Running the numbers: Honi Soit meets Antony Green

The know-it-all guru of Australian politics was created through mere coincidence, writes Dominic Wilcox.

Antony Green, numbers man.

Antony Green is a Government student’s idol: the man who fronts the ABC’s election coverage and consistently predicts the results long before anyone else. His groundbreaking election model, as well as his encyclopedic knowledge of all things political, has given him cult status among anyone with even a passing interest in politics. Yet when I speak to Green, I’m greeted by a reluctant hero whose interest in politics is more a coincidence than a lifelong passion.

Green first came to the University of Sydney to complete a degree in Maths and Computer Science. The son of English migrants, it was seen as a field in which he could easily find work. His family wasn’t interested in politics, and while studying here he was only concerned with completing university and entering the workforce. He admits to having very little interest in the student politics scene, which was at that point dominated by a young Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.

His interest was sparked, however, when working in mathematics, by the election of the Hawke Labor Government in 1983. Green says he was fascinated by the intersection of economics and politics during this period, and this led him to return to Sydney University to complete an Economics degree, majoring in politics. Although he enjoyed his studies in Economics, Green admits that the discipline has its limitations.

“Economics ignores power relationships,” he says. While it might lay claim to being objective, Green believes that “economics automatically has a bias”. When I mention that perhaps his belief is more consistent with that of the Department of Political Economy at Sydney University, he agrees. The split between Economics and Political Economy is, according to Green, about “breaking the connection between price and value”. He believes that it is impossible to separate economics from the values which form its context.

Antony Green, numbers man.

This interest in context also informs Green’s view of politics, which he sees as being heavily reliant on history. “You can’t look at an election without looking at the history”, he tells me. As well as his work on current and upcoming elections, Green is also compiling a history of NSW elections for the State Library. Combine this with his work in mathematical election models, and it becomes clear that Green’s real interests lie not in political debate, but in the context and operation of the electoral landscape.

As a result, he is a strong advocate for electoral reform, and he nominates the abolishment of compulsory preferential voting as most important. “I see no reason why voters should be forced to choose a major party,” he says. “Major parties should be forced to deal with minor parties.”

But as for policy debate, Green steers clear. “I don’t want to get involved in politics. I couldn’t be bothered”. Nonetheless, I suggest, he surely must have his own political beliefs? Is it sometimes difficult to remain objective? He confesses that sometimes this is the case, but points out that his role is simply to run a computer model—he doesn’t participate in policy debate. Talking to Green, I get the impression that his interest in politics is in fact just a culmination of his interests in mathematics, history, and economics.

Although he may have found his niche through a happy accident brought about by his other interests, it is difficult to deny Green is a bloody good political analyst. There have been reports he was approached by a group of Labor politicians before the NSW election and asked how they could possibly save their seats. Green’s answer: they didn’t have a chance. With this in mind, I ask Green whether he thinks NSW Labor has a future after their comprehensive 2011 election defeat.

Once again, he brings us back to history.

“In 1996 after Keating’s defeat, Bob Carr led the only Labor Government in the country,” he says. “You wouldn’t have thought that they could come back”. And yet they did. According to Green, the current unpopularity of Labor both at a federal and state level is just a part of the electoral cycle—it doesn’t signify any kind of paradigm shift towards conservatism. While he concedes that the Labor party’s support is being eroded by the Greens, he sees the threat of the Greens as overrated.

“The Greens are here to stay”, he says. “But everyone who is going to vote for the Greens already is.” He believes the reason for the plateau in support for the Greens is due to a “fundamental philosophical problem”: while the Labor party believes in using the benefits of economic growth to redistribute wealth, the Greens, another re-distributive party of the Left, is opposed to economic growth due to its environmental impacts. The challenge for the Greens then, according to Green, is to articulate how they will redistribute wealth without economic growth.

The subject of third parties brings us to the phenomenon that is Katter’s Australian Party (KAP), a rural-based protectionist party making inroads in Queensland, largely thanks to its eccentric namesake, the federal independent Bob Katter (for the most awkward minute of your life, look up the video of their flash-mob campaign launch). Green believes that the KAP actually has a chance of picking up a few seats at the upcoming Queensland election, due largely to the merger of the Liberal/National Party which has alienated many previous National voters in regional seats.

This, Green believes, is a difficulty the LNP will face at the QLD election. Its leader, Campbell Newman, is struggling to shake off accusations he is too focused on Brisbane. Nevertheless, Green predicts an easy LNP victory. “It will be very difficult for Labor to win”, he says. “They’ve governed for the past 20 of 22 years and have broken a number of promises since the last election.” But what about the possibility of an LNP win without Newman taking the seat of Ashgrove? Green believes this is quite possible. “The LNP is running a very high-risk campaign.”

Given Green’s immense knowledge-base and regular television appearances, it is not surprising that since the early 90s he has developed a cult-celebrity status. Given this, I ask whether it is time for Antony! The Musical. He laughs: “I don’t think I’m that interesting a person.”

Despite his public persona, the real Antony Green is something of a reluctant hero. “The worst thing about television”, he says, “is that people think they know you and can intrude. It’s quite irritating…I wish they’d go away sometimes.”

Unfortunately for Green, it doesn’t look like the admirers will be going away any time soon.