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What the Melbourne by-election tells the Greens

By Ronan Lee - posted Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Labor's win and the Greens' loss at the Melbourne by-election was about much more than voters making decisions because of the impact of competing election campaigns. The real story about why the Greens could not capitalise on Labor's decline and national unpopularity is more to do with the political values and attitudes of the Parties and far less to do with campaign tactics.

In the aftermath of the poll, pundits have been quick to explain how the Greens were out campaigned by the Labor machine who exploited superior campaign skills to win the race for postal votes and surprised many by winning the battle to gain minor party preferences. Greens' criticism of which rebounded by drawing unnecessary attention to their own 2010 federal preference arrangements in Melbourne. And no doubt the Greens were hurt too by confusion over their private education policies late in the campaign.

But the political climate was far from positive for Labor – voters' opinion of Labor federally could best be described as toxic. The Greens however, wasted the opportunity to draw attention to Labor's national woes by not creating a bigger role for Leader Christine Milne. Milne's regular presence on the streets of Carlton or Fitzroy would have drawn attention to Gillard's absence and unpopularity. Labor was hampered too by its decision not to release new electorate specific policies and by a lacklustre effort by their state parliamentary leadership which improved only in the final week of the campaign.


There will be many Greens analysing just what went wrong with their campaign, just as there will be numerous Labor figures working out how to replicate their Melbourne efforts in inner-city electorates throughout the nation at the next federal poll. However, it is the Greens with the most to gain from a correct analysis of what actually happened and why.

Without question, voters were poised to give the Greens their first Victorian state lower house seat – all that remained was to give the party a final check-up before committing. It is at this point things went badly wrong for the Greens.

Enough voters either could not make the commitment or changed their previous Green vote to hand the seat to Labor. The reason is very simple – when these voters consider the differences between Labor and the Greens - they see Labor as a flawed party but one prepared to pitch their argument to the community, listen, compromise and change; the Greens they see as having better policies but once they pitch policies to the community have no ability or desire to listen, compromise or change.

Labor is seen as interested in what the voters think, the Greens are seen as thinking the community should be interested in what they think.

As fans of the movie 'The Castle' would say its about 'the vibe'. The Greens are no longer a small protest party with innovative policies taking on the big old players, now they are part of the established political order and their reluctance to compromise confirms this for voters.

The voters want more from the Greens than talk about inclusion and empowerment, they want proof the Greens are actually interested in their diverse interests and needs and will compromise a little. If not they will look to give their support elsewhere, just like in Melbourne.


While Bob Brown's leadership during the Tampa affair or Iraq War debates was seen by many as inspiring, the Greens' inflexibility on refugees now looks unreasonable to many of those same voters, me included. The federal parliament is deadlocked and the Greens are being seen more as part of the problem than a principled humanitarian and environmental voice.

This inflexibility was echoed in the by-election's dying days when Greens' private school funding policy risked pushing parents of some school aged children to Labor. Sensibly, the Greens acted quickly to clarify their policy position but, unhelpfully, prominent Greens tweeting "If you vote ALP it'll be on faith not reason" left these same voters with a clear indication the Greens' clarification was not to be trusted. Once again the Greens painted themselves as stubborn and inflexible.

There was a time when many saw the Greens as the bright, new, principled hope of Australian politics. Today those people seem fewer and fewer and with former-Greens activists leaving the party and other former members and supporters seen contesting the Melbourne by-election as independents there is a message in this for the Greens from both the voters and green-minded political activists. It is a message worth listening to.

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About the Author

Ronan Lee is a political consultant and former Greens MP and adviser. He has traveled extensively in Burma, observing the 2010 elections and meeting Aung San Suu Kyi in the days following her release from house arrest.

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