Have we hit peak Green?

As is most appropriate I start with a confessional. I am a member of the ALP and my views on the Greens and Labor dynamic are well known. Nevertheless I believe the data and its analysis has merit.

There has been a lot of attention given to a ‘minor’ party — the Greens— in recent weeks. I was disappointed with the crystal ball commentary from both the Greens leadership and journalists from the ‘knowledge class’ conveying such commentary to the public. “There’s going to be a bumper election for the Greens vote!” “They’ll have eight seats in little more than two decades” – much like those Australian Democrats no doubt?

I hold some scepticism at this point but it gets better. Not only will the Greens vote ever increase into the skies but the party will be the king makers of the impending hung parliament. Meanwhile in the ivory tower, I cannot help but think they love to prate for all their lack of empirical evidence.

Please excuse my didactics. The Greens are a protest party attracting votes from people who seek to demonstrate their dissatisfaction — what is up for question is the degree and intensity of its protest politics. There is little indication that their vote is improving from the available public opinion polling. If anything my own poll aggregation on their primary vote finds them tracking at 11.19% and on a negative trend in recent weeks. If you are interested in the methodology I am doing the poll aggregation of the two-party preferred vote for the Guardian.

greensgraph

The trend from the Green primary voting intention reveals two interesting findings. Since 2010 there have not been any great increases in the Greens vote. There was a significant fall at the 2013 election but this is more or less noise in the data. The cubic trend line indicates a dampening of Greens political support. Have we reached peak Green as support for the party plateaus?

The protest politics element that characterises Greens support illustrates a more long term problem for the party. Its not-so-regular constituency is indicated by the large number of voters who considered changing their vote during the campaign and do between elections.

Pooled survey data from the Australian Election Study (1996-2013; n=15359) reveals that Greens voters were much more likely to consider changing their vote during election campaigns: 44% compared to 18% for Liberal voters, 29% for Labor voters and 21% for National voters. Additionally 81% of Liberal voters had voted Liberal at the previous election, 79% Labor voters had voted Labor, and 53% National voters had voted National, compared to the 40% for the Greens.

Despite younger voters being more likely to vote for minor parties, this wash over of voters suggests a natural constituency may not have emerged in a particularly strong sense. It lends weight to Ian McAllister’s position that voting for the Greens is ‘a convenient method of protesting against Labor policies without making the much more substantial commitment of voting Liberal’.

The Greens vote is predicted heavily by progressive asylum policy positions.  The arrival of ‘stop the boats’ on the political agenda in 2001 appears to have lifted their support. Same-sex marriage is also a strong predictor of support for the Greens. That issue appeared on the agenda in 2010 in a big way, followed by a bump in their support. Before 2001 environmental politics was the mainstay of the party when the support was significantly lower than the present.When these issues are modelled with a series of policy spending priorities and demographic controls to predict the Greens vote, only the boats, same-sex marriage, environmental issues and defence spending are strong predictors of the Greens vote. In the long term there could be the prospect of a reduced level of support for the Greens. Same-sex marriage will be off the political agenda once Labor enacts as it has promised it shall do within a hundred days, when there are no boat arrivals the issue is not salient and defence materiel matters are rarely politicised with the purposes of reducing budget allocations. While environmental issues are strong predictors of Greens support, when they featured heavily in Greens campaigning their electoral performance was not brilliant.

I am not suggesting the Greens will disappear with these issues no longer on the political agenda but I am positing that once the issues that drove the improvement in Greens support since the late 1990s fall off the political agenda it would be increasingly difficult for the Greens to continue improving their vote. There is also the potential that the Greens vote may also move closer to their pre-2001 votes when environmental politics were their policy bread and butter.

Perhaps it is worth asking what prevents the Greens from going the way of the Democrats, One Nation or the Democratic Labor Party? One Nation emerged to disappear as an organisation once the demands of its supporters were met. The disappearance of the Democratic Labor Party and Australian Democrats may be more complicated. There is the very real prospect that once issues that strongly predict the Greens vote are addressed – reasonably likely proposition – the Greens too may wither on the vine – that is unless the party evolves.

Logistic Regression: Political issues predicting Greens voting, AES 2013

Predictor (1=Vote Green in House; 0=Other & informal votes) Beta Standard Error P-Value Odds-Ratio
Turn Back the Boats (Strongly Agree to Strong Disagree) 0.420 0.064 0.000 1.523
Ban Same-Sex Marriage (Strongly Agree to Strong Disagree) 0.367 0.069 0.000 1.443
More or less expenditure – Health -0.111 0.122 0.361 0.894
More or less expenditure – Education -0.011 0.116 0.921 0.988
More or less expenditure – Unemployment benefits -0.068 0.107 0.522 0.933
More or less expenditure – Defence 0.311 0.083 0.000 1.364
More or less expenditure – Old-age pensions 0.059 0.103 0.563 1.061
More or less expenditure – Business and industry 0.131 0.082 0.110 1.140
More or less expenditure – Police and law enforcement 0.167 0.090 0.065 1.182
More or less expenditure – Welfare benefits -0.184 0.101 0.068 0.831
Threat of global warming to way of life (Very serious to not serious at all) -0.524 0.091 0.000 0.591
Age (years) -0.007 0.004 0.097 0.992
Female 0.348 0.141 0.013 1.416
Family Income -0.000 0.011 0.963 0.999
University Qualification 0.241 0.147 0.101 1.272
Constant -5.467 0.677 0.000 0.004
(n) 3314
Nagelkerke Pseudo-R Squared 0.293

The long-term security of the Greens is questionable and there is little evidence for claims for an improvement in their vote on the available evidence. Recent media commentary and analysis has been deficient, overlooking Australian political sociology, electoral laws and the gravestones of earlier minor political parties.

While I am not a fan of crystal balls in political science discussion, including on the topic of the future Greens vote, I am reminded of a remark made by Linda Botterill in her departing President’s Address to APSA last year. Her sentiments to the effect were that it was a true shame that the media does not make it a habit to engage with APSA members. I cannot help but agree that discussions of politics are impoverished with APSA voices absent. When not a week has passed after a federal budget, I cannot help but feel uneasy witnessing the fourth estate prefer to highlight the fairy tales and delusions of consequential grandeur the Greens may have rather than inquiring into the finer details of the federal budget or the proposed policies of parties that have a reasonable chance of forming government. A fourth estate teetering on abandoning its duty to keep potential governments accountable is concerning and should inspire intervention from our part.

Luke Mansillo is a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney  and a columnist for the Guardian Australia