Higgins is often caricatured as the haunt of “doctors’ wives” (although the feminisation of the medical profession probably means there are more doctors’ husbands in the electorate).

But it’s much more diverse than most realise, ranging from the youthful and funky streets of Prahran and South Yarra (where the Greens won several booths), to the traditional Labor suburb of Carnegie (where we also won a booth), and across the swathes of comfortable affluence in the middle and north of the electorate (where the Greens vote was lower but that saw some of the biggest swings away from the Liberals).

Did we succeed in our goal of turning the Higgins by-election into a referendum on climate change? We know a third of those who voted in Higgins are open to a strong climate message.

Yet, after weeks of door-knocking and delivering leaflets across the electorate, I formed the impression that too few Australians have truly engaged with the problem of climate change and what it means for our future.

This will change as it becomes untenable to continue to ignore the transformed climate and the scientists’ warnings. Yet change is likely to be too slow, the more so because the Opposition has been captured by those who prefer ideological conviction to scientific evidence.

Nearly three in 10 Higgins electors didn’t even cast a vote.

Election campaigns are as much about the management of expectations as anything else. Voting behaviour is sticky but expectations can fluctuate wildly. Yet it is the gap between the two that determines how the outcome will be interpreted.

With a substantial share of Labor supporters opting for the conservatives, the unchanged Liberal total vote means a similar number of former Liberal voters ticked the Greens box. This is the “anyone but Abbott” factor that should worry the Liberal party.

Although the unique circumstances made forecasting the Higgins by-election result difficult, the Greens’ psephologist was in no doubt that a 35% primary vote was the best the Greens could expect. And on the day that was the outcome.

The only comparison is with the Kooyong by-election in 1994 when, in the absence of a Labor candidate, Peter Singer for the Greens secured 28% of primaries.

The Greens were asking the voters of Higgins — for the most part a secure and comfortable part of the country — to endorse a program of urgent and far-reaching change, a program of economic restructuring commensurate with the science but unprecedented in Australian history, other than in wartime.

So in Higgins on Saturday we did as well as could be realistically expected. Expectations, however, had been driven up to unrealistic levels by the turmoil in Canberra and the excitability of certain election analysts.

A day or two before the election, Liberal party operatives told the press gallery they were worried they might lose. As a media trick it’s an oldie, but it’s a goodie because of the gullibility of some journalists. Besides the media wanted Higgins, and to a lesser extent Bradfield, to be a test of voter reaction to Tony Abbott’s accession to the Liberal leadership.

Perhaps some indication of the political impact of Abbott’s victory can be had by examining the difference between Liberal support on election day and support among the 14% of voters who lodged pre-poll and postal votes in the three weeks before December 5.

The party was led by Abbott for only the last four days before the election and there was no last-minute rush to vote. On a two-party preferred basis, before election day 68.8% of pre-poll and 76.5% of postal votes went to the Liberal candidate. On election day, the Liberal vote fell to 57.6%.

The political ramifications of the Liberal party’s capture by climate deniers will play out over a long period. The party room, and the party membership, is now dominated by paleo-conservatives whose hatred of environmentalism has induced them to jettison 300 years of faith in science.

I fear we are seeing in Australia a repeat of the electoral polarisation over global warming in the United States that began in the autumn of 1997 when the Republicans launched a sustained campaign against President Clinton, the imminent Kyoto protocol, environmentalism and climate science.

It was a campaign that was to split beliefs on party lines. Before the Republicans’ “war on science” there was little difference between the attitudes of Democrat and Republican voters on climate change and the need to respond to it. Now there is a vast gulf in which, on the right, rejection of climate science has become a marker of cultural identity, a point of difference for those who cannot utter the word “liberal” without a snarl.

In this country it is unlikely we will see quite the depth of anti-environmentalism that infects the US right. Tony Abbott — who dropped his guard and declared “the argument about climate change is absolute crap” — must pretend he believes in human-induced warming while doing everything he can do prevent effective policies to counter it, including visiting a coal mine to say protection of the coal industry is the first priority.

On the whole, Australians like to think of themselves as concerned about the environment. But they are conservative people who do not change their voting behaviour easily.

Elections are fought over the votes of a small proportion of flexible voters, certainly less than 10% of the total, yet a shift in sentiment among these few is often described as a “landslide” or a “historic change”.

After all the talk about the historical significance of Barack Obama’s win, we should not forget that 49% of American voters preferred the Republican successor to the most inept President in history.

Clive Hamilton was the Greens candidate for Higgins and has returned to his position as professor of public ethics.

Peter Fray

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