Australia held federal elections last month with a remarkable outcome. Not only was the Liberal-National Party coalition bundled out of office but a swathe of Greens candidates and green-leaning independents was elected.
Previously, Australia had one Greens MP — Adam Bandt, MP for Melbourne. But the Greens were more successful in winning senate seats, an easier target for smaller parties. The Greens representation in this election increased from one lower house seat to four and their senate representation went up from nine to 12.
What is most interesting about the Greens result is that all their lower house gains were in the state of Queensland. Part of the reason for that is that green-leaning independents, dubbed “teals”, didn’t feature in Queensland.
“Teal” is somewhere between green and blue. Blue signifies the conservative Liberal Party, also known as the Tories in Australia.
The teals won six seats, by running on a strong climate change platform in traditionally safe Liberal seats. They campaigned on climate action, integrity and gender equality, areas in which the Liberals are seriously remiss. All those who won were women, sending a strong message to misogynists in conservative politics.
Their first big breakthrough was in the previous 2019 election, where they defeated former prime minister and noted reactionary and misogynist Tony Abbott.
The Queensland result is the one that interests me most because I managed two campaigns in Brisbane in 2010. The first was for the federal seat of Ryan, a Liberal Party stronghold (actually the Liberal National Party, LNP – the two parties merged in Queensland in 2008). In that campaign, the sitting MP, Michael Johnson, was dumped by his party and ran as an independent.
The media hyped him up as standing a chance of winning and virtually ignored our campaign. Despite this, our candidate, Sandra Bayley, doubled the Greens vote to 19% and scored more than twice the votes of this highly touted independent. The LNP’s Jane Prentice, a Brisbane city councillor, won easily, triggering a by-election for her ward, Walter Taylor.
I also managed the Walter Taylor campaign and we did even better. Our candidate, Tim Dangerfield, pushed the Labor Party to third place, with 22% of the vote.
What these 2010 results showed is that it was possible for the Greens to do well with a traditionally conservative electorate, without compromising on principle. We remained firmly committed to environmental sustainability, social justice, grassroots democracy and nonviolence, the pillars of the green movement.
What was different was how we approached the campaign. We realised early on that we would not get much media. In Australia, a large fraction of the print media is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s appropriately named News Limited (its more recent official name, News Corporation, doesn’t fit as well). Their approach to be hostile or ignore the Greens.
Because we were seen as a sideshow to the Johnson independent story, we were ignored. So we made our own news. We printed a mini-newspaper that we widely distributed. We made sure our candidate got maximum exposure whenever anyone organised a debate or we could engineer one. Even small meetings were worthwhile because we wanted to generate word of mouth news.
The Walter Taylor by-election similarly attracted little conventional media.
In both campaigns, we worked hard to present our candidate as a serious, concerned citizen, who knew their constituency well and would work hard for them.
I returned to South Africa the following year so I don’t know how the Queensland Greens built on these campaigns, but winning the Ryan seat showed that a progressive movement could win over a conservative constituency by focusing on the right themes. Some of these themes include practical action on issues people care about such as quality, affordable healthcare.
Moral argument matters because an organisation has to have an ethical core to avoid being corrupted. The Greens have always had this because their environmental focus has predisposed them towards approaches like an ethical fundraising policy. You cannot put the environment first if you take funding from big corporations that trash the environment. This is why the Greens have been able to take votes from the Australian Labor Party , who ludicrously argue that they are for climate action but against reducing coal-mining jobs.
The teals emphasised integrity, which is a strong point of the Greens. They also emphasised climate action, which is also a strong point of the Greens. The Greens are also strong on gender equality. The only real difference is that the teals also support fiscal conservatism.
But the Queensland result shows that the Greens can win in conservative strongholds. If that is true there, it is well worth understanding how this could happen so other progressive movements can win support outside their traditional base.
What is the lesson for South Africa?
Constituencies are not necessarily fixed in the way they vote. Opposition movements should focus on issues of real concern to voters and treat them with respect. Conventional wisdom says voters will not respond to anything more detailed than bullet points. I found the opposite in the 2010 campaigns I managed. Presenting thoughtful detail was taken extremely well.
Conventional wisdom is based on the need to present spin rather than fact and nuance. That points to the key differentiator of old-school politics, as opposed to a true democratic movement.
If your goal is to con the voter, your approach is to distil everything to soundbites that detract from the real issues. An honest approach that includes nuance and encourages voters to think things through themselves can work. The Greens proved this in Australia. Why don’t we try that here?