The way the two leaders spoke about the rupture in their relationship made you wonder how they had ever got together. And indeed I wondered from the beginning why Julia Gillard had thought it necessary to have a formal relationship with the Greens, since there was never any likelihood that they would prefer the Liberals, or support a no-confidence motion against a Labor Government. The independent MPs were a different issue, and the support of each needed to be bought, if it could.
Looking back over the period of the Gillard Government, is is hard to be sure which party has done worst out of the formal relationship. Labor saddled itself with a partner which pushed it into the carbon tax, and towards other policies that have no great support in the mainstream, and are not central for Labor either. Within the ALP there has been growing resentment at the association, and a call to end it. For core Labor people, the tail has been wagging the dog.
For the Greens, the relationship has meant that it has been saddled with an unpopular government that does things that annoy Green supporters. As anyone learns when they are running any large outfit, you don’t get much lasting credit for anything good, and are constantly saddled with responsibility for everything disliked. The Greens too have been worrying about what to do, and recently unveiled a new way of presenting their position on policy issues.
One aspect of the formal relationship has been retained, and that is support on the floor of the House of Representatives. Julia Gillard is in no danger from the Liberals while she is Prime Minister. If she goes, however, the Greens may not support a new leader. Does that matter? Probably not — we know when the election is to be held, and at the moment at least the Coalition will just wait for the inevitable. My guess is that, for once, the great majority of voters know what they will do on September 14th.
There is one remaining question, and that is the extent to which the Greens will ask their supporters to give their second preferences to Labor. The formal relationship had to end sooner or later, anyway, as each party would want to contest an election on its own. But Green preferences have been most important for Labor in its marginal electorates, and they could be what saves an MP or two. I would expect Labor to moderate its attack on the Greens from now on, in order to make it easy for the Greens to do the right thing.
And what will happen to the Greens’ primary vote, anyway? I expect it to go down, as it has done generally across Australia in recent State and Territory elections. The Greens won 11.8 per cent of the vote in 2010, and I cannot see that proportion increasing. The Global Financial Crisis in 2007 pushed attention, in Europe and the USA, away from environmental matters into homes, jobs and an uncertain employment future. Australia managed to avoid the worst calamities of the GFC, and the Greens improved their share of the vote from the election in 2007. But the last three years have seen uncertainty and fear about the future enter the Australian mindset, and the Greens have no standing as a party of good government.
To a degree, support for Green policies is a ‘feel good’ response for people who feel secure about themselves, their income, their housing and their future. But the GFC has rattled that secure feeling, and it seems to me that the September election will not be about environmental matters, but about which major party is more likely to bring us back to the imagined ease and security of the Howard years.
The Greens, at least at their extreme edge, would rather see a move to a world in which Australia does not sell coal to China, we obtain our grid power from solar cells and wind turbines, and we return much farming land to a pristine natural state, whatever that is. I don’t think policies of that kind will have any traction in September.
But I don’t think the Greens will fade away. Environmentalism has become for many a kind of substitute religion, and religions hang on. As it happens, we have done a great deal of environmental remediation over the last half-century, and are getting better at it all the time. Nonetheless, the pressure of a growing population, the size of mining operations today, and the scale of our infrastructure projects, all convey a sense of an attack on Nature.
We haven’t really begun to think about population pressure and its consequences. And until we do (and perhaps even then) parties like the Greens will have adherents.