Inner Melbourne’s electoral lesson

4 December 2017


The Liberal Party generally has little chance of winning seats in places like inner Melbourne.  This area has long been strong for the Labor Party, notwithstanding some occasional Liberal wins over time.

But a by-election for a Labor seat in inner Melbourne, which the Liberals didn’t contest, arguably showed that Liberal voters in that area would rather vote for the Greens than Labor, or at least give the Greens their preferences over Labor.  This area is perhaps one where voters either love or loathe Labor.

Actually I’m being cheeky here – this isn’t strictly a reference to a recent by-election in the Labor-held seat of Northcote, which the Greens ended up winning.

Instead I refer to a by-election in another inner Melbourne seat, Albert Park, which occurred around this time ten years ago, in late 2007.

That Albert Park by-election followed the surprise departure of Victorian Deputy Premier John Thwaites.  Because Albert Park was safe for Labor, the Liberals opted against contesting the by-election.  In the end, although Labor held the seat without much trouble, the Greens came second by a smaller margin than the Liberals had come at previous general elections.

Thwaites actually resigned from Parliament together with Premier Steve Bracks, who’d been in the top job since a surprise election win in late 1999.  Elected Labor leader just months earlier, Bracks wasn’t rated much of a chance of winning when Premier Jeff Kennett called the election.  But a surprise backlash against Kennett across rural Victoria ended up tipping him out, and Bracks became Premier.  He’d held another Melbourne seat, Williamstown, for a few years before his rise to first the Labor leadership and then the top job.

Albert Park and Williamstown actually sit beside each other.  Between them is the Yarra River, where it flows into Port Phillip.  And with Thwaites and Bracks both resigning together, by-elections for their old seats were held at the same time, with the Liberals opting against contesting either by-election.  The Greens also did better in Williamstown in the absence of the Liberals, but they didn’t get as close to Labor as they got in Albert Park, with Labor’s Williamstown margin much bigger.

If there were lessons to learn from these by-elections, the most apparent would’ve been of Liberal voters liking the Greens more than they liked Labor.

Ten years on, these by-elections, particularly in Albert Park, came back to me after the recent Northcote by-election, which Labor lost to the Greens.  That by-election followed the untimely death of Labor MP Fiona Richardson.  Notwithstanding the rise in the popularity of the Greens across inner Melbourne over time, I was sure that Labor would hold Northcote, because the by-election came about under tragic circumstances, and not many by-elections following deaths have resulted in seats changing hands.  Needless to say, I was wrong.

The rise of the Greens in inner Melbourne is beyond question.  After coming closer to Labor in various inner Melbourne seats than the Liberals over the years, the Greens have won seats, both at state level and nationally.  They’re now stronger in numerous seats than the Liberals.  Mind you, while the Greens have mostly taken seats off Labor, they also won a Liberal-held seat in inner Melbourne in 2014.

And because the Liberals didn’t contest the by-election in Northcote, Liberal voters there were required to direct their support elsewhere.  Clearly many of them, if not most of them, opted for the Greens ahead of Labor.

The by-election was thus a double-tragedy for Labor.  It lost a popular member and then lost that member’s old seat.  What could be sadder than that?

The Albert Park by-election ten years ago, together with the Northcote by-election just weeks ago, might well have taught us inner Melbourne’s electoral lesson – Liberal voters around there prefer the Greens to Labor, even though across much of the country the opposite applies.  That said, this mightn’t just apply to inner Melbourne, as the Greens have also overtaken the Liberals in terms of threatening Labor in inner Sydney.

How the Liberals react to this will be interesting.  They might forget about telling their supporters in inner Melbourne to direct preferences, to Labor or the Greens, leaving those players to fight it out there.  Such a tactic would let them direct their resources elsewhere in general elections, especially in defending their marginal seats.  Given that Labor and Greens appear to enjoy additional support from lots of activist groups, the Liberals might think twice about contesting seats where their support is weak.  But they might as well leave the battles for places like inner Melbourne to Labor and the Greens, because they seem irrelevant there now.



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