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Breakthrough Down Under


Australians Win Record Number Of Seats, Gain Official Party Status
Oliver Woldring, Australian Greens

In a country weary of almost 11 years of dreary, Bush-loving Conservative government, the November 24th, 2007 Australian Federal elections presented a long-awaited choice between a fifth term of Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal Party-led Coalition government and the center-left Australian Labor Party (ALP) of Kevin Rudd. The ëLiberals’ are actually the conservative party in Australia.

Australia uses a parliamentary system of government, which means that the party that has the most seats in the House of Representatives chooses the Prime Minister, who serves as the country’s national chief executive, like the U.S. President.

dscf3530-400.jpgWith so much at stake the campaign was quite polarized and much of the media exhibited an intense Howard-Rudd focus. Despite this, the Greens’ vote rose to record heights in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. It was the Greens’ second preferences in the House vote that ultimately led to the defeat of the Howard government.

Part of the reason for this success was a function of the Greens’ clear stance on the issues. Their positions on climate change and industrial relations in particular were far more progressive than the ALP. But another reason was in the design of the Australian electoral system, which utilizes the Single Transferable Vote (STV) in both the Senate and the House, and combines with it with proportional representation in the Senate, through multi-seat districts of six elected from each state, each election.

The Senate

There are 76 seats in the Australian Senate and 40 were up for election in 2007. The Greens contested all 40 and won three. They joined the two sitting Green Sen ators who were not up for re-election, Christine Milne (Tasmania) and Rachel Siewert (Western Australia). Attaining an all-time high of five senators qualified the Greens for major party status, entitling the party to receive a first-time-ever substantial increase in staff and resources. The increase must be negotiated with the Rudd Government.

Topping the Greens performance was long-time Australian Green leader Bob Brown (Tasmania), the first Green elected to the Senate back in 1996. This time in being elected for the third time, he received 18.13 percent of first preferences; 1.269 times the 14.4 percent quota needed to win a seat, making this the first time an Australian Green was elected without the need for second preferences.

Joining Brown were first time winners Scott Lundlam (Western Australia) and Sarah Hanson-Young (South Australia), who received 9.30 percent (0.6509 quotas) and 6.49 percent (0.4542 quotas) respectively. Each then reached the quota after receiving second preferences.

Despite the proportional nature of the Senate elections, because only six seats are elected at a time, in a highly polarized environment, the threshold can still be high enough to squeeze out an otherwise popular candidate. This happened to incumbent Green Senator Kerry Nettle, who re ceived 8.43 percent (0.5898 quotas). This was higher than when she was first elected in 2001, but she did not receive enough second preferences to reach the quota this time. Nettle left a record of accomplishment on social justice issues, particularly the treatment of refugees and protecting the rights of the gay and lesbian community.

Several other Greens came very close, led by three-term past Member of ACT Legislative Assembly Kerry Tucker (Aus tra lian Capital Territory, or ACT), who ironically had the highest first preferences of all Green Senate candidatesó21.47 percent (0.6442 quotas). But because of two additional factors, she was not elected. First, in the Territories the quota is 33 percent, not 14.4 percent, because of the fewer number of seats elected. But more ironically, given the Greens’ support for the ALP in the lower house (see below), it was a political calculation by Rudd that cost Tucker the seat.

As Brown recounted in a post-election analysis, “two weeks before the election, Rudd announced he would take an axe to the public service staffing levels. He repeated the threat at least twice before polling day. In Canberra, the city of public servants, votes poured across from Labor to the Liberals. As a result, sitting ACT Liberal Senator Gary Humphries ultimately received 34.20 percent (1.0259 quotas), giving the Liberals one extra Senator, and leaving the Greens one less. Had Humphries remained below 33 percent, Tucker would have won the seat on ALP second preferences.

“This ALP mis-calculation”, said Brown “will have far-reaching effects. In the 76-seat Senate, 39 is a majority. The Senate will be made up of 32 Labor, 5 Greens, Steven Fielding of Family First (a small, religious right party), independent Nick Xenophon and 37 Coalition (Liberals and their former government partner the National Party). In other words, after July 2008, when the new Senators take their seats, the Rudd Labor government will need the Greens, Fielding and Xenophon to get bills through the Senate if they are opposed by the Coalition.”

Brown added: “Had the threat to axe public servants not been made, Labor would have needed Fielding or Xenophon, not both. And had Labor not used its preferences in 2004 in Victoria to elect Fielding (who got less than 2 percent of first preferences) over the Greens (who got 9 percent), it would be facing the much simpler prospect of the Greens alone in the balance of power. Labor will suffer some Senate self-strangulation in the coming years as it deals with Fielding and Xenophonóthe FX factor of its own making.”

