Owen Outsider, an ALP insider, has filed these interesting observations from the 2002 Victorian election.

What does the ALP vote mean?

The Labor landslide was not surprising. It follows a trend in NSW, QLD and Tasmania where ALP governments have been elected with fairly small majorities, and turned these into landslides at the next election (In Tasmania there was no change in seats, but the ALPs hold on government strengthened dramatically).

This trend is likely to be continued at the next WA and SA elections. The seriously interesting thing here is what will happen in NSW in March, as this will provide a pointer as to whether the climate is now right for ALP governments to win a third term, and if so on what sort of margin. Since the late 1970s results in other states have seemed to follow a pattern set by NSW, with a delay of several years.

One interesting hypothesis is that the ALP has now become, far more than ever before, the natural party of government. On this basis the Howard administration is an aberration, built on a mixture of luck and Howards political instincts.

The evidence for this lies in the way the ALP has managed to thrash the Liberals at four recent state elections, as well as winning several others by smaller margins. Of the last 11 elections in Australia the Liberals have won only the 2001 federal contest, and even that by a remarkably small margin considering the Tampa and World Trade Centre disasters.

The case for this view is bolstered by the ineptitude of the Liberal Party in almost every state. It would be difficult to put together a talented front bench out of Liberal state MPs around the country, no state alone can come close. The only hope for the Liberal Party at state level seems to be an outbreak of unprecedented corruption in the ALP, and given their failure to capitalise on the Obeid affair even this might not do it.

At federal level the Liberals have more strength, but does the talent really stretch much beyond the top two? And lets face it, if Bin Laden had waited three more months to launch his attack on the US Beazley would be Prime Minister, Tampa or no Tampa Howard only won by 1% of the vote, and the World Trade Centre was certainly worth that much to him.

The counter argument to this is that in dangerous times incumbent governments have an advantage. This appears to be the case internationally. If this is correct the Liberals will reign in Canberra for many years, while having little chance of breaking through to most state parliaments. This theory could be right, but does not fit the experience in South Australia earlier this year.

Comeback time for the Nationals?

Most commentators, and the opinion polls, largely wrote the Nationals off, predicting a loss of more than half their seats. Instead they gained one in the lower house, and lost two in the upper. Even more remarkably, the outcome did not generally depend on ALP preferences the decision of the ALP to recommend the Nationals ahead of the Liberals made little difference, as ALP preferences were only distributed in two of the nine seats the Nationals won.

The Nationals are entitled to feel very proud of their result, but they should not get too smug. In a number of cases they squeaked in by very close margins, and often it seems on the back of having stronger candidates than the Liberals. The quality of the local candidate may not matter much in the city, but it counts for plenty in regional areas, particularly between parties on the same side of the fence.

Just how much the Nationals owed to their candidates, rather than their brand, can be seen in the seat of Rodney. The Nationals here were over 1000 votes ahead of the Liberals on primaries, yet in the Upper House the margin reversed. In Murray Valley a 6000 vote National lead in the lower house fell to 1000 in the upper.

In other words, the Nationals will continue to flourish as long as they can find candidates significantly stronger than the Liberal opponent. In even contests however, they will generally lose. It is going to be hard to hold onto the 11 seats they currently have in such circumstances in the long run.

Was the Greens vote a protest vote?

Its hard to really answer this because every vote is, to some extent, a protest vote. ALP voters were protesting against Kennett, Liberal voters protesting against Bracks. However, there are a few ways that might distinguish whether the Green voters were primarily voting for the Greens, or just against the two major parties.

If its a protest vote, why didnt it behave like one?

One feature of a protest vote is that some of it gets scared off if the party/independent is seen has having a chance of winning. These voters wish to register a protest against the majors, but dont want to actually put the people they are voting for into parliament. Any voter in Richmond or Melbourne who was paying the slightest bit of attention would have noticed the ALP was scared. Where normally they might consider one leaflet drop adequate in these seats this time they flooded letterboxes with leaflet after leaflet, many copying the Greens layout or talking about the environment. Personally addressed letters arrived too. All this effort may have saved the ALP in these seats, but it did not stop the Greens registering their best primary vote in Richmond, and in Melbourne their 4th highest primary vote, and highest after preferences. If these were protest votes they were unusually serious about making their protest heard.

Another factor in a protest vote is that it could be expected to scatter when there were several candidates other than the ALP, Liberals and Nationals. In about 30 seats where the Greens ran there was no one else to vote for, other than the parliamentary parties. It would be possible to call the entire vote there protest. But in almost 80 seats (upper and lower) there was someone else. In only ten cases, all but one rural, did another candidate, not from a parliamentary party, outpoll the Greens.

Now certainly some of these candidates were not much competition, but if the voter was just registering a protest vote, what made people protest to the Greens, not someone else? Some examples are instructive. In Forest Hills two independents each attracted significant coverage, yet the Green candidate outpolled the two combined. In Broadmeadows the Greens did not even hand out HTV cards, yet still outpolled the other two candidates combined. Indeed in most cases the Green took at least three quarters of the non-major party vote. (This contrasts sharply with the Democrats and One Nation at their peak. In both cases they were outpolled many times by other parties and independents.)

Another factor that runs against the protest vote theory is the evidence as to who voted Green. Past evidence suggests that Green voters tend to be young (born after 1965) and well educated (see Morgan and Newspolls and Australian Electoral Surveys). Examining the results for each seat it seems the Greens did well in areas with high levels of education, and to a lesser extent in areas with many young voters. In other words it appears the people who voted Green were the same sort of people who normally vote Green, there were just more of them hardly indicative of a protest vote.

