Saturday, April 17, 2010

Saturday Morning Musings - Country Party lessons for the Greens

In Tasmania's constitutional wrangle, I made a passing comparison between the Greens and the Country Party.

In many ways, the political party that is closest to the Greens in electoral position is the Country or National Party. Like the old Country Party, the Greens are in a minority position. Like the old Country Party, they have to decide how to use their balancing position. And like the old Country Party, their voter base seems to strongly favour one major party over the other, thus constraining their freedom. Will they, for example, stand out or finally enter a defacto coalition with Labor?

Since I wrote, it seems that the Greens have decided to opt for what we can think of as the South Australian model: acceptance of a cabinet position by the Green leader, but on a personal basis without binding agreement of a coalition type between the parties themselves.

To maintain the principle of cabinet solidarity, the minority minister or ministers is bound to support the Government on those cabinet discussions that they have participated in, but may absent themselves from cabinet discussions. Should they do so, then they need no longer be bound by the general principle of cabinet solidarity on that issues.

Also since I wrote, Possum Comitatus has produced some very interesting analysis, Class, voting and broad left demography, looking at the relationship between occupation and voting. This morning I thought that I might use this analysis as an entry point to extend my comparison between the Greens and Country Party. For the sake of international readers, I have added in some basic explanation of names and geography as I go along.

The idea of comparing the Country Party (now National Party) and the Greens will seem like anathema to some. The Country Party is seen as sitting on the right of politics, the Greens on the left. I suspect that many Greens in particular may find the comparison deeply odious. However, my thesis is that while there may be differences in policies, the nature of the electoral support for the two parties creates similar electoral and political dynamics.

Overview history of the Australian Greens

The Australian Greens web site provides a history of the party. Just to quote a few key points:

The Australian Greens is a confederation of eight state and territory parties which grew out of Australian environment movements in the 1970s and 1980s. The campaign to save Lake Pedder led to the formation of the United Tasmania Group in 1972. This was the first 'green party' in the world.

The 1990s began with serious efforts to form a national Green political party. By the end of 1992, both the Australian Greens and a Victorian Greens party were established.  

In 2004, the Greens increased their Senate representation to four when Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle were joined by Christine Milne from Tasmania and Rachel Siewert from Western Australia.

At the 2007 Federal election, more than a million Australians voted Green. Bob Brown was resoundingly re-elected, but Kerry Nettle was not, despite an increase in her vote. Sarah Hanson-Young (SA) and Scott Ludlam (WA) joined Bob, Christine and Rachel in the Senate in July 2008.

At state level, the Greens have 21 elected members of parliament: four in Tasmania, four in New South Wales, four in the ACT, three in Victoria, five in Western Australia, and one in South Australia. More than 80 Greens have been elected to local councils around the country.

At state wide or national level, and like the Australian Democrats before them, the Greens attract enough general votes to obtain seats in those houses of parliament where voting is proportional. This includes the Tasmanian Lower House with its multi-member electorates. However, in a system dominated by two major parties, the Greens struggle to get enough votes to win single member lower house seats under preferential or optional preferential systems.

To win here, they have to get in front of one of the major parties and then collect enough preferences from that party to win. In practice, the left orientation of the Greens means that they have to get in front of the Labor Party; Liberal preferences are far less likely to flow to the Greens.   

The Green vote is geographically concentrated. While this was true to some degree for the Australian Democrats, the Green vote in certain limited areas is far higher than the Democrat vote was, high enough to give the Party some chance of election in preferential single member seat contests. In general, these are inner city Labor leaning seats. I would not be surprised, for example, to see the Greens win perhaps two such seats at the next NSW election.

Overview history of the Australian Country Parties

The Australian Country Parties emerged in the first decades of the twentieth century. Like the Greens, their emergence coincided with similar movements in other countries. Like the Greens, the Parties' votes were geographically concentrated. Like the Greens, there were very considerable differences between State Parties, leading to the adoption of a confederation of State Parties model. For much of its history, the Australian Country Party at federal level was a parliamentary party with a very weak national administrative structure.

