Brown hands lucky Labor a paler shade of Greens

Lucky breaks have been few and far between for the Gillard government but Bob Brown's resignation offers a genuine opportunity to win back some of the former Labor voters who have re-identified as Greens supporters in the past five years.

Lucky breaks have been few and far between for the Gillard government but Bob Brown's resignation offers a genuine opportunity to win back some of the former Labor voters who have re-identified as Greens supporters in the past five years.

THE lucky breaks have been few and far between for the Gillard government but Bob Brown's resignation offers Labor a genuine opportunity to make some headway with voters. Not a lot of headway, admittedly, and Labor's capacity to exploit events in recent years has been demonstrably poor, but the government does now have a chance to win back some of the former Labor voters who have re-identified as Greens supporters in the past five years.

The sums are pretty easy to do. At the 2007 election that put Labor into office, the ALP primary vote was 43.4 per cent. At the 2010 election, that vote fell 5.4 points to 38 per cent. The Greens took the lion's share - 4 per cent - of that lost ALP vote and the Liberal-National Coalition took the remainder (about 1.5 per cent).

That was enough to rob Labor of its lower house majority and push it into the arms of the Greens, causing Julia Gillard to make her first big post-election mistake by deciding to conduct an ostentatious, televised signing of an agreement with Brown and his then-deputy Christine Milne as the PM tried to tie up the backing of crossbench MPs.

The agreement was simply an undertaking from the Greens to back Labor against no-confidence motions in all but the most extraordinary circumstances in exchange for regular meetings and consultations on several policy areas. But it came across to some voters as the formation of a formal power-sharing alliance between Labor and the Greens, a veritable coalition, and definitely not something that was canvassed in the election campaign only a few weeks earlier. That was when voter unhappiness at the reality of minority government started to set in.

The Greens' qualified lower house support notwithstanding, there's been little upside for the ALP in the rise of the minor party, spearheaded until yesterday by Brown. Thanks to the Greens under Brown's leadership, the Rudd government's original emissions trading scheme bit the dust two Liberal senators crossed the floor and the Greens' five upper house members would have made the difference.

Instead, Labor has had to bow to the Greens' preferred model of a carbon tax - a particular passion of Brown's successor, Milne - and is suffering monumentally as a consequence. Brown and Milne yesterday pointed to the carbon tax as one of the party's greatest achievements.

The policy does not appear to have added supporters to the Greens' cause. Since the last election, opinion polls have shown Greens support to have remained around the 11.8 per cent it secured in 2010. Meanwhile, Labor's support has all but collapsed.

With Brown off the scene, the Greens will unavoidably become a different party. The Greens organisational persona has been leavened and enhanced by Brown's personal and political story - his tribulations as an environmental campaigner - and his particular brand of bland, besuited, Strine-accented delivery.

For all of his policy eccentricities, Brown's old-school personal ways gave the appearance of offering safe haven to many former Labor voters. That, combined with his sense of conviction, was an enduring selling point for the Greens.

Milne is big on conviction too but she has a much more strident manner and is a boring speaker.

Can Labor use this moment to win back the Brown-ites from within the Greens? This is the point at which the Greens will be tested as a movement that can live beyond its founder.

One of Brown's parting shots yesterday was to reiterate his assessment of why his party was different to the Australian Democrats: whereas Don Chipp's party existed to keep the bastards honest, the Greens wanted to replace them. (Unstated in this proposition is the implication that the Greens could merely amount to a new set of bastards.)

Heaven knows the Labor Party needs something to go right as the government puts together its fifth budget. All too often, even the basics seem beyond it. It's only a few weeks short of two years since Treasurer Wayne Swan and then financial services minister Chris Bowen issued a statement outlining the benefits that would flow to wage earners thanks to the resource rent tax.

The statement began: ''The Rudd government will deliver an historic boost to retirement savings to help prepare for an ageing population and ensure the Australian people get a fairer share of our mineral wealth.'' It then nominated the first of the reforms as : ''A 12 per cent Superannuation Guarantee (SG) - commencing with a 0.25 increase in 2013-14 and 2014-15, followed by 0.5 increments until the SG reaches 12 per cent by 2019-20. The three year lead time recognises that employers and employees need to factor this into future wage negotiations.''

The original iteration of the resource rent tax proposal did not survive the caucus decision to replace Kevin Rudd with Gillard. She subsequently negotiated a narrower, less bountiful, version of the tax with three big mining companies.

But the government's rhetoric and the promise of the super rise was not adjusted. The increase in super from 9 per cent to 12 is still a government promise and it has re-emerged now that the revamped mining tax has passed into law. By any conventional measure, this is a benefit that should be easy for a government to sell.

The problem is, however, that there's no clarity on how the benefit will be established. Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten has said that he expects the super increase to be considered as part of workers' wage packages. The ACTU says no.

On Thursday, the incoming secretary of the ACTU, Dave Oliver, told ABC TV: ''We'll be ensuring and instructing affiliates that we will not discount our wage increases against the increases for the superannuation guarantee charge. Again, it was never seen as a salary sacrifice.''

He conceded that unions might negotiate on work practices in return for higher super contributions. ''We've been very clear that we have never accepted the fact that the increase in the superannuation guarantee charge was going to be a de facto salary sacrifice program,'' he said. ''It's not. That was the nature of why it was going to be staged in incrementally over a longer period of time. Yet we accept when it comes to bargaining, employers are going to want to factor that, but we're not going to concede that point, not up front.''

This renders the superannuation increase, one of the chief long-term benefits for most households from the resource rent tax, worthless as an electoral emolument for Labor. If anyone was looking for a way of demonstrating how this Labor government is different from the previous Labor government headed by Bob Hawke and then Paul Keating, this is a very good example. Under Hawke and Keating, the partnership of the Accord ensured that messages and policies were subject to unyielding discipline.

Now, it's a free-for-all. Oliver's imminent elevation to the secretary's post at the ACTU, pushing aside the incumbent, Jeff Lawrence, is evidence of that. The leadership change was predicated on the expectation that the government will fall next year and that a younger, more vigorous approach will be needed at the ACTU under an antagonistic Abbott government.

Even Labor's biggest friends are preparing for a post-Labor future. That's why the government needs to see if it can woo a few of Brown's Greens back into the fold.

Shaun Carney is an associate editor.

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