The Politics    Monday, June 20, 2022

An upper house divided

By Rachel Withers

Image of Greens leader Adam Bandt during the Greens NSW Senate campaign launch in Sydney, May 5, 2022. Image © Dean Lewins / AAP Images

Greens leader Adam Bandt during the Greens NSW Senate campaign launch in Sydney, May 5, 2022. Image © Dean Lewins / AAP Images

With the Senate confirmed to have a left-leaning majority, can Labor and the Greens work together to achieve progressive outcomes?

The composition of the 47th parliament has now been confirmed, after the Australian Electoral Commission declared Senate results for Victoria, NSW and WA today (keeping up its delightful Twitter presence while doing so). Victoria has delivered Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party its first and only win from its $100 million advertising spend: the UAP’s Ralph Babet took the sixth spot from Liberal senator Greg Mirabella, leaving some progressives confused as to how to feel. (Former UAP leader Craig Kelly is doing a victory lap, and has now been appointed “national director” of the party, despite being defeated in his former seat of Hughes.) The 76-seat Senate now comprises 32 Coalition senators, 26 Labor, 12 Greens, two One Nation, two Jacqui Lambie Network, one UAP and independent David Pocock. Labor and the Greens have 38 seats between them, meaning they could more or less have a progressive majority – add in Pocock (a secret Green, according to conservative lobby group Advance Australia) and they would control the Senate. Which makes it all the more baffling that Labor is still refusing to engage with the Greens and insisting that it doesn’t need the third-largest political party in Australia, as the never-ending debate over the CPRS continues.

That debate hangs over this week, as Labor insists on what Greens leader Adam Bandt has slammed as a “take it or leave it” approach to the 2030 emissions-reduction target. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has confirmed that the Coalition will not support the government’s 43 per cent target (and will probably take “something like 35 per cent” to the next election), meaning that Labor would need the Greens in order to pass it through the Senate. The Albanese government, however, continues to maintain that it does not actually need to legislate it, and therefore does not need to budge. Speaking on RN Breakfast this morning, Bandt left open the possibility of supporting the 43 per cent target (in what The Australian labelled “an olive branch” to Labor; The New Daily called it “non-committal”). “We’re prepared to have discussions with the government with the aim of reaching agreement,” Bandt said. “But it takes two to tango, and at the moment the government is simply saying they don’t want to talk.” When asked whether we were facing a repeat of the CPRS shitshow of 2009, Bandt insisted his party was prepared to be constructive, noting that it was Labor, not the Greens, that was currently making perfect the enemy of the good.

Can Labor and the Greens bury the hatchet in order to work together in a progressive parliament that they – along with Pocock – could easily control? The government, as the PM and energy minister keep reminding us, don’t need the Greens’ support on the 2030 emissions target – though it will no doubt cause endless recriminations if the Greens vote against it, something both sides seem to be aware of. The Greens’ support will be required, however, on future pieces of legislation, unless Labor can find a way to work with what appears to be a rather obstructionist Opposition. Does Labor really intend to go on refusing to talk to the Greens, insisting that the minor party must fall into line and accept minor progress if it wants to see progress at all?

At this point it seems so. As Guardian Australia noted over the weekend, Labor wants to “avoid giving the Greens political victories to help cement their recent gains or make further advances at the 2025 election” – a questionable strategy, considering these “advances” are mostly coming from Labor’s failure to meet the climate goals of left-leaning voters. As a new ANU study into the movement of voters has found, “the largest aggregate flow between April and May 2022 was from Labor to the Greens”, with a whopping 4 per cent of all voters switching their vote from the major party to the minor one. Sidelining the Greens doesn’t seem to be stemming the tide for Labor; working with them, however, just might. But Labor seems far more concerned with not giving the Greens a win.

Both sides are going to go on claiming a mandate here, just as both sides will insist forevermore that the other was in the wrong back in 2009. But with a Labor–Greens–Pocock Senate majority, one that is only likely to grow more Greens-heavy in coming years, it is well past time that the parties came to the table, as Bandt urged this morning. Are the Greens really willing to support Labor’s plans, if they can get some favourable amendments in return, as Bandt claims they are? And is Labor capable of getting past its hatred of the minor party chipping away at its left flank, and accept that the Labor share of the vote is falling? Finding a way forward here will depend on each party’s willingness to compromise, and compromise to a fair degree, something neither side was willing to do back in 2009.

The AEC has returned the election results, and they are among the most progressive we have seen in some time in this country. Now, let’s see if the parliament can return some equally progressive outcomes.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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