Labor is gripped by a new bout of soul-searching as the party struggles to understand how it lost two inner-city Sydney seats to the Greens and failed to take two more off the Nationals on the far north coast of NSW.
So concerned are party figures about losing seats to the Greens in Sydney and Melbourne that the party’s future viability as a political force is being openly questioned.
Sam Crosby, who heads the McKell Institute, urged the party to rethink its strategy to combat the Greens and lashed Labor’s lack of policy development and flaws in campaign strategy. The Greens, left “unchecked”, could destroy Labor, he said.
“I think the Greens are a cancer on democracy,” Mr Crosby will tell the Fabian Society tonight. “They permeate the skeleton and spread from there. If left unchecked, they will eventually kill the host. They are the ultimate populists. They’re charlatans.”
Darcy Byrne, the former mayor of Leichhardt in Sydney who contested preselection for the seat of Balmain, said Labor was facing a “lethal” threat from the Greens and if not addressed, the party’s future was in doubt.
“It’s time we were brutally honest with ourselves about the lethal threat the Greens pose to our party,” Mr Byrne told The Australian. “They are winning seats in upper and lower houses, at state and federal elections in the city, and now in the country. A left-of-centre party which loses its Left flank is in danger of falling apart.
“We will either defeat the Greens or fall into the poisonous position of relying on their support to form coalition governments, an idea that would have the Liberals salivating. “If we continue to float along allowing the Liberals and Greens to wedge us simultaneously on issue after issue, we may find ourselves cast adrift from government altogether.”
Labor insiders fear the seat of Newtown, where the party was thrashed, has been lost to the Greens forever. The Greens received 46.4 per cent of the vote to Labor’s 30.5 per cent.
Balmain, the birthplace of Labor in 1891, is complicated by a strong Liberal showing, but the party is deeply troubled at losing it again to the Greens’ Jamie Parker.
That Labor failed to win Ballina from the Nationals, where internal polling showed it was ahead, has also concerned many in the party. Labor came third in Ballina, as it did in Lismore, behind the Greens and the Nationals. Counting last night indicated the Nationals may yet retain Lismore.
ALP strategists argue that the campaign against electricity privatisation had little resonance in the inner city. Some doubt Labor can match the Greens’ on-the-ground campaigning and domination of social media. Others say the “light green” approach won’t work; Labor needs to focus on its own brand.
John Graham, NSW Labor’s assistant secretary, conceded the party failed to attract “many progressive voters” at the election and it needed to invest in developing a new policy agenda to win them over.
“This is what a 34 per cent statewide primary vote looks like,” Mr Graham told The Australian.
“We are still missing many progressive voters from our electoral coalition. We won’t get them back without a bold, broad, positive agenda that engages their hopes and their imagination. That is possible with Luke Foley as leader, crafting that program over the next four years in the tradition of (Neville) Wran and (Bob) Carr.”
Linda Scott, a City of Sydney councillor, said the loss of Balmain and Newtown “sent a strong message that we must change”. Ms Scott said Labor must embrace internal reform and challenge Greens policies more vigorously.
“On election day, I had people saying they wouldn’t vote Labor because of Eddie Obeid. We must reform the rules of Labor to allow our movement to be more democratic and transparent, and better include the voices of young people in decision-making for the future.”
“In the inner city, the Greens campaigned almost solely in opposition to inner-city infrastructure, such as the creation of new roads and the existing Sydney airport. By focusing on a negative agenda, the Greens failed to reveal policies for a costed vision for the future.”
Last night, Mr Crosby said Labor’s policy development in the lead up to the election was defective and this was where the party should focus, not on reforming its internal structure.
“Good policy is just as effective against the Greens as it is against the Liberals. But for four years, unfortunately, that’s been where we’ve fallen down. The Labor Party has chronically underinvested in its policy development.
“In health, the opposition was largely silent for the first 3½ years. In public transport, we lacked a costed (and) detailed plan that explained how the Labor Party would combat every Sydneysider’s primary frustration — traffic congestion.”