NOTE: This is an old article that has had various minor data updates and a short postscript added in May 2013. The basic conclusions are not affected.
Advance summary of this article
1. Recent election and polling results show the Australian Greens are clearly struggling.
2. Furthermore, the new leader, Senator Christine Milne, has polled poor personal approval figures.
3. Attempts to connect the slump in Green fortunes with leadership transition are inconclusive for many reasons.
4. Nonetheless, the change of leadership has at least not stopped a flow of votes from the Greens back to Labor.
5. The current situation is consistent with Milne's track record as a poor electoral performer when leader of the Tasmanian Greens in the 1990s.
One of the hottest topics of discussion on election- and poll- watching websites this year has been the poor performance of the Greens. Not only has the party's federal polling been less than stellar, but the party's state-level election results have been very poor. They failed to win the Melbourne state by-election, lost three of their four seats and suffered a 4.9% swing against them in the ACT, and were thumped in the NSW council elections. In Tasmania, the party's polling, when interpreted correctly, is running in the mid to high teens, suggesting a swing of 4-5 points against the party's 2010 election high. (Based on past scheduling a new EMRS poll for Tasmania should arrive within a week or so and I will have a post up interpreting it as soon as I can after it does.)
Many views on why the party is struggling exist. There are many policy-based explanations (with asylum-seeker policy perhaps the most commonly advanced) and this article will not be examining their merits. What this article does examine is what the polling evidence tells us about the widespread idea that leadership transition from Bob Brown to Christine Milne is a cause of major problems for the party.
A History of Green Leader Approval Ratings
To my knowledge, very few opinion polls have ever canvassed the approval rating of a Greens leader in Australia at either federal or state level. Recent Essential Report findings on Christine Milne and Bob Brown are the first such federal examples I have seen (the one involving Brown does not quite count, for reasons I'll explain shortly.)
However, a small number of Greens leader approval ratings have been measured in Tasmania at state level by Newspoll, and it is worth posting these for comparison with the federal readings we are now starting to see, and for historical interest. It is especially useful that the two most-polled leaders were the two between whom a federal leadership transition has recently happened.
(For those unfamiliar with Tasmanian politics during this time, from 1989-1992 Tasmania had a Labor minority government with Greens support. This initially functioned through a signed Accord, which was disabled after little over a year, followed by a period of informal support and ultimately instability. A majority Liberal government ruled from 1992-1996, losing its majority after one term and then continuing until 1998 in minority with very limited Green support. In 1998 changes to the size of Parliament combined with a poor vote reduced the Greens to one member, but they were back up to four in 2002. Labor governed in majority from 1998-2010 and then in formal coalition with the Greens from 2010 onwards. It is extremely likely that the Liberals will win the next election outright.)
(Note also that in the first few years of the above period, the Greens were not a party but were the five "Green Independents". There is no reading for 2002 when Peg Putt was the sole Tasmanian Green going into the election.)
A few things are notable from the ratings above:
1. Green leaders can poll very good or very bad netsats just like leaders of any other party.
2. Even when she had been leader for several years, Christine Milne generated higher undecided ratings than other Green leaders generally.
3. While all of Milne's net Tasmanian ratings were slightly negative, none of them were awful. Even after a turbulent period supporting the Rundle minority government (which went to an election complaining that the Greens had too much power) Milne's ratings were better than most of Brown's.
These now are the two Essential readings to date:
If anyone has seen any other poll that canvassed the approval rating of a Green leader, either state or federal, please send me the details. (Note that approval rating and preferred-premier score are not the same thing at all; I am not interested in the latter, which has been regularly polled by EMRS among others.)
What Do The Essential Results Tell Us?
It may seem the netsat comparison between the two Essential results is extremely unflattering to Christine Milne, but I believe that the comparison is bogus, because of the form and the circumstances of the Brown question. Voters were asked re Brown:
Last week Bob Brown resigned from Parliament and the leadership of
the Greens, after 16 years as a member of the Senate. Do you approve or
disapprove of the performance of Bob Brown over his 16 years in
When a politician is retiring it is normal that good things are said about them by former foes and that there is a generally positive tone in comments about their participation. I believe this would skew results in a positive direction compared to questions about how a leader is doing their job at a given time. Brown's +8 was not an "approval rating" as such, it was a "valedictory rating" and should not be judged on the same level. (Comments at the time claiming that Brown was more popular among Labor voters than Julia Gillard completely missed this point.)
