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Christine Milne's chance to scupper an Abbott Senate


Christine MilneChristine Milne takes over the leadership of the Greens from Bob Brown at a crucial time for the party. The polls are steady at about 12–14 per cent give or take a few points, predicting a performance at the next federal election somewhat in the same ball-park as last time. In 2010 the Greens polled 13.1 per cent in the Senate and won six seats for a total of nine senators.

But there is a difference between electoral performance and political influence, and therefore the Greens have a particular interest in the overall composition of the senate not just the party's own numbers. This fact is sometimes overlooked.

Recent media reports draw attention to the serious possibility that the Coalition may not only win the next election but win it so well that it would control the Senate without the assistance of the Greens, just as it did from 2005–2008. These reports speculate that even if the Greens won six seats once again for a total of 12 senators the combined Labor-Greens Senate numbers would fall below a majority.

Not only might the Coalition's numbers rise significantly, but the possibility of the addition of a senator representing Bob Katter's Australian Party in Queensland would mean three Independent senators (including Nick Xenophon in South Australia and the Democratic Labor Party's John Madigan in Victoria).

This is where Milne comes in. She brings new characteristics to the position of leader, including her education at St Mary's College, Hobart, and her past connections with the environmental agencies of the Catholic Church.

Milne's first step as leader was to emphasise the need to increase Green support in rural and regional Australia and she backed it up with a well-publicised rural tour. Her public statement after her election emphasised the need for Green support to be not only deep but broad across Australia. She herself has connected well with farmers and the fishing community in the past.

Not all rural Australians vote for non-Labor parties but most still do despite some demographic change that has helped build Green support in certain mainland coastal areas. The Greens also suffer on polling day from the difficulty of organising enough supporters in the big rural electorates to hand out how-to-vote cards. Anything Milne can do to improve the party's situation in this regard is worthwhile.

The Greens need to attract votes from otherwise non-Labor voters rather than the easier task of picking up disappointed Labor defectors. This was one of the keys to the impact of the Australian Democrats who built their hold on the balance of power from a position somewhat in the centre. Democrats voters split about 60:40 in favour of Labor. The 40 per cent of Coalition-leaning Democrats helped to keep the Coalition Senate vote down.

The Greens vote on the other hand splits about 85:15 in favour of Labor. This is calculated on the preference flow at the 2010 election. The 15 per cent of Coalition-leaning Greens is somewhat forgotten altogether. It has traditionally been built on the attraction of the Greens' environmental credentials plus some anti-war and pro-asylum seeker voters. But it needs to be larger to increase the long-term influence of the party.

Even if it costs the party some votes overall the Greens need the Labor vote in the Senate to hold up (and the Coalition Senate vote to stay down) so that Labor and the Greens together win three Senate seats in a number of states, probably among the southern states. Milne must keep this equation in the front of her mind, though there is little that she can do about it other than contributing to good governance.

Milne is on the right track, though selling the carbon tax remains a challenge. Bearing in mind negative public reaction in 2007 to the way John Howard miscalculated his control of the Senate between 2005 and 2007 to introduce Work Choices, 'Keep the Senate out of Tony Abbott's Hands' strikes me as the sort of slogan which has some real punch.

But it may not be enough to hold onto the balance of power unless Julia Gillard can keep her side of the bargain as well.

John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a Canberra Times columnist. 

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Christine Milne, Tony Abbott, Greens, Senate, Julia Gillard, Bob Brown



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Existing comments

Milne is correct selling the Carbon Tax will be tough. It will be even tougher after 1 July 2012 when the unemployment and increased costs kick in. All voters should learn that the Greens are closer to Communist Party than to democratic parties such as ALP, KAP, FF, LNP & DLP. Put the Pagan Greens last on every Ballot Paper. NO other party wants to abort, euthanase and degenerate humanity as much as the GReens do.

Andrew Jackson | 02 May 2012  

A great pity they have backed the appalling ALP Govt and continue to do so. The way in which the ALP is allowed by its current caucus, backbench, Greens and Independents is hastening a great party's deterioration into an irrelevant has been. It is disgraceful that arrogance and insatiable hunger for power will reduce this party to skeletal remains. Whatever one's viewpoint, we need valid and balanced parties to have any effective government and not individual or interest groups pushing power agendas.

