The coverage of the Greens’ result in the NSW 2011 Election has centred around the apparent calamity of the Greens not winning Balmain and Marrickville, as well as not having a huge swing towards them, as there was in the Federal Election. Accompanied with that has been the jackalesque cries from the ALP’s hatchet man Luke Foley during the ABC’s coverage and the usual suspects will come out and cackle about the “failure”. Oh, and Glenn Milne has called Lee Rhiannon a “watermelon“.
However, this wasn’t an election for the Greens to be confident of a big change in its vote. This was not an election, as Richard Glover pointed out this afternoon, to lodge a protest vote, it was one to change a government. The 2010 Federal Election was more a protest vote election, with progressive voters showing their disgust with the moral vacuum in which elements of the ALP machine work.
The election was summed up for me by working as a booth HTV worker in Cranebrook, one of these amorphous “western suburbs” that the Sydney media refer to, but never visit. Jackie Kelly, the former member of Lindsay and, amongst other things, Sport Minister in the Howard government, was next to me for more than 2 hours. She was friendly, down to earth, honest about her time, had some interesting comments on the nature of politics. I can see why people voted for her. When she was handing out HTVs, she was saying to voters “vote out the government”, “the only way you can vote out the government”, etc. She wasn’t pushing the HTVs onto voters – after all, her philosophy is “the customer is always right” and “this is for the 5 percent who don’t know what they are going to do when they pass us”. She was, however, summing up the mood of the election and hitting that mark with her phrases. Time and time again.
The Greens have made their name by being a party of protest, of standing up for public institutions, ownership, education as well as the environment. This has attracted a number of people who want local people protecting local communities from development. This is why the Greens have successfully gained control over Leichhardt and Marrickville Council and have been considered to have done a good job. It was with some confidence, then, that the Greens thought they could convert that goodwill into a Lower House seat. But, goodwill and spending money on big signs isn’t enough sometimes.
There were multiple difficulties for the Greens in both seats, some of them self-inflicted, some not. Balmain, for example, has become more affluent and expensive to live in, a change that mostly brings with it conservative voters, hence the increase in the Liberal vote. Their increase would also reflect the mood of the electorate to vote in a new government, not just lodge a protest. It was also the case that Verity Firth is a good politician, likeable, and a well known member of the left. If she was a faceless machine man like Luke Foley, the Greens would have walked away with the landslide win.
In Marrickville, the Greens also had a popular and powerful member of the left to face. It helps Carmel Tebbutt that she isn’t her husband, who burns bridges with people almost each time he speaks. What didn’t help Fiona Byrne’s case was the actions of Marrickville Council to publicly endorse the absurd and pointless boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) policy against Israel. That plays well to the local Greens, but it doesn’t play well to the wider population. I too have no great love of Israel – I have long asked why the USA aren’t asking them to show their weapons of mass destruction, considering how preoccupied they have been with those in Iraq and Iran. However, councils and state governments are not the place to make these hollow, pointless pronouncements. They show a party that is more willing to waste time on these activities than prosecuting issues that affect the council region. This hurt Byrne in the end – you can picture a voter, thinking about voting Green for the first time, but then thinking “no, they waste their time on irrelevant stuff”. The problem with Marrickville, though, was endemic of a wider issue.
The Greens need to attract first time voters – people who haven’t been attracted enough to jump the fence. The Liberals did it by having policies that were sensible and also being not Labor. The Greens didn’t have that ability, nor did they sell it very effectively. The Greens should be focusing on promoting deliverables, not making silly videos like this. There were great ideas about rail, light rail, solar thermal power stations, more pre-school. Yet those messages were drowned by a focus on Marrickville and Balmain, as well as raising money for signs in those areas. In other words, trying to outdo the big two in visibility. But that isn’t what the Greens’ strength is in.
Their strength is in not being in bed with developers, big tobacco, the AHA, etc. In being locals, not a machine from central office. It didn’t come across that way with the campaign, with the silly stealing from the Liberals “Start the Change” – the Greens instead said “Real Change for a Change”. Silly, when the real job of the party is to encourage people to “Change Your Vote, Not Your Values”.
Ultimately, there were gains across many seats to the Greens, such as in the Nepean district, where the campaign was small, local and strategic. There is a growing sense that the Greens are here to stay, not just as a protest vote. But if the Greens don’t get a third upper house member from the vote, then there will need to be thought given to spending more money on an upper house campaign and less to winning a couple of state seats – which gives you ultimately less power than having upper house ones anyway.
The last point I’ll make is that the election for the Greens should be 2015. The O’Farrell Government can’t possibly deliver to all the areas that need work in 4 years – he will first reward the long suffering voters of the North and North West who have nothing much done for them since the days of Greiner. And David Clarke will make a Barnaby Joyce style mess somewhere. Then the voters can be offered a chance to support a party that isn’t Liberal or toxic Labor. But that party will need to have policies focused on families, jobs, transport, energy, education. Deliverables. Not unachievable, symbolic policies that can’t be enacted in the current political environment.
And the party shouldn’t worry about Balmain or Marrickville. The first Greens seat to be won in NSW is more likely to be Blue Mountains. And that is very, very winnable. More so than either of the two targeted. But that’s for another time.