ACT Greens at the crossroads

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Andrew Hughes, lecturer at the School of Management, Marketing and International Business at the ANU writes:

The Greens are now at the political crossroads they may have hoped that they would face, but would have thought impossible years ago: That is the right to be considered the third force in Australian politics.

With a primary vote that has rarely slipped below double digits in the last 12 months, even nudging the mid-teens at times, the Greens are riding a wave of strong brand connection with the marketplace.

The results from the 2010 Federal election show just where this market is found: Within the 15km ring from the CBD of most major cities.

In Canberra, this is no different. With four Green representatives in the Legislative Assembly, the ACT Greens really are the third force of ACT politics.

Yet at the moment they are still very much enjoying being the brand of demand from a large majority of the 18 to 24-year-old voters who want a connection with a left-leaning political product that appeals to the hot issues that resonate so loudly with Gen Y: Climate change and the environment, public transport, lobbying for a change in same-sex and euthanasia laws and direct action with a no compromises method.

By stunning coincidence these issues are all perfect wedge issues. Perfect for a campaign that is run on viral marketing tactics that achieve maximum effectiveness in the target markets with low cost as most of the awareness is generated from media sound bites. Most other brands in the market are still stumbling around these issues while the Greens have gone hard and long on them.

But where the Greens are weak, Labor and the Liberals are strong. The economy, governance, health, housing, education, policy formulation and development, municipal services, social and urban growth, and – yes – even roads are all key strengths of the major brands.

It is these issues that matter the most to the biggest slice of the market. There is a very good reason why over two thirds of the market voted for them, and that is they wanted those areas to be important to whoever governed.

And yet the Greens stagger in these areas like a baby taking their first steps. To be a viable alternative government, which surely the Greens want to be or else we need to wonder why it is they support Labor, they need to start pulling their socks up and get to work on the areas where the Coles and Woolies of Australian politics have the market to themselves.

Now is a good time. First target Labor. Why? ACT Labor is still recovering from the fallout from the Federal pre-selections for Canberra and Fraser. While Gai Brodtmann was always a good chance of winning, Andrew Leigh pulled off the Steven Bradbury of Australian politics and won when all others were too busy taking each other out to see the ANU economics professor sweep around from behind to take the win. Now the faction heavies are looking for some good ol’ fashioned payback to make amends for what happened.

So with the knives and guns out, Chief Minister Jon Stanhope has had no other choice but to stay on till early 2011 when Katy Gallagher finally takes the reins. Not that he has had a bad 2010. In fact he’s had some nice wins this year to the point where he could miss a sitting week or two and still look relaxed.

But this is where the Greens can take advantage of a brand that has reached the end of its life-cycle. To get five or more seats at the next election they need to take market share first from Labor, not the Liberals. It’s possible, too. If they steal the title of brand pioneers in some of Labor’s key strengths, such as public housing, health, education and even industrial relations, before Gallagher takes over from Stanhope they may just start to establish beachheads in these areas well before the next election.

But they must act now, and in areas that won’t stretch their own brand too much. The Labor brand will be strong by the time of the next election in 2012, being one of renewal, youth, energy and passion. The dynamic duo of Katy Gallagher and Andrew Barr appeal to a good cross section of the ACT market. The Greens will find it hard to take market share from the Labor brand of 2012. They need to take it from the Labor brand of 2010.

Their campaigning style needs to change, too. If they want to be taken seriously as a viable alternative government, then act like one. They need to show responsibility and maturity in areas where they do have some strengths, such as public transport and the environment. Yes, more buses, bike paths and green initiatives are needed in the ACT but Canberrans love their cars.

Road maintenance and development is a big part of the ACT Budget in 2010, least not because of the debacle that was and is the GDE development process, and yet the Greens still use the outdated approach to policy that one day we, too, will be like Amsterdam and all ride bicycles. Not the right approach when the majority of the market now spend one precious hour a day in a car going from A to B.

The choice for the Greens is either they can take the bike path to success and keep on hoping that eventually, because they are Green, more people will vote for them; or they can get on the highway and give winning power in 2012 a serious shake.

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