Labor Will Pay A Price For The No-Show In Higgins


It’s happened!

Malcolm Mackerras has predicted that the Liberals will lose Higgins to the Greens. Malcolm has made a career of taking wild guesses at election results and when he occasionally gets one right (as chance would decree), he’s proclaimed a prophet.

Sorry Malcolm, you’ve got this one wrong. The end of the world is not scheduled to take place until 2012.

Sure, Labor gifted the Greens a PR bonanza by not running in Higgins. And now the Abbott partyroom coup has turned Saturday’s by-election into a micro-referendum on climate change — very bad news for the Liberals in an inner suburban seat like Higgins.

But luckily for Liberal candidate Kelly O’Dwyer, and sadly for Mackerras, the Greens are still enthusiastic amateurs … otherwise O’Dwyer’s fledgling political career would be toast.

The situation has been made possible by Kevin Rudd’s decision not to run a candidate. But that decision will come at a cost to Labor and the price may be paid at several levels of politics.

Locally, this was the party’s first live chance since Federation to win this iconic piece of Liberal heartland which the Libs currently hold by 7.1 per cent. Labor’s chances for the seat would have only been improved by the promotion of Tony "Climate Change Is Crap" Abbott, whose party leadership will go down like a lead balloon in Melbourne’s leafy east. It will be interesting to see whether he pays a visit to the electorate this week — local Libs would probably toss mocha-flavoured Trampoline-brand gelati at him from the windows of their Range Rovers as they cruise along Glenferrie Road to that gorgeous Malvern organic fruit shop.

With the Greens running a harder line on climate change than Higgins voters might like, a Labor candidate would have had a better than even money chance of winning this seat. Another thing in their favour was that when the outgoing member, Peter Costello, finally spat the dummy, the party locals had a credible candidate lined up.

Local barrister Dr Paul Vout already had a good local profile via a solid earlier campaign for the state seat of Malvern in 2006. With a by-election for Higgins on the cards, several candidates had been mooted internally, but locals favoured him as the pick of the bunch, and the party’s Higgins federal electorate assembly executive, led by Labor tribal elder Race Mathews, put the case for running a candidate strongly to new state secretary, Nick Reece.

At the very least, a Green/Labor wedge would have scared the smartly pressed suit pants off Kelly O’Dwyer and her smug local Liberal supporters who take "ownership" of Higgins for granted. (That complacency was typified at a local function a couple of weeks ago when Camberwell’s RSL chief introduced O’Dwyer as the "member designate" for the seat, "representing Peter Costello".)

Labor’s view federally was that the party would either run a significant big-budget campaign — or wouldn’t run at all. The likelihood, in their opinion, was that even if Labor pulled off a miracle win, the seat would immediately revert to the Liberals at next year’s general election.

But that is not always the case and recent history in Higgins itself shows this. In 1999, Labor won Jeff Kennett’s own seat of Burwood (which sits inside Higgins) with a swing of 10.4 per cent and doughty local campaigner Bob Stensholt still holds Burwood a decade later.

But now Labor’s decision to cede Higgins is likely to damage John Brumby’s attempt to win power in his own right at next year’s state election. Simply put, the increasing profile and resources being garnered by the Greens in Higgins will be used to attack vulnerable inner city Labor seats at the state election.

Labor’s decision not to run has given the Greens the perfect platform to parade their climate credentials. It will put a handy $60,000 or more from taxpayers into their war chest, courtesy of the 30,000 primary votes they expect to pick up on Saturday.

Green candidate and climate change guru Clive Hamilton’s run in Higgins looks like a warm-up for next year’s campaign for the state seat of Prahran which lies within Higgins. That’s the seat where Clem Newton-Brown has declared himself the Liberal candidate on a bicycle. The Greens primary vote in Prahran in 2006 was 20.13 per cent. In some St Kilda booths the Greens outpolled the Libs. A preference deal between the madly pedalling Newton-Brown and Clive Hamilton might just give Hamilton the victory over Brumby’s Cabinet Secretary Tony Lupton.

But the proof that Labor can win blue-ribbon seats around Higgins and hold them was not enough for Rudd, the consummate big picture politician who cares less about gifting the Greens cash and oxygen on a crucial election issue than crushing the Coalition at next year’s federal poll. On this assessment, it was better to save scarce campaign resources for the bigger battle ahead.

However, that all spells big longer term trouble for state and federal Labor. Because once the ragtag Greens get their act together and start winning inner city seats, they will be harder to blast out than the cockroaches that lodge themselves in your kitchen over summer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.