September 18 was not just the NSW Marrickville by-election, it was also the day of the Blue Moon Festival. All around the world Goths were celebrating. And there was a delicious moment in the mid-afternoon, on King Street, Newtown, at the northern end of the Marrickville electorate.
Sydney’s Goths had converged there: the dominant tones were black; hair was matted; skin pallid; piercings silver. Suddenly, a jangle of music sounding suspiciously like ABBA rang out across the street. Around the corner came a truck plastered with brightly coloured posters for the Labor Party candidate, Carmel Tebbutt. A voice on a megaphone yelled that there were only a few more hours to vote.
The truck was booed.
After the vote, polling booths in Newtown returned a clear majority of votes for the Greens. Australia Street, closest to the King Street hub, had 986 Green votes to 674 to Labor. It could (and would) be argued that the reason for the record Green vote in Marrickville (38.96 per cent) is that grunge urban counter cultures are out of synch with mainstream politics. Commentators are happy to describe Greens as Loony Left. Quentin Dempster on the ABC’s Stateline claimed that the Greens are to Labor what One Nation was to the Liberals.
Labor Party candidate, Carmel Tebbutt
None of this explains the vote. In fact, this inner city cluster of communities is often an indicator of broader political trends, and Labor needs to examine very closely why the postcodes 2042 (Newtown, Camperdown, Enmore) and 2048 (Stanmore) voted so determinedly for the Greens.
It has not been a sudden movement away from Labor. It began in 1995 after the No Aircraft Noise Party burst into life with the construction of Sydney Airport’s third runway. The Green vote built on this, growing at every election where there were local issues. And this is the heart of the problem: for many years the Labor Party stopped listening to local voices. There was, after all, no need. Success for aspirational politicians came from Sussex Street not from P&C meetings or protest groups.
Despite the dramatic appearance of Newtown’s Goths, they are not typical inner city residents. Newtown is now a desirable, even fashionable, address. Designer shops rub against older op-shops and specialists in bondage gear. Once, nearly all the boys of Stanmore’s Newington College came to school by train. Now it is not unusual for some to walk from their parents’ newly renovated homes.
However people will, if they can, live here for generations as waves of new residents pass over them. The closeness of Sydney University and the convenience of a major teaching hospital (Royal Prince Alfred) mean that this is a well-educated area. Bookshops do well here. The self conscious ethnic profile of the wider Marrickville community is not reflected in the northern part of the electorate. Postcodes 2042 and 2048 have 67 per cent of their residents born in Australia. The Sydney average is 61 per cent (click here for the stats.
Over all, the proportion of immigrants in Marrickville is shrinking. That alone is a reason for a changing political mainstream. Traditionally politicians have cultivated ‘ethnic community leaders’ in the hope that they will direct their people how to vote. But second and third generation Australians are more likely to make up their own minds.
Marrickville has changed so much since I moved in 25 years ago. Then, it was cheap – some people called it a slum. Now it is fashionable, and small foreign cars jostle for space on the streets around Enmore Theatre. Local state schools are haemorrhaging and, in the morning, Stanmore station is a restless pattern of children on their way to elite private schools. Why would their parents vote for the Greens?
Greens candidate, Sam Byrne
To turn the question the other way: what went wrong for Labor in Marrickville?
Carmel Tebbutt won but this was not a great result for the Labor machine. As someone who was on the receiving end of Tebbutt’s campaign, I would have to describe it as a model of how not to behave. The brightly coloured posters, captioned ‘Caring and Committed’ with a small Labor logo, were everywhere. But someone had decided the candidate had too many sharp edges and set Photoshop to ‘blur’. The result was an image that could have come from German Pop Artist Gerhard Richter.
Every day there was another brochure, another letter, another offer for postal voting. It was relentless. I couldn’t even read the Sydney Morning Herald website without seeing a flash graphic dissolving into the ‘Caring and Committed’ Carmel. Then there were the dinner-time phone calls. A bit of push polling to suggest that the Greens were mean.
The final insult came at 7:45 on the morning of the election when some long-standing residents received an automated phone call. Everyone I know who received this call was a woman, like myself, of a certain age. One day, pollsters may appreciate that for those of us whose children have finished playing sport, Saturday mornings are devoted to sleep, and should only be disturbed by the gentle thud of the paper landing on the porch. I know of at least two women who turned their votes away from Labor as a direct result of that phone call.
The ham-fisted pollsters did not choose their victims by accident. We were, as far as I can ascertain, people who had once belonged to, or campaigned for, the ALP. The problem is that, for years, the Labor Party has ignored its members as they melted away from the branches. Every single one of the areas that recorded majorities for the Greens on September 18 had once hosted flourishing Labor Party branches.
As the Labor Party neglected its community, so that community turned to other concerns. This is the lesson that Marrickville holds for mainstream political parties. The electorate does not appreciate being taken for granted. Parties that treat their voters with contempt will, in time, lose those voters.
In Marrickville, the Greens have taken on community leadership, and that is the secret of their success. Sam Byrne (Greens candidate and Deputy Mayor) was able to maximise his vote among the non-tribal groupings in the electorate because for the last three years his partly has successfully governed Marrickville Council in a coalition with local conservatives.
The Greens have shown themselves to be pragmatic by electing Morris Hanna, a widely respected local businessman, as Mayor. When the Labor Left first controlled Marrickville Council in the early 1980s they cleaned up some decidedly odd political behaviour. But time bred complacency and the crude political machine that ran the increasingly empty branches did not encourage community involvement.
For some years before the Greens takeover, Marrickville Council made some planning decisions that could only be described as eccentric. Less charitable souls have suggested a revival of the old traditions of corruption, or at the very best, mateship. Since the Greens/conservative takeover, council officers appear to behave in a more transparent manner. Good governance effectively eliminated smear campaigns about ‘the Loony Left’.
The future of Labor in Marrickville can perhaps be seen as the flip-side to The Latham Diaries. Beyond the venom and self-righteousness, Latham described a political system that operates as a club, referring only to itself. But what politicians forget is that in the end, if a political party is only concerned with controlling easily manipulated numbers, doing deals, and getting to the top of the heap, then slowly but surely the electorate will turn on them.
It may only happen once in a blue moon, but political parties do die. They can also be born.
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