Another problem with the form of the Brown question is that there may well be voters who believed that Brown's contribution had generally been positive, but who disapproved of Brown's form in the last few years. Or, but much less likely, the other way around.
That voters are unsure what to make of Senator Milne after half a year in the role is no great surprise. Australian voters are hardly as engaged with goings on in the Senate as Tasmanian voters are with the Greens' performance in the Tasmanian House of Assembly.
Nonetheless, Milne's negative early rating looks very unusual in the context of what I recently posted about Opposition Leader ratings . Opposition Leaders tend to enter office with a positive netsat and a high uncertain score, and in netsat terms it is usually all downhill from there. There is no instance in Australian polling history of an Opposition Leader having a netsat of -13 while 47% of the voters still had no opinion about them. Indeed, no first-term (that is, not a recycled ex-leader or ex-PM) Opposition Leader has had a netsat as bad as Milne's or worse while having a don't-know score above 22.
The nearest thing to a comparison that I can find are the very early ratings of Paul Keating. For instance Keating's very first rating as PM was a netsat of -21 with 37% undecided.
It might seem then that this rating is saying that Milne is a popularity dud who is headed for extremely bad ratings in the future, but I don't think that conclusion is yet justified. Firstly, Greens Leaders might well display a very different dynamic over time to Opposition Leaders. (Prime Ministers seem to also display the familiarity-breeds-contempt pattern, but to a weaker degree than for Opposition Leaders, and with a trivially small percentage of variation explained by it.)
The level of venom directed at the Greens in the current circumstances, and indeed any circumstances, is such that many of the 33% giving Milne the thumbs down would probably disapprove of any Greens leader, more or less immediately, simply because they were a Green. It may be that Milne's perception as a less polarising figure just means that while people have been slow to like her, the percentage of dislikers is kept under control. Beyond concern that voters have not immediately warmed to the new leader, there may not be that much to see in this poll result.
Recent Greens Primary Polling
Here are some batched averages of Greens primary vote polling from two pollsters that very frequently poll primary voting intention. (I've selected Newspoll and Morgan here mainly because of the number of polls they do and also because their results are most easily accessible in historical form.)
Number of polls included for that period is in brackets after the average primary vote. Morgan sample in a great variety of ways and I have simply lumped them together as it does not appear the method of sampling affects the measured Green vote.
The actual Green vote at the 2010 election in the House of Representatives was 11.8. What can be seen here is:
1. Both pollsters show the Greens polling especially strongly just after the 2010 election, and then dropping.
2. Newspoll shows the Greens dropping again in early 2012 compared with late 2011.
3. Newspoll recorded higher votes for the Greens than Morgan until the start of 2012, and since then their readings have been very similar.
4. Neither pollster shows the Green vote declining immediately on the introduction of Milne. In fact, both show a slight rise.
5. However, both pollsters are now showing worse results for the Greens in the last few months than at any time since well before the 2010 election.
The decline in the polled Greens vote by all pollsters from August onwards (it may even have started sooner) can be seen graphically in the latest Pollytrend. After coming off a slight post-election high the Greens spent a while oscillating around 11-12 but are now only around 10.
Where's The Bounce?
Leadership transition usually creates a bounce in a party's fortunes, whether that party is the Opposition or the Government. For major parties the average size of this bounce is about three points.
In the case of the Greens, the bounce on the appointment of Milne was at most half a point, and it came at a time when Pollytrend shows the Greens were trending upwards a little anyway, and there is no proof it had anything to do with Milne.
It would be expected that when a party has a relatively small vote to begin with, it would not get a large bounce on changing leaders. This applies especially when the party's following is idea-driven and when the leadership transition was consensual. Often a leadership bounce is exaggerated by the fact that the party's standing was depressed by the unpopularity of the outgoing leader before the outgoing leader was replaced. In this case Bob Brown just retired, essentially for reasons of age.
So I do not think the absence of a bounce to the Greens is a problem. What is a problem is that the party's vote has now clearly fallen since the new leader was installed. However, this has come at a time when the Labor Party has been resurgent in both primary vote and two-party preferred.
It is possible that, since the last election, outright losses of Green support have been masked at federal level by disenchanted Labor supporters parking their vote with the Greens. As Labor has re-energised, those voters have returned to the fold. Thus the present downturn may be nothing to do with the leader and, for that matter, nothing to do with the party.
