It'll Never Happen … But It Just Did


For the first time anywhere in the country, in any election, the Greens have outpolled the Australian Labor Party in primary votes, and incidentally elected a Green into Western Australia’s Legislative Assembly. Saturday’s by-election in historic Fremantle means a non-Labor member is elected to that lower house seat for the first time since 1924. But the impact of this contest spreads far beyond the port city, far to the east of the Nullarbor.

The new Greens member for Fremantle is Adele Carles — an articulate solicitor, mother of three, and community activist. And she won it by a mile. Carles was elected on a primary vote that shot ahead of Labor in most areas, leaving only a few booths to Labor’s candidate, the current Mayor of Fremantle, Peter Tagliaferri. Labor polled just 38 per cent on the night, nowhere near the Greens’ 44 per cent, giving the Greens a two-party preferred result of 54 per cent to Labor’s 46 per cent.

To begin with, the 44 per cent primary vote is the highest Green vote at any state or federal election. This turnout makes Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner’s seat of Melbourne very marginal next federal election. Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek might be wondering how her seat of Sydney will go, if the Greens there strengthen even by only a little. In fact, there’s a real possibility for a number of federal lower house seats to shift from red to green at the next election.

State ALP Opposition leader Eric Ripper was quick to blame local issues for the historic Greens victory. In at least one unintended way, he was right. The Greens have been building up a strong community coalition over the last decade, especially over the last five years. This win was not about one particular demographic. On the morning after the election, a Greens member wearing the party t-shirt was stopped by a woman in the street who expressed "joy" that the Greens had been elected. Sure — she said — Tagliaferri was known to everyone, and she herself was Italian like him, but that hadn’t meant she would vote for him. No way. The Greens were going to make a difference around development issues, such as fixing problems at the Fremantle Markets. A little further on, an older man saw the party worker’s t-shirt and called out "Yay!"

Light rail options for the city, proper beach development, better incentives for using renewable power, support for small business rentals, keeping the port working, but not transporting lead, opposing the offshore Quays development — all these local issues have been garnering support for the Greens.

It might have looked at the outset that the Fremantle Mayor’s sudden recruitment by Labor to fill Jim McGinty’s vacant seat was a masterstroke, bewildering Liberal voters, and perhaps looking set to trump the Greens. After all, "Tags" has actively opposed genetic modification on Council, refuses to speak at uranium conferences, and is WA’s only Mayor for Peace. But the cynicism of the ALP machine — yet again taking pre-selection out of the hands of the local rank and file — drove more than a few long-time Labor supporters not only to vote Green but even to work on the Greens campaign. The Liberals didn’t run a candidate, but the independent candidates winking in their direction failed to win more than a straggling few per cent. Green has become a real option for the average voter.

The high point of the campaign seemed to be the candidates’ debate. The party machines from both major parties normally loathe these events, because they give the electorate a chance to discover the person behind the poster. But in a city like Fremantle, a debate was unavoidable. Carles talked issues, spoke from the heart, and had the community activism to back her words up.

Cynicism has delivered in the past, but (as its cousin Greed is discovering lately) we live in unusual times. At the same time as climate change and social justice concerns have given the Greens a message that’s much broader than single-issue politics, the global financial crisis has ended Labor and Liberal smugness over the "virtues" of the market. Voters are in uncharted waters, looking for new directions.

Meanwhile WA Greens qualify for party status in the WA Parliament. With two federal Senators, four MLCs and now one MLA, Western Australia is the country’s Greenest state. In all, there are now 26 Greens MPs in parliaments around the country. Plus, with more than 100 Greens local council representatives, something is happening nation-wide.

This something has been keeping under the radar. For too long Labor has regarded the Greens as a safe (if somewhat irritating) vent for frustrated ALP supporters. Now they could become a threat to the member heartland. Although critics from the Left and the Right used to portray the Greens as a one-issue party, unable to win a lower seat, that’s been demonstrated as fiction. One by one the myths are falling. It could never happen … but it just has.

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