Greens leader Richard Di Natale will be hoping to snatch seats from the major parties in Saturday’s election. AAP/Julian Smith

A fringe group no more, the Greens put the frighteners on the two major parties

At the Greens campaign launch in Melbourne last Sunday, Richard Di Natale made it clear to the major parties that:

We’re here to stay. Get used to it.

Di Natale’s defiant declaration reflects the party’s exasperation at the difficulty of asserting their relevance in what is essentially a two-party system.

A range of factors limit the Greens’ ability to maintain a high profile during the campaign. The Greens lack the resources to compete against the major parties on equal terms. Also, the media’s gaze – the source of free publicity – is largely fixed on the major parties.

These factors, and others, make election contests squarely about the major parties. As a result, the Greens have only small windows of opportunity to seize nationwide attention during the campaign. Such opportunities are typically fleeting and unpredictable, and tend to contract as the campaign proceeds.

Yet there is one moment during the campaign when the Greens can be assured that they will be in the spotlight, and this will be thanks to the major parties.

Since the 1990s particularly, the major parties have addressed the presence of minor parties at elections. This moment tends to occur in the final week of the campaign: it is brief, and it is not what could be called a positive experience for the Greens (and other minor parties). It takes the form of an urgent plea by one or both major party leaders to voters to resist against “a roll of the dice on independents or minor parties”.

This election is proving to be no exception. The polls have the non-major-party primary vote at around 20%, of which the Greens are likely to attract somewhere in the vicinity of 10%, and perhaps as much as 14% of the first-preference vote. The minor parties, and the Greens particularly, pose both a real and existential threat to the major parties.

However, what is a little different about this election is that the Greens are no longer viewed solely as Labor’s curse. There is a growing perception that the Greens have the potential to inconvenience the Liberals in a number of their inner-metropolitan electorates as well.

Ganging up on the Greens

In the initial weeks of the campaign, the major parties waxed between indifference and bullish restraint towards the Greens.

Victorian Liberal Party president Michael Kroger gave the Greens something of a back-handed compliment when he declared that the party “was not the nutters that they used to be”.

Also, the Liberals were slow to rule out preferencing the Greens ahead of Labor in key lower house seats on the grounds that such decisions are made “consistent with the electoral interests of the party”.

Labor also displayed a modicum of self-discipline in its approach towards the Greens, even when forced to divert resources to sandbag otherwise safe seats.

For example, when in early May the Greens made the case for a formalised legislative arrangement with Labor in the event of minority government, Bill Shorten was quite contained in his admonishment that “Labor will not be going into coalition with any party”.

With the exception of Anthony Albanese, Labor MPs were careful in their rebuke of the Greens, a condition most likely brought on by the realisation that an aggressive response might alienate the progressive base.

But by the third week of the campaign, both major parties began to harden in their resolve against the Greens.

In late May, it was officially kicked off when the two big parties, at the invitation of the Daily Telegraph, signed a solemn pledge that neither would enter into an alliance with the Greens in the event that neither major party secures an outright majority in the lower house.

Thereafter, exchanges between the Greens and Labor became less civil. It reached a high watermark when former Labor prime minister Paul Keating referred to the Greens as a “bunch of opportunistic Trots hiding behind a gum tree trying to pretend they’re Labor”.

Similarly, the Liberals finally declared their position on Green preferences. Malcolm Turnbull announced that the party would not move forward on the Kroger plan on the grounds that:

… we would end up with an unstable, chaotic, minority Labor-Green-independent government as we have seen before.

From the perspective of the major parties, the preference agreement is a pragmatic bargain that delivers for both parties in equal measure.

The Liberals will benefit from a Labor how-to-vote card that will help them against the Nationals in three rural seats – Murray in Victoria, and O’Connor and Durack in Western Australia. In exchange, the Liberals will issue a how-to-vote card that will assist Labor in four seats – Grayndler, Sydney, Batman and Wills – where Labor was feeling particularly vulnerable to a potential Green surge.

The Greens’ response

While it is difficult to quibble with the strategic merits of the preference agreement for the major parties, the decision was frustrating for the Greens.

But the reality is that the Greens’ prospects in the lower house seat was always more hopeful than certain – something Di Natale has always recognised.

Similarly, the Greens have been able to salvage something from the major parties’ preference announcement. It has provided the Greens with further ammunition in support of its narrative that the major parties are the “Coles and Woolworths of politics”, an allusion many voters are likely to understand.

Nor can it be said that every major party decision has necessarily worked against the Greens’ interests. In the Senate contest, at least, Labor’s how-to-vote card recommendations overwhelmingly continue to favour the Greens. Labor has placed the Greens in number two position in every state and territory, except Victoria where the Greens have been placed in the number five spot on Labor’s how-to-vote ticket (but still ahead of the Liberals).

It is true to say that the Greens, like most other parties, have reason to feel maligned, ganged-up against and misunderstood at one time or another during this campaign. But they can take some comfort from Oscar Wilde’s famous quip that:

There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.

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