Indeed, there is evidence to this effect in Essential's polling. The party's net satisfaction has improved from -30 in July to -24 now, and the proportion of voters thinking the party is too extreme is down by six points in the same period. What is notable here is that the biggest improvement on the extremism scale has come from Labor voters. In July the difference between the number of Labor voters thinking the party's policies were "too extreme" and the number thinking they "represent the views of many voters" was 23 points. It is now down to 5. This hardly suggests that the decline in Green votes is caused by the Greens being increasingly disliked by left-leaning voters. More likely, what is happening is that each party's support base is becoming happier with the other, but in the case of the Greens, some of their softer votes are actually migrating to Labor as a result.
The Ancient History of Senator Milne
I do not think national readers are all that familiar with the past track record of Senator Milne. There is a view that Milne is very experienced for the current situation and suited to it, because she has previously operated in hung parliament situations in the Tasmanian Parliament, during both the Field and Rundle years. And there is no doubt Milne is a tough operator on account of this experience (and indeed, she was before it, as the effective leader of a massive campaign against the proposed Wesley Vale pulp mill).
What is less well-known is that under Milne's leadership the party recorded two state results that were not flashy at all. In 1992, with Brown as leader, the party had suffered a predictable 3.9% swing following the collapse of the Field minority government (which was mainly triggered by conflict with the Greens over woodchip quotas). The new Liberal majority government made such a mess of its first term that it managed to cop a colossal 12.9% swing in the 1996 election, but far from picking up any of this the Greens under Milne went backwards by another two points. Then, in 1998, the electoral environment might have again seemed unfavorable after the collapse of another minority parliament, but the Greens had what should have been the major trump card of the major parties colluding against them to reduce their chances by altering the number of members per electorate. These were the ideal circumstances for a sympathy or protest vote but for all the maintain-your-rage antics by the Greens (or perhaps because of them?) their vote went backwards again, by another point. Thus it was that under Christine Milne the Tasmanian Greens recorded their worst two state election results ever.
I've long believed that the reason the Greens got no sympathy vote in 1998 (apart from mine) was that they didn't really deserve any. After trying very hard to maintain proportionality in the Hare-Clark system while also reducing the size of parliament, Liberal Premier Tony Rundle ultimately caved in to the Labor five-seat model because he was sick of the impact of the Greens' intended implied threats to bring down his government. This was connected to the Milne approach, which was eventually too "tough" for its own good, and while Milne is intelligent and often articulate on policy she can also be easily seen as shrill, hectoring, ideological and dogmatic.
But the history of Milne's ratings in Tasmania suggests that the public just had an ambivalent view of her. They don't see her as the polarising figure that some of those more closely following politics do; they don't really have a strong opinion of her one way or the other, and they might be just a bit less inclined to vote for the party under her than under a cult figure like Bob Brown or a skilled marketer like Nick McKim. It seems that when Milne is in charge, a certain kind of voter thinks she's OK, really, but they'd rather vote for Labor. And the federal picture at the moment is quite consistent with the idea that that is happening again.
Postscript (May 2013): Since this article was written the polled Green vote has continued to steadily decline; to the point that the Bludgertrack aggregator now projects it at only 8.9%. At the same time, the one polled rating for Christine Milne in this period was actually a slight improvement on her first as federal leader. Short of hoping for more gifts like the major parties' aborted support for increased electoral funding, it is not clear what the Greens can do to build their federal support ahead of the upcoming election.
As mentioned above the Pollytrend averages (Two-party preferred , primary) are very useful for getting a picture of where party polling is trending across large numbers of polls by different pollsters, rather than getting carried away with the ups and downs of individual polls. [Update added May 2013: Pollytrend is no longer being published frequently; I recommend instead Bludgertrack (view on right sidebar)]
A recent article at Poliquant (Update: this is no longer online) ties the Greens in to the idea of a "first term protest party" - first-term governments tend to generate high minor party votes, with past examples including the NDP and One Nation as well as the Greens. I agree that the Greens are a much more firmly established party than either of the other examples, and so the idea that they will suddenly collapse and disappear as others have done appears far-fetched. I am not sure whether their vote will eventually regress quite as far as the 7-8 point range as suggested by George, but I would already give them virtually no chance of matching their 2010 election result when the next election is held. If they can even hold their vote above 10 points at that poll, they will have done well in the circumstances. (The Poliquant article also discusses the common problem of pollsters overestimating the Green vote. For a while Newspoll seemed prone to this while Morgan did not, but lately they seem to have converged.)