Like the Greens, the Parties gained a balancing role and had to decide how to use, taking the views of their voter base into account. They also had to choose between maintenance of a specialist role and the desire to broaden the base and seek for Government in their own right. In practical terms, this has been most pronounced in Queensland, although in Victoria a minority Country Party Government was kept in power for a period by Labor support.

Occupational Bases

This historical analysis is necessarily superficial. However, I hope that it sets a context. In saying this, I am also conscious of the need not to over-state the similarities. My interest lies in the tactical and strategic similarities faced by the two Parties.

The votes of all the Australian political parties have been strongly influenced by their varying appeal to different occupational groupings. Australian political scientist and fellow blogger Geoff Robinson would put this in class terms and indeed this has been important. However, it is also simpler and easier to look at occupational groupings, then add in other elements.

Traditionally, the Australian Labor Party has appealed especially strongly to manual workers. If you look at Northern NSW (New England), the area I know best, the strength of the Labor vote has traditionally been linked to the relative strength of the manual workforce. This holds in general and when you drill down to specific localities. However, it is not just the size of the manual workforce, but also the degree of organisation (unionisation) of that work force.

One of the interesting things about Possum's analysis of occupation and voting patterns is that it suggests that the nexus between Labor and the much declined manual workforce is no longer statistically significant.

So far as the Greens are concerned, Possums's analysis suggests that there is a very powerful correlation between the Green vote and three occupational categories - Arts & Recreation Services, Information Media & Telecommunications and Education. The varying Green vote is directly and powerfully related to the varying proportions of those groups in the workforce.

If we compare this to the Country Party, we have the varying strength of the farmer vote. I say farmer, because the rural work force such as farm labourers or shearers has often voted Labor. The early Australian Country Party spanned all states; the first Parliamentary leader in fact came from Tasmania. However, in those states where the rural vote was a relatively small proportion of the total  such as Tasmania and South Australia, the Party largely vanished.

Broadening the Base

To get elected, you have to attract support. You can aim, as the Democrats largely did, to work as a broad party across areas hoping to attract enough aggregate votes to get your people into upper houses. However, if you are to get people into single member lower houses, you have to attract votes to build your core base and also add people beyond your core base.

Both the Greens and the early Country Parties are/were populist parties. Indeed, the structure of the rhetoric if not the exact content is remarkably similar. Both had central causes, both defined enemies, both presented themselves as outside of and as reformers of existing systems.

The problem the early Country Parties faced lay in the need to attract other country support, for even then the farm vote as such was not sufficient to ensure overall continued electoral success. In particular, town support was required. However, the exact form of response varied considerably.

In Queensland where the majority of the population lay outside the capital city, the party that controlled the non-metro vote could actually control the state with a bit of help from Brisbane. This created a unique set of dynamics: Labor, the Liberal equivalent and the Country Party could all compete for full power. This actually muted the distinct Country Party message. At times, the Party vanished, at other times it was in Government.

Victoria was very different.

In Australia we have traditionally made a distinction between farmers and graziers or pastoralists. Farmers have generally been the radical end of the rural spectrum. At the time the Country Parties emerged, some of the farm groups were populist radicals. By contrast, the wealthier grazing interests were far more conservative. 

In Victoria, the Country Party was dominated by radical small farm interests. Grazing interests were effectively captured by the Melbourne establishment. This made it difficult for the Country party to broaden its base. It remained a farm party, with its core electoral strength in regions where farming was central.

NSW and especially Northern NSW was different again. Indeed, you cannot understand elements of NSW politics without understanding the history of Northern NSW.

In NSW, Sydney sat in population terms between Brisbane and Melbourne. Northern NSW was big enough and remote enough to have its own political dynamics.

As in Victoria, the more radical farm interests played a leading role in the formation of the Progressive, now Country Party. As in Tasmania today, the introduction of a Hare Clarke system with multi-member electorates elected by proportional representation provided an opening for a new political group. Unlike Victoria, however, the newly emerging Country Party/Progressive Party also captured the wealthier grazing interests.

