Julia Gillard might want to distance Labor from those “extremist” Greens but a large proportion of Labor voters are not having a bar of it. In fact, it now turns out that the preferences from defiant Labor voters were crucial in the election of Jamie Parker, the first Greens lower house MP in NSW. They will also play a part in the almost certain victory of the Greens No.3 Jeremy Buckingham over Pauline Hanson in the Upper House.

Parker was confirmed as the winner of the closely fought seat of Balmain over the weekend with a majority of neary 2500 over Liberal James Falk. The margin of victory was due entirely to Labor voters ignoring the Labor how-to-vote card.

Only on Friday did Parker managed to overtake the sitting Labor member Verity Firth to claim second place by 205 votes but he was still 700 adrift of Falk. Firth was eliminated and her votes distributed, with nearly one third of them disregarding Labor’s official how to vote — which recommended only one preference, to independent Maire Sheehan — and preferencing Parker.

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Parker’s win and the likely victory of Buckingham, confirm the truth of that old cliche about a week being a long time in politics. It puts paid to talk of the Greens’ “failure” in the state election trumpeted by the likes of Labor MPs such as Luke Foley and Tanya Plibersek.

The Greens themselves now hover between joy and relief. They will draw a measure of satisfaction from the 20% increase in their statewide vote from 9% to 11% and their first win in a lower house seat in a mainland state election. The lower house seat of Marrickville might have been a bridge too far but even there the result is much closer than earlier thought — 50.7 to 49.3 on two-party preferred. Nevertheless their satisfaction will be tempered by the fact that the slight increase in their primary vote in Balmain and Marrickville was “disappointing” to quote one Greens campaigner.

The result does confirm what a canny election analyst Bob Brown can be despite his reputation for Pollyanna-ish readings of Greens’ electoral performances. On election night he refused to concede either Balmain or Marrickviile or the third seat in the Upper House and claimed that the absentee vote — or what he called “the bush-walker vote” — would heavily favour the Greens. The bush walker bit proved to be a piece of Tasmanian blarney but he was spot on about the absentee vote.

His prediction did not bear fruit until Friday when the last 2000 absentee votes were counted. They were from booths in the seats of Marrickville, Sydney and Vaucluse (a long way from the bush) and after they were counted Parker had come from 212 behind to 205 ahead of Firth. This meant Firth finished third and her preferences distributed — to the benefit of Parker.

Those precious Labor preferences will complicate the debate inside the Greens about their relationship with Labor. One Greens organiser told me that he believed the Greens alliance with Labor federally had contributed to the relatively small swing to the Greens in NSW. He based this on the theory that in an election where swinging votes want to get rid of Labor they wouldn’t vote Green (or independent for that matter) because they saw it as virtual vote for Labor.

It was this fear of being confused as a Labor ally that drove the Greens decision to explicitly not preference Labor. The same organiser points out that in the few seats where the Greens did preference Labor, the Greens vote dropped.

However, despite the frosty official relations at the top, an informal, grassroots alliance or overlap between Labor and Greens voters persisted. This should not surprise us as past research has shown that the Greens are much more likely to pick up votes from disillusioned Labor voters than anywhere else. The defiant preference vote in Balmain, and to a lesser extent in the Upper House, confirm that there is still a reservoir of goodwill and possible votes in the Labor camp for the Greens.

Among Liberal voters nothing like this exists — certainly not to the same extent. In appears that in Balmain less than 20% of Liberal voters decided to give a preference and they favoured the Greens only by 60-40.

Strangely, this leftward tilt in their support sits uneasily with many in the Greens. After all, the German Greens, who were the original inspiration for the Greens in Australia, used to claim they were “neither left nor right, but ahead”. This thinking still pervades many of the Greens. It is also worth recalling that the Tasmanian Greens once formed a coalition government with the Liberals.

Yet there seems no escaping the fact that the Green are a radical party, which may cut them off from the more conservative sections of society but not it seems from a large number of Labor voters — Julia Gillard notwithstanding.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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