If you read all the reports, you might come to the conclusion that two very different by-elections took place in the inner southern Sydney seat of Heffron on the weekend.
In one, as related by ALP state secretary and Sussex St warlord Sam Dastyari, the formerly wounded Labor party emerged triumphant. The people’s affection was restored. The sins, incompetence and allegations that surround Obeid, Roozendaal, Macdonald and co. have faded to a dim memory. In this Labor fantasy the Greens did poorly, proving that the party had peaked and begun its well-deserved decline into irrelevance.
However analysis of the real by-election results tell a different story. As it happened, the Greens’ candidate Mehreen Faruqi bettered her already strong March 2011 19 per cent result by a handsome 4.2 per cent. As the last two decades of election results across NSW and Australia show, the movement toward The Greens is gradual but steady.
There is a strong argument that the good people of Heffron were not as enthusiastic about Labor as Dastyari would have us believe.
Barry O’Farrell’s strategic decision to sit this one out meant that the 33 per cent of voters who opted for the Liberal candidate in the March 2011 general election faced a challenging decision. With only candidates from Christian Democrats, Democrats, Labor and Greens standing, many conservatives would have been nonplussed. Indeed many just stayed away from the polling booth, as shown by a low voter turnout of 66 per cent.
Of course no one can really say what each voter did at the ballot box and much of what follows is by necessity speculative, but the trends are clear.
It looks like about half of the lost Liberal share of the vote ended up with Labor. The other half appears to have gone to the Christian Democrats and the previously-thought-to-be-extinct Democrats.
It should not be of any surprise that Conservative voters favoured Labor and Fred Nile’s Christian Democrats before the Greens, especially given that Mehreen Faruqi ran a strong campaign supporting same-sex marriage, opposing privatisation, and arguing for increased spending on public schools and public transport infrastructure.
These touchstone progressive stances are both not much loved by many Liberal voters. They are matters on which NSW Labor in government had a track record that looked quite similar to the Coalition.
The same can be said of planning, coal seam gas, the need to act on greenhouse gas emissions and the traditional NSW tough-on-crime law-and-order auction.
Most serious Liberal voters would require a major change of ideological direction before even contemplating voting for the Greens, but not so much so for Labor.
While Labor did well on the overall percentages, they appear to have done so simply because there was no Liberal candidate. On the other hand, the Greens’ heartland is spreading south, with big swings in Rosebery and wins in the Alexandria and Erskineville booths. Strong results in Redfern, St Peters, Tempe and Erskineville show that support within these communities is growing, in no small part due to the hard work of City of Sydney Greens Councillors in supporting local residents.
Labor’s Sunday morning-after spin had their candidate Ron Hoenig triumphant and their party ascendant. This entirely unjustified feelgood conclusion might boost morale among their depleted faithful but it is dangerous territory for a party that is yet to purge itself of the rightwing machine that brought them down just 17 months ago.
Not learning from past mistakes is a recipe for re-offending. Falsifying the historical record is a guarantee of repeating the mistakes of the most recent Labor government.
However the Greens also have much to learn from these results. Once again in the party’s now two decade history of contesting elections, the message is clear. Growth is slow and hard won. Gaining the confidence of progressive voters requires a lot of patience.
The effort put into Heffron by Faruqi and her campaign team, knowing that victory was well nigh impossible, shows that the party has that patience.
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