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Labor Vs. The Greens: How Their Ever-Increasing Pettiness Played Out In 2016

Unpacking the salty, salty relationship between Australia's two biggest progressive parties.

Ah, Labor and the Greens. The great nemeses of Australian politics.

The often salty relationship between the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Australian Greens was destined to turn sour in an election year such as this. Elections, sadly, seem to drive the two parties to progressive mortal combat, and 2016 was a doozy.

For one, it was the first election since the demise of the Labor-Greens-Independents government of 2010-2013, with its many hurt feelings and pointed fingers. Burned by the loss of 2013 and keen to distance the ALP from the idea of another ~scary~ Labor-Greens coalition, Shorten was adamant that it would not happen again.

For another, this was the first election in which the Greens looked poised to strike in a number of inner-city seats where their vote had been steadily growing over a number of years.

But could anyone have predicted it would get quite as bad as it did? From social media spitefulness to wasteful billboards to counter-productive preference deals, it wasn’t a pretty sight for progressive politics in 2016.

And it doesn’t bode well for 2017 either.

The Year Of Pettiness

As 2016 kicked off, a billboard stood beside Victoria Road, Sydney, reminding drivers that the Greens had voted with the Liberal Party. Twice.

The billboard was crowdfunded by Labor senator Sam Dastyari.

A pre-scandal Dastyari set the tone for an exasperating year of the two parties slinging mud, throwing shade and trying to score political points off one another… especially when it came to instances of voting with the Liberal Party.

One vote with the Liberals = one point in this Labor-Greens game that no one seems to care about as much as they do!

For those playing at home, you can see who votes together here. No matter which Liberal Senator you pick, the Greens vote with them the least of any party.

Though it wasn’t the last time the parties would invest money in a billboard primarily aimed at slandering the other in 2016. The Greens would go on to put up their own cheeky billboards right next to Labor’s in marginal Greens-Labor seats.

Labor meanwhile would put up billboards in the same seats specifically to warn locals of the “Greens Liberal deal”, which, while anticipated by Labor, never actually came to be.

Nice.

Senate Voting Reform: A Lover’s Tiff

The stage was set for a very bitter election before the thing was even bloody called.

The Greens sided with the Liberal Party in their attempt to abolish senate group voting tickets and let voters decide their own preferences. Despite electoral reform being one of the Greens’ political priorities since 2004, Labor cried bloody murder, claiming the Greens were handing the Liberals the keys to a senate majority and destroying democracy in the process (Literally: Labor’s Doug Cameron said the Greens were, along with the Liberals, “at one in destroying democracy in this country”).

The all-night filibuster in Parliament during the senate voting reform debate was a precursor to the electoral battle that followed. Things got nasty. And not just between the major parties.

Labor Senators used some of their allocated debating time to pre-emptively attack the Greens for their anticipated electoral strategy: campaigning in seats where people might want to vote for the Greens. Senator Penny Wong argued:

“I would like to ask the Greens this: tell me why progressive politics in this country would be better for having Tanya Plibersek and Anthony Albanese out of the Parliament. How is that progressive politics? I will not be campaigning for that. I will be campaigning to get some of the Liberal Party and the National Party out of the parliament. That is what we do. But, no, you campaign to get Labor people out of the parliament.”

It’s not really clear how that relates to senate voting reform.

To be fair to Labor, the Greens would end up campaigning hard in Labor Left’s seats, which does impact the dynamic in the Labor partyroom. To be fair to the Greens, they would not discriminate; they also campaigned hard in the Labor Right seats (remember David Feeney?) and one Liberal seat.

No moment could better sum up the schoolyard-level bullying that 2016 Labor-Greens relations descended into (or the absurdity of Australian politics) than Senator Stephen Conroy’s mean-spirited mockery of Richard Di Natale’s ill-considered GQ feature and photoshoot, while Labor senators cackled like the hyenas from The Lion King in the background:

The misuse of marriage equality in this late night senate voting reform reform debate was truly a dark moment in left pettiness. During the course of the marathon sitting, crossbenchers attempted to debate legislation on issues that might tickle the Greens or the Government’s fancy, thereby delaying senate voting reform.

After the Greens voted down a move to bring on debate on a same-sex marriage, Labor social media lit up with short, intentionally-misleading jabs about the Greens voting against marriage equality.

Onya Tanya. The double underline is especially effective.

Sadly, other parts of the left acted no better, with a weird, petty little analogy appearing on Reddit and Imgur comparing Penny Wong’s undoubtedly genuine desire for marriage equality to ordering pasta in a restaurant.

View post on imgur.com

And so in what was already a tough year for marriage equality advocates in Australia, the issue became a political football in Labor and the Greens’ voting reform squabble.

