Warning bells are ringing and the Greens need to listen

All the warning signs are there but the Greens need to acknowledge they are facing a significant weakening of their electoral support if they are to avoid a disastrous federal election.

Its not the only time recently a political party received a strong warning of impending political doom – how Queensland Labor responded (or didn’t) to a dreadful municipal by-election has important lessons for the Greens.

Labor achieved a vote of just 16% in the October 2010 by-election for Brisbane’s Walter Taylor ward. I know Walter Taylor ward well, it overlapped the state electorate I won for Labor on three occasions (2001, 2004, 2006) and at its most challenging could always deliver a Labor vote of 20% plus.

A primary vote of 16% should have sent shock waves through Queensland Labor as it prepared for a state election. Instead, Labor’s state secretary told the media, “I wouldn’t read too much into a council by-election”. At the state election Labor achieved a vote of just 18% in this area.

Statements like this send a clear message to candidates, campaigners and supporters. What could have been a wake up call for Labor was seemingly ignored. Now Queensland Labor holds 7 seats in a State Parliament of 89 MPs. The policy consequences of Labor’s collective hubris are plain to see and are particularly painful for public servants, the environment and the many worthy NGOs losing funding in Campbell Newman’s budget.

The Greens have been given a similar wake up call with significant opinion polling decline since the retirement of Bob Brown and the Parliamentary refugee debate. There are real election results to bear out the accuracy of the polling trends with poorer than expected outcomes from the Melbourne by-election (my analysis is here), the NT election and a big drop in support at NSW’s council elections.

The Greens should see this as an opportunity to examine just what is going wrong and why they are no longer connecting as positively with voters but judging by Greens’ reactions to these warning signs this doesn’t seem likely in the short term.

The Melbourne by-election loss was spun as ‘Melbourne goes Green’. Trouble is, it clearly didn’t. Poor polling is blamed on methodology, margin of error and voters not understanding policy positions. The point here is the polling IS down and there are real election results to confirm this.

Articles presenting an alternative, more positive view of the situation facing the Greens are circulated and tweeted furiously as though this is evidence everything is still really going swimmingly. While articles suggesting there really is a problem to address are being interpreted as untrustworthy attacks (sure, there has been some gloating in the conservative press about the Greens decline in support but to dismiss all such analysis as motivated by an anti-Greens philosophical position is just silly).

Just like Labor’s ‘we’re not reading much into it’ approach to an obviously approaching political catastrophy didn’t work for them, the Greens need to accept ignoring these strong warnings from voters will not work either.

One positive for the Greens is the continuing volatility in Australian politics which means they can still have a successful federal election. But addressing the problem requires the Greens to first accept they do in fact have a problem. The next task is fixing it quickly.

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