Defying predictions, the Australian Greens look set to win two seats in Brisbane and are in the running for another. Here are three reasons why I think the campaign in Brisbane was so successful.
1. The establishment was wrong.
All but a tiny handful of journalists were convinced the Greens would not win Griffith — or Ryan or Brisbane. Political scientists thought Labor incumbent Terri Butler would increase her margin over the Greens. Right up to the final weeks, Labor strategists believed the seat was safe.
This was because there is a deep disconnect between the political class and everyday society. The former deal in academic abstractions: they do not understand what is happening on the ground and remain out of touch with people’s lives. They figured that in an election where Labor was going to form government, a Labor shadow minister could not possibly lose her seat.
They did not understand that people are so disaffected by politics that they are no longer willing to do what they are “supposed to do”, that people want change, that Labor offered nothing fundamentally different and that mass grassroots campaigning can fundamentally change the dynamics of an electorate.
2. You can put forward a very bold reforming platform and win — but you have to raise expectations.
At no point did the Greens hide our policies. Six weeks out from the election, volunteers delivered a 20-page policy booklet to every household in the electorate. We detailed the Greens’ policies to:
- Build 1 million public homes, cap rents and phase out negative gearing;
- Abolish university and TAFE fees and scrap student debt;
- Phase out coal and gas in 10 years;
- Bring dental and mental health into Medicare; and
- Heavily tax billionaires and big corporations.
From the perspective of the political class, this was a radical platform that was sure to lose us votes with Liberal and Labor voters — primarily those with investment properties.
But, in reality, it won us a lot more votes.
In fact, with this platform, we were able to slice off about 10% of the Liberal’s vote. We had huge swings in wealthier areas, but also in lower-income areas.
This was for a couple of reasons.
First, neoliberalism has never become the preferred politics of a majority of Australians. Most people we door-knocked, whether a poor renter or a relatively well-off homeowner, thought Australia should be more social democratic (without necessarily using that term) and they resented the privatisations, deregulation and cuts to public services that have been implemented by both major parties.
Second, the climate crisis, the housing crisis and growing wealth inequality — along with a decaying and disconnected political class — mean more people no longer feel any loyalty to the status quo.
Renters have no stake in a system that in no way rewards them. Rising numbers of middle-class families are terrified about their children’s future. Even people with a stake in the status quo, but who disagree with key policies, can be won over by a dynamic local campaign that relates to local community concerns.
The main barrier to people voting for such a platform is people’s low expectations: they think nothing can change.
A lot told us directly. Their main objection was not “How are you going to pay for it?” but rather, “Well, it all sounds nice, but nice things don’t happen”.
We managed to build a campaign that was so big and exciting, and that demonstrated so much capacity and confidence in our politics, that this barrier was, at least, partially overcome.
The community campaigns we ran were a big part of building that confidence.
The idea was to raise expectations through activating and inspiring a big enough layer in the community. This remains an ongoing challenge, and will be for a long time, but it is not impossible to overcome.
3. It wasn’t just climate change (or integrity) that did it.
It is true that climate change came up more in our door-knocking chats this election compared to previous ones. I have no doubt that Labor and the Liberals’ commitment to new coal and gas projects was behind a fair bit of the shift of votes to the Greens.
But to say it entirely “explains” the swings in Brisbane is not correct. A large part of the swing to the Greens came from people who wanted change in a much broader sense.
We won people on renter’s rights and housing, on bringing dental into Medicare, on free childcare, on wiping student debt. We won people on a political message that was antagonistic to billionaires and big corporations, and that channelled people’s resentment towards that common enemy.
A lot of the votes we won were on things that would materially improve voters’ lives in a direct way. Amid the malaise of politics, a lot of people also just wanted change and hope.
The call for a federal Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and political integrity more generally played a very small role in the swing to the Greens in Griffith.
It rarely came up while door-knocking and we did not campaign on it. We did not really campaign on banning corporate donations to political parties — despite it being an important part of our platform.
Personally, I feel an ICAC would not change much for a single mother in social housing or a young couple trying to find a rental. It would be a good thing to have, but it is often fetishised by progressives who would prefer not to be embarrassed by the actions of other members of the political class they identify with.
A poor renter simply does not care that much: they would probably like to see some politicians go down for corruption, but they would much rather an affordable home.
Anti-politics, at least in Griffith, was largely based on a hatred of the political class that treats people like idiots. It was based on people noticing less and less difference between Labor and the Liberals, despite the increasingly petty negative campaign between them.
By comparison the Greens were positive, had a vision, connected with the community and communicated with people as people.
[Liam Flenady was the Australian Greens’ campaign manager for the seat of Griffith where Max Chandler-Mather won.]