The Greens face a historic threat

The two years ahead will be a critical test for the party built up over an unprecedented period of economic prosperity.

How rich we all felt back in 2007, when barbeque banter was about making a motza in the property market and when the clouds of the sub-prime crisis were still far away.

During the 11 years of the Howard government, GDP per capita had risen 30 per cent in real terms and when added to the wealth effect of rising house prices that made middle-Australians feel wealthier than they had ever done.

And what happens to a nation in such affluent times? Often there will be an outbreak of 'values'.

Urgh. Values. Nasty smelling things that wear sandals and kaftans, sing kum-ba-yah, gorge themselves on tempeh burgers and attend lectures on China's refusal to provide birthing pools to pandas.

And so it was in 2007 when upper-middle class groups, no longer wealthier than the 'cashed-up bogans' making hay from the housing and mining booms, found affirmation of their natural superiority by suddenly caring about things non-economic.

The greatest manifestation of this trend was in the sudden jump in support for the party most inclined towards foregrounding 'values' in its policies -- the Greens.

Then-leader Bob Brown was able to wax lyrical on a range of topics -- global warming, refugees, nuclear arms, whaling, panda-birthing (okay, not that last one) -- and an unprecedented number of Australians listened.

It was if inner-city Australians put down their collective lattes, wagged fingers at one another, and said "you know what? I think I'm rich enough to care".

Though perhaps not the richest members of the communities they live in, Greens voters do tend to live in wealthier, inner-city areas. As the ABC's election guru Antony Green has pointed out, they are more likely to be part of what former Howard government minister David Kemp identified as the 'knowledge elite' -- or, as some sociologists put it, they possess high levels of 'cultural capital' even if they are not 'rich' per se. 

And so it was that as the finger-wagging commenced, the Greens' primary vote, which had fallen as low as 3 per cent in a September 2007 Newspoll, bounced up to 7.79 per cent on election day, November 24, 2007.

The Rudd-slide election was a reaffirmation of 'values' alongside hard economic management -- the 'greatest moral challenge of our time', the 'sorry' speech, the 'education revolution' and so on  -- and we will never know just what kind of economic manager Rudd would have made in 'normal times'. By October 2008, financial markets were tumbling and unprecedented measures were taken around the world to prevent a recession becoming a depression.

In Australia, though, the sun never really stopped shining. The buoyant Australian economy was given a boost by the Rudd stimulus plan, and an even bigger boost by China's stimulus-led demand for our minerals and energy.

And that meant that although many people lost their jobs or went part-time, en masse Australians were still rich enough to care about a range of 'values-driven’ issues. The Greens’ primary vote figure in Newspoll jumped after Rudd's election from 8 per cent to 12 per cent and oscillated around the 10 per cent mark through Labor's first term (see chart below).

Graph for The Greens face a historic threat

When the Greens won the Senate balance of power at the 2010 election, there was a new spring in Bob Brown's step and he often remarked at media conferences that the Greens "aren't here to keep the bastards honest. We're here to replace them".

Brown and his team played hard-ball with the Gillard government over carbon pricing, and as Labor's polling figures headed south, the Greens basked in warmth of anthropogenic climate change... or rather, their plan to avoid it. Their primary vote hit its high-water mark (no pun intended) of 14 per cent between the formation of the Gillard government and February 2011.

It then dropped back to around 10 per cent through the acrimonious last year of the Gillard government -- a year in which anti-carbon-pricing hysteria reached a deafening crescendo.

That led some critics to assert that the Greens, like the Democrats after their divisive GST conflict in 1998, would fade away. Shortly before the 2013 election, one national commentator suggested they were a "brand with fading appeal" and noted that Labor saw them, after Bob Brown's retirement, as "a cult of personality with no personality".

And yet here were are a year into the Abbott government with Newspoll showing Labor on a primary vote of 35 per cent and the Greens back at that high-tide 14 per cent -- though that number is likely to be an outlier as the latest Roy Morgan poll puts them at only 10.5 per cent.

Using preference flows from the last election, that would return Labor to power on a two-party-preferred vote of 52 per cent to 48 per cent.

The question is, what will happen in the two years ahead? It is obviously too simplistic to say that as mining- and housing-boom affluence abates voters will junk the Greens and go back to voting with their hip-pockets.

However it will be a crucial test for the party. Bob Brown built the party up over a period of unprecedented economic prosperity, but we now face a period in which even the most bullish envisage some fall in living standards.

In particular, the inequality caused by the Abbott welfare reforms will be a big test. Do the disenfranchised unemployed vote for the Greens to protest the failure of the big parties to manage the economy successfully, or do they see Labor, and its left faction in particular, as being their best bet? We shall see.

And do the stereotypical inner-city types really care about the environment, or the social issues pursued by the Greens, when their livelihoods are threatened by economic stagnation or, more directly, by Abbott's plans for further fiscal contraction? Again, we will see.

Australian voters have never known a period of real adversity while the Greens have been on the national stage. We will find out in the next two years whether straitened times are the making or the breaking of the third largest party in Canberra.