The Victorian state by-election for the inner-city seat of Melbourne has compacted local government, state and federal political issues into something of a referendum on the state of Australian politics.
The three major candidates, Melbourne City councillors Cathy Oke (Greens) and Jennifer Kanis (ALP) and Manningham councillor and Crikey founder Stephen Mayne (Independent), are contesting the seat by leveraging hot-button federal issues to bolster party and personal credibility.
The failure of federal poker machine reform, the state of the modern Labor party and the recent asylum seeker debacle look to be the issues that decide the election, despite the unpopularity of Liberal Premier Ted Baillieu with Melbourne’s progressive electorate. The Liberal party haven’t bothered to run a candidate.
The most recent numbers have Oke pegged to take the seat. The June 12 Roy Morgan phone poll tipped a margin of 48.5 per cent for the Greens, 37.5 per cent for Labor and 7 per cent for Stephen Mayne (with a 5 per cent margin of error), resulting in a 54-46 two party preferred margin for Oke. Other independents on the ticket from the Sex Party, Family First and others are likely to garner a total of around 7 per cent between them.
Should Oke win, she would be not only be the first Green elected to the lower house of the Victorian parliament, but would occupy what has been considered a safe Labor enclave, previously held on a 6.2 per cent margin by Bronwyn Pike until her 7 May resignation.
If Labor loses Melbourne, it may well be because of the distribution of Mayne’s preferences, which were gifted to the Greens on the back of his single-issue $1 poker machines bet limit push.
Mayne, whose "circuit breaker" candidacy is also a "dry run" for a later tilt at a Melbourne City councillor’s guernsey, told New Matilda his goal is "to chalk up the first actual electoral defeat for the ALP based on the poker machine issue".
"The Victorian ALP has a dreadful record on pokies… The ALP is the only major political party in the world that fleeces problem gamblers of hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to fund their political operations," he said.
Kanis disagrees with Mayne’s entry into the contest on a pokies single-issue campaign, and claims not to have been approached by Mayne on the preferences issue.
"Honestly, nobody has spoken to me about dollar pokie bets. If he wants to talk about that, he should do that at a federal level," she told NM at her Sunday campaign launch.
"He shouldn’t hijack this election and hijack Melbourne’s aspirations for a state member, on federal issues"
Mayne said he spoke to Victorian ALP Secretary Noah Carroll about the preference deal, who "point blank shut it down in the first 30 seconds", allegedly on the basis that the ALP "doesn’t talk policy in preference negotiations".
"That would be a surprise to various Shooters and Fishers parties, and the Sex Party, who have negotiated policy outcomes in the course of preference deals with the ALP," Mayne said.
Kanis is a member of the socialist left faction of the ALP, but has been undermined by her campaign being run by the "cynical right", Mayne said.
The ALP may yet enjoy a boost from micro-party preferences, including the Sex Party, who they’ve preferenced above the Greens owing to an 8 per cent vote garnered in the recent Niddrie by-election. So the stakes are high, and as has been the case in previous tight elections, games are being played.
A "shit sheet", recently distributed in the electorate, quotes from John Elder’s unflattering profile of Mayne published in the Sunday Age — in which former colleagues and associates claimed he was a "disgrace", "serial leaker" and "cancer" — before asking "Weren’t the Greens supposed to be better than this?" in reference to the Mayne-Oke preferences deal.
Mayne believes "all fingers point at supporters of the Labor party," but a spokesman for the Kanis campaign denied involvement. Oke declined to comment on the matter.
To make up the difference, the ALP is pushing hard on the anti-Greens rhetoric. Victorian State Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews castigated the Greens in his address for Kanis’ campaign launch, for their failure to compromise during last week’s asylum debate.
"Politicians can make compromises without being compromised… The alternative, and it’s on display here in the Melbourne by-election, is an absolutism that might feel good, that might be popular with some, but it’s the surest recipe for inaction and failure that I can think of," he said.
To induce voters to cast their ballots for Labor, Andrews has also pledged to make Kanis a minister in a future ALP government. She declined to comment on the matter, telling NM she wanted to take "one step at a time".
Oke said these tactics demonstrate the "old parties" lack a long-term plan for Melbourne.
"The Melbourne electorate… I think have been taken for granted, it’s a safe Labor seat. What has the seat of Melbourne gotten from being a safe labor seat?"
What Kanis and Oke both share is a similar position on big ticket policy items: both oppose rent increases for public housing and limited tenure; both want to restore funding for TAFE recently cut by Ted Baillieu, and are concerned about teacher pay; and Andrews yesterday announced Labor would oppose the construction of the East-West roadway tunnel, another long-term Greens bugbear owing to the planned construction of tollway off-ramps to the inner-city.
But even the contest over who can deliver these substantive policies seems to become a vote on party integrity; the Greens have pointed out that many of the ALP’s positions are cover for the consequences of decisions made by the previous Victorian Labor government.
Greens Federal MP Adam Bandt today said the previous Labor government had prepared the original plan for the East-West tunnel. The current TAFE cuts are the culmination of the ALP’s 2008 competition policy in vocational education and training, panned by the VET sector at the time.
Oke believes Greens advocacy positions on social issues will give the party’s vote a boost on July 21.
"You have to look at the parties. The Greens are the only ones who genuinely have gay marriage — and refugee policy," she said.
She is also campaigning on reform to development policy, public transport, live music, community solar panel schemes and inner city greening, and says she wants to put the "local" back in local member.
On sustainability issues, the major difference between the Greens and Labor at both a political and policy level, Oke claims to have had some influence on the current Liberal Mayor of Melbourne, Robert Doyle.
"It’s been good to watch his progression towards sustainability. They city has been a recognised leader in sustainability, and while I can’t comment on his reasons for getting on board, I think he’s realised there’s strength in being a leader," she told NM.
The by-election is further complicated by the possibility of the Greens holding the balance of power in the lower house, at least until the 2014 general election. This would depend on the outcome of investigations against Frankston Liberal MP Geoff Shaw, who only holds his seat by a 2 per cent margin and is vulnerable for a Labor grab if made to resign.
That scenario means Greens claims of holding the government to account actually have some traction, although Kanis considers it a liability.
"The Greens can only say what they would like to happen, but they have no record in delivery, no capacity to form government. That’s a key difference."
Whether the electorate agrees is another matter altogether. New Matilda was invited to accompany Oke’s supporters in door-knocking constituents — the federal trend of long-term Labor voters switching to the Greens, as evidenced by Bandt’s election, looks to be a factor again this time around.
Bramwell Smith, a "lifelong Labor voter", told NM he had "wiped the slate clean for all parties except the Greens". He said Prime Minister Julia Gillard shared Baillieu’s tendency to break promises and he "felt betrayed". The Thomson affair and Slipper scandal have definitely influenced his opinion of Victorian Labor, he said, a position common to many NM spoke to on the day.
"I simply wasn’t considering them. I can’t understand how they’re so ignorant of the history of Labor and what the party stood for. Yes, it does wash over into the state sphere," Smith said.
Kanis said that "wasn’t her experience" when door-knocking, and that she had been talking to constituents about state issues.
"We’ve been going out this whole election campaign, talking to people about what’s important to them in this election," she said.
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