Labor Still Has A Few Friends In Melbourne

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It’s time to concede defeat over the Melbourne by-election. For the Greens — the longer they leave it before bowing out the more churlish they look — but also for the commentators. Even the most seasoned political observers and psephologists, like William Bowe, Crikey’s Poll Bludger, and the venerable Peter Brent of Mumble fame, were caught out by Labor’s victory over the weekend.

At the current count, Labor has defeated the Greens 13,988 votes to 13,234 after preferences. The Greens grabbed the majority of first-preference votes, 9909 to Labor’s 9079, which is why Victorian leader Greg Barber and Federal Deputy Leader Adam Bandt are still claiming "Melbourne has turned Green".

But as Bowe says, it’s better to talk in terms of votes rather than percentages because of the high level of absenteeism — around a third of the electorate didn’t even bother to turn up.

This flies in the face of recent experience at the Fremantle by-election, where turnout increased from 79.6 per cent to 83.5 per cent. The Melbourne figure dropped to two-thirds of enrolled voters from 83.7 per cent. Bowe explains this phenomenon as being partly due to disaffected Liberal voters staying at home, also noting that low turnout deprived the ALP of 3000 votes and denied around 750 to the Greens.

Informality was also high: 2526 voters, 8.48 per cent of the total vote, drew pictures of Daniel Andrews smooching Ted Baillieu or mucked up their numbering or the like. The presence of 16 candidates on the paper probably contributed to this, according to Brent.

Strong votes were recorded for some minor candidates, especially the Sex Party’s Fiona Patten and David Nolte, a local pharmacist and "unendorsed" Liberal. Patten pulled in 1801 votes, 6.61 per cent, and Nolte nabbed 1208, or 4.70 per cent. Stephen Mayne, who was tipped in the original Roy Morgan poll as the "third candidate" after Cathy Oke and Jennifer Kanis, was outperformed by Patten, on 1293 votes and 4.75 per cent. Mayne’s poor performance was surprising given the amount of media coverage he garnered.

It was these independent and minor party candidates who got Labor over the line. After losing by a mere 750-odd votes, the Greens will be kicking themselves for not working harder to get in bed with the Sex Party.

Patten dropped the Greens down to number 6 on their how-to-vote because at a prior Victorian by-election in Niddrie they "already printed their cards" before talking preferences with the Sex Party. While there were some political differences — Patten disagreed with a former Greens’ candidate’s position on sex work and abortion, and also dislikes Clive Hamilton over his role in the ALP’s proposed internet filter — the spat over Niddrie may have been the nail in the coffin for the Greens. Patten said:

"When the Melbourne by election was announced we simply assumed that the Greens were not interested in talking preferences and a few weeks out we were approached by Labor. You have to put your preferences somewhere, so assuming that the Greens would put us second last again on their ticket, we thought the number three option that Labor was offering was much better."

Although the main commentary focus of the narrow Labor win has been the "political garbage" of preference flows — the ALP winning through a strange combination of Sex, Family First and "Liberal" preferences and whether this "taints" Kanis’ victory — the Greens landslide that never arrived is much more interesting.

The Greens have been characterised as the natural party of the inner-city Left elite but as Jeff Sparrow points out here at New Matilda, on almost all of their top-tier policy items "They’re representing [mainstream values], against a Labor-Liberal consensus indifferent to what ordinary people think." One would expect at least one of these characterisations to be correct and bring in the voters — but it seems neither the Left elite nor the "mainstream" were energised enough to pump first-preference votes into Oke’s tally.

7500 votes that would have gone to the Liberal party went to the minor conservative parties — Family First, Australian Christians and so on — and to Nolte. But Bowe makes an interesting point that this is where winning votes for the Greens might have come from. "It’s tempting to contemplate how different things might have been if the Greens had chosen a candidate as attractive to Liberal supporters as Adele Carles proved to be in Fremantle," he writes.

Carles, who was a solicitor before entering politics, attracted a huge number of Liberal votes, not all of them protests, to take the highest Green primary vote ever at Fremantle.  At the polling booth on Saturday I met voters who could definitely have fit that mould if approached correctly.

One young female voter told me she was voting Green in part to deny Labor the vote, but had other reasons: "I’m generally a Liberal voter. But generally I appreciate the Greens’ point of view. I don’t think Labor or Liberal take note of my generation’s viewpoint these days."

Peter, who voted for Family First, said he "… would never, ever consider voting for the Greens, because of their poor values — their anti family values." But in the next breath he could have been quoting from the Greens’ policy platform:

"As a Liberal… I’m very disappointed the Liberals didn’t run a candidate and very disappointed with the performance of Ted Baillieu. Even if they’d run a candidate I would have thought twice. It’s what they’ve done to the TAFE system — it’s not a matter of cutting funds, but of redistributing them. Excellence in education is a conservative value."

Although the Green campaign was focused on taking Labor’s place, and they’re painted as purist Left-wing ideologues, the conservative streak in the Greens is starting to come out: the increase in white-collar professional candidates; the small-l liberalism that is bubbling up over issues like refugees; the marginalisation of (especially NSW) Left Greens politicians like Lee Rhiannon in favour of former conservatives like Peter Whish-Wilson; the association with the legal profession, human rights law, and patrician values in the people of Malcolm Fraser and Julian Burnside.

So while much is being said about Labor needing to reclaim the centre and being torn between its Left and Right political arms, the Greens may end up facing similar questions after the weekend’s result. In the inner city the conservative elements of Greens politics may prevail over their "Left" tendencies — and it may ultimately make political sense to be more principled than the Libs on their turf, rather than to be dragged into Labor’s mess.

New Matilda

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