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How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?


Caught Between Red and Green: The Electoral Dilemma

Dennis Altman

Politics can change fast. When we started discussing this project there was a real fear that Tony Abbott’s government might succeed in imposing a set of policies on welfare, taxation, climate change, asylum seekers and human rights that would be more reactionary than anything yet envisioned in Australia. As the year unfolded he ran into increasing difficulties – both in implementing all his policies and in the public response – with a series of opinion polls that suggested Labor was on track to win the 2016 election. Months later Abbott was replaced by Turnbull, and the polls reversed.

Too much of our political debate revolves around individuals – Gillard versus Rudd versus Abbott versus Turnbull – which ignores the realities that leaders are constrained by their parties, but even more so by the larger social, economic and cultural environment. Across the western world, traditional political parties are struggling to retain members and cohesion, as new issues arise and new political parties emerge on both left and right. The problems for Labor of finding a coherent response to rapidly changing social and economic conditions is shared by social democratic parties across the western world, symbolised by the repeated electoral success of moderate conservative parties in Britain, Germany and New Zealand. While the Australian Labor Party (ALP/ Labor) remains the only realistic alternative governing party it faces the possibility of losing some of its inner-city base to the Australian Greens (Greens).

In April 2015, I took part in an Open Labor discussion entitled: Should Labor talk to the Greens. The title was somewhat misleading; as one of the speakers pointed out Labor is constantly talking to the Greens, and under Julia Gillard developed a working, if sometimes tense, relationship with them in federal Parliament. In the short term this alliance seemed to work against both; Labor was consistently attacked as being held hostage by the Greens, and the Greens lost support because they were seen simultaneously seen as part of the system and as too radical – tree-hugging crazies who would destroy the economy, according to the Murdoch press and the Labor Right.

Open Labor is a group of people, mainly party members, who are trying to democratise the Labor Party and reduce the power of factions and party apparatchiks in what David Marr has referred to as the brutal world of the Victorian ALP.1 Not surprisingly, the focus of the evening was less on how to work with the Greens than whether or not the Greens posed an ongoing and substantial threat to Labor’s ability to build electoral majorities.

What was most interesting was that in a room of Labor supporters there was far more anger and frustration directed at Labor than at the Greens, who for many of the audience offered a model for Labor to emulate. While some people mistrusted the Greens as unrealistic and unprincipled, more in the audience admired their stand on asylum seekers and the willingness to question the limits to growth. The attitude of some party officials, that the Greens are a major enemy who should be opposed even if it means doing preference deals with the Liberals, appeared a minority view in the room. Most of the people present were passionate about the need to challenge injustice and inequality, and angry at what seemed Labor’s inability to offer clear alternatives to the [then] Abbott government.

Summing up the debate James Button and Tom Bentley wrote: ‘Can Labor and the Greens cooperate on any level, or are they locked in a fight that can produce only one winner?’.2 Framing the question in this way is important, because we are used to thinking of politics as a zero sum game, in which only one team can win. With bitter memories of the problems of managing a Parliament in which there was no clear majority there is a strong mood within Labor that they can only govern with an absolute majority, despite the considerable legislative achievements of the Gillard government.

The question is whether Labor and the Greens can find ways of working together while struggling for the same supporters. For those of us who belong to neither party it seems that far too much energy is spent in squabbles between two groups who share a common desire for a more progressive politics, even while disagreeing on several fundamental points. Just what these are, and whether they can be sufficiently reconciled, is the theme of this book. To answer this question means asking fundamental questions about larger social and economic changes, even as electoral politics revolve around leadership styles and management competence rather than competing visions.