The Derrimut case

Indeed there is only one scrap of evidence I can find *for* the theory that this was a protest vote. That is the result in Derrimut, where there were only three candidates and the CEC scored 8.3%.

Since it is unlikely that more than 1% of the population would ever vote *for* the CEC in any seat, this suggests that there was a strong protest vote here. Perhaps in other seats the Greens simply picked up this vote. However, examined more closely this theory starts to break down. For a start, the CEC had the top spot on the ballot in Derrimut, and the Donkey vote in Derrimut is probably close to 2% (the Donkey vote is inversely proportional to educational standards, and Derrimut is not a well educated seat). The majority of CEC preferences went to the Liberals who were next on the ballot paper, supporting this explanation.

Still, that leaves 5% to explain, and Ill freely admit I cant. However, there is no reason to believe that 5% was a consistent protest vote across the state. In Yuroke, another seat the Greens did not contest, the CEC managed just 2.3%, suggesting a rather lower protest levels there. In the two other seats the Greens did not run in there were substantial votes for independents, but since at least one of these was a strong candidate this proves very little.

Consequently, the evidence from seats the Greens did not contest suggests that there were high levels of protest vote in some places, but not everywhere. If the Greens were relying on the same protest voters who supported the CEC their vote might have been strong in some places, but would have been down around 2% in others. In fact, the Greens scored below 4% in only 2 of the 84 lower house seats they contested, and none of the upper house seats.

Will the Greens vote last?

Many commentators are confident the Green vote will not last. Senator Robert Ray said Three years ago it was One Nation, six years ago the Democrats and in another three years it will be someone else. Political Scientist Nick Economou described the Greens showing as A flash in the pan. Senator Bob Brown, unsurprisingly disagrees, believing a senate seat in Victoria is now almost a certainty for the Greens at the next election.

Both sets of predictions are hasty few commentators would have predicted the Greens would be here a couple of years ago, and in general attempts at crystal ball gazing have failed rather badly in Australian politics over the last decade.

However, on balance the odds look more in Senator Browns favour than Senator Rays. For a start, consider the record of the Greens elsewhere in Australia.

In Tasmania in 1989 the Greens made their first breakthrough, scoring 17%. Their vote declined at the next two elections, but they have not scored below 10% in any of the four elections since, and at the last election moved above the 1989 figure. In the ACT the Greens now have racked up remarkably consistent scores at three successive elections, scoring between 9% and 10% each time.

The only other Green vote close to this level was in WA in 2001, and there has been no chance to see if this will hold, although so far the opinion polls are favourable.

The same applies overseas. The Greens have scored results of the same order as this one in several European countries as well as Mexico and New Zealand. In most cases they have followed it up with an even higher vote the next time around. The major exception is in a number of ex-communist countries. In quite a few of these cases Greens played a leading role in establishing democracy, and were rewarded at the first election. After this their vote generally declined, although in a few cases they have made comebacks since. This does not seem a terribly relevant precedent for Victoria. The one case I can find where the Greens scored a very strong vote which then melted into air was the UK European Parliament election of 1989, where the Greens scored 14.9, which then collapsed to 3.1% the following time.

It would seem on this basis that the Greens cannot be certain their vote will hold, but that history favours their chances.

There is one substantial problem for the Greens however. In most of the cases referred to above, the Greens were rewarded for their efforts by winning one or more seats. Some of their votes in subsequent elections may have been an endorsement of the performance of the MPs. In Victoria there may be raised expectations the Greens cannot meet without parliamentarians.

Will there be someone else?

It is also interesting to speculate who the some one else Senator Ray predicts will replace the Greens will be. At the moment there really seem to be few candidates. One Nation is unlikely to ever be much of a force outside QLD and WA again, and certainly not in Victoria. While I give the Democrats a better chance of recovery than some observers, they have never had a strong presence in state government outside South Australia, and it is hard to see them having an impact in Victorian elections for a long time, if ever. None of Socialist Alliance, DLP, Christian Party, CEC or Hope Party have any chance of becoming a substantial force by the next election indeed most will be lucky to run more than 10 candidates next time.

It is possible that Independents will become more numerous and take a larger share of the vote. However, in the next parliament the Independent MPs will have far smaller profiles than in the last one, and very few new candidates managed to capitalize on what was available this time. It is hard to see a major rise coming from there.

Nor is it likely that the major parties will greatly eat into the Greens vote. The Liberals are far too shambolic to seriously alter their image in the way required, and any attempt by them to become more green in opposition would be hard to take seriously. The ALP will undoubtedly deliver green policies in some areas, but the longer they are in government, the more anger will grow in response to the areas where they do not. The Nationals certainly do not pose a widespread threat.

A new party is always possible, but most substantial new formations in Australian politics are lead by a sitting MP. Who in the federal or Victorian parliament has the profile and desire to create a new party Carmen Lawrence? Meg Lees? Perhaps not.

The only real threat to the Greens it would seem, is themselves. It is quite possible that a round of infighting to rival the Democrats will break out, and their vote will consequently collapse. However, there is no particular reason to think this will happen. After all, Green parties have existed in other states for many years without disastrous internal divisions. If the Greens do not decide to engage in internal warfare, the record suggests they that they will score a result somewhere between a small decline, and a substantial, but not enormous, increase, probably a result in the 8-15% range. Hardly a flash in the pan.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW