Teetering on a tightrope: Labor, the Teals, and tactics

Aug 1, 2022
Political sciences
Image: Wikimedia Commons

The rise of the Teals and Greens represents a structural shift in Australia’s political landscape. This shift reflects deep-seated electoral disaffection with both major parties. In 2022 around 33 percent of the primary vote went to minor parties and independents rather than Labor and the Coalition. Yet Labor continues to behave as if the last election was a ‘business as usual’ change of government. This is a misreading that leaves it teetering on a tightrope.

New context, old games

As Australia’s 47th Parliament begins, Labor is asserting itself and looking for wins. The new climate bill aims to humiliate the Coalition, which loses face if it sticks to its own indefensibly weak emissions target or if it backflips to support Labor’s. If the bill fails in the Senate – voted down by the Coalition and Greens, as was Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme in 2009 the Greens will again be pasted as enemies of the good over the perfect, dummy allies of the climate-denying Right.

The Greens appear to have wisely decided to avoid this trap. They are likely to allow the bill through, despite its target being much weaker than their own (while testing Labor’s sincerity by seeking to introduce a ban on new coal and gas projects). This too will be painted as a win for Labor pragmatism.

Meanwhile, starving the Teals of parliamentary staff aims to make them less effective and less likely to be re-elected. The budgetary savings are trivial and will force the Teals to form an ever closer alliance amongst themselves, or even a party, to claim the resources they need.

What analysis and strategy lie behind these moves? Perhaps Labor sees this politics of domination as the definition of good government, and the rise of the Teals and the increased strength of the Greens in Queensland merely adding to a still peripheral nuisance in the lower House.

The Teals – an in-house catastrophe?

How are we to understand the Teal Turn? Here are two possible interpretations. They are not mutually exclusive.

By one interpretation, the Teals are the product of an in-house catastrophe. For a quarter century, beginning with Howard and accelerated by successive Coalition governments (Turnbull notwithstanding), the Liberal Party drifted to the Right and its increasingly conservative ruling elite patronised, then antagonised and finally crushed the ‘wets’ on key economic, environmental and identity issues.

They took their voters from the ‘liberal-centre’ for granted. These voters have now fled the coop and ditched the constraints of party allegiance. It will be hard to lure them back back, even in the unlikely case of an LP shift to policies better reflecting their needs.

The Teals’ capture of core Liberal seats was instrumental in ensuring Morrison’s defeat, though not its sole factor – Labor did, after all, win a narrow majority in its own right. As many on the Right and the Left know, if it persists, the shift could keep the Coalition out of government for some time, as the Split and the rise of the DLP did for Labor in the 1950s and 1960s. New allegiances and devotion to specific and successive Independents may consolidate into an enduring voting pattern. Look at the clean baton-pass to Helen Haines.

So this first interpretation suggests that the Teals are purely or mainly a Liberal Party problem – to be exacerbated or resolved by Dutton’s leadership. (Of course, tactically, if Labor ‘rewards’ the Teals with some wins, rather than making their sitting on the sidelines making their rebellion look impotent, the better the chance the New Split will be entrenched and their hold on power enhanced.)

It is worth noting that, politically, the Greens had a similar genesis. Some of that party’s founders and many Greens supporters would have been ‘natural’ members of the Labor Left – but for the new Left being forced out of the ALP in the 1980s and early 1990s by the Hawke government’s neoliberal turn and its position on issues like uranium mining and nuclear disarmament, and then kept out by Keating’s subsequent environment and economic policies.

Or structural change?

This first, conventional view – while not wrong – ignores the bigger picture in which Teals and Greens are part of a broader, older and now international political phenomenon. So here’s a second take.

Already in the early 1990s, political scientists were noting the declining commitment of rusted-on voters to long-established parties in liberal democracies. They pointed to the erosion of ‘class-based’ voter support, the rise of a ‘post-materialist’ and ‘women’s’ vote, and disillusionment with conventional politics which in combination supported the emergence of alternative parties.

No doubt the 2022 swing against the Coalition was enhanced by Morrison’s many perceived failings as a leader. But the larger picture also reflects the rise of anti-party, populist and charismatic politics.

In Australia, voters abandoning the major parties for liberal-centre-green-Left alternatives are predominantly tertiary educated, upper middle class, inner urban individualists. Or, for the illiberal-far-Right, disaffected working class voters to whom the conventional parties of the Right and Left no longer speak and appear as elites.

