Greens and climate independents: is the Australian political ecosystem big enough for both?

by | Mar 20, 2022 | Government, Latest Posts

The Australian Greens had the environmental vote sewn up. But the 2022 election may be the one where the tide went out for the party after 40 years of passion and picketing and manoeuvring. It may be the election where parliamentary activism on clean energy is entrusted instead to a breed of reassuring, female ‘’climate leaders’’ who better reflect the aspirations of middle Australia, writes Mark Sawyer.

This year marks 40 years since the campaign to save the Franklin River in Tasmania from the dam-building ambitions of the state’s Hydroelectric Commission.

Protesters young and old, wielding the distinctive triangular placards proclaiming ‘’No Dams’’, took to rubber rafts, blocking the river. They tied themselves to trees to stop the chainsaws. The movement’s passion and eye-catching stunts turned its charismatic leader Bob Brown into a national figure.

The Franklin River was saved from the dam. And green politics burst onto the national stage. Since then the political party that wields that name has eclipsed rivals to become the third force in Australian politics.

They established a beachhead in the Senate and have long had designs on a leading role in the House of Representatives.

The Greens have inspired Australians with their idealism but also driven even some of their most ardent supporters to distraction with their stubbornness. To the right, they are a woolly-headed, job-destroying claque of fanatics. 

Now there’s a bunch of new kids on the block targeting much the same constituency.

The climate independents, or Voices Of movement. Some are supported logistically and financially by a funding organisation called Climate 200, headed by Simon Holmes a Court. 

The bolters of 2022

Almost all women, the climate independents have become the bolter of the 2022 election. Some call them Tree Tories. About 30 seats have been targeted. The movement has gained strength with the election of Cathy McGowan and then Helen Haines in Indi, and Zali Steggall in Warringah. In January The Australian Financial Review reported that a dedicated poll gave Voices Of candidates a chance of unseating Liberal MPs in Goldstein, Wentworth and North Sydney. This alone would deprive the Coalition of its parliamentary majority, assuming it made no gains elsewhere.

The common funding sources of so many of the independents has drawn allegations from their Liberal targets that they are a party and should be treated as such by the Australian Electoral Commission.

Climate 200 wrangler Simon Holmes a Court denies this: 

‘’In no way are we a party,’’ he told the National Press Club in February. ‘’As I’ve said before, we don’t start campaigns, we don’t select candidates, we wait for these campaigns to come up through the grassroots and demonstrate strong community support, demonstrate capable campaign teams, and demonstrate the ability to fundraise within their community. No, we don’t have a policy platform, we have a set of values.’’

It’s difficult to imagine there won’t be more such independents in the next parliament. Most pundits see these independents as a threat to the Coalition government. But where does that leave the Greens?

From Melbourne to Warringah

There are no ”Voices of Melbourne”. At the federal election, expected in May, Adam Bandt, the only Green in the House of Representatives, is likely to hold his seat without any angst for the fifth time.

Deep in affluent academia, secure behind the ”quinoa curtain”, a haven for bicycles and electric vehicles, the dreaming spires of Australia’s second oldest university (and some of the best real estate in the southern city), the electorate of Melbourne is no longer a Labor jewel. David Williamson’s angsty middle-class couples have long discarded their It’s Time T-shirts for Climate Action Now and suchlike. Williamson himself is long gone. 

Labor, secure in the knowledge that Bandt will not vote down a confidence motion against Labor in parliament (though he might meddle in Labor legislation) is not exactly trying to blast him out.

A pleasant thought for the man who has led the Greens parliamentary team since 2020, but those Voices are not just in Bandt’s head. This election will be very different for his team.

The clearest harbinger is Steggall’s successful bid for Warringah in 2019. Steggall dubbed herself a ‘’climate leader’’ but the structure of climate independents was looser than it is now. The figures are a long way from indicating where the climate-action vote comes from, but they are intriguing nonetheless.

The Liberals lost the seat, so obviously they are the real losers. But the Liberals lost only 24.47% of their vote compared with the 2016 election result. By the way, this is percentage, not percentage points. In other words, the Liberals lost just under a quarter of their support.

Labor lost 55.3% and the Greens lost 49.71%.

It can be assumed that Labor voters saw a juicy chance to depose a Liberal (let alone one named Tony Abbott). In a seat Labor could never win, this shedding of votes has no wider significance. But the Greens lost half their primary vote to a candidate who (1) emphasised climate policy and (2) announced her candidacy only four months before the election. This invites the conclusion that the Greens vote is up for grabs in a way that Labor’s and the Coalition’s is not. A worrying scenario for the Greens. 

Points of dissension

The contradictions in the aims of the Greens and independents have not been a prominent part of the political discourse.  But there are clear points of difference. The Greens talk tax increases for the wealthy and cuts to federal funding to private schools. Military spending is way down their priorities. Those policies are not a recipe for success where the independents have focused their firepower: the traditional Liberal strongholds on Sydney’s north shore and Melbourne’s eastern suburbs. Campaigning in 2019, Steggall explicitly rejected Labor’s proposals to restrict tax incentives for property owners and shareholders.