JANE | 02 May 2012  

Keep the country out of Tony Abbott's hands at all costs seems a better slogan to me!

Michelle Goldsmith | 02 May 2012  

It continues to strike me as passing strange that the conservatives, the erstwhile Protestant party, are now firmly in the hands of the Catholics - Abbot, Turnbull, Hockey, Robb, Pyne, Joyce (yes, Katter as well). Yet their willingness to prosecute almost any social justice policies is absent. As a Catholic, I can only hang my head in shame. Go Christine, that's what I say.

Elizabeth | 02 May 2012  

Jane, you are quite right that 'we need valid and balanced parties, (assuming you mean democratic ones not over-influenced by factions or billionaires). But the current ALP government, rather than being 'appalling' is doing a reasonable job under the difficult circumstances of working within a nearly-balanced parliament that needs diplomacy and compromise to maintain an effective and beneficial government.

Bob Corcoran | 02 May 2012  

Keep the country out of the hands of a committed Catholic and put it into the hands of committed atheists? Yeah, great idea.... Last time I looked Tony Abbott doesn't have horns growing out of his head. Where is this crazy tribalism coming from? You want to know what Tony would do WHEN he becomes PM? Read his book! Not hard. Then decide for yourself what's best for the country and the disadvantaged.

ian | 02 May 2012  

Spot on Jane and Andrew. The Greens are a constitutive part of the gold medal worst, most incompetent and corrupt government in Australia's history - and the most dire of their own policies are not even in play. Yet the E.S. mob, ignoring this completely, is quaking in fear of Mr Tony Abbott, a practicing, non-cafeteria Catholic who has the audacity to believe that social justice extends to all in society, including the unborn that are currently being slaughtered in their thousands! Incredible.

HH | 02 May 2012  

The lesson to be learned here is by the ALP. Taking the authors figures with the ALP gaining an 85-15 split of Green preferences the question has to be asked, why does the ALP not feel inclined to turn those 85% Green preferences in to increased ALP votes? But they do not. They prefer to seek out the mythical 'Christian vote' via Jim Wallace and his private company called the Australian Christian Lobby. Odd behaviour indeed. And very expensive as $500m of scarce tax monies are funneled into rightwing Christian organisations and public schooling is turned into 'mission opportunities' for evangelical nonsense. As for the projected moral decline of the Greens under the Vatican inclined Milne, it had to come at some stage I suppose, the rapid evolution of a rising democratic Green party to a declining Democrat-like Green party and who better to turn the wine to water than a Bible bashing Catholic? Whether Milne takes it so far to the Right that she will be able to join Abbott is a moot point at this stage but I would not be the least bit shocked to find she does.

janice wallace | 02 May 2012  

Bob Brown will call the shots and Christine Milne will remain one of his obedient little helpers. I fail to understand how anybody with some basic religious believes, may it Christian, Muslims, Hindu, Buddhist, could have anything to do with a party with nihilistic polices. Bob Brown managed to destroy good and sound bi-partisan environmentalism by misusing the environment as an issue to satisfy his hunger for power. The Green party is NOT an environmentally responsible party, but a party which has a very dangerous asocial policies based on hatred and jealousy. Christine Milne maybe well meaning person with a genuine love for the environment, but she will remain the toy of the Green party, which remains run by Bob Brown. It would be very hard for anybody to turn a RED (neo-Marxist) Green Party into a truly Green (Environment) party.

Beat Odermatt | 02 May 2012  

It is an interesting reflection that this Gillard government is Australia's first recent experiment with minority government which in itself is a step towards acknowledging the diversity of political views Australians hold. In the Senate, given the proportional representation of political parties in each State voting as a single electorate, this diversity of political viewpoints has been better represented. In a pluralist society such a Australia I for one enjoy the diversity of viewpoints which a minority government provides and to that extent I think the Gillard has been very successful. While current trends suggest the next government is not likely to be a minority government, I nevertheless hope that Milne maintains the trend towards a more diverse and independent Senate.

