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Some comfort for Labor, Greens in big polling weekend

Election results in Sydney, Melbourne and the ACT point to moderately good news for Labor — and the Greens will take some comfort from their inner-city results. Is the anti-incumbency vibe waning?

It was a moderately interesting election weekend in Australia. Victorian local government elections, a state byelection in Sydney, and final results being declared from the recent ACT election.

Let’s take the ACT first. Good news for Labor, in that it will retain government and even managed a modest increase (1.5%) in its primary vote. But it lost bragging rights to the Liberals, who got a much bigger swing and outvoted it by all of 41 votes out of about 230,000. That netted the parties eight seats each — Labor up one, Liberals up two — with the balance of power held by the single remaining Green, who no doubt will again support Labor.

The ACT Greens lost almost a third of their vote and three of their four seats. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, since their 2008 performance was abnormally strong; one of their wins then was pretty much a fluke, and so was one of their losses this time. But it’s certainly enough to feed the media’s preferred narrative of “Greens on the way out”, even though their vote stayed above 10%.

The history of minor parties is that when their time comes, it comes suddenly and their vote drops precipitously. The Democrats fell from 7.3% to 2.1% in one Senate election; One Nation fell from 22.7% to 8.7% in one Queensland election. Further back, the DLP dropped from 5.2% to 1.4% in 1974. The Greens have not reached that point — perhaps this is a temporary rough patch, or perhaps they will again defy the precedents by staging a slow and graceful decline.

The local polls in Victoria certainly gave the Greens more encouragement. Not all results have been declared, but their stock of councillors overall seems to have stayed about the same, with losses and gains roughly cancelling out. But local elections are notoriously hard to interpret — especially in Victoria, where most councils use postal-only voting, which fosters voter ignorance and encourages dummy candidates and other shady electoral practices.

It also seems to favour incumbents, who generally do plenty well enough in Australia anyway. Name recognition counts for a great deal, and major shifts in control are rare. In the highest profile race, Melbourne lord mayor (and former state Liberal leader) Robert Doyle was comfortably re-elected with a swing of about 15% in his favour, but he will have to contend with a larger and more diverse council, including two Greens plus Crikey founder Stephen Mayne as an independent.

And that brings us to Sydney, where incumbency secured a powerful win for independent Alex Greenwich, who gained almost 50% of the vote on primaries and a comfortable 64% two-party-preferred. The actual sitting MP was Lord Mayor Clover Moore, but legislation this year prevented her from continuing to hold both jobs, and unlike everyone else in the same position she chose to give up her parliamentary seat, endorsing Greenwich to replace her.

Labor chose not to contest Sydney in order to boost Greenwich’s vote and be sure of keeping out the Liberals. It certainly worked; the Liberal vote dropped 5.5%, and the Greens gained by a relatively modest 4.8%. Greenwich, however, improved by 11.3% over Moore’s 2011 vote, a figure that exactly matched the vote of the missing Labor candidate.

At a federal level, there’s some comfort there for both Labor and the Greens. The Greens will be pleased to see Labor again shut out of the inner city, especially with their own strong vote in Adam Bandt’s patch of Melbourne.

Labor will point to the fact that it managed to hang on in the ACT, and that, taken in conjunction with recent opinion poll results, it does seem as if the worst of the anti-incumbent storm has now passed.

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  • 1
    secondsoprano
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    The Sydney result has nothing to say about incumbency. For a start, as you point out, the incumbent wasn’t running (although she did “annoint” Greenwich as her successor).

    More importantly, the by-election was clearly run as a referendum on the Liberals’ law change to oust Clover Moore. The results show dramatically that voters saw this move as anti-democratic and mean-spirited, and they registered their protest loud and clear. It’s not just that the Greenwich achieved a massive swing across the board, winning every booth but one, and winning by impressive margins. The Libs also lost votes (presumably not explicable by the absence of a Labor candidate).

    In the end, the move to get rid of Clover failed spectacularly. She was re-elected as Lord Mayor, “her” candidate won Sydney as a landslide, the Libs came off looking arrogant and out-of-touch, and now they have two independents to deal with, not well.

    All in all a bit of a debable really.

  • 2
    secondsoprano
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    … that should say “two independents to deal with, not one”

  • 3
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I think that’s right - altho I’ve got no problem with stopping people from doing the 2 jobs at once, it clearly came across as a specifically “get Clover” move. But in the circumstances I think that still counts as a win for incumbency - the voters were saying that they liked their MP, didn’t want her to be forced to give up the seat, and in her absence supported her nominee.

  • 4
    justin cotton
    Posted Monday, 29 October 2012 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    And it could also mean there is a big gay vote in central Sydney, where people are sick and tired of being treated as second class citizens re marriage, and verbally abused in parliament by the likes of Bernardi. I was only told about Bernardi’s outrageous comments when I was in the US last month. This stuff makes news overseas.

  • 5
    secondsoprano
    Posted Tuesday, 30 October 2012 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    @Justin - the gay politics angle was fascinating. I think the Clover factor was predominant, and the “gay vote”, if there is such a thing, was split.

    Marriage equality as an issue was less important simply because the only candidate who DIDN’t have it as a policy was Fred Nile’s ring-in from Epping, who never stood a chance anyway and got a total of about 700 votes.

    You have Mallard, one of that very rare breed, an openly gay Liberal, who said for years in effect vote for me because I can be your voice within a conservative party. (A completely ineffectual voice it would seem, if actual change in policy is your yardstick.) The Liberal vote fell, but that wouldn’t be because of equality issues - they’ve always been officially opposed to us.

    Then there’s Greenwich, who is not only gay but the founder of the modern marriage equality movement - a professional gay, you could say (and I mean that in the nicest possible way).

    Although arguably, if marriage equality is your focus, you should really vote Green (ironically, the only serious contender in this contest who is NOT gay) because they are the only party which has had our interests at heart since the very beginning. But clearly many people didn’t buy that argument(given the fall in the Green vote), preferring Greenwich by an extraordinary margin.

  • 6
    justin cotton
    Posted Wednesday, 31 October 2012 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I’d have probably voted Greenwich, as I know him as a gay campaigner. Gay marriage is not my only focus though. As it happens, I don’t vote at all, as Im a New Zealander who has lived in Australia about 10 years. If I did vote in the federal election it would be Green i think.

  • 7
    Charles Richardson
    Posted Wednesday, 31 October 2012 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    For those who are interested, the Victorian council results are now final and the Greens gained 7 seats and lost 5, bringing their total up from 18 to 20.

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