The independents have matched the Greens on pet topics, including the establishment of a federal integrity commission.  ‘’Climate, integrity, health,’’ is a typical independent slogan. It’s vague enough to draw in disillusioned Liberal voters, but it’s also reassuring to the Greens voter who is prepared to vote tactically. Again, a worry for the Greens.

What do they really want?

But what happens to that tactical vote of the normal Greens voter?

One way of examining that question is to consider the biggest point of difference between the Greens and the climate independents. The difference encompasses their ultimate vision for the nation. The Greens want the Coalition out and Labor in, part of their delicate dance with Labor that involves trying to pick off its seats while ultimately wanting it to be the government. The independents seem to aspire to influencing (dictating?) policy in a hung parliament.

The Greens see a role as policy conscience for Labor on climate and social policy. The higher their ambition, the more nightmares for Labor hardheads. In their cradle of Tasmania, the Greens have propped up Labor governments and had ferocious fallings out with them. The Rudd and Gillard Labor governments of 2007-13 were frustrated by the Greens on refugee policy and, of all things, a price on carbon.

The Greens have in their more starry-eyed moments talked about replacing Labor as the nation’s leading progressive force but even before the rise of the independents that vision seemed to have telescoped down to seats in the ACT and inner city Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with the NSW north coast a wild card. The Greens have soaked up much of the old Labor Left, but the ALP proper doesn’t want anything that looks remotely like a formal coalition.

A pledge on supply is the most Labor will seek from the Greens, and that’s only to be able to reassure the governor-general that Labor can form a stable minority government. 

That’s something that can hardly be offered by the independents, who are not, we are reminded, a party.

The delicate question for the independents is which government they ultimately would support if the parliamentary numbers were so close that either major party could seek a pledge on supply. The independents have foxed on the issue. They seem to imagine a permanent phenomenon of hung parliaments. Is this a good idea for the nation? The independents have not been put under enough pressure from the media on this issue.

Allegra Spender, standing in Wentworth, NSW, dodged the issue when she appeared on the ABC’s QandA in February:

Stan Grant: One of the questions I think people are asking: If indeed it comes down to a hung parliament and Independents are going to be important and you do get elected, who do you side with? Who do you guarantee for supply?

Allegra Spender: So what I am trying to do is stand for what is important to the people of Wentworth. And I’ve spent a lot of time since I started this campaign, and before then, is actually really listening. And starting to saying: “what is important to you, and what are you seeking from your representative?” And I think absolutely, they’re seeking action on climate change. Because I think Wentworth is a very business-focused electorate, and it sees that, that there’s a huge economic opportunity there. They are seeing – they also see the environmental imperative on that. They see, they want to focus on cleaner politics. They are sick of the politicisation. I think, you know, Andrew [Constance], your point is absolutely right. People are exhausted. And they’re not interested in, in sort of, you know, political name calling they want, you know, they want –

Grant tried again and failed again. At the National Press Club in February, Holmes a Court stonewalled when pressed to name a preferred party of government: 

I’m saying that my opinion on this doesn’t matter. I’m saying that the independents will form their own opinion on which party is able to deliver on the issues that they have a mandate for. So this is absolutely a decision for each of them individually. Nothing to do with me.

We might deduce that the independents are not going to declare their hand. Superficially it’s a canny policy, considering they are standing in Liberal-held seats. The paradox is that the more Liberals they spear, the less chance there is of the Liberals having the numbers to form even a minority government. And since the targets are mainly moderates, there is less chance that the Liberals will be able to designate a prime minister who is (barely) acceptable to the independents. Josh Frydenberg will be gone in Kooyong while Peter Dutton stays put in Dickson. 

An uninterrupted rise, until now

The Greens told some time to establish themselves as the third force in Australian politics. Uniting as a national party in 1992, the Greens could tempt no TV news crew to their inaugural media conference (the crews were covering the launch of the Sydney Harbour Tunnel). In 2001 the Greens did well by harnessing the anti-war vote in the wake of September 11. Michael Organ won Labor’s NSW seat of Cunningham for the Greens in a 2002 by-election, partly because the Liberals did not field a candidate and partly in protest at Labor’s tepid opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq. At the 2004 election the Greens displaced the centrist Australian Democrats as the third force. Brown and his successor Christine Milne proved popular advocates for the cause and canny negotiators.

A big question for 2022 is will the Voices Of movement translate to the Senate? You can’t vote for your independent in both the House and the Senate. Will Tree Tories vote Green in the Senate? It would be curious if the House, the party House, because the Independent House, while the Senate, the state’s chamber, became the party chamber. The best hope for the Greens may be that they keep their Senate numbers.

Liberals for Forests contested the 2001 federal election for the WA Senate. They didn’t win a place. They may well be cheering on election night 2022.

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