To generalise broadly, the Teals’, centre-independents’ and Greens’ supporters are instrumental and strategic ‘intellectual’ and ‘values’ voters. Their political allegiance is often a matter of constantly renewed choice rather than blind tribal allegiance or membership – this is also a generational thing. They support whichever political instrument best delivers them on existential and identity issues. They think of themselves as swinging voters.

This is a variant of populism, more often than not built around charismatic and ‘knowable’ individuals with whom their supporters believe they have a direct connection and of whom specific actions are expected, based on moral considerations, and unmediated by party politics. It stands in direct contrast to those voting for party representatives, knowing that party policy will subordinate whatever ‘their members’ think personally.

The focus on a more accessible representational and identity politics, and on existential matters, is central to the rise of the Teals and also the Greens. The Teals stood on three issues – integrity and honesty, women’s rights and their direct political political representation, and climate change – that, irrespective of the virtues of individual members in key small-‘l’ Liberal electorates, had been ignored by the Liberals.

These issues have also been among the Greens’ core concerns for some time, along with refugees, same sex marriage, and environmental policy. In Brisbane, where the Teals didn’t stand, the Greens benefitted from the same shift in anti-major-party sentiment.

The long trend

So is this a trend in Australia? In 1999, Bennett indicated that primary support for the three major parties (including the Nationals) fell from 96.1 percent in 1949, to 79.6 percent in 1998. He wrote, ‘the Hawke Government’s winning first preference tally of 39.4 per cent was the lowest since the introduction of preferential voting in 1919 and the 39.5 per cent vote for the Howard Government in 1998 was the second-lowest’.

The 2019 election saw 24.7% of the primary vote go to minor parties and independents. In 2022, that figure climbed to around 33%. It is telling, and meaningful that not only did the Liberals’ vote collapse, but Labor’s primary vote also fell, which is exceptional during an Australian change of government. Labor’s win was unprecedented – in that it formed government with only 30.5 percent of the primary vote.

By this second interpretation, therefore, the rise of the Teals is not only a response to the rightward march of the Liberal Party and specific frustration with Morrison. It – and the Greens’ increased vote – represents a further structural change in Australia’s national electoral system caused by the growth of a significant and socially deep-rooted ‘third sector’ vote increasingly moving away from the major parties. This phenomenon, beginning in the 1980s, is common across the democracies of western Europe and has affected Social Democratic parties in particular.

To hammer the point, the Teals emphasised there is now no such thing as a vote tied tightly to the Liberals by a silk cord, just as the march of the Greens’ tofu border has shown that the Labor rusted-on following is a thing of the past. But these new groupings – as well as to minor parties on the Right – represent a deep-seated public disaffection not just to these specific parties but also a growing challenge to Australia’s two-party preferred system (TPPS).

For decades, the TPPS had enabled the major parties selectively to ‘overlook’ public opinion on certain ‘existential’ and ‘core moral’ issues – such as climate change (majority support for ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and now strong mitigation action), human rights (including marriage equality and refugee rights), and key foreign policy concerns (majority popular opposition to Australia’s participation in various foreign wars this century).

If this view holds, as I think it will, 2022 may have been a watershed… the last election in which a national Australian Labor government is formed ‘in its own right’. Instead, negotiated coalitions of Labor-centre independents-Greens (as occurred with the Gillard government) will be more likely and perhaps the norm. This will mirror the now customary politics of the Australian Right (Liberals-Nationals), which has however also failed and now will also need to consider links with centre independents, or the Far Right.

Welcome to European politics. If the trend is toward an enduring refashioning of Australian politics, with the emergence of a significant ‘third power’ bloc comprised of Independents and Greens, this raises significant questions about the future culture of interaction between likely allies.

Labor’s traditional hostility towards the Greens and now the Teals will prove to be both self-harming and counterproductive. A wholly different approach is required from Labor to ensure its future as a potential partner in government, which is not assured – note the fate of the SPD in Germany – and to enhance good government.

So, rather than seeing (and antagonising) the Teals and Greens as separate and inconsequential political freak shows, they should be united analytically and seen as representing two sides of the same phenomenon. Covering a spectrum of values from liberal-centre to the green-Left, these groupings have provided political outlet for growing and deep-seated dissatisfaction with the ‘major parties’ (and perhaps also, in the case of the Teals, with the Greens as well)… in areas which are nevertheless core business for government.

