Dec 8, 2009

Hamilton: Lessons learnt from running in Higgins

The Greens' candidate in the weekend's Higgins by-election, Clive Hamilton, reflects on the successes and failures of his climate change-focussed campaign.

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.

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22 thoughts on “Hamilton: Lessons learnt from running in Higgins

  1. Kevin Cox

    One of the interesting things about Australian Political rhetoric is how the facts do not fit well with reality. The Greens for example, are reported by the media and perceived by the public as being concerned only about the environment. Liberals say they have policies and they continue to stand by liberal party policies.

    If we as electors believe that policies are important and we vote on “policies” rather than emotion then if the websites of the parties are anything to go by then you cannot vote for the Liberals as they have NO policies. The website has a platform from 2002 consisting of a set of bullet points where the word climate does not appear.


    The Greens have a comprehensive set of policies


    The Labor Party web site contains the labor party platform from 2009 which is a substantial set of documents with policy objectives.


  2. Graeme Lewis

    So sad that we are expected to absorb this self-serving nonsense!

  3. jacks

    “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.”

    Really clive? and how did you work that out? How do you know that the labor and liberal voters played musical chairs with their support?

  4. Peter Phelps

    Let’s see (in reverse chroinological order) the Green first preferences…

    Higgins: 32.55%
    Bradfield: 25.89%
    Mayo: 21.35%

    OMG – it’s a Hockey Stick! The Greens will win the next election in every seat in a canter!

    Now let’s add in some other ‘tree rings from Siberia’…

    Higgins: 32.55%
    Bradfield: 25.89%
    Lyne: 7.0%
    Mayo: 21.35%
    Gippsland: 7.0%
    Cunningham: 23.03%
    Werriwa: 5.55%
    Kooyong: 28.03%

    Hmm. The scientific consensus is that the Greens do well when every other major-party alternative option has been removed from the field of candidates. What an achievement! The ‘party of last resort’!

  5. Phillip Starkins

    Clive – your arrogance in assuming that “too few Australians have truly engaged with the problem of climate change and what it means for our future” on the basis of a few days campaigning in Higgins is breath taking. It is because Australians – particular those in Higgins – are all too aware of the consequences of the Green’s carbon agenda that your mob are rejected by the mainstream of the community. That the ALP did not have the guts to run demonstrate they know the public smell a stinking great big rat (in the proposed ETS) before the Senate.

    But of course by dressing this all up we’re over analysing and missing the most important reason that the Libs won; Ms. O’Dwyer is an intelligent, articulate, politically savvy young lady and a local resident. She campaigned for weeks and weeks on local issues and her depth of understanding of her electorate goes well beyond the one dimensional cut-out you offered – it is for these reasons that she is now the MHR Higgins.

  6. chinda

    You’ve said it yourself, Phillip; O’Dwyer ran on local and state government issues, not on the issues upon which she will be respresenting her electorate. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the federal Liberal Party and their policies!

    I thought one of the most interesting things about both by-elections (and, indeed, the results from the last federal election in these seats) is the quite different results. In Higgins there was only a very small swing away from Costello (1.72%) in 2007, showing (you would think) the strength of his personal vote. Therefore you would think that some of that vote would swing back at this by-election, but lo and behold, the Liberal TPP result actually went up by 1.33%, giving them a net -0.3% over the past 3 years. Pretty good I would have thought, especially looking at where the polls more generally are sitting.

    In Bradfield, however, Nelson copped a swing of 4.10% in 2007 and in the by-election, the Lib vote went back a further 3.33% – a net loss of 7.43% in under 3 years.

    Local issues, candidate issues or something else? There is something happening in Higgins that isn’t happening in Bradfield and I’d love to know what it is.

    Maybe one of our psephological boffins can explain.

  7. Rohan

    Phillip – based on your own (non-arrogant of course ) assumption that Higgins residents are all too aware of the consequences of the “Green’s carbon agenda” it was obviously too much for them to accept an average reduction in GNP per capita of 0.1% a year.

  8. John Inglis

    Clive, at the next election I will be giving the greens my first preference for the first time.
    If you were standing in my seat that would not happen.
    Perhaps the 3/10 non-voters in your election had similar thoughts.
    Dunno about ‘concerned’ or ‘conservative’ but we do have pretty good BS detectors.
    If you want to have another go at public office, might I suggest dropping the attitude?

  9. Richard Carter

    What does a professor of Public Ethics do?

  10. wonderfeel

    Congrats !! Amazing the Libs vote stayed the same even without a Labor candidate in the race !
    But your assumption that former Liberal voters opting for Greens as a reaction against Abbott seems unsubstantiated and even self-deprecating. 33% is a very encouraging shift !
    (The counter assumption about the drop in Lib support from postal/pre-poll votes to actual election day could also be explained by the earlier votes being mainly elderly voters who are likely to be more conservative.)
    I question whether you stayed on message re: climate change because wasn’t the launch focussed on the refugee issue ? And wonder whether you really applied the leverage of your economic credentials to resolve the economy vs ecology misnomer.
    I believe the main block to even greater support is people viewing the Greens as a cluster of reactive policies rather than a solid and dependable political option. But that said, its still impressive so many took that risk.

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