John Edwards | 02 May 2012  

"Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles," Why not just allow Australia to suffer through an Abbott Senate? That might help clarify why that loon should not be left in charge of a anything.

David Arthur | 02 May 2012  

Always a joy to read any article by John Warhurst - even when he is the bearer of bad news. Politics in a democracy such as Australia's gets down to numbers. Politics has become the art of getting enough "numbers" to exercise power or influence. Ex-Senator Richardson (ALP Numbers Man Extraordinaire) was right when he said: "Whatever it takes. So the task for a Christian (or any person who want to preserve moral integrity) in politics is to get the numbers by moral means. Such a task, I think, would surpass The Twelve Labours of Heracles. Come to think of it, Heracles had no moral qualms to limit his ingenuity.

Uncle Pat | 02 May 2012  

Michelle! How could Tony Abbott be any worse than the current complete mess - which they promised would be a new paradigm. All I can say, is 'give the drover's dog a go - and I don't care who it is - just get us out of the diabolical state Australia is now in!

Frank | 02 May 2012  

"Why not just allow Australia to suffer through an Abbott Senate? That might help clarify why that loon should not be left in charge of a anything."

Yes, well punters deserve what they vote for I do agree and it looks as if Abbott is well on his way to being Emperor with a Cando sized majority but, lest we all have forgotten, Howard had full control of both Houses and he totally messed things up, for Australia and for the Coalition too, so let's not rush back down that path with an inept Abbott at the helm please.

At least when the ALP is yet more skeletal than now, the carpetbaggers will abandon it and unburdened by 'rising stars' it might even get an idea for why it should continue to exist, which could prove to be a boon for politics, unless it goes to neo-nazism to step beyond Abbott, which is possible.

Some very silly statements here about the Greens too. There is no hint of Communism in their party at all, in fact, they seem to be over-run by crystal gazers, mystics and Catholics looking for a home outside the ALP more than anything more sinister.

Andy Fitzharry | 02 May 2012  

Thanks to the Green-Labor party, Tasmania is an economic basket case. Ther is no full time work, hardly much casual work. So many Tasmanian industries have had to close down because of higher costs imposed by the Green-Labor government. The average cost for 3 months of electricity is over $1,000 and they have announced that the price for electricity is to increase again. There are nowhere enough hospital beds or doctors or specialists. The cost of living in Tasmania is sending many families to places like St. Vincent de Paul and these charitable organisations are struggling to find any money to help the ever increasing number of families that require the basic necessities of life.

The Green ministers in this government try to stop every development and have increased the cost of living. The Green-labor government is all for abortion, contraception, euthanasia, same sex marriage and taxes.... lots of taxes!

They have ruined the Tasmanian economy. A vote for the Greens is a vote for misery and bankruptcy and moral depravity. I can't understand how any true Catholic can vote for them

Trent | 02 May 2012  

Isn't it fascinating that so many commentators criticise and deride Abbot for having no policies and yet claim to be able to predict the dire consequences of those policies should he become PM.

The Whitlam government gave us the socialism of hatred and attrition (though not directly of Gough's own preference or making but through some of his ministers), Fraser gave us buggar all, Hawke/Keating gave us government by abuse of opponents and protocol (but Keating gave us two of this country'e greatest political speeches), Howard governed by sewer rat cunning, and the current mob by trade union feather-bedding and corruption. The poor old Greens claim to be dedicated to preserving the life of plants and inanimate geological formations while running an agenda which seeks to destroy indefensible human life and will sacrifice any virtue to achieve that. Tony Abbot is going to have to turn on one hell-of-show to compete with this lot!

john frawley | 02 May 2012  

Come, come Trent. Tasmania has always been a basket case economically, which is why people go there because the land is worth nothing compared to other states, like Sth Australia no less so. Personally, I have always avoided Tasmania, having seen it already in Deliverance, in all its glory. The NT is the same, and no doubt the ACT is not far behind. Mendicant states/territories that we all support through our taxes. The price of our commonwealth of sovereign states. Do tell all precisely what Tasmania could do to become a global powerhouse but for the ALP-Greens government there? I know, log all the trees, pulp all the waste, poison all the creeks, estuaries, rivers and sealine, build half a dozen nuclear reactors to export electricty to NZ and the ice packs further south, strip the dole and pensions from all the burned out hippies down there that currently keep the economy afloat, and introduce NSW style gambling in every home. Yes, a bright future awaits Tassie without any Green involvement.

