The Age: Greens battle for the inner city. November 2, 2014. Farrah Tomazin The Sunday Age’s state political editor.
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To get to the campaign headquarters of the Victorian Greens, you head to a quaint building on Little Collins Street, catch a tiny elevator to the first floor, and enter a cluttered room lined with bicycles, corflutes and second-hand furniture.
It might not look like much, but within these walls, the Greens are fuelling a burning ambition: to win an inner-city seat in Victoria’s lower house. Whether they stand a chance is a moot point.
It’s been four years since the Greens came breathtakingly close – only to be thwarted at the 11th hour by Ted Baillieu’s decision to preference the party last on Liberal how-to-vote cards.
Ellen Sandell, Greens candidate for Melbourne. Photo: Jesse Marlow
Fast forward to present day, and the state branch is more structured and better organised than ever before, emboldened by Adam Bandt’s victory at the 2013 federal election. Nonetheless, several challenges remain.
Boiled down, the Greens’ vote declined nationally last year, despite Bandt’s success. Furthermore, the Liberals are still likely to preference the party last on November 29. And an anti-Coalition backlash has made it easier for Labor to mount its case: that this year’s election, fundamentally, is a fight for who will form government.
Coupled with the fact that this month’s poll will also see more minor parties contesting than ever before – potentially bleeding progressive votes – it begs the inevitable question: can the Greens make history this time around, or have they hit their high watermark?
Needless to say, the party is thinking big. Traditionally, efforts have focused on the upper house, plus four lower house Labor electorates: Melbourne, Richmond, Brunswick, and Northcote. This year, in addition to eyeing off more seats in the upper house (Western Victoria, Eastern Metro) a strategic decision was made to prioritise resources towards two key lower house targets: Melbourne and Prahran. Not everyone was happy.
“There are some people who think we shouldn’t target seats at all — that we should spread ourselves around because luck could strike anywhere,” a senior source told The Sunday Age. “But we simply don’t have the resources to run really strong campaigns everywhere. I guess there was always going to be disagreement.”
Prahran is an interesting choice, as it involves the Greens targeting an inner city electorate currently held by Liberal MP. The thinking (albeit highly optimistic) is that if candidate Sam Hibbins secures more primary votes than Labor, and then secured favourable preference flows, he could potentially knock off the sitting member, Clem Newton Brown.
Melbourne, however, is the Greens’ most realistic chance. First, it’s home to party hero Bandt, whose grassroots campaign – hundreds of volunteers; thousands of one-on-one of conversations – has set the template for state candidate Ellen Sandell.
Second, a redistribution of electorate boundaries has reduced the swing needed for the seat change hands, from 6.2 per cent to 4.7 per cent. And third, sitting Labor MP Jennifer Kanis has only held the seat since the 2012 byelection, making it more competitive.
But Bandt’s campaign was based on several factors unlikely to play out in a state contest, such as asylum seekers and carbon tax. He also had a high profile and plenty of donors, outspending Labor by at least four to one.
Sandell admits she doesn’t quite have the same advantage, but what she does have, she says, is people: an army of 238 volunteers who have door-knocked more than 11,300 homes and counting.
“Our whole strategy is based around talking to voters one on one,” says 29-year-old Sandell, the former director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. “We don’t have the money but we have people who support us. That’s our real strength.”
Young, smart and ambitious, Sandell turned to the Greens after a brief stint working on climate change policy for the former Brumby Labor government. As a staffer in the Department of Premier and Cabinet, she recalls writing the first draft of the forestry chapter in the climate change strategy, only to have it “completely changed to be exactly what the forestry industry wanted, ignoring the latest science.” She remembers, too, working on a policy to put solar panels in every Victorian school, only to have Brumby back down after pressure from parents on talkback radio.
“I went in there thinking that the Labor Party wanted to do something on climate change, but I realised they cared more about holding on to power than getting outcomes for the community,” she says. “I realised we needed people out there who were pushing for climate action, and ultimately, people who were going to replace them.”
It’s the kind of statement that is likely to infuriate Labor hardheads, who see the Greens as a party of hypocrisy and intransigence. The examples, they say, are endless: calling for bans to political donations when the Greens have enjoyed some of the single biggest donations of any party. Making grandiose promises without detailing how to pay for them. Spending more time blaming Labor, rather than attacking the conservatives.
Critics also point out that the Victorian Parliament has had three Green MPs in the upper house for past eight years (Greg Barber, Sue Pennicuik, Colleen Hartland) who held the balance of power between 2006 and 2010. The MPs have worked hard scrutinising bills and advocating on issues such as public transport and animal welfare, but barely a word of protest was heard, for instance, when the Coalition abandoned the phased closure of Hazelwood, our “dirtiest” coal power plant soon after taking office. As Richmond MP Richard Wynne lamented last week: “What have they achieved?”
Asked to list his party’s key achievements, Barber, known for his tendency to speak brazenly and cryptically, pointed to a Melbourne Times article from 2008, in which then premier John Brumby was under fire from residents and the Greens over an early version of the East West Link.
“We stopped John Brumby building the east west toll road,” Barber says. “I’d like to say we stopped him building the desal plant, issuing new coal and gas licences, and stuffing up myki — but let’s face it, that government had a political death wish.”
Whether you agree with his sentiment or not, there’s no doubt that the road has re-emerged as the dominant issue at this year’s poll, and the Greens – who would rather see a rail line to Doncaster – have been a vocal opponent. Labor’s decision to effectively “rip up” contracts reflected a nervousness in the inner city, although it’s unclear at this stage whether the shift will help or hinder the ALP more broadly.
Nonetheless, the battlelines have been drawn. Since first standing in 1999 – and gaining 1 per cent of the vote – support for the Greens in Victoria has been creeping up, albeit slowly. In 2010, the party polled about 11 per cent; this year it wants more. The state office has been restructured, with new appointments such as former Young Environmentalist of the Year Larissa Brown to the position of state director and West Australian Jess McColl (who managed Senator Scott Ludlam’s successful campaign) as campaign director. A media adviser was drafted to help Barber improve his media performance, which has been criticised internally over the years. And in the heart of Melbourne, Sandell (who needs at least 40 per cent of the primary vote to win) is on the so-called “Bandt-wagon”, hopeful of making history.
Labor, however, is ready to rumble. “This election is about who forms the next government in Victoria,” says Kanis, echoing the sentiments of her inner-city Labor colleagues. “As a Labor member in Melbourne I will always be able to achieve far more for my constituents than an inexperienced commentator on the sidelines.”