One of the clichés of contemporary Australian political analysis is to claim that Labor is increasingly unable to hold together the alliance of traditional working-class voters and a socially progressive ‘new class’, often referred to sneeringly as latté-sipping inner-city sophisticates, needed to win electoral majorities. There are those within Labor who would cede some of these votes to the Greens in favour of a greater populist appeal to suburban and provincial voters, assumed to be mainly concerned with economic issues; others argue for attacking the Greens head-on in their inner-city strongholds, a problem when they need ensure their preferences elsewhere. In a discussion with Michele Grattan frontbencher Sam Dastyari, a power broker within the NSW Labor Right, argued that Labor needed to respond more aggressively to the Greens, while nominating issues, such as climate change and same-sex marriage, where the more Labor seeks to differentiate itself from the Liberals the more it appears to be merely following the Greens.3 For Victorian right-winger, Michael Danby, the real gulf between the two parties is on matters of national security.4

Some of the political commentariat seem agreed that the Greens will dwindle away under the pressure of some apparently immutable need for a binary party divide. Even as sensible a reporter as Jennifer Hewett has suggested that ‘we just politely ignore the Greens as irrelevant’.5 George Megalogenis’s overview of Australian political history and future, published in 2016,6 has literally no mention of the Greens, even though they were consistently polling between 12 and 16 per cent in opinion polls since the 2013 elections. Amanda Lohrey seemed more accurate in her cover story for the The Monthly declaring the Greens were now hitting the mainstream.7

Minor parties are hardly new in Australian politics, and they benefit from an electoral system that allows greater possibilities for representation than the first-past-the-post voting used in Britain and the United States. Australian politics are deeply shaped by a complex electoral system, which means preferences of minor parties are essential in the House of Representatives and can become byzantine in the Senate, leading to the changes to Senate voting pushed through by the Turnbull government with the support of the Greens in March 2016. What is new is a party that can seriously contest Labor’s claim to occupy the more progressive side of Australian politics, and sees itself as becoming a serious contender for government.

When the Greens emerged out of battles to preserve the Tasmanian wilderness they seemed likely to be no more than a boutique party, capable perhaps of winning a few Senate seats and using their electoral position to highlight certain environmental issues. But with the demise of the Democrats in the first few years of this century, the Greens were able to appeal to both those voters who distrusted the two major groupings and those Labor voters who were increasingly disillusioned with what seemed an abandonment of progressive principles. In both New South Wales and Victoria, the Greens have won state seats from the conservatives [Ballina; Prahran] and former Nationals Leader, Larry Anthony, has warned of Greens inroads in traditional National territory.

While the Menzies government depended heavily on Democratic Labor Party (DLP) preferences after the Labor split of 1955, this was in a period when the major party groupings enjoyed a much larger share of the popular vote than they do today. Since 1949, when Menzies ushered in his remarkable twenty-three years of Liberal reign, Labor has only once won over 50 per cent of the popular vote [in 1954: an election it lost]. Hawke came close in 1983, but since that election Labor’s primary vote has steadily declined. Hawke won the 1990 election with just under 40 per cent of first preferences, and Kevin ‘07 achieved 43 per cent in 2007.

Since then Labor has consistently struggled to win 40 per cent of the electorate, and in practice can only win government with a consistent flow of Greens preferences and the support of Greens members, where they exist, in Parliament. Both parties need each other to win seats, while simultaneously competing for the same group of voters, people who see themselves as ‘progressive’, and are likely to give high priority to issues such as climate change, civil liberties and immigration policies.

As Labor cautiously tries to position itself as ‘progressive’ on these issues – with the notable exception of asylum seekers – it runs up against a Greens party that is moving towards a more social democratic position. When Richard di Natale took over leadership of the Greens in 2015 he laid out a program that could well have been nominated by a Labor leader, and in practice the Greens have often seemed more interested in economic redistribution than has Labor. Di Natale has even floated the possibility of a formal Labor/Greens coalition government, with himself as Health Minister.8 Given that such a coalition could only be established by the Greens winning some Labor held seats it is unlikely to be an attractive proposition to the ALP.

