The end of the ALP/Green alliance is all sound and fury

Australian Greens leader Senator Christine Milne called for an end to the ALP and Greens alliance during a National Press Club speech. Alan Porritt/AAP

The termination of the ALP/Green alliance has been characterised by some sections of the media and the commentariat as a “divorce”. The language is interesting because it implies that there was genuine affection and closeness between the two parties at one time. The use of the word further conjures the notion that the Greens and the ALP, in signing the agreement, had intended to forge a permanent relationship.

However, the Greens and the ALP were only ever sober roommates. The two parties tolerated one another because circumstances dictated they must.

It is worth remembering that they were not formal coalition partners. The prosaically titled The Australian Greens & The Australian Labor Party (ʹThe Partiesʹ) – Agreement (Agreement) was only a temporary pact that would expire upon cessation of the 43rd Parliament.

Nor did the agreement alter the essential relationship between the two parties; they were and remain wholly separate organisations.

With the election date announced, the tearing up of the agreement was inevitable.

For all the mock indignation feigned by both camps, the ALP and the Greens needed to shake off the perception they were a conjoined entity.

Both parties, not to forget the independents, have been (somewhat absurdly) criticised for displaying partisanship over the past 125 weeks.

It seems that a significant proportion of the public has been unimpressed with the experiment in minority government.

This was borne out in the findings of a Newspoll survey conducted in late 2012. Only 13% of those surveyed thought that minority government had delivered “good government”. This compared to 47% of respondents who believed it had produced “worse” government, even if most of those who held a negative view identified as Coalition supporters.

Under these conditions, the voiding of the agreement allows both parties to distance themselves both from their highly pragmatic pact but, importantly, from one another. The end of this pact will actually be liberating for both parties.

The photo opportunity created by the announcement has provided the Greens with much needed oxygen at a time when its fortunes are flagging. To the extent that the polls are a reliable indicator of voting intentions, the most recent Essential Poll of Senate voting intentions in four states suggests that the Greens’ primary vote is, at best, stagnating.

It also allows the Greens to underline differences between their party and that of the ALP. In declaring Labor “has walked away from its agreement with the Greens and into the arms of the big miners”, Milne signalled to her supporters that the Greens have not been de-radicalised as a consequence of their pact with Labor.

Yet the Greens are not the only ones to benefit by walking away from the agreement. Milne’s sudden epiphany that Labor could not be trusted has reaped a pleasant harvest for the ALP.

This is especially true for Gillard. The media feeding frenzy that the announcement generated served to distract, even if only momentarily, any further speculation about a possible Rudd coup.

It has also allowed Labor MPs, such as Anthony Albanese, to go to war against the Greens without fear of compromising the stability of government.

One should get too carried away by the spectre of a political break-up. For better or for worse, the fate of both parties is intertwined.

The Greens are well aware that only the ALP is inclined to do deals with them. The Liberals appear to be seriously contemplating preferencing Labor ahead of the Greens, which will stymie the latter’s already slim hopes of winning any marginal Labor held seats, not to mention retaining Bandt’s seat of Melbourne.

Moreover, an Abbott coalition government will not look kindly upon the Greens in parliament. If Abbott is true to his word, he will happily trigger a double dissolution election to avoid getting bogged down in negotiations with the Greens in the Senate.

A double dissolution election, even with the advantages of its much lower electoral quota, would not necessarily be desirable for the Greens. The Greens could very well be squeezed electorally by an Abbott government basking in the after glow of a likely honeymoon period, not to mention a resurgent ALP.

But Labor needs the Greens in equal measure. The collapse in Labor’s primary vote will mean they will be desperate for Green voter preferences. While Green voters are more independently minded in respect to the allocation of their preferences than most major party voters, it is still the case that Labor would be disadvantaged if the Greens issued an open how-to-vote card recommendation.

Given the Greens have pledged to continue to vote against no confidence motions and for supply bills in order for the parliament to continue until election day, the announcement that the agreement is terminated is nothing more than a circuit breaker for both parties. It simply allows declared enemies to resume hostilities without appearing two-faced.