Putting the Greens Party last a mistake

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Mr Dastyari, who described the Greens as “extremists not unlike One Nation”, said Labor must “stop treating them like they are part of our family … Where it is in the Labor Party’s interest to do so, we should consider placing (the Greens) last – just like we did with One Nation,” he said.

The Australian reports this weekend, that NSW Labor is considering placing the Greens Party last on how to vote cards at upcoming elections.

This move, on the surface, seems to follow along with the decision made recently by state Liberal Parties to put the Greens last on preference sheets. The media portrayed the Liberal decision as smart and effective; apparently it successfully positioned the Greens Party as extreme, and bolstered the position of the Liberals as a party of principal, unwilling to do grubby preference deals to beat Labor. Thus, it reaffirmed the Liberal story that they are a party of values over pragmatism.

For an apparatus in NSW that is deeply wounded by the state election loss and successive leadership failures, and no doubt hurting from the perception that they’re in the pocket of Bob Brown or Christine Milne, the allure of creating a narrative that Labor is a principled party unwilling to do the bidding of the “extreme Greens” must be high.

At this point, I should declare that I’m no friend of the Greens Party. Like many on the progressive side of politics, I find them to be sanctimonious, pious and frustrating.

However, there should be no mistake that Labor’s enemy are the conservatives — the Liberal Party. The Greens are opponents in the inner city, but elsewhere, they are important to ensure Labor MPs are elected.

Fundamentally, this NSW Labor position advocated by Sam Dastyari is flawed.

Firstly, the argument to preference the Greens Party is not a values position. It’s not about the Greens Party policies or positions, but purely about what is considered “best” for Labor. The reason that Labor preferenced One Nation last is not because it was beneficial to Labor, but because One Nation are a racist, hateful party whose values fundamentally violate those of Labor. From a values position, Labor should continue to preference based on what party is closest to our values — which would certainly place the Liberals, Nationals and various extreme right-wing parties at the bottom (e.g. One Nation, Family First, CEC, and so on).

Secondly, and more pragmatically, the notion of placing the Greens Party last ignores (or misunderstands) how voters make decisions.

This is where I get into a bit of social marketing theory. But when swinging voters think about who they’re going to vote for, they have an “evoked set” and a “consideration set“. The evoked set is all the parties who come to mind when they think about voting — this is a function of awareness. The consideration set is the group of parties (typically between two) that the voter decides to choose between in actually voting for.

In a two-party system, the evoked and consideration set is typically the same. To be in the consideration set, you need to be in the evoked set — you need to have high enough awareness of your party to be considered. The consideration then comes down to the kind of swinging voter you are: utilitarian or low involvement.

Practically, most consideration sets will between Labor/Liberal in the vast majority of electorates, and Labor/Greens in a handful of inner city areas.

In a Labor/Liberal consideration, the position and policies of the Greens Party won’t really affect the outcome. The Greens Party will achieve about the same primary vote as the informal vote (around 3 percent). Thus, the “narrative” of Labor putting the Greens Party last on how-to-votes will barely (if at all) register on the radar. The Greens aren’t in consideration, so any Labor/Greens mucking about won’t affect the decision at all. The entire choice is between Labor and Liberal Party.

(This “put the Greens last” tactic worked for the Liberals, because they artificially introduced the Greens Party into the consideration set by opportunistically preferencing the Greens above Labor. This invoked cognitive dissonance in areas where the evoked and consideration set for Liberal voters was Liberal/Labor — i.e. it changed the consideration set to Liberal/Greens/Labor. By removing the Greens from that consideration set, they removed the cognitive dissonance. Labor does not have that luxury.)

In inner city areas, where the consideration set is between Labor and the Greens Party, the effect likewise will have little positive effect. Remember, Greens Party swing voters are almost entirely former Labor voters, who are either utilitarian or expressive voters. This means their choice is based on either specific issues or “what it says about me”. The narrative of Labor trying to position the Greens Party as “extreme” won’t influence the choice of these voters — their consideration set has already come down to Labor/Greens. It’s too late to turn people away from the Greens Party based on what Labor says about them.

Indeed, for people considering switching from Labor to the Greens Party, especially expressive voters, this move would just reinforce their decision to switch. It would affirm their attitude that Labor is opportunistic, right-wing, willing to do whatever it takes — everything that the expressive voter is not (remember, we’re talking inner city progressives here).

That’s why this view from Sam Dastyari is so worrying:

“I’m more concerned about growing Labor’s primary vote than worrying about our Green secondary vote. The voters who have abandoned us haven’t done so because we are not close enough to the Greens,” Dastyari says.

For rusted on or fixed voters, who have already decided to vote for Labor, Liberals or Greens Party, this decision will have no effect on their decision. They’re committed already. For swinging voters in Labor/Liberal contests, our position on the Greens is utterly irrelevant.

It is like Coke or Pepsi running an advertising campaign to position itself against 7Up — 7Up isn’t in consideration for cola drinkers, so the campaign not only would validate and elevate 7Up but it would be incongruous with the market leading position that Coke holds.

The entire discussion of preferences, of even talking about the Greens Party at all is self-defeating and pointless — like Coke worrying about what 7Up is doing.

For the vast majority of electorates, Labor’s fight is against the Liberal Party. By broadcasting a decision or tactic to place the Greens Party last, it simply reinforces the idea that Labor is filled with opportunists, that values don’t matter, that Labor simply follows the lead of the Liberal Party.

I can see no upside to this idea.


Bruce Hawker has blogged about the Queensland campaigns involving One Nation. The article is worth a read (even if only for the old campaign ads). The key quotes from Hawker’s blog are these:

The decision by the Coalition to exchange preferences with One Nation also gave Peter Beattie the moral high ground and he used it to his advantage by declaring that Labor would always put One Nation last on its “how to vote cards”. So, while Labor still stood to bleed votes in rural and provincial seats to One Nation, it put itself in the running to pick up seats from the Liberals in the city.

It also gave Labor the opportunity to portray a National/Liberal/One Nation Government as inherently unstable and extreme. As you will see from these ads, Labor used up a lot of energy making the point that if elected, theCoalition would be “dancing to One Nation’s tune”.

…I have stated before that the federal Labor Government never had to enter into a formal alliance with the Greens. If history tells us anything its that Labor should never allow the Green tail to wag the brown Labor dog. Labor’s immediate and long term survival depends on a formal separation – and soon.

These points really are far more persuasive than Dastyari’s “put the Greens last” and “they’re a left version of One Nation”. Labor has a historic position of forming government in its own right — a position that I feel is a solid one.

I agree with Peter Brent and Bruce Hawker that the “formal agreement” with Bob Brown and the Greens Party was a mistake and unnecessary. It created a coalition government as well as a minority government, but without any Greens Party ministers, they got all the benefit and none of the pain. Labor should never have signed this agreement. (If Labor is going down the “attack the Greens Party” tactical route, then it must cut all ties to the Greens Party including formally ending the parliamentary agreement.)

The other thing to note about Hawker’s account of the 1998 QLD campaign is that One Nation were in the “consideration set” for a whole range of both Labor and Liberal swinging voters. As Hawker notes, many of the traditional older, white, blue collar male voters who had always voted Labor were considering voting One Nation (and the same goes for the Nationals). This is a very different proposition to the Greens party and Labor today.