State politics have already seen various forms of Labor/ Greens coalitions. In 1989 the Tasmanian Labor/Greens Accord allowed the formation of a Labor government which lasted until the following year, when disputes over forestry policy saw the accord collapse and Premier Michael Field compare the relationship between Labor and the Greens to a ‘forced marriage’ which ended in a ‘very acrimonious divorce’. So bitter were the relations between the parties that in 1998 Labor joined the Liberals in cutting back the size of the lower house to squeeze out the Greens, but between 2010 and 2014 Labor formed a government in formal coalition with the Greens who held several ministerial positions. That coalition was ended by Premier Lara Giddings in 2014 in the lead-up to a state election that saw major swings against both parties.

Between 2008 and 2012 the Greens supported a Labor government in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT), though without formal participation in the ministry; the Greens were reduced to one seat in 2012 but the one member, Shane Rattenbury, became a minister in the Labor government. Like Tasmania the ACT uses proportional representation to elect its lower house; but in both Victoria and NSW in recent state elections the Greens have won lower house seats, and have members [though not the balance of power] in the upper houses.

It is common to complain that Labor has lost any sense of purpose beyond winning elections, and that it is increasingly a cabal of union-dominated professional politicians that at best will govern with a slightly more egalitarian tone. Yet for the foreseeable future Labor remains the alternative government. There is a real danger that the more successful are the Greens in attracting smart young recruits the harder it will be for Labor to attract sufficient members and candidates with a diversity of backgrounds. (It is difficult to get accurate figures for party membership; Labor still seems to have around 50,000 members, while the Greens have 10,000, numbers having surged for Labor when members were given a role in the choice of party leader.)

For the Greens the corresponding danger is that in order to attract more votes they will sound increasingly like Labor. The Greens webpage at the time of writing (October 2015) highlighted four issues: ‘national biosecurity’; ‘denticare for everyone’; ‘standing up for small business’ and ‘build high speed rail’. It is hard to detect in these any policies with which Labor might disagree.

Labor no longer even identifies itself as a democratic socialist party, as Gillard made clear in an address during her Prime ministership:

I come here to this union’s gathering as a Labor leader. I’m not the leader of a party called the progressive party. I’m not the leader of a party called the moderate party. I’m not the leader of a party even called the socialist democratic party. I’m a leader of the party called the Labor Party deliberately because that is what we come from. That is what we believe in and that is who we are.9

In a world where fewer people identify as workers is this sufficient?

* * *

This book grew out of discussions with Nathan Hollier and Sean Scalmer in early 2015, and a shared concern that mainstream opposition to the Abbott government too often was bogged down in bitter disputes between the Labor Party and the Greens. Out of our discussions came invitations to a range of possible contributors to what we hoped would be a real conversation about the possibilities for progressive politics in Australia, meaning an emphasis on equity, social justice, human rights and a more generous and internationalist vision of our place in the world. More specifically, we were interested in how our contributors saw the choice between Labor and Green, and where they saw it most productive to put their energy.

Amongst our contributors there are different visions of what a progressive politics might encompass. Ours was an open-ended invitation, and each author has chosen to answer the question in ways that reveal the very different priorities and preoccupations of people engaged in political debate. Many of those we would have liked to have contributed were not able to, for a variety of reasons, and inevitably some issues have been neglected, most particularly the ongoing shame of Australia’s relationship to its Indigenous citizens. Anyone who has compiled a collection of essays, especially one with tight deadlines, will recognise the frustration when careful attempts at gender and geographic balance are undone by authors who, often for the best of reasons, are unable to complete the task.

We deliberately sought a balance between sitting politicians from both parties and activists and commentators from outside, who are clearly freer to express their doubts in and demands of the political system. Some contributors write from within the academy, others have chosen a far more personal style. We deliberately chose not to impose a template on our contributors, and we have organised the book as an on-going conversation, not seeking to prioritise any one position or way of approaching the question.

