Can the Victorian Greens wield any real power beyond persuasion

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Guardian: Can the Victorian Greens wield any real power beyond persuasion? Gay Alcorn Tuesday 18 November

The Greens hope to win the balance of power in both houses of parliament. But they’ve talked up their chances before, and they don’t yet have a Bob Brown to give them a compelling presence

Victorian Greens leader Greg Barber is smart and sharp-witted, if perhaps a little arch in style. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP Image
The Victorian Greens often complain about the lack of media coverage they receive, although they seem to get some pleasure in being the perpetual underdogs loathed by the “old” parties and ignored by the out-of-touch media.

On Monday, they organised a lunch because the Melbourne Press Club had declined their repeated requests to appear at some point during this campaign. It was a nice spread and leader Greg Barber announced the party’s long-standing policies on government integrity and transparency. Guardian Australia provided the only reporter and the TV stations sent a pool camera operator.

Why such lack of scrutiny or even interest? One reason is that as laudable as some of their policies are – the idea for boosting the state’s anti-corruption body and banning developers from making political donations are hardly radical – the Greens have not had the balance of power in the parliament. They have no real power beyond persuasion.

The Greens have three upper house members – Barber, Sue Pennicuik and Colleen Hartland – none of whom have high public profiles.

They are right when they insist that neither major party has taken integrity issues seriously but they have been unable to do much about it. Victoria’s Independent Broad-based Anti-Corruption Commission (Ibac) is weaker than Icac in NSW and even the commission’s head has asked for changes. The Coalition and Labor say they will strengthen Ibac, but the government’s proposals have been criticised as not going far enough and Labor so far has not released the details of its plans.

Victoria’s political donations laws are considered the weakest in the country. Unlike in NSW, nobody is banned from donating and there are no limits as to how much can be given, with a single exception – a $50,000 cap a year for those in the casino and gambling industries.

The major parties have no plans to change any of it. Indeed, on Monday Labor figures were boasting to the Australian that money was flooding in from corporations.

Barber’s six integrity measures, from boosting freedom of information laws to a boosted code of conduct for MPs, are sensible and overdue, but they remain a wish list. “This is a simple set of integrity measures that any political party could adopt and implement tomorrow. They won’t,” he said.

The Greens will not say what they will insist upon if they do get their wish of holding the balance of power after 29 November. How will Victorians know how they they would use their newfound authority if the Greens did end up supporting Labor in a minority government? They have policies on everything – from small classroom sizes to reducing greenhouse emissions by at least 40% by 2020 – none of which can be implemented without support.

“You don’t go into a negotiations with non-negotiables, that’s just what politics is all about,” Barber told Guardian Australia. Two areas have been mentioned as most critical to the Greens – opposition to the East West Link toll road and action on climate change.

Asked what the Greens have achieved in the past four years – albeit without the balance of power – Barber says: “We’ve pursued the Liberal government on a whole range of issues which they’ve ended up caving in on. On smoking in public places – Colleen’s bill, which they voted against time and time again, was eventually adopted. We’ve got them on the run on fair go for firefighters, and they’re playing a terrible political price for not having acted the way they should in a whole range of integrity measures.”

They are modest achievements for a party loathed by both majors. Premier Denis Napthine says the only thing worse than a Labor government would be the Greens holding the balance of power because they “threaten the future of our strong economy.” The Liberals are repeating their 2010 strategy of putting the Greens last in its preferences. Labor has also refused to do a preference deal this time.

The Greens talk up their chances, but they have a tendency to do that in Victoria, another reason, perhaps, that they’re not given the attention they believe they deserve.

At the moment, opinion polls indicate they are attracting between 13% and 16% of the vote, up from just over 11% at the 2010 election. At that poll, the Greens predicted they would win four lower house seats and double their upper house representation. After the Liberal decision to put them last on the ticket, they won nothing in the lower house and managed only to hang on to their current upper house members. Their overall vote rose, but only a little.

This time they are aiming to win the balance of power in both houses of parliament and they point to Adam Bandt’s win in the federal seat of Melbourne last year without Liberal preferences – although he had the advantage of incumbency. They are running enthusiastic grassroots campaigns, with their best chances believed to be the state seat of Melbourne and Richmond.

In the upper house, Barber acknowledges that Labor’s decision to place the Greens behind the Palmer United party (PUP), Country Alliance and the Democratic Labour party in four out of eight upper house regions “definitely reduced our chances somewhat in western Victoria” where the party was hoping to win its first seat outside of Melbourne.

Micro parties have been doing their preference swaps in the same way as they did in the federal Senate, and there is a reasonable chance that Victorians could wake up to discover someone who received a tiny number of votes holding the balance of power.

The Greens are furious with Labor, with Barber pointing out that the DLP candidate for western Victoria, Mark Farrell, represents a party that is determined to reduce abortion rights in the state. Yet the Greens’ moral superiority is barely justified. They have negotiated a preference swap with the PUP in the upper house, a party which voted to scrap both the mining and carbon taxes in Canberra.

Barber justifies it this way: “We went through all the parties that had policies in common with us. After that, where it’s indifferent, we started looking at the fact that we don’t want any party to control both houses of parliament.”

Labor loathes the Greens and leader Daniel Andrews says he will not form government with them no matter what happens at the election. The mutual animosity runs deep. Barber misses few opportunities to criticise – not the government, but Labor.

“Well, they’re the incoming government; they’re the ones boasting about all the money they’re getting from corporates now that they’re flavour of the month,” says Barber.

Barber, 48, has a masters of business administration and was elected as Australia’s first Green mayor in the Yarra city council. He is smart and sharp-witted, if perhaps a little arch in style. The party doesn’t quite have a Bob Brown to give them a compelling, but reassuring, presence in Victoria.

Brown comes to town on Tuesday to campaign in the inner city seat of Prahran, which the Greens hope to win from the Liberal party. He is still a strong figure in the party and they need him to make a clear and compelling case to vote Green. And it is likely the media will turn up.

The Melbourne Press Club denies that it refused repeated requests for the Greens to appear at a club event, saying they invited Barber to attend a transport debate last week between the transport minister and shadow minister. Barber would not be part of the formal debate, but was invited to “take an active role in discussions”. There was no response, the club said.

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