Andy Fitzharry | 03 May 2012  

Any article about the Greens brings out the right wing knee jerk responses. Could we please return to reason in political debate and leave out slanders and ideology without evidence? These comments are very sad and a policy and evidence free zone. If you cannot discuss policy or voter numbers and aspiration without abuse you are very ill informed and do not deserve a hearing. Discussion should always be about the evidence. I am heartily sick of reading opinion. How about some facts instead of the orgy of self indulgence which passes for discussion in current times?

Gabrielle | 03 May 2012  

For the sake of honesty, shouldn't you re-name your journal "The Australian Greens Party Propaganda Sheet". It beggars belief that a supposedly Catholic-inspired publication can so consistently and unquestioningly back this neo-Marxist, anti-Christian, anti-human, (and, ironically in effect anti-natural environment) party.

Peter Kennedy | 03 May 2012  

In what way "corrupt, HH? Calm down. This kind of language, so easy to throw around, is a depressing example of the banality and irrelevance of so much of what passes for political discourse in Australia these days. I'm just surprised to find it in ES?

Dominic Nagle | 04 May 2012  

At least some of the Catholics here ask how anyone could vote for the Greens. Mr Abbott is determined to see global warming devastate the planet, killing billions of humans slowly, through famine and disease, in the process.

David Arthur | 04 May 2012  

Dominic Nagle, so you're happy with the way the government has handled the Craig Thompson affair, the Fair Work Australia unbelievably drawn out four year inquiry, the Australia Day debacle, the snouts in the trough of Labor MPs moonlighting in pro-Government advocacy agencies in the handout of millions of green climate dollars, etc, etc? Well good for you. And where were you when this journal published not once, but twice, an article asserting Tony Abbott has no moral core? That's appropriate discourse? In fact, Tony Abbott can't win here. He's derided for saying on the one hand that he believes the evidence for dangerous anthropogenic global warming is "crap". Then David Arthur accuses him of being determined to devastate the planet by using ... climate change! Guys, your Abbott attacks might seem more plausible if they don't actually cancel each other out.

HH | 04 May 2012  

I do not understand all the comments about the Greens wanting to 'slaughter the unborn innocents'. As i understand it our current laws on abortion are accepted by all our major political parties. Do people really think Abbott would make termination of any pregnancy illegal? As one who saw the results of these policies (as a medical practitioner a long time ago) I am appalled at the thought though i am sure no politician would be crazy enough to do this. As for euthanasia, I would point out no party is in favour of euthanasia though many people (80% in recent surveys) are in favour of vountary euthanasia as I most certainly am. Let's get our facts straight before we succumb to paranoia.

Rosemary West | 05 May 2012  

Rosemary West, are you not moved in any way by the direct killing of up to 100,000 children a year in Australia alone? Or are you implying that making this form of direct killing illegal led to the deaths of more than 100,000 women a year (pro rata)? Evidence, please.

HH | 07 May 2012  

Rosemary West, The Australian Greens Party openly boasts on its website that its policies call for both the total removal of all restrictions on abortion (making it legal on request with no reason required, up to birth for any baby) with the murders' "professional fees" 100% paid by taxpayers, and also $millions of taxpayers' money spent on promoting abortions overseas; and they call for the complete legalisation of euthanasia on demand, no reason required. No other party in Australia has anything remotely approaching such policies. The ALP, Libs and Nats' policies support the status quo on these issues, the DLP, Family First and Christian Democrats' policies call for more restrictions on abortion.

Sharon | 14 May 2012  

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