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Greens bashing threatens progressive wins

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Lee Rhiannon 27 Jul 2012

Read the original article here.

As commentators pick over the Labor-Greens relationship and the implications of the Melbourne by-election, it is timely to remember that the progressive side of politics share many commitments to address social justice, equality and environmental protection.

Building a more active and united progressive Left voice in Parliament, as well as strong social movements, is the key to getting runs on the board. But right now, unity is in short supply as Labor and the Greens are competing for a number of inner-city seats that were once Labor's heartland.

Labor Party officials and local members are understandably worried as they contemplate the prospect of power slipping away as safe seats turn into marginals where the outcome depends on preferences.

The state seat of Melbourne illustrates the trend. Over 13 years, Labor's vote has dropped 26 per cent from 59 per cent in 1999 to 33 per cent in Saturday's by-election. A win on preferences in this once safe seat may have limited some bad headlines for Labor, but they know that the downward shift in their vote is real. This is what is driving the tactical obsession with criticising the Greens.

Those who are keen to emphasise that the Greens are "failing" to win seats are the ones who are trying to gloss over a major shift in political support.

Over the past two decades there has been a steady increase in the Greens vote, particularly in lower house seats, once viewed as no win areas for minor parties. Labor's anger with the Greens is not so much about policies but about lost seats. For example, a majority of the nine Greens senators have won seats that Labor would have otherwise won.

The new frontier between Labor and the Greens is lower house seats. Here the Greens progress is slower, but with each election the margin between the parties is closing.

The Greens have won two lower house seats in general elections, the federal seat of Melbourne and the NSW seat of Balmain, and two seats in by-elections, the NSW federal seat of Cunningham and the Western Australia state seat of Fremantle.

Analysing the Greens vote reveals a steady increase in support in key inner-city seats. In the nine years between the 2001 and the 2010 federal elections, the Greens votes went up by 12 per cent in the federal seats of Grayndler and Batman and by 9 per cent in the seat of Sydney.

Winning single member electorates, when the media and most voters largely define politics and particularly the formation of government in terms of Labor and the Coalition parties, is tough. But still the Greens vote continues to rise, which suggests that in time more inner-city seats could fall.

Criticism of one's opponents is the very nature of politics, and contrary to the bleating of our political opponents, it is nothing new for the Greens policies to be put under the microscope.

But the past few weeks have seen an amplification of attacks on the party. The latest Newspoll has the Greens vote steady on 11 per cent while Labor has dropped 3 per cent, taking their vote down to 28 per cent.

The concerted anti-Greens offensive kicked off by NSW state secretary Sam Dastyari and AWU secretary Paul Howes is not achieving the desired aim and could even be a factor in this further drop in Labor's vote.

The impact of the rhetoric about "extremism" and "loony" policies and the call from some in Labor for an end to "automatic" preferencing of the Greens (even though automatic preferencing has never occurred) leaves an impression that Labor is attempting to move away from progressive policies.

Up until the election of the Gillard Government, Labor had largely built its electoral success on appealing to both conservative and progressive voters. The Labor Left has played a constructive role for their party in building social justice campaigns and attracting votes.

While it is not surprising that conservatives try and discredit the Greens and use various tactics to limit the chances of more breakthroughs in lower house seats, the question Labor Left needs to answer is, should they also be putting their effort into demonising a party with progressive policies?

The Greens and the Labor Left share a common commitment on many issues - expanding public services, rights of workers to organise, and protection of human rights and the environment, to name just a few headland issues.

If the Labor Left is concerned with building strong social movements independent of parliament, and winning more debates within the Labor party to help achieve policy objectives, surely it is time to reassess if joining with the Labor Right as well as the Coalition to attack the Greens is a wise move.

Many voters are tired of cross party conflict and thirsty for the progressive side of politics to put aside their differences and focus on achieving real gains, such as decent treatment of refugees and investment in renewable energy to address climate change.

The Greens have worked with Labor to pass more than 300 pieces of legislation. These achievements include a price on carbon, reforms to student services funding, protecting the pay and conditions of textile, footwear and clothing workers, and kicking off Denticare.

Getting more of these runs on the board may help turn around Labor's fortunes and rebuild the respect the community once held for a party that fought for the light on the hill.

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