How to have a blue with Greens

The ALP appears to have coined a new slogan: "The enemy of my enemy is also my enemy." Or alternatively: "My chosen partner is my greatest hate."

The stream of invective directed at the hapless Greens has been more vicious than any since, well, since much the same people were abusing and maligning Kevin Rudd for the high crime of attempting to implement the wishes of the majority of voters, and particularly of Labor supporters, and take back the position that Julia Gillard snatched from him in the mugging of 2010.

They seem to be saying the Greens are loopy, dangerous extremists like One Nation - maybe worse, Labor should consider putting them below One Nation on how-to-vote cards. To which the Greens reply that Labor is a party without ethics, capable only of throwing buckets of dirt.

It is an extraordinary, almost fratricidal, confrontation; after all the ALP and the Greens are supposed to be together on the progressive side of Australian politics, allies of the Left in the same way as Christians, Jews and Muslims are all people of the book, worshippers of the same God. And perhaps the analogy is apt, because adherents of all three religions have been known to treat their fellow monotheists with more fear and loathing than they ever inflict on those they regard as pagans. And as any policeman knows, family brawls are often the most bitter.

But the current blue, while perhaps simmering for quite some time, came to a head suddenly and unexpectedly. The general belief that while the minority government in Canberra endured, tensions could be contained. After all, Labor needs the Greens in the Senate to deliver any policies at all and in the lower house simply to survive, and the Greens need Labor in power to keep their own ideas on the table and occasionally put them into practice.

So when everything blew up last week, many commentators suspected a hidden agenda. The most common conspiracy theory was that Labor's right wing faction leaders, and particularly the New South Wales branch, were sending a signal that they were turning against Julia Gillard; the partnership with the Greens had been her idea, and it was over, and so was she.

There was less unanimity about who, if anyone, was being touted as her replacement; Kevin Rudd and Bill Shorten both had their advocates, but for different reasons neither seems all that likely. Rudd won't come unless asked by the whole caucus, and his enemies remain unforgiving. And Shorten is understandably unwilling to accept a crown of thorns from a party on the brink of catastrophic defeat.

Another suggestion was that it wasn't so much the Greens who were under attack, but their baby, the carbon tax; if Labor could somehow get rid of both the sun would shine again. But even in an electorate as inured to cynicism as Australia's, that pig just won't fly.

It is more probable that the party's general secretary, Sam Dastyari, was simply telling it as he saw it: Labor's perceived attachment to the Greens was dragging its vote down, and the simplest way to cut the cord was to deny the Greens preferences. Well, maybe, but it is at least worth examining his thesis in more detail before arriving at any conclusion.

It is true that the real slump in Labor's primary vote has occurred since the 2010 election and the inauguration of the partnership with the Greens, but while the period has proved disastrous for Labor, it hasn't done the Greens much good. In the Weekend Australian Tim Watts crunched the numbers to find that in total, taking in the state elections in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria and the ongoing federal scene, Labor's primary has dropped by over 11%, but the Greens have picked up less than half of one per cent. If they are, as the right claims, cannibalising the Labor vote, they are very inefficient anthropophagites.

Almost all the rest has gone to the Coalition; these are the votes that have to be retrieved. Would cutting off the Greens help? It might; there are certainly blue collar voters who have been conditioned by the shock jocks and the tabloids to regard the Greens as spawn of Satan, and anyone who sups with them as irrevocably damned.

But there are a lot more who are simply fed up with Gillard and her colleagues for their endless dithering, lack of clear purpose and inability to communicate anything beyond cliché. The parliament's elder statesman, John Faulkner, summed it up at the weekend in the NSW state conference: they had spent five days squabbling about preferences when they should have been talking about principles.

And even if breaking with the Greens brought some voters back, there would be a price to be paid, and it would be paid in the Senate. In the next election six senators from each state and two from each territory will face the voters. The territories will break, as always, one each for Labor and the Coalition. But even if Labor recovers a bit - even quite a lot - it seems inevitable that the Coalition will win three seats to Labor's two in every state, bringing the state of the major parties to Coalition 36, Labor 27, Greens six and the DLP's John Madigan in Victoria.

The last six seats are therefore vital. I would expect the independent Nick Xenophon to hold on in South Australia, and the Greens should be strong enough in Tasmania. But that still leaves four swinging. If the Coalition wins three, it controls the senate in its own right. If it wins two, it probably has effective control with the help of Madigan. If it wins just one it still has the numbers to block anything it likes.

Thus for the current situation to prevail - for Labor and the Greens to be able to reject government legislation (of course, we are assuming a Coalition majority in the House of Representatives) they need to win the lot between them. Even without wildcard independents, this will be hard. If they don't work together, it will be impossible. Tony Abbott will have untrammelled control - absolute power.

Please, Sam Dastyari and your mates - is this what you really want?

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