Rocky road confronting the Greens

19 July 2015

Victoria looks like becoming the new power base for the Greens.  Their vote has seemed better there than in any other states, except perhaps Tasmania, and having won several Federal and State seats in Victoria in recent elections, it won’t surprise me if their centre of power ends up there.  But the road ahead for the Greens, now led by Senator Richard Di Natale of Victoria, looks rocky.

People have long thought of Tasmania as the home of the Greens, at least when former Senator Bob Brown was leader.  Brown was for years a State MP in Tasmania before he was elected to the Senate in 1996.  But before his election to the Senate, two other Greens were already there, namely Christabel Chamarette and Dee Margetts, both of Western Australia.  At the same time of Brown’s election, however, Chamarette lost her seat, while Margetts lost her seat a few years later.

The Greens actually didn’t seem entirely unified in those days.  Despite fielding candidates nationwide, past election results show that they sometimes ran under state-based banners, until about 2004.  Indeed the Greens from WA had won their Senate seats under state banners, while Brown was originally elected as a “Tasmanian Green”.  After Chamarette and Margetts departed, Brown was the only Green in the Senate for a few years.  He held his seat at two further elections, and more Greens joined him in the Senate over time.

I should point at this point that not all Senators face the voters at election time, because of how Federal Parliament has been constituted.  Usually when general elections are called, they include what are known as half-Senate elections, although this term might confuse people.  The reason is that, while there are seventy-six Senators made up of twelve from each state and two from each territory, the territories didn’t have Senate representation until many decades after Federal Parliament first opened – only the states had Senate seats, and as only of half of those seats would usually go up for grabs at election time, the term “half-Senate election” was accurate.  Although not entirely accurate now, given that the territories now have Senate seats, of which all rather than half go up for grabs at election time like seats in the House of Representatives, the description of a half-Senate election has survived.  For decades it was also common for half-Senate elections to be held separately from House elections, but this hasn’t happened for a few decades.

Only in certain circumstances, such as the refusal of the Senate to pass pieces of legislation more than once, can the Prime Minister of the day call an election whereby all Senate seats go up for grabs – this is referred to as a double-dissolution election.  It’s rare for double-dissolution elections to happen, the last of these to have been in 1987.

This means that, unless Prime Minister Tony Abbott is so fed up with his inability to get the Senate to pass legislation that he calls a double-dissolution, we can expect a half-Senate election as part of the next general election, due in late 2016.  But those Senators elected at the last election, in 2013, won’t face the voters this time – they’ll do so at the election after next, due in about 2019.

To assess how the Greens might go, it’s worth noting their record at past elections.  Using the election of Brown to the Senate in 1996 as a starting point, there have been six elections.  They were in 1998, 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013.  After winning a seat in 1996, Brown next faced the voters in 2001 and then 2007, before resigning in 2012, with Peter Whish-Wilson replacing him and facing the voters in 2013.  Another Green won a seat along with Brown in 2001, and two more Greens won seats in 2004, by which time the Greens in WA were now competing under the national banner with their counterparts in other states.  After winning three seats in 2007, the Greens hit their peak with six seats in 2010, and despite a falling in their vote they won four Senate seats in 2013, giving them their current total of ten.  They also won the seat of Melbourne in the House of Reps in 2010 and held in 2013.

Those Greens elected to the Senate in 2010 will face the voters at the next election, unless it’s a double-dissolution election.  Because 2010 was their peak, a fall in their vote might cost them seats, but their vote in several states has been reasonably strong.  They’ve polled double-digit percentages of the vote in Tasmania since 2001, twice well above the required 14.3 per cent of the vote to win a Senate seat in any state without needing preferences, and they also got above 14.3 per cent of the vote in Victoria in 2010, while in other states they’ve either come close to or gone above double-digit figures a few times.  Indeed Di Natale was the Victorian Senator elected in 2010, while Tasmanian Senator Christine Milne also got a high vote and led the Greens for a few years after Brown departed.

Attitudes to the Greens may have changed over the years.  But I suspect that their vote will strong enough, despite the rocky road confronting them.  Not many Greens will be lost from the Senate in the foreseeable future.

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