Leaving national implications aside, the major parties can both take heart from the gains made at the expense of the Greens in Saturday’s ACT election.
There are two constants in the aftermath of any state or territory election: that the significance of the result beyond the immediate jurisdiction will be exceedingly difficult to read, and that attempting to do so will nonetheless be the first order of business for outside observers fixated on the federal scene.
That goes especially for the Australian Capital Territory, home to a demographically unrepresentative and highly educated electorate with a better sense than most of the distinctions between federal and local issues. It thus behoves us to prioritise concrete local implications ahead of obscure national ones, as unsexy as they may be.
Barring late count surprises, the party composition of the 17-member Legislative Assembly will be eight seats for the Liberals, seven for Labor and two for the Greens, representing two extra seats for the Liberals at the expense of the Greens with no change for Labor. The decline in the Greens vote, from 15.6% to 11%, was part of a broader trend towards the major parties, which was also aided by a weaker field of independents than in 2008. Both major parties increased their share of the vote — substantially in the Liberals’ case (from 31.6% to 38%), modestly in Labor’s (from 37.4% to 39.1%).
Despite returning to earth after their strong showing in 2008, the Greens again find themselves in the familiar position of kingmaker. Publicly they are keeping their options open, but this time the Liberals are leaving ministerial positions firmly off the table, in contrast with 2008.
It remains to be seen what the Liberals might have to offer in the way of policy concessions, but such are the political realities facing the Greens that they will need to be fairly spectacular. With their parliamentary representation halved, the Greens are unlikely to be in an adventurous mood. The examples of Tony Windsor, Rob Oakeshott and Britain’s Liberal Democrats illustrate the dangers of straying off the ideological reservation in determining who forms government, while green parties in Europe have been harshly dealt with by left-wing voters whenever they have made common cause with conservatives.
The Liberals have been aggressively asserting their moral right to govern, which is tactically understandable but harder for an objective observer to credit.
Their claims that the Labor-Greens alliance has been “rejected” are dubious on face value, given that these parties presently have over half the vote between them. It can just as easily be said that more than six in 10 voters “rejected” the Liberal Party. The alternative gambit has been to argue that the Liberal swing means the electorate has voted for “change”. On this logic, John Howard should have handed Kim Beazley the keys to the Lodge in 1998.
The Liberals will certainly be able to boast the largest number of seats, which even accounting for the government’s longevity is a strong result in the hostile electoral environment of Canberra. The key to this result was their gain of a third seat in the five-member Brindabella electorate, and it is here that federal implications are being divined, particularly in the Liberal camp.
Based on the southern Canberra region of Tuggeranong, Brindabella supposedly offers a better demographic representation of electorally crucial middle Australia than the remainder of the Canberra ivory tower.
There is modest support for this contention from 2011 census figures, which show the electorate scoring lower than the remainder of Canberra on ethnic diversity and the “no religion” response, which is my own favoured census proxy for the values of the latte belt. But despite “mortgage belt” talk, there are in fact slightly fewer mortgage payers in Brindabella than in the five-member northern electorate of Ginninderra, where the Liberals’ gains were little greater than in the conspicuously trendy seven-member central electorate of Molonglo.
The Liberals can obviously take encouragement that yet another election has seen a substantial increase in their share of the vote, particularly given the electoral weapon Labor had been gifted by the aggressive public service cutbacks of conservative state governments elsewhere.
But their success in winning the greatest share of seats can be better understood as a tactical coup achieved through policy positioning, campaign resources and, most importantly, the candidacy in Brindabella of Liberal leader Zed Seselja, who carried the flag there at this election after previously being a member for Molonglo.
Labor too has cause to hope that the result shows the national tide against it is abating, even if it still has a way further to roll back. However, their gain in vote share and likely re-election is mostly down to a successful mid-term leadership transition from Jon Stanhope to Katy Gallagher, which has rejuvenated the government’s public profile and delayed the natural process of electoral decay.
The one party for whom the message is unambiguous is the Greens, reinforcing as it does the results of Queensland, New South Wales and the Melbourne byelection.
It is now clearer than ever that their electoral successes of the previous federal term represented a high watermark rather than an ongoing tide, and that it will be next to impossible for them to repeat their successes of the 2010 federal election.