Greens see the campaign light at the political crossroads

Sensibly, the party is reclassifying its most contentious policies.

Sensibly, the party is reclassifying its most contentious policies.

THE Greens party is at another crossroads. Will it reach its ambition of being the major left party in Australian politics, the new Australian Labor Party, or will it wither and follow the path of the old Australian Democrats?

On the face of it, the Greens move to discard or reclassify many of their most contentious policies is a sensible one. Leaving the merits of the policy positions to one side, the campaign benefits appear significant.

On campaign defence, it makes the Greens a smaller target to critics and helps avoid distracting attacks during a federal election year.

In recent state byelections and the ACT general election, the Greens have been subject to significant attack over plans to freeze funding for private schools, including Catholic schools.

In the NSW state election, a campaign was run against some of the more strident anti-Israel positions of the Greens.

For the media, these are easy stories to write. For the ALP and Liberals, it makes for easy campaigning on the ground.

While the Greens focused on the Senate, some elements of the ALP took an agnostic view of the party. But once they started to seriously contest and win lower-house seats, at the expense of the ALP, views within Labor hardened significantly. The media also found it easier to talk up the consequences of the Greens' policies.

On campaign offence, the policy changes will help the Greens to focus their campaign on the issues they want the 2013 election to be about. The party website puts these issues up in lights: the environment, asylum seeker laws, a national dental scheme and gay marriage.

In recent times, the Greens have been trying to broaden their appeal and have identified rural voters and progressive business as new constituencies. Some of the jettisoned policies were major blockers to this strategy.

More fundamentally, the Greens have worked out what the major parties have known for at least two decades. People vote for values, policy details are a secondary consideration.

Policy is important in substantiating these values and is obviously important in the way it affects people's lives after the election. But it is the values behind the candidates and parties, not their policies, that are the primary drivers of voter decision-making.

Dropping or repositioning the more contentious details of its policy platform allows the Greens to get a clearer run on values-based campaigning.

However, while the mainstream campaign playbook suggests the new policy stand will be helpful to their electoral efforts, it does carry some significant risks. This is because the Greens are not a mainstream party appealing to voters in the centre.

While it suits supporters and critics of the Greens to say otherwise, the new policy positions announced by the Greens are significant. The party has changed its position on support for a freeze on Commonwealth funding for private schools, an abolition of the 30 per cent private health insurance rebate, the introduction of death duties and a 50 per cent income tax rate for those earning over $1 million.

Sure these policies draw a lot of criticism. But the critics are never going to vote for the Greens.

Meanwhile, would-be Green voters will now find it harder to distinguish between the Greens and other parties of the left. More idealistic voters will be tempted by the less-compromised alternatives on offer.

Here the demise of the Australian Democrats looms large. The Democrats adopted mainstream policies in an attempt to straddle a broader constituency. This caused huge divisions among party members and allowed their voter base to be lured back to the major parties or to the stronger positions being taken by the Greens at that time.

The Greens have stronger support in the environment movement than the Democrats ever did and this should make them more resilient. Nonetheless, the Greens have a narrow path to navigate and will now face more pressure from other parties of the far left.

At the same time, two other big short-term challenges loom.

The recent decline in the Green vote coincides with the retirement of Bob Brown. For all her policy smarts and political nous, Christine Milne does not inspire the same adoration among Green voters as Bob Brown did. Even for would-be Green voters the leader is a very important factor.

The second challenge is that most voters think there is a strong chance there could be a change of government at the 2013 election.

Cynicism with the major parties may be high, but when the leadership of the nation is at stake it will be hard for the Greens to cut through and voters will gravitate back to the major parties.

Nicholas Reece is a public policy fellow at Melbourne University's Centre for Public Policy and a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Julia Gillard and then premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

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