My Own Ambivalences

For me, as for many others, the topic of this book explores a personal conundrum. I grew up a gut Labor voter, probably due to the influence of my mother, but during the post-Tampa election of 2001 I was tempted for the first time to give an effective first preference to the Greens in the lower house (as I then lived in the electorate of Melbourne this was more than a merely symbolic vote). It was only on entering the polling booth that I finally resolved to vote Labor, partly because my then member, Lindsay Tanner, had indicated his own discomfort with the hard line on asylum seekers to which Beazley had committed the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

That indecision has remained with me ever since; I have consistently voted Greens in the Senate, and in 2010 I voted for Adam Bandt in the House of Representatives; however in the following year’s state election I voted Labor in a seat (Richmond) where, again, the choice was meaningful. In that instance, I felt as the ALP seemed likely to win state government it was better to have the local member, Richard Wynne, in government, and such has proved to be the case.

I know and respect some of the major figures in both parties; I understand both those Greens who are disgusted by Labor’s factional deals and those Labor supporters who see the Greens, in Peter Garrett’s terms, as sanctimonious, ‘promising a nirvana that couldn’t be delivered and castigating everyone else as moral inferiors’.10 Politics, it is often said, is the art of the possible. But what is possible is in turn politically constructed, and it is here that a Labor–Greens alliance offers new prospects for opening up a debate that goes beyond Labor’s current attempts to appear progressive while being unwilling to challenge the basic assumptions of neoliberal economics. The ubiquitous attacks on high taxation (in reality, Australians are relatively lowly taxed), on ‘the nanny state’ and on the incompetence of the public sector are as much product of the much touted reforms of the Hawke–Keating period as are lower tariffs and a more open economy.

Rudd’s victory in 2007 should remind us that Labor wins when it appears clearly more progressive than its opponents: think Gough Whitlam in 1972, Bob Hawke in 1983 and Paul Keating in 1993. Attempts by Labor to position itself as a better manager of the status quo – Kim Beazley’s tactic in 2001 – are less successful because the party can’t outbid the Liberals on that ground unless the Liberals overreach (as Howard did with Work Choices) or run out of steam. What’s different now is that Labor no longer has a monopoly of progressive views.

Some in the Labor Party understand this new political environment, and recognise that there needs to be real change in the way the party governs itself and proposes to govern Australia. But I doubt that Labor has the internal reserves to do this alone. The left–right division within the party is no longer much more than a way of distributing party spoils, and the goodwill briefly generated by the 2014 leadership contest between Shorten and Albanese was quickly dissipated by the cynical manipulation of caucus’s vote for shadow cabinet by the factional groups. More significant even than party reform, Labor needs to radically rethink the legacy of the Hawke–Keating policies in light of the growing significance of global warming and the ongoing decline of manufacturing industry, which is probably irreversible given our population and the bipartisan zeal for free trade. Labor might save some shipyards; I doubt whether they will be able to resuscitate a domestic car industry.

Just as Liberals and Nationals have found ways of working together to build a coalition, despite moments of deep tension, the left needs to find ways of working together if we are to be relevant in face of a resurgent populist right. Every time Labor attacks Greens voters it reduces the possibilities of winning back the growing number of voters who are not willing merely to support Labor out of some residual sense that it is the party of those who are worse off. Labor may lose several inner-city seats to the Greens; it should worry more that it currently holds virtually no provincial electorates outside Victoria, except in Newcastle and Wollongong.

Coalition does not mean agreement; indeed the experience of the Labor-Greens coalitions in Tasmania have has disappointed many on both sides. But it does mean some mutual respect and discussion, and a willingness to swap preferences even where there are major disagreements about policy or candidates. While any alliance will be seized on by conservatives to attack Labor, a sensible dialogue would allow both parties to maintain a distinct identity while avoiding dissipating energies better directed at the right.

