiguously celebrating last night, one leader and that was Bob Brown. Let's hear from him.”

Archival tape -- Bob Brown:
“Looks like we'll have nine senators in the new parliament, a party room of 10 from where I sit. That's a green slide.” 

MIKE:
So elected a number of new senators. 

Archival tape -- Bob Brown:
“We are in this to make this nation much happier, much more loving.” 

MIKE:
And they also elected their first ever lower house MP Adam Bandt in the seat of Melbourne.

Archival tape -- Adam Bandt:
“Ran a pretty positive campaign based around some really core values of compassion and sustainability and equality….” 

MIKE:
And that was vital because of the fact the parliament was hung; neither Labor nor the Coalition had a majority in the House, and so they had to negotiate with the crossbench, including Bandt and a couple of independents, to form government. 

Archival tape -- Julia Gillard:
“I have had a good track record in the federal parliament working positively and productively with the independents in the house of representatives and working with the Greens in the Senate.”

MIKE:
Bandt went on to support the Gillard Labor minority government along with the two independents, and it was really a high watermark for the party. They had real clout in the House of Representatives, as well as the Senate.

Archival tape -- Adam Bandt:
“Now we're opening up a new chapter where we've got a really exciting prospect in Parliament to take the kind of action that the country and the planet needs.” 

MIKE:
But in the elections that followed, the party did not do quite so well. And while they've sought to make further inroads, particularly in the lower house, to wield more power over who forms government, that hasn't happened. 

RUBY:
OK, so, Mike, in 2010, the Greens performed extremely well and they were able to translate that success into seats in parliament and to influence who formed government. We're now more than a decade on, though. So how are the Greens doing now? 

MIKE:
According to the latest Newspoll? Not very well. According to them, the party is polling eight per cent nationally, down from 11. So not only is that significantly down on the high watermark in 2010, it's less than what they got at the last election. 

So if it's right, it could spell trouble. Certainly that Newspoll was greeted with great enthusiasm and glee by the various right wing pundits in the Murdoch media. You know who variously described it as a collapse and great news for the country. 

Archival tape -- Sky News:
“Well, let's start off the night with some good news. The dangerous and divisive fringe dwelling greens have plummeted in the polls.”

MIKE:
Now this is one poll possibly within the margin of error, and there's still a few months until Election Day. And while there's no hiding the fact that the Greens have struggled to grow, it's also the case that the government is looking very, very tenuous. And the climate, which is the big issue for the Greens, is going to be a big issue in this election.

RUBY:
Mhh, there's no doubt about that, Mike, but what do you think is going on here? Because in 2010, when the Greens performed so well, climate change was a huge policy issue, but it also is now. In fact, it's probably an even bigger priority for even more Australians. So why would the Greens be struggling more at this point in time? 

MIKE:
Well, first point I would make again is that this is one poll. Other polls, including the Greens, internal polling, their strategists tell me, have not shown a similar drop in support. 

Nonetheless, it's a prospect, and I spoke to the ABC's election guru, Antony Green, about this, and he made an interesting point, I thought, which is that when there's a coalition, incumbent government and progressive minded voters are focussed on kicking them out. The Greens vote tends to stall. Instead, it moves over to Labor to ensure that Labor wins. 

Now, of course, as Antony also pointed out, people don't have to do that. They can still vote one for the Greens and two for Labor, and their preferences would still flow in. The same thing would happen. 

So, yes, in the polls at the moment, Labor is well ahead of the coalition, and a change of government looks possible, maybe even likely. 

So to go to Antony Green's point, the data shows that he's right. In 2007, when Labor last won office, when there was a big move to kick out the Howard government. The Greens vote declined very sharply. And then in 2010, as I mentioned before, when progressive voters had become frustrated with Labor's infighting and their change of leaders and their approach to climate and refugees, the vote came back to the Greens. They got their best result ever. 

So this election presents another potential challenge for the Greens if indeed people are rallying to Labor just on the basis they want to see the end of Scott Morrison. 

But this time around, too, there's another potential challenge facing the Greens as well. 

RUBY:
What's that Mike?

MIKE:
Independents. 

There is a raft of high profile, well-resourced, independent candidates running this time around. And what's more, they are campaigning on many of the same policy issues as the Greens are. Collectively, they've been called the Teal independents or the climate independents, and they've drawn a lot of attention.

So these candidates, almost all women and they tend to have high profiles in their electorate, and they're often disaffected Former liberals of the smaller variety present a big challenge because they've basically cherry picked Greens policy on climate, on integrity in government, you know, things like a national integrity commission and also gender issues, all of which, of course, the Greens have been there for decades. 

So the Greens are facing some serious challenges going into this election from Labor on the one hand and from these green independents on the other. 

RUBY:
We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:
Mike, we've been talking about the independents who are running this election on climate change platforms, there's a sense that they might be able to get some of the votes that would have traditionally gone to the Greens. So how worried do you think the Greens should be about that possibility? 

MIKE:
Well, they've certainly got reasons for concern. And let me illustrate by way of a couple of examples, consider the example of Warringah, the affluent Sydney North Shore seat formerly held for the Liberals by Tony Abbott, and at the 2016 election, the Greens candidate one Clara Williams Roldan came second to Tony Abbott. She got nearly 40 per cent of the two party preferred vote, and while Abbott still won fairly comfortably, there was a nine per cent swing against him. 

And after the election, of course, Abbott's electoral stocks continued to decline amongst the voters of Warringah. So the Greens might have had justifiable hopes for the 2019 election, but those hopes were dashed. Their vote crushed to just a little over six per cent, and an independent candidate, Zali Steggall, won convincingly…

Archival tape - [Zali chanting]

Archival tape -- Zali Steggall:
“Wow!  Thank you everyone I know I’m going to sound croaky but…what a day!” 