There was another factor as well. In Northern NSW, the emergence after the First World War of an active separation movement seeking self-government for the North supported Country Party growth. The new separation movement was non-party political. It was also strongly influenced by and supported by town interests.

While non-party political, the separation movement could most easily be supported by a party that did not rely on Sydney for its votes. This allowed to the Northern NSW Country Party to combine farm, grazing and town interests, in so doing becoming the dominant political force across Northern NSW outside the lower Hunter. Elsewhere in NSW, the Country Party was far more unstable and insecure. It was its Northern NSW geographic base that guaranteed continuity.

This may seem a long way from the Greens. The point is that to really grow, the Greens have to reach outside their traditional geographic bases and to form new alliances. In so doing, they will face exactly the same problems as the Country Party.

Problems with power and coalition

It is not easy for a special interest minority party to capture power or to exercise influence. At present, Tasmania is the only state in which the Greens might hope to have a chance of power in their own right. This means that in most cases they have to use their influence, their balancing position, to obtain results. In doing so, they also are bound by the views of their core constituency.

In December 1920, the still new NSW Progressive Party split down the middle over the question of coalition with the then Liberal Party equivalent. The "True Blues", the predominantly country members who were to become the NSW Country Party, refused to participate. Their argument in part was that they could not represent country people if they were bound in coalition with one of the old city based parties.

It is actually hard now looking back to capture the genuine sense of idealism. They had gone to their electors with a set of beliefs and on a platform that did not allow them to compromise. The newly formed Government lasted just seven hours.

In the longer term, practical political realities including demands from the NSW Graziers Association, a major donor, made some form of coalition inevitable. However, a hard edge remained that forced a degree of political balance in the relationship between the smaller Country party and the bigger non-Labor party. There was always the risk that, if necessary, the Country Party would move to the cross-benches. It is only in the last thirty years that the Country now National Party has come to be seen as a somewhat subservient rural rump.

Today, the Greens are where the Country Party was all those years ago. Their political base will not allow them to consider coalition with or support for non-Labor forces, yet without this their actual power to achieve will be limited. This need not matter if they are playing a limited if important Democrat style role in respective upper houses. It does matter if they want to do more than this.


I was going to finish this post by looking at some specific electoral campaign matters, again using the Country Party as a comparison.

Just as the emerging Country Parties had to adopt different electoral techniques to win, so (I think) is true of the Greens. The policies adopted by Liberal and Labor including especially the marginal seats strategy do not work well when you are trying to break in. You have to overcome the other parties' strategies. Again, I think that the grass roots Country Party approach provides lessons.

Given time, I fear that this must wait until another post.                          


bobq said...

Very small point here, Jim. On the whole I agree that the dynamic of being a balancing party at one end of the political spectrum is going to be the same as the dynamic of an oppositely positioned party. Nice observation, BTW.

but where I disagree is about where the Greens might eventually get a seat. As the major parties preference each other last, the greens only have to run second to either to have a shot at a seat.

For proof, greens ran second in one seat in the last election - Melbourne, held by Lindsay Tanner of the ALP. having beaten out the conservative candidate, they got all the preferences. Came close, too.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Bob, good point. Even so, and ignoring optional preferential systems, to get second you have to have a solid first vote. This seems to limit the Greens to small geographical blocks of seats. Like Melbourne!

Geoff Robinson said...

Very good post. Joan Rydon argued that preferential voting favoured the Country Party. Another is the decline of political polarization, Liberals are willing to preference to Greens just as Labor and the Nationalists were willing to preference to the Country Party. This would have never occurred with the Communists whose defeat in Herbert in 1943 was due to conservative preferences.

Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting comment, Geoff, and thanks.

Not just preferential,but compulsory preferential. Not only did it aid the Party, but it was also central to the Party's then practice of running more than one candidate. The first slogan of the NSW party was no preselection or pledge.

I do wonder about the decline in polarization as compared to hard edge machine politics. It's not actually clear to me that polarization has declined in the way we thought it had a few years back.