Politics is both about the allocation of economic resources and the recognition of diversity and inequality based less on money than on factors such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. The Labor Party grew out of a passion to improve the lot of the working class, and class inequality remains a reality in Australia today, as so much of our popular culture – think of Christos Tsiolkas’s novel Barracuda or television shows such as Kath and Kim or Upper Middle Bogans – reminds us. But we can no longer depend on the union movement to represent the worst off in society, nor can Labor claim a monopoly of concern for the dispossessed.

The Greens have grown beyond their original focus on the environment to embrace a range of issues that are concerned with social equity and justice. Precisely because they cannot become a party of government they are able to take a longer-term view on some of the key issues that face us, and on issues such as asylum seekers, climate change and international development they are a necessary corrective to those in Labor who are unwilling to think beyond the next election.

The 2013 election saw worrying signs of American-style politics, as Clive Palmer demonstrated that well-funded right-wing populism can be successful, but the swing to the right was also a consequence of Labor’s failure to develop a genuine counter-narrative to that which defines conventional economic management and facilitating individual acquisitiveness as the central aims of government. A genuinely progressive politics would be one that questions some of the basic assumptions that have enabled the constant attacks on taxation and regulation, and demonstrates that in a country of growing urbanisation, an ageing population and environmental fragility we depend more, not less, on government.

Most Australians recognise the need for a disability insurance scheme, better-funded public schools, vastly improved public transport and a national broadband network, and acknowledge that this means increased taxation. Beware the constant mantra of the financial press about the need for more economic reforms: these are often code for new ways of increasing economic inequality, which, as Labor MP Andrew Leigh has demonstrated, is already rising in Australia.11 The market can’t do much about growing transport gridlock or the increasing fragilities of an ageing population, though it seems very effective in increasing the wealth gap between a small part of the population and the rest.

Political parties remain essential mechanisms for allowing a liberal democracy to function, but they cannot alone create major changes to the status quo. At best they can articulate new demands and build on progressive forces, as Whitlam did in recognising the case for women’s equality and Aboriginal land claims, as Keating did in his reframing of our links with Asia, as Gillard did in her espousal of the national disability scheme.

Both Labor and the Greens grew out of significant social movements, and it is the role of social movements and of intellectuals to constantly challenge the status quo, and to place new issues on the political agenda. Political parties by themselves can’t change the political culture, even though the best politicians find ways of articulating new ways of seeing the world. Those of us who believe deeply in a progressive agenda will inevitably be disappointed by the compromises and failures of elected governments, but rather than attacking politicians we to need find ways of creating sufficient popular support for them to take bolder steps.

It is the nature of electoral politics that it concentrates on the immediate rather than the long term, on incremental rather than radical change. Even so, there is a timidity in current Australian political thought, expressed in declining satisfaction with the political system and disillusionment with current political leadership. The belief that we might create a better society, that political debate might be creative rather than managerial, seems to have largely vanished. It is our hope that the conversations in this book might rekindle a larger sense of political possibility.


1    David Marr, Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power, Quarterly Essay 59 (2015): 52.


3    The Conversation, 16 October 2015.

4    Michael Danby, ‘Liberal deal with Greens could compromise our national security,’ Australian, 14 January 2016.

5    J. Hewett, ‘Labor script not in Abbott plot,’ Australian Financial Review, 17 October 2013.

6    George Megalogenis, Australia’s Second Chance, Penguin, Australia, 2015.

7    Amanda Lohrey, ‘The new Greens,’ The Monthly, June, 2015.

8    James Massola, ‘Richard Di Natale eyes cabinet post in future Labor-Greens Government as Malcolm Turnbull brings him in from the cold,’ Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 2015,

9    Julia Gillard, speech, Australian Workers’ Union National Conference, 18 February 2013.

10  Peter Garrett, Blue Sky, Allen & Unwin, 2015, 276.

11  Andrew Leigh, Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia, Black Inc. Redback, Carlton, 2013.

How to Vote Progressive in Australia: Labor or Green?

   by Dennis Altman and Sean Scalmer