Pre-election opinion polls suggest that the Green vote has either stagnated at around the 7 percent gain in 2004 or has possibly declined a percent or two. The exception is Tasmania, where the issue of the Gunns pulp mill has doubled the Greens vote in the past month.
The problem is not the policies argued by the Greens. As the latest Australian Survey of Social Attitudes suggests (see page 6), there is a deep-seated desire for progressive social policies over foreign policy, public services, global warming, etc.
So why is there such a disconnect? And how can the Greens overcome it?
One explanation is the demonisation of the Greens by the tabloids and talkback radio.
But the media has also attempted to demonize trade unions, with far less success. In the 1998 waterfront dispute, the media backed Howard but was largely unsuccessful. People supported the MUA.
Another explanation is that a huge number of people really believe that Rudd will provide fresh leadership.
Many Greens have had people tell them that they’ve voted Greens in the past but this time we really have to get rid of Howard; or that Rudd is different from past Labor leaders; or that Rudd is only pretending to embrace right-wing positions in order to get elected.
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This points to a major weakness in the Greens campaign.
The substance of Greens politics is a mile to the left of Labor-but a large section of the Greens leadership is absolutely hostile to making this clear.
People like Richard Denniss, an adviser to Bob Brown who used to play a leading role in the Democrats, want to present the Greens as a “balance of power” party, a bit like the old Democrats’ slogan, “keep the bastards honest”.
This is reflected in the Greens’ election slogan: “Third-party insurance”. This is absolutely destructive for the Greens. It misunderstands the reason that the Greens vote has soared from 2.1 percent in 1998 to 5 percent in 2001 and 7.2 percent in 2004.
Most of these extra votes came from Labor voters who were angry at the party’s shift to the right. These were left-wing votes, from Labor supporters who wanted a left-wing party to vote for.
There are millions of more potential votes to Labor’s left, but they cannot be won on the basis of a confused, or plainly wrong, message.
To win them the Greens have to openly say: We are the new left-wing party in Australian politics. Such a stand would make it easier for the Greens to say clearly and unambiguously that they are first and foremost committed to getting rid of Howard.
It is simply astonishing that anyone could think that voting Green would compromise their desire to get rid of Howard-but that’s the logical result of refusing to preference Labor in every seat.
But the problem goes deeper than that. The vast majority of ordinary people know very well that Labor and the Liberals are different.
For example, why else did working-class people return the despised premier Morris Iemma government in NSW earlier this year?
Few imagined that Iemma cared about them and their needs. But they knew that a Liberal government would be far worse-and they were right.
So when some in the Greens suggest that Labor and the Liberals are the same, it reflects badly on the whole party.
Millions of ordinary working-class people say to themselves: these people don’t know what they’re talking about. It feeds right into the stereotype of the inner-city trendy who doesn’t know about the problems of life in the suburbs.
There is an even more profound reason for the disconnect between the Greens’ vote and the extent of support for Green’s policies in the wider community. And it lies in the failure of any section of the Australian left to consistently mobilize people to fight Howard, the racists, and the employers.
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Trade union struggle and political campaigning are at historic lows. The result is often a mood of hopelessness.
When people feel helpless, they look to powerful people to solve their problems. People like Kevin Rudd.
A huge amount of support for Rudd is not supporting his policies, but a desperate hope that he will turn around the ruthless culture of greed and scapegoating fostered by Howard.
People will not turn to a left alternative in large numbers unless they feel a sense of their own power.
This can only come from mobilizations that force real change from employers and governments.
Part of the optimism of the early 1970s came from the huge victories that ordinary people won in winning pay rises, a big move towards equal pay, stopping Australian involvement in Vietnam, and in confronting sexism and racism.
For the Greens to build a powerful, left-wing constituency, they need to contribute to every bit of resistance.
Unfortunately, that has not been their priority. They have seen themselves as an electoral party, not one that mobilizes at the grassroots.
Greens politicians have been extremely supportive of struggles for refugee rights, worker’s rights, against the Iraq war, and for dozens of other causes.
Getting a Greens politician to speak at a rally has rarely been difficult. But there has seldom been a major effort from the Greens leadership to mobilize rank-and-file members to build mass resistance on major issues like the war.
The result is that the Greens party has become little more than a banner-a left-wing banner against neoliberalism and Howard, but not much more.
And we need much more. If he wins, Rudd will preside over the most right-wing Labor government since the Great Depression.
He will be a profound disappointment to his supporters from very early on. The Greens have an opportunity to grow massively.
But that will require a very different mindset to the one that has created the current Greens election campaign.