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The Greens and the balance of power

By Richard Denniss - posted Monday, 20 August 2007

Malcolm King (see On Line Opinion) and I have a few things in common. For example, we both used to work for the Democrats and we both now like the Greens.

We also have a few differences though. While King left politics after his stint with the Democrats I now work for the Greens. And while he is sticking with the tired Democrat refrain of blaming the Greens for their demise, I think the Democrats’ biggest problem is that they refused to accept the consequences of their decisions to support the GST and oppose Natasha Stott Despoja.

Rather than wondering aloud about how the Greens might use balance of power, King would better use his time looking into how the Greens are currently using balance of power. The Greens have held balance of power in the upper house in Western Australia, Australia’s fastest growing state, since 2001. They currently share balance of power in the upper houses in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales.


In the past both of the Greens senators for Tasmania, Bob Brown and Christine Milne, held balance of power in the Tasmanian state parliament under Labor and Liberal Governments respectively. The Greens have, and do, use balance of power wisely.

It is important, however, to explain exactly how balance of power works. If the Greens pick up enough seats at the next election then they will be unable to block a budget, or any other piece of legislation, without the support of one of the major parties. That is, a minor party can only use their balance of power to block a Bill with the support of a major party. And the Greens' record is that they be even more scrupulous than other parties in maintaining supply.

The Greens have a long history of working constructively in all levels of Australian government, with 86 councillors, 15 state politicians and four federal parliamentarians. In the last 18 months the Greens have won their first seats in the Victorian and South Australian state parliaments.

King blames the Canberra press gallery for the Democrats lack of success at being heard. But is he really suggesting they are to blame for the Democrat’s inability to win any seats, in any state or federal elections, since 2002? Or is he suggesting that all the state press galleries are in on the conspiracy as well?

The growth in the support for the Greens began well before the recent upsurge in concern with climate change. The strong stance taken on the Tampa and the war in Iraq provided high profile evidence of the principles and values of the Greens. But the legislative and policy work of the Greens, at all levels of government, have helped build profile and broaden appeal.

The Greens and Democrats have many things in common. They often vote together in parliament and they often champion similar causes. Whether King believes it or not, the Greens often share the Democrats frustration about the difficulties of getting the media to pay attention to some of their policy initiatives. If the Democrats persist in blaming the Greens for their woes they are unlikely to implement strategies to improve their performance.


The Greens are travelling well at the moment, but success at this year’s election is far from inevitable. While climate change is finally attracting the attention it deserves, it is difficult for the Greens to inform voters about the extent of the differences between their climate change policies and those of the big parties. For example, while Labor’s support for ratifying Kyoto is a small step in the right direction, their refusal to set an emission target for 2020 or 2030 should be of deep concern for those who expect a new government will adopt a new direction.

It will be harder than necessary for the Greens to convert a growing vote into more parliamentarians if the Democrats, once again, direct their preferences to Family First ahead of the Greens as they did at the last federal election. The Greens have proposed to direct their preferences straight to the Democrats in exchange for the Democrats directing their preferences straight to the Greens. Lyn Allison refuses to commit to such a deal and Western Australian Senate candidate Erica Lewin has publicly refused to rule out preferencing Family First this year.

Malcolm King expresses concern that the Greens have received donations from organisations such as the CFMEU, but what all Australian voters should be concerned about is the way that the laws have been changed to help conceal who gives what to whom. The only reason that he is aware of the CFMEU donation is that the Greens have decided to declare the receipt of all donations above $1,500 within three months of receipt.

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About the Author

Dr Richard Denniss is Executive Director of The Australia Institute and an adjunct associate professor at the Crawford School of Economics and Government, Australian National University.

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Related Links
Senator Bob Brown
The Greens and Democrats - the untold story - On Line Opinion

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