The Election

Despite finding themselves on the same page against much of the Liberal Government’s agenda, Labor and the Greens were vicious to one another throughout the painfully long election campaign.

Labor, after swearing they weren’t going to form government with the Greens, were desperate not to lose any seats to them. The Greens were pretty keen to win some of those in the inner-city Labor seats (Batman, Wills, Melbourne Ports, Grayndler) they’d been eyeing off these past few years.

~Conflict~.

There were embarrassing moments for both parties in the campaign (undeclared houses and underpaid nannies), but the main groups slamming these gaffes weren’t the Liberals, it was Labor and the Greens themselves.

Greens leader Di Natale continually repeated his favourite line, “the Coles and Woolies of Australian politics”, lumping Labor and the Liberals together as if the main difference between them was who had cheaper milk (um, Labor is totally the Coles though).

The worst of it played out in embarrassing, counterproductive smear campaigns about deals with the Liberal Party. The only thing worse than voting with the Liberals, apparently, is dealing with them. Despite the fact both sides were seemingly willing to do it.

There were more billboards — and flyers! — from Labor about a hypothetical Greens-Liberal deal. Labor ended up doing the dirty Liberal deal dance themselves instead, and when the cards fell where they did, the Greens had the gall to act outraged and holier-than-thou about something they themselves were considering.

Labor Greens 1

Labor Greens 2

ARGHHHHHHH.

But it wasn’t just the alleged Labor/Greens preference deal with the Liberals that got petty. In the seat of Banks in NSW, Labor put Family First ahead of the Greens. In Melbourne Ports, a three-way race where it actually mattered,  sitting Labor MP Michael Danby put the Liberals ahead of the Greens. Um, remind me what is the point of the Labor Party again?

Meme Wars

It would be remiss not to mention social media specifically. The Greens and Labor Facebook worlds were a festival of spite in 2016. We had meme wars conducted by actual real life politicians’ Facebook pages.

For example, this:

Got turned into this:

But a lot of the action lay outside the official party channels.  Greens Taking Credit for Things, a page mocking the Greens for celebrating political successes on their own Facebook page, seemed to exist primarily for the entertainment of young Labor hacks. And in the left-leaning statuses popping up on the newsfeeds of ex-student politicians like me, the Labor-Greens insults at times seemed to dwarf ill-will toward the Liberal Party.

So What’s Up In The Year Ahead?

For many unaligned progressives, watching Labor and the Greens tear each other down is like having two good friends who dated for a while but broke up and now can’t be in the same room. But you’d still like to be sort of friends with them both, or at the very least not have every single social gathering ruined.

Guys please. You’re just making each other look bad. And there’s really no good reason for things to be this way. Unlike in the US or the UK, our preferential system of voting means progressives in Australia don’t have to choose between voting for the Greens and voting in a way that prevents the election of the conservative party (thanks Dennis the Election Koala).

Well, the left now has some time ahead of it in the oppositional wilderness (three years at least… probably. Maybe) to sit and think about what they have done.

They may not like to admit it, but the parties have a great deal in common, this year and every year. To differing extents, they both care about inequality, workers rights, the environment, education, healthcare, marriage rights, negative gearing… the list goes on.

There are obviously very important points where Labor and the Greens differ, but on the whole, many of their supporters share similar values and work towards a similar end-goal: they just have a different strategy of going about it (or just one party recruited them first). The tribalism and the mud-slinging and the warfare make it easy to forget the common goals, and force the left into two tightly-secured, antagonistic echo chambers.

Ideally, they could take a leaf out of the ACT Labor-Greens book. Or the New Zealand Labor-Greens book. Or the Tasmanian Labor-Greens book. There are so many good books.

At the state level, ACT Labor and the ACT Greens have just formed government together, showing their federal colleagues that it is still possible in 2016 for the pair to be “one big happy parliamentary family”.

It doesn’t look promising on a national level though. The ALP was adamant that a federal Labor-Green government would not be happening. But the two parties can, did and should work together again.

Until Labor stops being salty that the Greens are showing them up to their progressive voter base, and until the Greens start being slightly more sympathetic to the role Labor has to play in actually winning government, the left will keep fighting itself. Clearly the next election will still involve battles in those Labor-Greens marginal seats (and maybe a few more), but if the parties could find a way to fight these on policy rather than on whom is more of a secret Liberal of the two, that would be a start.

Was it really only six years ago that Julia Gillard formed a minority government with the Greens? It feels like a lifetime. I’m trying to imagine Di Natale and Shorten standing side-by-side, shaking hands, forced smiles on their faces, after the next election. Based on what we saw in 2016, that doesn’t seem likely to happen unless we start seeing something change.

Rachel Withers is an Australian political junkie living in New York City. She blogs about women and politics at anastywomansblog.wordpress.com, and tweets when she gets upset at @rachelrwithers.