As numbers from polling booths across the ACT started to go up on the big screen in the tally room on Saturday night the first and most obvious trend was a huge swing to the Liberals and a correlative swing against the Greens.
In 2008 voters were unhappy with the Jon Stanhope government’s lack of public consultation over key issues and were angry with Stanhope himself. They were not, however, prepared to trust an untried and untested opposition with the reins of government. The 2008 result: a huge swing to the Greens at the expense of Stanhope’s Labor. The Greens retained their existing seat and picked up three more: two from Labor and one from Liberal.
The likely result of this election, with final preferences still being distributed, is eight seats for Liberal, seven for Labor and two Greens. The Liberal Party has benefited from a 7% swing, giving them 38.7% of the vote. Labor has gained a 1.6% swing, finishing with 39% and the swing against the Greens is almost 5% leaving them on 10.7% of the vote.
Despite the swing, I contend that the 2012 result is not a desertion of the Greens, but rather a return to status quo. The result is indicative of two separate factors.
First, the retirement of Jon Stanhope last year handed the Chief Ministership to his deputy, Katy Gallagher. In 18 months, and despite criticism of her handling of the health portfolio, Gallagher has gained the goodwill and respect of the ACT electorate and worked well with the Greens – something her predecessor was not able to do. In electoral terms this resulted in voters who deserted Stanhope’s Labor for the Greens in 2008 returning to Gallagher’s Labor.
The second factor accounts largely for the Liberals’ 7% swing. The national trend towards the Liberal party from swinging voters gave them part of that 7%, with the rest from those who in 2008 supported the plethora of minor parties and independents which in the past have peppered the ACT ballot form, but which were oddly missing at this election.
The Greens' probable loss of two seats is being painted as a major disaster. However, while it will be disappointing to those two MLAs and a concern for the party, their overall result of almost 11% brings the ACT into line with national polling for the Greens. This indicates stability in party support, not slippage.
The final seat count of 8-7-2 means that neither of the major parties will have the nine seats required for majority government and the Greens again will determine which party governs the territory for the next four years.
Liberal leader Zed Seselja was somewhat contradictory in his claims on election night, at once disparaging the minor party and then claiming that he would expect their support to govern. Federal Liberal leader, Tony Abbott, also weighed in, suggesting that Seselja’s Liberals have a “moral claim” to government and that the Greens should support them on that basis. Gallagher has been more reserved, saying she will initiate talks with the Greens over the coming days and has not ruled out offering the Greens a ministry.
The Greens’ parliamentary leader, Meredith Hunter, has indicated that her party will approach negotiations openly and assess each of the contenders on their willingness and capacity to deliver on the Greens’ agenda, which includes a light rail system for Canberra and emissions reduction as part of a climate change policy.
It is not unprecedented for the Greens to support a minority Liberal government: Christine Milne led the Tasmanian Greens in Premier Tony Rundle’s Liberal-Green minority government from 1996 to 1998 with mixed results.
With that precedent in mind, how likely is it that the ACT Greens will put the Liberals into government? Seselja’s claim rests on the eight seats his members will occupy in the 17-seat Assembly. However, his party received less of the vote than Labor. Gallagher’s claim rests on a four year record of working with the Greens, a relationship that while generally positive, has not necessarily met the terms of the agreement made in 2008.
The Greens are not likely to be tempted by the smell of ministerial leather unless it comes as part of a package to deliver on their agenda. During the campaign Labor promised a huge renewable energy development and a light rail system – policies that looked custom-designed to form the basis for negotiations with the Greens. The Liberals’ policies, on the other hand, included investment in roads and no mention of climate change.
The onus is now on Gallagher and Seselja to negotiate a deal that will not only suit the Greens but provide stable government to the ACT for the next four years. Judging on the basis of policy alone, it is likely that Canberra will see a return of the Gallagher-Hunter Labor-Greens government.