By Steve Painter
SYDNEY — After a campaign that almost resulted in his election to the NSW upper house, Ian Cohen is optimistic about the future of the green electoral movement. "I feel quite confident at the next state election we'll get someone up", though success in federal elections might take longer, he told Green Left Weekly on June 28.
Cohen's confidence seems justified following a remarkable result, in which right-wing moralist Fred Nile was almost unseated by a very low-budget Green Alliance campaign. While Nile probably spent about $100,000, including more than $40,000 in state funds, on a high-profile campaign based largely on newspaper advertising, the Greens had a budget of just $5000, supplemented by maybe an extra $1000 out of the candidate's own pocket.
Yet Nile only just shaded the Greens in the first-preference vote and then scraped a quota on donkey preferences from the Liberals. If Nile's and the Greens' positions on the ballot had been reversed, the Greens would probably have won.
Since the election, the Greens have had more publicity than they got during the campaign.
"The only way the word got around was word of mouth, through the grassroots organisations, and just general public discussion", said Cohen. "It shows that there is an opportunity for alternative lines of communication to work. It's gratifying to see there is that opportunity to actually break the monopoly of the mainstream media.
"The sad thing about this campaign is that the lottery simply rolled against us, and that means we didn't get a green candidate up. Getting up would have allowed us to create a very powerful force in NSW politics, and from that point the Greens would have gone ahead by leaps and bounds."
Cohen is very critical of the media during the campaign. He says pundits and pollsters "were either deliberately misconstruing information or were completely out of touch with what was really going on.
"We were putting out good press releases, but the media had really clamped down on us. It was very frustrating."
Having helped to create a certain atmosphere, journalists then uncritically accepted it. ABC television's 7.30 Report
had allocated one spot for minor party candidates in the upper house, and they gave all of the time to Nile, "saying that according to the pollsters it was Fred and no-one else".
Cohen changed style for this campaign. Having become famous for stunts such as taking to a surfboard to confront Bob Hawke's motor launch on Sydney Harbour, he tried a more conventional approach, issuing well-presented statements on issues ranging from homelessness and unemployment to the future of the state's old-growth forests. But the media wanted only stunts, so eventually he gave them one, climbing a toxic waste incinerator tower in inner-Sydney Waterloo.
Part of the answer to the media's attitude was a concentration by the Greens on community outlets, such as the smaller radio stations and local newspapers. The rest was "just word of mouth, ringing up contacts".
The Greens also suspect that they suffered from dirty tricks. Visiting the Environment Centre in Grafton a week after the elections, Cohen was present when a woman delivered a parcel from the local bus depot. "It was leaflets that were sent out about five days before the election. She had a horrified look of recognition on her face when she saw me. I don't know how typical this was, but a bus company in the middle of National Party territory somehow forgot to deliver green electoral material to the place where it was supposed to be distributed.
"On the other side of the balance sheet, people who were interested just took their own initiatives. We didn't really have a centralised campaign, and it was that type of initiative dotted around the state that gave us a very significant vote, coupled with the fact that I think people are recognising the green label. People's values are changing. We got a 62% increase on our primary vote of 12 months ago." It was helpful that there was only one green ticket this time, aside from the Democrats.
"We just had our heads down and kept plugging away, working with virtually no resources at all. We had no money to spend on anything like billboards or radio advertising, which we had done in previous campaigns. By and large, we had very few people supporting us actively.
"One thing I learned in this campaign is that many activists are either cynical about electoral politics or busy on their own projects. It stunned me that some of these activists don't vote. They don't look at the electoral process as an extension of grassroots activity."
Many potential green voters are not even registered, and Greens in northern NSW have been running a voter registration drive to correct this. Cohen thinks similar activity is needed throughout
Ian Cohen's optimism for the future is balanced by concern that the movement must find ways to develop a united approach among its diverse forces. "I think what we all need to do is look at working more constructively together. I don't actually know how we resolve the severe differences and paranoias of various sections of the green and environmental movement so we can work together.
"I think it's very important that one group or the other doesn't get a monopoly on the green political concept. I'm aware of a fair bit of political manoeuvring of various groups that wish to grab and use the green label, for better or worse I really don't know. I think there needs to be a lot more open discussion on who and what the greens will represent.
"Hopefully, this success we've just had will result in more respect for the greens who have been unsupported so far by a lot of the mainstream groups. Hopefully we'll get some sort of recognition and be able to move ahead with reasonable momentum, but I'm a bit worried that people won't drop their old, preconceived antagonisms and prejudices and get down and work together constructively."
In the latest campaign, there was a feeling "that we all shared basically a common cause and we worked well, and that's the way it has got to be, otherwise I don't think it's worth doing".