Opinion Greens and Labor slug it out in Melbourne by-election

With the Green’s now contesting almost all local, state and federal seats and steady increases in its primary vote, Labor should be worried about getting into two-party races with them, writes Jo Coghlan.

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OPINION: By-elections offer the opportunity to evaluate how a political party is travelling. While opinion polls do a similar thing, votes rather than voting intention, can tell us a lot about voter’s judgements of candidates, leaders and policy. Political strategists do not dismiss by-elections, as they are often indicative of national trends that may impact on their electoral fortunes. If a party, leader, or policy is unpopular in one electorate, it is likely that this may be the case in other electorates. By-election results, particularly those that show a swing against incumbents, can indicate broader national trends.

This occurred at the 1995 Canberra by-election. A former Keating Minister Ros Kelly held the seat until her resignation in March of that year. At the by-election, held a year before the 1996 general election, the ALP lost the seat to the Liberal Party with the highest recorded swing against a government in an Australian by-election, of 16.1 per cent. Similarly, the 1975 Bass by-election saw the ALP lose the seat with a swing against the Party of 14.6 per cent. In both cases, the outcome was a forewarning of Labor’s defeat in the following general election. At the 2002 by-election for the federal seat of Cunningham (NSW), the ALP lost a seat it had held continuously since 1949 to the Green’s Michael Organ (the first Green to win a seat in the House of Representatives). While in Opposition, the result contributed to Simon Crean losing the leadership of the ALP and saw the ALP lose the 2004 federal election.

Political strategists will closely examine the by-election for the Victorian seat of Melbourne, held on Saturday. For Labor strategists, should Labor lose the seat it has held since 1908, the pressure would increase on Gillard’s leadership. Even though a state ballot, it can be seen as a referendum on the Labor Party. Gillard’s absence from the Melbourne campaign indicated that the ALP didn't want the voters in Melbourne thinking about the carbon tax or refugee policies. The Liberal’s decision not to contest the seat reminds us that by not contesting they push the ALP into a two-party race with the Greens. This is significant. In a two-party Liberal-Labor race, Labor would have won the seat resigned by Bronwyn Pike.

Liberal strategists can take heart from its decision not to contest the seat. At the 2010 state election they secured nearly 28 per cent of the primary vote, while an increase from its 2006 vote of 22 per cent and its 21 per cent at the 2002 election, it was never going to secure the 30 to 35 per cent of the primary vote required to put it into a two-party contest with Labor. A look at the Greens vote shows that without a Liberal candidate, not only would it put it into a two-party count with Labor, but would indicate that it could win the seat. The Greens primary vote in the Melbourne electorate has been on the increase since the 2002 state election, growing from 24 per cent in 2002, to 27 per cent in 2006, and to almost 32 per cent in 2010.

In Saturday’s by-election, the Greens secured almost 37 per cent of the primary vote, outpolling Labor’s primary vote of a little over 33 per cent. This is Labor’s lowest primary vote in recent elections. Labor’s Bronwyn Pike, a former Health and Education Minister and one of Victoria’s longest serving Labor MP’s (entering parliament in 1999) had been steadily losing ground in the seat, with the primary vote declining from around 45 per cent in 2002 and 2006 to 35 per cent at the 2010 election. After the by-election, Labor’s vote has now dropped below 35 per cent, a 10-point drop over four polls. 

While Labor doesn't want to concede the seat knowing it has stitched up preference deals with minor party candidates, notably Family First (four per cent), preferences from the Sex Party (6 per cent) may negate that deal and can still deliver the seat to the Greens. Even if the Greens lose the seat it is a pyrrhic victory, with the Greens likely winning 11 of the 14 booths and winning the primary vote by over about 1000 votes. While postal votes will likely go to Labor, the Green’s should win pre-poll by several hundred votes.

With both parties sitting on about 9 000 primary votes each, neither candidate can be overly confident. Preferences will determine the final outcome. When the Green’s Adam Bandt won the federal division of Melbourne at the 2010 general election, he secured 36 per cent of the primary vote against Labor’s 38 per cent. After preferences Bandt secured the seat with 56 per cent of the two-party preferred vote.

Statements from the Labor Party about preference deals with the Greens in the lead up to the by-election likely galvanised Green support, with them wanting to demonstrate that they can win seats without Labor preferences, as they did in Cunningham in 2002 and may do in Melbourne in 2012. In both cases there was no Liberal candidate. Labor and Green in a two-party race spells likely doom for future Labor candidates who are contesting seats the Liberals are prepared to concede as unwinnable or when there is a significant Green voting belt.

The NSW Labor Party motion carried at its state conference the week before the Melbourne by-election that stated: "NSW Labor should not provide the Greens Party with automatic preferential treatment in any future preference negotiations", is at best a rear-guard action that indicates Labor fear of the rise of the Green vote. However, in reverse, Labor has relied on Green preferences to win significant seats since the 1980s, in some cases, seats required for the ALP to form government.

During the 1950s and 1960s it was the Liberal Party that benefited from preferences from the Democratic Labor Party (DLP). With the DLP’s demise and the rise of centre-left parties in the 1970s and 1980s, the ALP gained a substantial advantage from the preferences of minor parties and Independents. At every federal election held between 1984 and 2001, the ALP increased its two-party vote on the back of preferences. At the 2001 federal election, the Green’s directed preferences on 110 federal electorates and in all marginal seats. The result was the delivery of 75 per cent of Green preferences to Labor candidates. With the Green’s now contesting almost all local, state and federal seats and steady increases in its primary vote, Labor should be worried about getting into two-party races with the Greens. To deny preference deals, as the NSW Branch wants, seems illogical in the face of a changing political and voting landscape.

Jo Coghlan lectures in Australian and International Politics in the School of Social Science and International Studies.

This article first appeared in ON LINE Opinion.