Notwithstanding the Greens’ unduly stubborn refusal to concede defeat, it is beyond doubt that Labor is over the line in the Melbourne byelection. Its candidate, Jennifer Kanis, holds a 754-vote lead over Cathy Oke of the Greens, with only a few thousand votes outstanding and the tide of late counting running in Labor’s favour.

The result has surprised election watchers, national newspapers and, most memorably, Sportsbet, which went a step too far with its regular publicity stunt of paying out on sure-thing election results before the actual event.

As is often the case in byelections, there are enough intricacies in the result to allow interested parties to craft narratives to suit, be they Christopher Pyne comparing Labor-versus-Greens apples with Labor-versus-Coalition oranges, or Adam Bandt claiming a slight rise in primary vote share meant the electorate had “gone green”.

My own take on the result is that the Greens fell victim to an unexpectedly strong determination of Liberal supporters to deprive them of their votes.

One recourse was absenteeism, which saw turnout slump from 86.9% at the 2010 general election to no more than 67%. Another was informal voting, the rate of which shot up from 3.8% to 8.7%. Given the intensity of media interest, and the electorate’s high levels of educational attainment and civic engagement, these are remarkable figures.

Clearly some Liberal supporters managed to struggle their way through the ballot paper, but few seem to have given their support directly to the Greens, who have actually polled about 750 votes fewer than at the state election. That they were able to increase their overall share probably has more to do with relatively high turnout among their supporters than votes shifting in their favour.

Liberal votes instead scattered among the crowded field of minor candidates, of whom the best performers were Fiona Patten of the Australian S-x Party (6.6%), Stephen Mayne (4.7%), conservative independent David Nolte (4.7%) and the three Christian parties (6% combined), all of whom showed at least some tendency to poll most strongly where the Liberal vote had been highest in the past. Reflecting the pattern of Liberal preferences when they were directed against the Greens in 2010, these votes (which would have included a share of left-leaning supporters of Patten and Mayne) flowed about 60-40 to Labor.

Past state byelections had given the Greens cause to expect better. When the Liberals sat out the Marrickville byelection in inner-city Sydney in 2005, the Greens vote shot up 10.5%. In the Western Australian seat of Fremantle in 2009, Adele Carles claimed the seat for the Greens in the absence of a Liberal candidate by adding 16.5% to the party’s primary vote — and turnout actually increased.

That things were so different in Melbourne may well suggest that conservative voters are feeling more hostile to the Greens than they were a few years ago.

The result also fits a pattern of the Greens underperforming at state level in Victoria relative to federally. When Bandt won the federal seat of Melbourne in 2010, he polled 37.6% in the booths covered by the state electorate. This was almost exactly what Oke polled on Saturday, when the Liberals’ 28% share of the vote was up for grabs, and well above the 31.9% they polled at the 2010 state election. While this may partly reflect the fact that the hot-button issues for the Greens are most salient at federal level, it could equally be a reflection on a state parliamentary party that lacks a strong media performer.

As for Labor, while it can’t take too much joy at having dropped 3000 votes from the general election, it has room certainly for relief and perhaps even a flicker of satisfaction. Its primary vote has fallen 2.4%, which is about what pseph blogger Poliquant calculates as par for the course at byelections where the Liberals don’t field a candidate.

It is also clear that the 4.2% vote for independent Berhan Ahmed came largely at Labor’s expense, having been concentrated in a small number of booths where the Labor vote was correspondingly down (Stephen Mayne relates that Labor received about 80% of his preferences).

Certainly there are bad signs for Labor in the result as well, but they are nothing it didn’t already know about: that half its primary vote in Melbourne has vanished over the past decade, and that it is  becoming increasingly reliant on preferences in stitching victories together. However, it has equally been reminded that such victories can indeed be achieved, and that however calamitous things might be for it in Queensland and New South Wales, in Victoria at least the ship remains more or less afloat.

Peter Fray

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