EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Melbourne voters send message to ALP and Greens
, August 4, 2012
Rarely does a state by-election have implications beyond the boundaries of the state seat; but the recent by-election for the seat of Melbourne has both state and national implications.
Melbourne is one of those former blue-collar inner-city seats where the Greens have built a substantial constituency. It encompasses two universities, Melbourne and RMIT, and is populated by thousands of university students and middle-class yuppies who have priced housing beyond the income of the working class.
Like similar areas in Sydney, Brisbane and other capital cities, it offers the Greens the possibility of winning seats in state and federal parliaments. In the last federal election, the Greens’ Adam Bandt won the party’s first House of Representatives seat in the same area.
With Labor at record lows in the polls, a dismal 28 per cent nationally, and the Liberals not standing a candidate, the Greens were optimistic that they could win their first lower house seat in Victoria, feeding their claim to be about to replace Labor as the party of the left.
Labor’s polling indicated that the Greens could win the election, undermining the Labor state leader, Daniel Andrews, and delivering a possibly mortal blow to federal leader, Julia Gillard, who is facing renewed speculation of a leadership challenge. This followed statements by ALP frontbencher, Joel Fitzgibbon, that unpopular leaders are eventually replaced, and reports that union leaders were discussing a change in the party’s leadership.
The intense campaigns of the Greens and Labor — and the other 14 candidates contesting Melbourne — were documented every day in the local media. According to The Age’s Shaun Carney, Labor had spent four times as much in Melbourne as in a by-election in the safe Labor seat of Niddrie last March. The ABC’s Jim Middleton said the Greens outspent the ALP with extensive media advertising.
The election outcome was a narrow victory for the Labor Party, but in circumstances where the party could draw little comfort from the result.
Labor’s primary vote was just 33.3 per cent — in a seat which historically has been one of Labor’s safest, and which the party has held for over 100 years. The swing against Labor, compared to the last state election, was about 5 per cent.
Paul Sheehan, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, highlighted the problem for Labor. He said, “The problem for Labor goes deeper than policies. All the speculation about leadership, personalities, polls and policies does not capture the fundamental issue in Australian politics in 2012, that the electorate has turned against Labor on matters of principle.” (Sydney Morning Herald, July 23, 2012).
He said Labor was suffering “a crisis of illegitimacy”, arising from the destructive and corrosive impact the Greens have had as the federal partner of the Gillard government.
The Greens out-polled Labor, winning 36.4 per cent of the primary vote. However, despite getting the preferences of several other candidates, including Stephen Mayne, a well-known ex-staffer for the former Liberal Premier, Jeff Kennett, the Greens still failed to get across the line.
Mayne’s preference distribution was interesting. After some independents, he directed his preferences in the following order: to the Greens, the Sex Party (which wants legalised pornography), the ALP and, near the bottom of the list, the DLP, the Australian Christians Party and Family First.
The Greens’ response to their unexpected defeat was predictable. Adam Bandt denounced Labor for getting the preferences of parties like the DLP and Family First — without mentioning that his own party had received Mr Mayne’s preferences in the election, nor that he won the federal seat on Liberal preferences in 2010. The Greens’ candidate, Cathy Oke, claimed that the election had been a success, based on the party’s primary vote.
One of the most interesting aspects of the election was that some 30 per cent of voters did not vote, although voting is compulsory.
The easy explanation for this is that the Liberal Party did not stand a candidate, so many Liberal supporters did not turn up to vote. The Liberal Party did not stand a candidate because it could not win. Its polling showed it would come third behind the Greens and Labor, and it wanted to avoid a decision on whether to preference Labor or the Greens.
However, there was another factor. Media interviews showed that many articulate voters were unaware that the by-election was being held. This is hard to understand in light of the fact that the Electoral Commission had written to every voter notifying them of the election, election leaflets were delivered to most voters, and there was extensive election coverage in both the print media and on television.
One possible explanation is that an increasing number of people get information now from the internet, do not open the mail, do not read newspapers, and do not watch TV news. If this is the case, we are witnessing a new social phenomenon: internet-generation illiteracy.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.