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What’s Driving the Rising Support for the Australian Greens?

Is the increased support for the Greens' merely disaffected voters turning away from the major parties, or a sign that the Australian electorate is turning towards more progressive ideals?

by Paul Gregoire
13 April 2015, 1:32am

Jenny Leong on election night.

On March 28, as expected, the NSW Liberal-National coalition was re-elected in the New South Wales state election. But a not so anticipated result was that NSW Greens took three seats in the parliament's lower house, including two key inner city electorates. The party maintained the percentage of the vote it gained in the previous election, despite a statewide swing of nine percent towards the opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP), whose disaffected voters many believe are the source of the Greens' support base.

The two inner city seats now held by the Greens are in areas that were once ALP strongholds. The Greens' Jamie Parker was re-elected to the seat of Balmain, while Jenny Leong took the newly-created seat of Newtown. Since the 1990s, these areas have undergone a process of gentrification, which has led to rapid population growth. Indeed the Newtown electorate was created to accommodate this growing inner city population.

The third seat taken by the Greens was the north coast electorate of Ballina, previously held by the Nationals. The Ballina vote was swayed by rising concerns over coal seam gas mining, which almost saw the party take Lismore, another seat on the north coast. The polls also saw the Greens take second position in a further seven electorates, while retaining the five seats held in the state's Legislative Council.

Member for Newtown Jenny Leong and member for Balmain Jamie Parker

But NSW is not the only electorate where support for the Greens is on the increase. At the Victorian election of November last year, the Greens took the inner city seats of Melbourne and Prahran, the latter an electorate previously held by the Liberals.

And at the last federal election of September, 2013, the Australian Greens secured their strongest national representation, with an additional Senator being voted in, to make 10 in total, along with one MP in the lower house.

But is the increased support for the Greens' merely disaffected voters turning away from the major parties, or is it a sign that the Australian electorate is turning towards more progressive ideals?

According to newly-appointed NSW Greens MP Jenny Leong it's a bit of both. Her victory in the Newtown electorate was due to a grassroots campaign, reengaging discontented constituents, with the realisation that their concerns could actually be addressed. "We had people coming into the campaign that were outraged by what was going on with the federal metadata laws or what was happening with refugees," she said. "They found something in our campaign which said, 'It doesn't have to be like this.'"

To Leong, the point of difference with the Greens is they engage their local support base in decision making, policy shaping and deciding what issues are important to have as a campaign focus.

Geoff Turnbull is the spokesperson of RED Watch, a resident group from the Redfern-Waterloo area, located within the boundaries of the Newtown electorate. He said the local election results follow recent trends in the inner city that find dissatisfied voters looking for an alternative to the two major parties. In the past, his local area was not a priority of either party, as it was an ALP stronghold and not a marginal seat. Therefore local issues, such as public housing, were never high on the agenda of governments, who were more concerned with what would win them the next election.

"It opens it up for a party like the Greens that doesn't have to think in that broader context of: 'How's this going to play out in the West?' Because they're not going to win those seats anyhow,'" Turnbull said, adding that this allows the Greens, "to be able to play a different sort of politics that caters much more to that local community and to those local issues."

Over the last decades, the gentrification of inner city Sydney has resulted in changes to the local demographic, as wealthier people have moved into these areas. But as might have been expected these more recent residents have not turned to the Liberals, Turnbull points out, as their values have undergone a generational shift, which is not represented by this party. This is coupled with more traditional locals who, "are fed up with not seeing out of the ALP, a response to some sorts of issues people on the left of the ALP have been raising in the inner city."

The election saw the ALP win six seats in their heartland of western Sydney, along with key electorates on the central coast and the Hunter. NSW ALP leader Luke Foley told VICE that unlike the Greens, Labor cannot target a few seats with niche polices. "Labor has a far greater task of producing policies for the whole community," he said. "I do not believe the success of the Greens Party in a small number of seats is due to disaffected Labor voters."

Dr Stewart Jackson, lecturer at the Department of Government and International Relations at Sydney University, said the Greens are now attracting a concentrated vote in inner city areas from a young, well-educated demographic called the cultural creatives. "People who are no longer simply focusing on getting fed tomorrow or having a roof over their heads," Jackson said of these new voters. "They're thinking, 'I'm relatively comfortable. I'm not concerned so much about material conditions. I can start thinking about what sort of society I want to live in."

Although the Greens have always had a broader outlook than just environmental issues, Jackson said, these new voters are only just realising that Greens' policies address other issues in a progressive manner, such as tax reform.

Jackson believes that the Greens may go on to form coalition parties within the larger states and federally, in the same way that they did with the ALP in Tasmania between 2010-14 and are currently undertaking in the ACT Legislative Assembly with the parliamentary agreement between ACT Greens MP Shane Rattenbury and the ALP ministers.

But for Leong the Greens are already on their way to becoming a major party. "If you're talking to the people in Newtown and Balmain, I think it's clear that we're already in the major parties territory," she said. "I would say that the Greens are a major political force and a significant political influence in NSW and Australian politics."

Follow Paul on Twitter: @paulrgregoire

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