Crispin Hull / The Greens are coming for Labor

Labor in Australia had better watch out. The Greens are coming for them. The results of last weekend’s ACT and New Zealand elections illustrate the point which will likely be reinforced in next weekend’s Queensland election.

Essentially, Labor has to end its ambivalent, two-faced approach to the electorate. It cannot be pro-coal, gas and manufacturing in regional Australia and at the same time hope to be seen as the party of renewable energy and climate action in the cities.

Worse, it cannot ask voters to believe it is serious about the climate and the environment when it approves new coal mines, as the Queensland Labor Government did last month or refuse to take a position on new gas fields, as Federal Labor is doing now.

Unless Labor changes, it faces the danger of falling between two stools.

In the ACT election, the Liberals lost a bit over three percent of the vote. Labor gained nothing and the Greens gained a bit over three percent. It is a fair hypothesis that whatever votes Labor might have gained from the Liberals, they lost an equivalent amount to the Greens.

That did not happen in New Zealand because New Zealand Labour was not two-faced on climate action. Both Labour and the Greens got swings from the Nationals and minors.

The NZ Greens did not pick up as much as the ACT Greens who now have 20 percent of the seats in the Parliament, or perhaps more depending on the latest count. It is not unthinkable that in the future the Greens will become the major party in an ACT coalition with Labor.

Of course, in single-member chambers a minor party like the Greens has difficulty turning votes into seats. But Labor should not be too complacent about this, as its own history shows. It had to come from a low start.

Labour got its first Member of the House of Commons in 1892 and it took more than 30 years to form government. In Australia it got just 16 of 75 seats in the first Parliament.

In Britain, Labour in effect replaced the Liberals as the party of the left because the Liberals were not progressive enough and were not seen as representative of the emerging working class.

Labor in Australia should take heed. It must modernise and be more representative or lose its place.

The conservatives, under whatever name, will always be there pandering to the well-off while trying to give as little as they can get away with in the form of services to the broad electorate. The only question is the nature of the progressive party that opposes them and forms government when enough people wake up.

The economic, social and environmental changes now are as, or more momentous as those brought by the Industrial Revolution that spawned the Labo(u)r Parties.

But now Labor must evolve and stop perpetuating the myth of its industrial base – that there is a large pool of unionised manufacturing and mining workers whose interests must be looked after. It must act on the reality. Mining is just two percent of the workforce; manufacturing is just seven percent, and construction nine percent. And 78 percent of the workforce are in service industries – most of them in human services.

Labor has got to get rid of the hard hat and fluoro safety vest. It must not allow itself to be wedged by the Coalition into approving and subsidising financially unworkable fossil industries and Snowy Hydro whose position will go from bad to worse if the Government forces it to construct a gas-fired power station.

Instead it must point out that renewables will provide more jobs and profit for longer, like the $20 billion, 12,000-hectare, 10-gigawatt solar farm in the Northern Territory that would supply energy to Singapore via a 4,500-kilometre undersea cable.

Labor has succeeded in presenting itself as the party of social care with a long history: the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (1946); Medibank/Medicare (1975/1984); the National Disability Insurance Scheme (2013) and the promise of universal childcare (2020).

But this may not save Labor as a new generation of informed, planet-concerned voters come on to the roll.

Much has been spoken and written about angry, lesser-educated, unemployed, middle-aged white males, particularly in the US. The Republican Party in the US and the Coalition, One Nation and Palmer parties here have captured a lot of this vote from the Democrats and Labor respectively, changing the electoral map.

But equally, there are a lot of fuming, well-educated people, especially women, who are fed up with dumb, donor-driven, unfair government decisions which are plainly not in the best interests of the broader community – especially decisions like male-dominated industry subsidies; tax; environment, education, health and growth mania. They are fed up with a government that wilfully ignores overwhelming evidence.

But they do not want Labor to be fossil-fuel lite.

So they can move from away Labor, too, but to the Greens, unless Labor lifts its environmental credentials.

Results in the Queensland state election will come in on Saturday evening. It will give some indication of how Labor’s all-things-to-all-people strategy is going.

My guess is that older voters, hitherto disproportionately LNP, will move a fair bit to Labor out of gratitude to Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk for saving them from Covid. That may blur other trends. But it would not be surprising if Labor’s approval of a new coalmine results in greater losses to the Greens in the south-east than it gains from the LNP in the north.

The environment and economic fairness may ultimately prove to be greater voter motivators than illusory job bonanzas in mining and manufacturing.

This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 24 October 2020.