Two moments that will change Australia

Two pivotal moments will be reached this week that will give us powerful indicators of Australia's near- and medium-term political future.

The two events are: the success or failure of the federal legislation to split Telstra and, at a state level, the success or otherwise of the Greens in Victoria. One should not be allowed to overshadow the other, because both have far-reaching consequences.

When parliament rises late tomorrow, if Julia Gillard has not personally sealed a deal with Senator Nick Xenophon and, perhaps more easily, with Senator Steve Fielding to structurally separate Telstra, the Labor government will be greatly weakened.

Labor scraped home in the August poll due in no small part to the popularity of the NBN with voters – and when it came to the crunch, with independents Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott.

It's interesting to note today that other media are quoting yesterday's CEDA-Business Spectator Big Issues survey finding – that 60 per cent of those surveyed disagreed that the NBN was a worthwhile use of public funds – without noting that those are the view of business leaders, not the mass voting public.

The government should take the mood of the business community very seriously – and the survey shows that those who understand the tension in any kind of investment between cost and benefit, think the NBN is too costly for the benefits promised.

But democracy does not privilege the views of the most able or best trained minds. It gives voice to millions of Australians for whom "$43 billion" is an abstract figure. The Coalition has converted it into "43 training hospitals", and perhaps it should have made many more such comparisons.

Ultimately though, Australian voters still want the big shiny high-speed network, regardless of how poorly Senator Stephen Conroy has sold it to Australia's political and business classes.

And that is why, if Labor fails to get the legislation across the line tomorrow, the mandate it won on August 21 to deliver the NBN will begin to crumble. In 2011, pushed by Senator Xenophon and the Coalition, it would have to subject the NBN to real scrutiny, and would be forced to explain why other cheaper – potentially more 'optimal' – cost-benefit scenarios have been ignored. Then, all voters would get time to rethink the network.

It is still likely that the considerable negotiating skills of Julia Gillard will win the day, by handing long-time moral-crusader Nick Xenophon yet another moral victory. It would have to include the rushed release of at least some part of the 400 page NBN business case, and agreement to a very broad cost benefit analysis. Labor, and the NBN, could survive both.

If Gillard fails in this task, her minority government will be in deep trouble – for as long as it lasts, the precedent will have been set, that policies based on its strongest electoral mandates can be thwarted.

But that is not all that is occupying the PM's mind this week. The other pivotal moment for Labor, and for the political landscape more generally, will begin with exit polling data from Saturday's Victorian election.

This week should have been all about Victoria. It should have been the week in which a nation's eyes turned to watch a relentless Green tide sweep across inner-city Melbourne and destabilise major party strongholds in the suburbs and regions.

Instead, the greater polity outside Victoria will tune-out from the tit-for-tat promises on education, health and transport and go back to watching the fire-works in Canberra over the NBN. Political strategists, by contrast, will be on the edge of their chairs.

Why this disconnect between mainstream voters and political operatives?

Because for 'average' voters, if I may use this term, the Victorian race became suddenly less interesting last week, when Victorian opposition leader Ted Baillieu ruled out any preferences deals with the Greens. The national litmus test for the rising power of the Greens as 'major party' was effectively cancelled.

Consider the far reaching effect of this development.

The ascent of the Greens was beginning to look like a smooth exponential chart depicting 'electoral warming'. The major parties, it seemed, had little time left to prevent them plunging Australia's cherished two-party establishment into chaos.

The big Greens push began seven months ago when Tasmanian Greens made history by taking their first ever ministry in David Bartlett's Labor minority government.

They took over a second ministry two weeks ago – just a fortnight after a historic 'peace deal' had been struck in Tasmania between the Labor-Greens government, Wilderness Society and forestry industry for a phasing out of native forest logging.

Federally, after picking up their first ever lower house seat at a general election and growing their senate numbers from five to nine (from July next year) , the Greens have kept up an impressive stream of issues to keep Canberra's 24 hour news cycle well fed.

Their gamut has been wide, from sponsoring the first parliamentary debate on the war in Afghanistan, to calling for the regulation of interest rates, banning of ATM and other bank fees, clamps on executive salaries, support for gay marriage, an inquiry into the future for koalas, a strengthening of CO2 emission reduction targets ahead of the Cancun climate change summit, and agitating to prevent Woodside building its Browse gas field processing plant at James Price Point in the Kimberly.

Phew. They pump out the issues faster than a dozen Barnaby Joyces.

The next logical step in the ascent of the Greens was to have been a giant stamp of approval from Victorian voters who, after seeing what kind of 'political innovation' Bob Brown and friends were delivering in Canberra, decided to set up the same kind of government in Victoria.

But it was not to be. The tragedy for Greens supporters is that there may well be a record 'Greens 1' vote delivered in Victoria on Saturday, but without Liberal Party preferences this just won't translate into lower house seats as hoped. Instead of another state being washed clean by the Green tide, Victorian Greens will have four years of being 'also rans' before they can mount another challenge to two-party politics in that state – the smooth exponential curve has been broken.

Now, look at the same election through the eyes of Labor and Coalition strategists. To them the important point will be the growth in the Greens primary vote – some quick calculations will reveal how many seats the Greens would have taken, with Liberal preferences. The most recent Galaxy poll showed the Greens taking 16 per cent of the primary vote, mostly by coaxing voters away from Labor, which is now far from a certainty to remain in power.

Saturday's vote will tell us much about whether Ted Baillieu's interruption in the rise of the Greens nationally is a temporary glitch or a shoring up of the dominance of Australian politics by Labor and the Coalition.

Wayne Swan is not taking anything for granted. In a speech to be delivered in Canberra today, reproduced in The Australian, he has warned voters off the Greens, saying that "Too many of the new generation of activists, fired up like I was in 1974 by the idea of a fairer society, are joining the Greens. Our base is fracturing … [but] Our passion is not for ranting, but for reform … Joining Labor doesn't mean signing up to unworldly idealism leading to inevitable disillusion."

Saturday's result will tell us the level of success the Greens can have without major-party preference.

Add that to the outcome of the NBN wrangling today and tomorrow, and we could wake up to a very different political landscape on Monday morning.

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