But despite this, the Greens Senate vote increased by 1.37 percent to 9.04 percent, the highest vote for a minor party since 1996, which seemed to validate the Greens’ “Rescue the Senate” campaign message.

In Australia the Senate is generally regarded as a “house of review”. Its role is very much to scrutinize the activities of the House of Representatives. Over the last three years the Howard Government had held power in both houses and took the opportunity to ram through numerous widely unpopular Bills, especially on industrial relations. But the Howard Gov ernment also changed the functioning of the Senate to weaken its review powers. This extraordinary abuse of power led to popular support for the Senate to be returned to a “balance of power” situation whereby no one party could pass legislation without the support, typically negotiated, of another.

For many years the Australian Democrats held balance of power in Australia. They were known as the party that “kept the bastards honest”. At this election the Democrats, who have been declining in popularity for many years, were finally wiped out. Thus the job of keeping the bastards honest has passed primarily to the Greens.

House of Representatives

As with the Senate, voters use STV for House of Representatives elections. But unlike the Senate there are no multi-seat districts or proportional representation. In effect, the system is 150 single seat House districts decided by what U.S. Greens call Instant Run-Off Voting (IRV). Australian Greens contested all 150 House seats, but failed to win any. Adam Brandt (Melbourne) who received 22.8 percent, to the Liberal’s 23.5 percent and the ALP’s 49.5 percent, came the closest.

Nationwide the Greens received 7.8 percent of the vote, an increase of 0.6 percent. This was considered a success given that the party’s primary focus was the Senate. Late polling suggested the election would be an extremely tight contest with many feeling they had to vote Labor to ensure the removal of the Howard Government. Of course under STV, voters could have voted ë1′ Green and ë2′ Labor, ensuring that Labor would receive their vote if the Green was not elected. How ever a very substantial proportion of voters don’t understand the way preferential voting in the lower house actually works. Educating people about this was a major focus of the Greens and will be again.

The way preferences are cast varies with each house. For the Senate voters can assign preferences themselves or simply vote ë1′ for their favorite party and let that party distribute preferences on their behalf. Most people choose the later. By contrast for the House, voters assign preferences themselves, but are often persuaded by “How to Vote” instructions handed out by parties at the voting booth Since voting in Australia is compulsory, there are a fair number of disinterested voters looking for guidance.

After protracted negotiations, the Greens agreed to give their lower house preferences to the ALP in numerous key seats, in return for ALP preferences in every state in the Senate. In the end the ALP gained over 20 seats (including in Bennelong, where Howard lost his seat after 33 years) thanks to Greens preferences. Equally ALP preferences were essential for the Greens to win in South Australia and Western Australia. The good preference agreement was an important early win, improving on the Greens’ luck from previous elections.

Key Issues

On Climate Change, the Greens argued for Australia to commit to a binding emission reduction target of 30 percent from 1990 levels by 2020. This was designed to be consistent with the European Union approach and to help reach the goal of limiting the global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius in the 21st Century, the target recommended by the Inter na tional Panel on Climate.

In Industrial Relations, the Howard Government had previously introduced sweeping changes to the way wage rates were negotiated, basically moving to individual contracts, fundamentally undermining the role of the unions. The Labor Party promised to undo many, but not all, of these changes. The Greens went further, arguing for a more wholesale return toward ëcollective bargaining’ of wages and conditions. The Greens received a significant amount of public support from unions in this election.

For the first time the Greens had the financial capacity to employ an advertising company with a coordinated, positive and upbeat television, radio and Internet campaign, describing the key issues and emphasizing the need to rescue the Senate. The campaign was generally received as professional and one commentator said the Greens won the advertising race. The party also made a foray in election blogging, the only party along with the Democrats to do so (www.greensblog.org), and featured several campaign videos and podcasts directly on its homepage.

All of these efforts rest on the shoulders of success at the state level. Fifteen Greens are elected to state parliaments: four in Tasmania, four in New South Wales, three in Victoria, two in Western Australia, one in South Australia and one in the ACT. More than 80 Greens have also been elected to local councils around the country.

Looking Ahead

According to Brown, “the Greens will work with the new government, though not for it. Early tests will include Green amendments to the Work Choices legislation, our work to end logging of forests and to immediately cut Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent, and our recommendation to end pre-election preference deals by introducing preferential above the line voting in the Senate. That is, voters would choose(above-the-line) the parties in the order of their choice.”

“Greens do best when Labor is in office” says Brown. “Rudd’s Labor Government will be conservative, squeezing the Coalition on the right. It will find the Greens challenging. Voters wanting a more progressive Australia will see the Greens as their option in 2010, with House of Rep re sentatives seats in Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler (New South Wales) coming within reach of the Greens, as well as the Senate in all States and the ACT.”

More information can be found at www.greens.org.au

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