Policy competition between the Greens and the Australian Labor Party


How do the Australian Greens and the Labor Party each use policies to appeal to voters? Do the Labor and Liberal parties adopt broadly similar policy positions? Are the Greens just ‘tree tories’? In a recent article for the Australian Journal of Political Science, we used the Manifesto Research on Political Representation (MARPOR) dataset to answer these questions and, more broadly, evaluate how green and social democratic parties compete and ideologically position their respective parties in majoritarian settings.

The MARPOR Project collects and codes policy-related election materials for over 1000 parties in 50 countries. Using this data, we compared the policies of Labor and the Greens over four recent federal elections (2004 – 2013) and across four dimensions: overlap, issue priorities, issue positions, and diversity. We found that the institutional characteristics of the Australian setting preclude the kind of ideological and policy reconciliation common among social democratic and green parties in consensus tending systems.

Policy Overlap

‘Policy overlap’ refers to the extent of similarity in the policy statements of any two parties at election time. Measuring the extent of overlap entails direct comparison of entire policy documents, and thus provides a rich, comprehensive summation of the degree of convergence or divergence between parties. The rationale behind this measure is relatively straight-forward. The greater the policy overlap, the greater the convergence between parties. Overlap thus has implications for party system dynamics, the nature of competition, and inter-party relationships.

We found that in most elections, the Labor and Liberal parties demonstrate far greater policy resemblance than do Labor and the Greens (or the Liberals and the Greens). While there remains a notable difference in policy positions between the two major parties, there are striking similarities in their overall policy profiles. Indeed, at the 2007 federal election, 61% of the Labor and Liberal policy platforms overlapped. Within the Australian party system, it is the Greens that tend to be the ideological and policy ‘outsiders.’ One exception to this finding is the federal election of 2010, where Labor and the Greens put forward policy programs with far greater commonality than either party had with the Abbott-led Liberals. 

Issue Priorities

Our measure of issue priorities assesses the relative importance that Labor and the Greens assign to individual policy areas at election time. This measure is interesting largely because of its implications for inter-party competition and cooperation. The more Labor and the Greens emphasise the same issues, the more likely these parties position themselves as close competitors in the electoral arena. On the other hand, commonality in issue priorities between the parties indicates greater potential for cooperation in the legislative arena.

Welfare and quality of life issues, relating to the environment, welfare, education, and equality, dominate the Greens’ policy programs. This broad policy domain, on average, constitutes almost half of the typical Greens platform. Unsurprisingly, Labor also prioritise these policy areas, albeit to a lesser extent and balanced against considerable emphasis afforded to matters of economic management.

Yet there is a substantial difference in top priorities between Labor and the Greens, as demonstrated in the figure below. The figure highlights the policy priorities of the two parties at elections from 2004 to 2007, with each party’s top priorities identified with cell figures showing the proportion of the party’s platform taken up by the corresponding issue. For example, at the 2013 federal election Labor prioritised infrastructure spending, greater welfare spending, and economic growth, while the Greens led with welfare spending, environmental protection, and decentralisation of decision-making.


Issue Positions

The issue positions measurement identifies the position of Labor and the Greens on key dimensions of political competition. Meaningful cooperation between two parties is more likely to occur if parties adopt similar issue positions. In our article, we determine party policy positions across fourteen issue dimensions ranging from foreign affairs to economic management and education spending. We also identify the consistency or intensity of the parties’ positions in each issue dimension, to account for instances where parties offset or qualify statements in favour of a particular position with statements in opposition – something that is common for both parties.

At each election, there are several issue dimensions where the Greens and Labor adopt similar positions. Positive views of internationalism and international cooperation, expanding welfare and education spending, and support for unions are areas where the two parties consistently align. On the other hand, the parties regularly take opposing stances on matters of morality, with the Greens consistently taking a critical approach to the ‘traditional’ morality that Labor often defends. Likewise, Labor’s advocacy for economic growth often puts it at odds with the Greens, the latter of which tends to question unbridled economic expansion and highlight its social and environmental costs.

Platform Diversity

Platform diversity gauges the degree to which parties are competing on few, or many, issue fronts. It thus tells us whether a party is furnishing a comprehensive policy agenda, or attempting to restrict an election campaign to cover just a few select issues. It is a measure intimately tied to party strategy, and can detect when a party is adopting a ‘small target’ approach. Platform diversity also matters for inter-party cooperation; parties with more diverse platforms have been found to more effectively negotiate and compromise over the passage of legislation.

We find that Labor frequently adopts a ‘small target’ strategy at election time, emphasising a substantially smaller ‘effective number’ of issues than either the Liberals or the Greens. Indeed, when Labor last won government from opposition in 2007, Labor’s platform contained an effective number of issues of just 11 compared to 15 for the Liberals and 18 for the Greens. In contrast, what is especially notable about the Greens is just how wide ranging their policy platforms have been. This finding is at odds with the perception, prevalent among the political commentariat, of the Greens being a ‘single issue’ party. In contrast to Western European green parties, though, the Australian Greens’ policy programs have narrowed over time, even if they remain more diverse (in most cases) than that of Labor and the Liberals.

What does it mean?

Our article enhances understanding of the ways the institutional setting shapes the competitive and cooperative dynamics between green and social democratic parties. More specifically, we offer a systematic empirical assessment of how the Greens and Labor use policies to compete and appeal to the electorate. The findings show that Labor and the Greens do not compete directly against one another in policy terms but rather compete adjacently with divergent programmatic profiles.  We suggest that the majoritarian character of the Australian system –  as defined largely by the dynamics generated by the interaction within and between the electoral system used to elect the House of Representatives and the Senate –  is likely to discourage policy accommodation or meaningful cooperation between these two parties. At the same time, however, neither Labor nor the Greens appear to position their parties in direct competition with the other. Labor is primarily concerned with the policy program of its rival in government formation, the Liberals, while the Greens are carving their own niche in the ideological space.

This blog has been adapted from Holloway, Josh, Miragliotta, Narelle and Manwaring, Rob, 2018. ‘Issue competition between Green and social democratic parties in majoritarian settings: the case of Australia’. 54(1): 18-36. https://doi.org/10.1080/10361146.2018.1529228

Read it for free for the next month here.

Josh Holloway teaches politics and public policy in the College of Business, Government & Law at Flinders University.

Narelle Miragliotta teaches in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Monash University.

Rob Manwaring is a Senior Lecturer at Flinders University, and researches in social democratic and labour politics. In 2018, his edited collection (with Paul Kennedy) ‘Why the Left Loses: The decline of the centre-left in comparative perspective’, was published by Polity Press (Bristol).