Can progressives actually defeat the Morrison government

Something is on the turn. Slowly, and with increasing clarity, the Australian political and electoral map is being redrawn. Since the July byelections in Longman, Mayo and the rest of the “Citizenship Five” Super Saturday slate, not a single thing has gone right for Australia’s powerfully entrenched hard-right.

First published at Crikey

Longman lit the fuse on the fabulously misconceived coup against prime minister Turnbull, which rests the government’s fortunes in the hands of a prime minister almost maniacally out of his depth. The Wentworth byelection followed up as perhaps the most profound self-own in modern political history. Saturday’s blinder of an election loss for the Victorian Liberals cements the turn, and the resignation of disaffected Liberal MP Julia Banks to the swelling ranks of restive crossbenchers takes the government’s parliamentary fortunes into unmapped territory.

It has sent hardline commentators into some wonderfully entertaining live-to-air brain seizures as they try to interpret the ominous domino-fall of seats. The fevered consensus seems to be that the far-right hasn’t been far-right enough, and the reason for Matthew Guy’s electoral humiliation is that he went too green.

These political tremors are the surface expression of the real world turning. It is hardly blind coincidence that the LNP is floundering on the rocks of an increasingly dangerous climate and the fate of trapped refugees that they’ve cast into oblivion. The government has misread the popular will on everything from the Uluru Statement from the Heart to criminal misconduct in the banking and financial services sectors and the need for a national anti-corruption commission. As these debts fall due electorally, there is a sense of panic within conservative ranks that is nothing short of delicious. 

And yet, the progressive side of politics can hardly sit back and assume a 2019 federal election win is in the bank. Even if it was, it isn’t good enough to be just slightly better than the howling shitshow of the Morrison government.

Labor remains deeply compromised on both keystone issues of climate and refugees, caught in the impossibility of trying to play both sides of the street. Even so, their performative and occasional genuine adoption of progressive initiatives is a potential risk to the positioning of the Greens, who can spend years working with community campaigners to politically de-risk issues like negative gearing and marriage equality, only to have the campaigns taken up by Labor and have the Greens written out of history.

This, we remind ourselves, is often the path of change and the public doesn’t care who gets the credit for change, as long as it gets made.

The strongest example of what this dynamic can deliver remains the establishment of the Multi-Party Climate Change Committee (MPCCC) in 2010; a proposal by former Greens leader Christine Milne to bring the government and crossbenchers together with policy specialists to craft a way through the climate and energy deadlock. This process delivered the Clean Energy Act, parts of which survive today as the Clean Energy Finance Corporation and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. For two short years, before the industry-funded surge of the hard-right brought the hammer down, Australia had the foundations of a functional climate policy in place. 

This only happened because the balance of numbers in the House and Senate gave the Greens negotiating leverage to bring it about, and because prime minister Gillard was skillful enough to hold a disparate minority government together for long enough for the MPCCC to deliver the outcome. The numbers in Parliament after the 2010 election created the platform on which goodwill and policy expertise were able to be brought to bear on a formidably difficult problem. Which brings us back to today. 

The Greens suffered badly in the Victorian state election. While upper house results remain provisional, the failure of the Andrews government to reform the state’s electoral system means that microparties with tiny fractions of the vote can game the system of group voting tickets and win seats at the expense of candidates with 10 or 20 times the vote. Labor’s decision to play into these deals may have the outcome of filling the state upper house crossbench with a vocal assortment of gun advocates, climate deniers and niche hardliners while the Victorian Greens upper house team is wiped out.

In addition, the party more broadly is dealing with a series of ugly setbacks and revelations about the behaviour of male MPs, candidates and volunteers which have buried any residual illusions that these issues would be confined to the major parties. 

There is now a 20-year tradition of people declaring the Greens a spent force following every setback, no matter how small, and this time will be no different. Just as in the past, these declarations will be way off-target, and not just because this commentary is often hostility masquerading as analysis. This movement isn’t going anywhere, simply because of the urgency of the work still to be done.

The task now is to bring this urgency to bear on the numbers in the national parliament, so that the electoral demolition of the Morrison experiment actually brings lasting benefit to the people casting the votes.