MIKE:
Simply by attaching her considerable profile in Warringah to a small subset of the issues the Greens have championed for years or decades.

Archival tape -- Zali Steggall:
“We live in a time where we are facing possibly our biggest challenge to date, to properly appreciate, respect and nurture our environment. Our school kids are leading the way in pointing out that there is no second planet, no planet B.” 

MIKE:
That being again, climate change, the treatment of women, greater integrity in government. So that was a salutary lesson. There was a similar story in another of the Liberals' Blue Ribbon Seats Wentworth, which was long held by Malcolm Turnbull. 

RUBY:
Mm ok, so what happened in Wentworth?

MIKE:
Well, in 2018, when Prime Minister Turnbull was rolled by the Coalition's right wing, largely over the Greens core issue of climate change and replaced by, you know, the coal coddling social conservatives Scott Morrison, you would have thought the Greens had cause for hope. The electors were angry. Climate was the big issue. If they could just finish second ahead of Labor, they might well snatch the seat. 

But in Wentworth, once again in the by-election, their vote crashed. They went down to just 7.5 per cent of the primary vote, and another independent, Kerryn Phelps, won it. 

And now, of course, there are independents running across a whole bunch of seats that the Greens have previously contested and in some cases performed well in, in Kooyong, for example. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg seat. The Greens came within five per cent of winning at the last election, but now there's a strong, independent candidate there in Monique Ryan campaigning once again on issues of climate and integrity. And so the Greens once again find an independent as it were cutting their grass. 

RUBY:
Hmm Mike, it is interesting, as you say, that these independents, they're campaigning on a similar policy platform to the Greens. Why do you think it is then that they have been able to attract support and also votes when the Greens have been saying the same things and they've been around for a lot longer than these independents? 

MIKE:
It's an interesting question. You know, the first point I would make is we're talking about just two examples here, and it remains to be seen what happens in the case of the other climate independents who are not up against sort of a villain from central casting like Tony Abbott. So there were unusual factors in those two cases. You know, in Warringah, Abbott was the personification of the deep divisions within the Liberal Party between right and moderates, and Zali Steggall presented as a moderate, and I think this is key. She was a former Olympian. She was a well-known barrister, and you should never underestimate the recognition factor in politics. But the thing is, she only ran on what you might call a subset of the Greens policies; she didn't adopt their very progressive economic policies which might have scared off electors in an affluent seat like that. 

The circumstances were also exceptional in Wentworth. You know, Kerryn Phelps was a former president of the AMA. She had a huge profile, and moderate liberals were angry about the knifing of Malcolm Turnbull.  

RUBY:
Hmm. OK. Sure. But Mike, as you said earlier, the polls, if we are to take them at face value, are telling us that the Greens are on track for only eight percent of the vote nationally, which is a sharp decline for them, and it must be a cause for concern. And as you say, they're facing many challenges from independents, but also because of the nature of this election that some on the left might vote for Labor. Because I think that this is an election that might actually result in a change in government. But putting that aside, for the moment, the challenge of climate change has never been greater. And yet the Greens do at this moment in time, seem unable to capitalise on that and translate that into votes for them. So do you think that that points to something bigger, some bigger problem that the Greens have when it comes to getting people to place their faith in them right now?

MIKE:
Well, yes, I think to a certain extent, some voters are scared off. They're attracted to the Greens on climate, but they're scared off by some of the other greens' more radical social and economic policies. So I would say that. But I would also say that we should bear in mind here that at the start of this century, you know, less than 20 years ago, the Greens were only pulling a few percent of the vote, and now they consistently get a double digit share, even if it seems to have stalled a bit over the past couple of polls. 

And the other thing I think we should remember too here is that the Greens currently have nine members in the Senate, which is pretty significant, and there's a real likelihood they will add to that number at this election.

The party strategists that I spoke to said they're hopeful of having 12 senators after the election, which would potentially give them the balance of power in the Senate in their own right. And furthermore, they said that that would likely be the case even if the Newspoll was right. So even if they only got eight percent of the national vote, they would still add to their Senate numbers. Whichever major party forms government, there's still going to have to deal with the Greens. 

The other trend that I would point to here is the vote share of the major parties is in long term decline and it has been since 1949. I mean, I was looking at the figures in 1949, well over 95 percent of people voted for one or other of the major parties, and it's been on the slide ever since. 

So in the future, I think we'll see more hung parliaments. And while that probably means more independents, I wouldn't hurry to write the Greens off either. 

RUBY:
Mike, thank you so much for your time. 

MIKE:
Thank you. 

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
Also in the news today… 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree allowing troops to enter two Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine, after recognising the independence of the breakaway regions.

In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of wrecking peace efforts. 

Archival tape -- Volodymyr Zelenskyy :
[Beginning of Ukraine address]

RUBY:
In a televised statement, Zelensky urged Ukraine’s allies to take action immediately and called for the Ukrainian people to remain calm. He also ruled out making any territorial concessions.

Archival tape -- Volodymyr Zelenskyy:
[End of Ukraine address]

RUBY:
And the Victorian and Queensland governments have announced that they will be scrapping their state-wide mask mandates. 

 

From 11:59pm this Friday, Victorians will only be required to wear masks indoors in certain circumstances, including public transport, hospitals, and for workers in hospitality and retail.

 

In Queensland, the mask mandate will end at 6pm on Friday March 4. 

I’m Ruby Jones, This is 7am, see ya tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.