The house that Bob Brown built
In reflecting on what The Greens achieved under Bob Brown's leadership, the graph below – taken from Peter Brent's Mumble blog – indicates three major achievements, and one more recent cautionary tale.
Double click to enlarge graph
Working from the left of the graph, the progress of The Greens from 1998 to 2001 came in no small part from Brown's ability to use Meg Lees' endorsement of a modified version of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) to capture the votes of disaffected Democrats' supporters. Correctly sensing that, despite their origins as a breakaway party of the Liberals' left, most Democrats supporters were politically left-of-centre, Brown was able to use the GST decision to marginalise the Democrats, and establish the Greens as the most significant third party of the two. The fact that, some years on, the former Democrats' leader Andrew Bartlett could re-emerge as a leading figure in The Greens confirm the wisdom of this initial move.
The period from 2001 to about 2005 marks the second peak in Greens' support. Here, as shown in the graph, a lot of this support came directly from ALP voters. This is the period dominated by the asylum seeker issue, mandatory detention, and the sending of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq. As is well known, all of these issues present Labor with considerable problems – and still do – and the Greens' unequivocal opposition to mandatory detention and the war in Iraq clearly mark out the Greens as a party of the Left. Whereas Labor voters who were disaffected from the Hawke and Keating governments had nowhere much else to go could now go to the Greens.
The impact of this shift in the inner cities, and among particular constituencies (such as students and those associated with universities, for example, as well as most of my Facebook friends) was substantial, and remains important. Scott Bennett's 2008 study observes the rise in the Greens' support to 18 per cent among people under 25, people with a university degree, and people with "no religion" in the period between the 2001 and 2004 Federal elections.
The third growth spurt for The Greens comes after a significant dip over 2006-2007, which coincides with a surge in ALP support under the leadership of Kevin Rudd. From 2008 to 2010, Greens support continues to grow, leading to the 13 per cent Senate vote in the June 2010 Federal election, and The Greens winning their first Federal lower house seat. Adam Bandt won Melbourne, a haven for people under 25, people with university degrees, ex-ALP members, and people with "no religion". Many similar seats, such as Grayndler in inner Sydney, Melbourne Ports, and Denison in Tasmania, now appeared open to electing Greens members in the near future.
But there are a couple of things to note here. While the decision by The Greens to vote down the ETS in the Senate, and the resulting turmoil in Federal Labor that leads to the deposing of Rudd for Julia Gillard, brings some gains to The Greens, much of their improvement in voting figures preceded the ETS decision. This suggests that The Greens were operating a more generic "left" alternative to Labor well before the ETS vote, where Greens voters wanted a Labor government, albeit one that was more "left" on particular issues, such as the environment, same-sex marriage or withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.
The other big development is that while The Greens continue to poll well, at 11-12 per cent, this remains the figure in the face of one of the greatest collapses in support for the ALP when in government in its history. Labor's first preference votes have fallen from 50%+ in 2007 to the mid-40s over 2009-2010, to a point now where a figure above 30 per cent is welcomed as a sign of recovery. Over this period, the 15-20 per cent of voters who have ceased to support Labor have almost entirely gone over to the Coalition. Moreover, they have done so after the decision to introduce a Carbon Tax was announced in February 2011, and they have gone to a Coalition led by the arch-nemesis of the Greens/left, Tony Abbott.
So unless something changes dramatically, The Greens may retain their 2010 level of support under Christine Milne as their new leader. But it will almost certainly be in the context of being in opposition to an Abbott government, that will credit its election to the Gillard government's decision in February 2011 to introduce a Carbon Tax. The Coalition will also continually taunt Labor to publicly disown the policy, as they were themselves required to publicly disown Work Choices after the 2007 election. And I strongly suspect there will be fewer ALP "true believers" in a Carbon Tax after the next Federal election than there are Coalition "true believers" in labour market reform along the lines of Work Choices.
In the face of this, Labor will face some real questions about its future relationship to The Greens. The Greens will also face the question of whether they wish to aim for continued growth in electoral support, and how to do so. This would have to entail attracting some Coalition voters, as there will be fewer and fewer disaffected ALP voters to pick off. I suspect that this goes very much against the instincts of The Greens' rank and file supporter base.