New institutions and good governance – climate policy as an example

How to respond? Labor has a 30 history of animosity towards the Greens, who are seen as interlopers on its turf. The war of position fought in inner urban seats has been predictable, brutal, unedifying and a waste of resources. No doubt there will be those who believe with passion that this hostility is necessary and others who believe with regret that it is unavoidable.

And there is no use in being naive about how the Australia media – particularly the Murdoch stable – would depict overtures by Labor to the Teals and Greens. Clear statements by Labor spokesmen during the 2022 election campaign that ruled out any alliance with the Greens were intended to avert the line that electors would in fact be electing a government run by Green radicals and loons.

It is unclear how this will play out with the Teals.

But this conventional battle simply enhances the likelihood of deep resentments and mistrust when, if I am right, the need for cooperation in forming government arises.

For a start, Labor has to choose whether or not to try and bolster the Teals, in the hope that the result is repeated in 2025. The Teals’ three core issues – integrity, women, climate –line up in an ascending order of difficulty. Establishing a federal ICAC deals (nominally) with the first. Levering more women into Parliament – which the Teals themselves helped to do – and into powerful positions in government, is also achievable though harder.

The last – climate change – is exceptionally difficult, and also symptomatic of the problems I have indicated. By legislating its -43% by 2030 target, Labor has signalled that it will not be bending – either to the Teals’ more ambitious but still moderate aim of -60% or more, or the Greens’ tougher -75%.

This leaves Labor with a set of difficulties. On the one hand, it may wish to represent that target as a ‘floor’ – a bare minimum – and aim to out-achieve it. Given the complexities of policy implementation and the public’s general disregard for the numbers, this may be a good way to go.

On the other hand, if overachievement is not the real ambition, Australia is left with an almost insurmountable 57% reduction in emissions to be achieved in the last two decades before 2050, and Labor will rightly be lampooned supporting a target so low that it is clearly at odds with the intentions of the Paris Agreement. And it has simply dug a trench between itself and the the Teals and Greens.

So what happens next? And how are we to see climate mitigation policy – and the debate over urgency – develop, given this approach? And more generally, how should Labor approach the increasing prospect of minority government in a way that delivers good governance? To continue in denial, is tantamount to inching down a fraying electoral tightrope.

There are several possible answers here. The first is to build credible institutions which will bring like-minded individuals, political parties and others into constructive dialogue, and over time may lead to more binding mechanisms of governance.

One can here look back to the Hawke Government, which had a record for corporatist and consensus-oriented dialogue in numerous policy areas, and also to the Gillard Government, which successfully cooperated with Greens and Independents, notably in the area of climate policy. Their track record suggests certain effective models.

Specifically, in relation to climate policy and looking beyond the 2030 target which will soon require revision, four governance innovations could occur.

The first involves reviving the Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change, which was so important and effective during the time of the Gillard Government. Using it inclusively, inviting all parliamentarians irrespective of political location to participate, but on terms that are defined in advance (e.g. to enhance adopted targets), would have the advantage of drawing Teals, Greens and other Independents into constructive dialogue on this issue.

In parallel, strengthening the independent Climate Change Authority would again provide independent advice on future targets and goals, based on a review of scientific, economic and social considerations.

Third, establishing a statutory Climate Commission would serve to provide regular independent review of the implementation of whole-of-government climate-related policies, which will have implications for most spheres of government and areas of policy.

While the Multi-Party Committee would deal with parliamentary matters yet the challenges of rapid, equitable and widely legitimised mitigation and adaptation measures require whole-of-society and whole-of–economy support. And so, last, a consensus-oriented quasi-corporatist Climate Transitions Working Groups process could be established to recommend paths for sectoral emissions reduction, and adaptation paths.

This body would be modelled on the important example of the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development in the early 1990s. It would include representatives from industry, science, labour, social welfare, Indigenous and environmental sectors, with the legislated target as its minimum ambition. But the Climate Transitions groups would also draw on widespread public consultation and deliberation in finalising their recommendations to government, in order to give these greater legitimacy and support.

I have focused here on climate policy because of its urgency and importance, but clearly the approach could be extended to other policy realms, with a view to refashioning Australia’s underlying political culture – turning it away from reliance on the Westminster system’s dependency on adversarial and hostile politics, towards a more consultative, cooperative, trust-building and constructive approach, especially on critical issues of widespread concern.

Given the increasing diversity and complexity of Australia’s political landscape, such an approach is likely to deliver political stability, coherent and widely supported policies, and better governance overall. And such an approach will move us away from the perilous teetering on an electoral tightrope which is the outcome of Labor’s desperate emphasis on single party government at any cost.

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