By Shane Greens
JUST near the corner of Gertrude and Smith streets in Fitzroy, where the 86 tram makes its grinding, sharp turn, a small piece of roadway drama is playing out. There is one available space sought by two competing forces: car versus bike. A moment’s hesitation from both, and the crisis is averted as the bike weaves its way through to open road and safety.
It’s an inner suburban tableaux witnessed several times a day in this part of Melbourne. But does it have to happen?
A short time later we are perched in the Birdman Eating cafe across the road as Amanda Stone, Greens councillor and former mayor in the City of Yarra, explains the party’s local transport ideas for an area beset with traffic and parking congestion and, of course, fuel emissions.
”One way to address all of that is to get cars off the road and provide alternatives,” she says. ”We can’t control the state transport system but we can make it easier for people locally to use alternatives such as bikes and walking.”
It may seem like blue-sky – or perhaps green-sky – thinking, a stereotypical Greens agenda in a society that embraces the car. Yet here in Yarra it is mainstream, for this is the beating heart of Greens politics in Victoria. Three out of the nine councillors in Yarra are Greens, the highest proportion in the state.
The area is also part of the federal seat of Melbourne, held by Greens MP and deputy leader Adam Bandt. In the streets of Fitzroy, Collingwood and Carlton, once Labor heartland, the Green banner flies proudly.
Stone says the Greens have already pushed hard for an ambitious bicycle strategy, and the council spends more than others on bicycle infrastructure. And the area has the most residents who get to work without using a car (walking distance proximity to the city is no doubt a factor).
So far for the Greens, so good. But there are wider forces at work that are testing the party’s political mettle. Stone and the rest of the council are headed to the polls this month as part of statewide local government elections. The results – particularly in places such as Yarra, where the Greens are well established – will be closely watched as a measure of the success or otherwise of the strategic decision by Labor to turn against the Greens, and tackle the party head on.
Labor, of course, reached an agreement with the Greens for Bandt’s support to form the minority Gillard government, the Labor-Greens alliance, a consequence of which was a sooner-than-expected introduction of the carbon tax. But those days of courtship of the Greens are well and truly over. While the agreement obviously still stands, the relationship is fracturing, particularly over contentious issues such as asylum seekers.
Labor is determined to wrest back those left-wing supporters it lost to the Greens. It has embarked on a strategy of attacking the third force in Australian politics, part of a plan to rebuild its primary vote and differentiate itself from the Greens, who are coping with the exit of spiritual leader Bob Brown from the political stage.
The theme has been constant, the delivery varying from considered criticism to ridicule. An example of the latter was New South Wales Labor secretary Sam Dastyari describing the Greens as ”extremists not unlike One Nation”.
Is it working? The polls certainly show a softening of Green support. The Age/Nielsen poll, which had the Greens averaging about 11 or 12 per cent of federal primary voting intentions, recorded a fall to about 10 per cent last month. This has coincided with a revival in Labor’s primary vote. But Nielsen pollster John Stirton suspects that the change is more to do with Labor’s recovery rather than any special factor linked to the Greens.
Labor’s primary vote collapse coincided with the announcement of the carbon tax, and its revival coincided with its introduction – ”people finding it less bad than they expected”, as Stirton puts it.
”Therefore… people who deserted Labor to the Greens or to the Coalition because of it are going back to Labor, because the votes have got to come from somewhere.”
So far, there have been two real-world electoral tests that Labor argues are a vindication of its strategy.
Following the resignation of former Labor state minister Bronwyn Pike from the state seat of Melbourne, there was an expectation the Greens could take the seat Labor has held for more than 100 years, giving the party its first seat in the Victorian lower house.
In the lead-up to the poll – not contested by the Liberals – state Labor leader Daniel Andrews conducted an anti-Greens campaign, but it was notably devoid of some of the personal abuse seen elsewhere. Nevertheless, Andrews sought to portray the Greens as ”idealistic outsiders”, unable to be a party of government.
Labor’s Jennifer Kanis – who was a Melbourne City councillor – won the seat on preferences. Labor celebrated a much-needed victory, yet the primary votes also tell an important story: Labor won 33 per cent, while the Greens secured 36 per cent. Certainly, Labor was more nimble with its preference negotiations.
Last month’s NSW local council election results were also portrayed by Labor as further evidence of the success of its anti-Green push. The Greens vote was down by about 1.5 per cent, and there were significant swings against the Greens in inner suburban strongholds, such as Woollahra and Leichhardt. Labor figures argued their ”bringing them to account” approach was working.
In the wake of the result, Bob Brown declared sharply that ”inner-city Greens need to take a good look at themselves”.
There was another story – one of Labor decline and Liberal resurgence. Labor’s vote fell by about 5 per cent, while the Liberal vote increased by about 8 per cent. The results reflected the disdain in which Labor is held by NSW voters, evidenced in last year’s landslide election of the O’Farrell government. But it was the Greens’ lacklustre performance that stuck.
Adam Bandt says the aftermath showed how good Labor is at creating a particular perception of themselves and their opponents. ”They successfully made the story about us,” says Bandt.
More than anyone, Bandt has had to live with the new lack of love in the room. He says he’s not surprised by it. ”I would still rather that the Greens and Labor have a co-operative relationship,” says Bandt.
”I think it will assist the course of progressive politics in Australia if we have a sustainable and durable way of working together. But at the moment Labor has set their phasers to kill and has decided their approach is to try and wipe us off the map.
”It won’t work and I fear that the ultimate winner out of that will be Tony Abbott. Labor seems to be more preoccupied with winning the battle rather than winning the war.”
Bandt says there is still a professional relationship with Prime Minister Julia Gillard and key figures in the government, including Labor attack dogs on the Greens, Anthony Albanese and Joel Fitzgibbon.
”The Monday after the NSW elections, I was sitting down across the table from Anthony Albanese and Joel Fitzgibbon in one of our regular meetings to discuss what was coming up for that week and I think that we were all professional enough to continue doing our job without letting those things get in the way.
”So in terms of the proper functioning of Parliament and the stability of the government, that hasn’t affected it.”
With Labor and Liberal aligning against the Greens and working together on preferences, Bandt says the only way for the Greens to insulate themselves is to redouble efforts to increase the party’s primary vote. In his own seat, he believes increasing his primary vote by about 5 percentage points, to above 40 per cent, would be enough to ward off preference deals between Labor and the Liberal Party.
More broadly, Bandt believes the Greens should stick to their values and policy agenda – but with an important change. ”Where we need to get better is in explaining to voters that we have a realistic way of achieving those policy goals and that we can explain how they would be paid for and we know what they cost,” he says
This will involve submitting policies to the Parliamentary Budget Office, established as part of his agreement with the government. ”If I have my way the Greens will be the most economically responsible party at the next election,” says Bandt.
The new attack from Labor coincides with the Greens facing one of their most vulnerable periods, as Christine Milne attempts to define her leadership of the party after Brown’s departure. Bandt argues the party will survive and thrive in the post-Brown era, because it has a clear set of values.
Bandt says of Brown’s contribution: ”Bob’s unique and I don’t think anyone was ever going to replicate him.”
Bandt has been down to see Brown living his post-Senate life in Tasmania. ”He’s looking much younger and he’s got a great view from his place out to Bruny Island, and they [Brown and his partner] pop into the local town for coffee. He seems to be living a very relaxed and good life.”
Bandt, who talks to Brown regularly, says the former leader has given the Greens something they haven’t had – a party elder. Brown had also committed to being part of the push towards the next election.
”It’s good to have someone there who’s still got a bit of gas left in the tank and who’s contributing. Whilst it did change the landscape to have him not there, he hasn’t disappeared.”
Back in the City of Yarra, the latest test of the Greens is unfolding. Amanda Stone argues that for the naysayers, ”it’s a desirable story to tell that the Greens are on the down”.
”Here,” she says, ”I don’t see any drop in support for the Greens and what we’re doing.”
At a grassroots level, Labor appears to be taking a more measured approach compared to the declarations of war emanating from the national sphere.
”My view is that we should deal with issues and deal with policy,” says Labor mayor Geoff Barbour.
”In my view, good policy will win, and I’m quite satisfied that Yarra Labor will be putting forward good policies, and that they will be attractive to people,” he says.
”The issues at state or federal levels are best dealt with at those levels, to be honest.”
Barbour’s sentiment is refreshing, but there is little doubt that the results in Yarra and elsewhere will form a part of a bigger political story over the future of the Greens in the post-Bob Brown era.