The weekend was not exactly the happiest of times for the Greens.
In the Northern Territory, the party’s already minimal vote went backwards by 1.2 percentage points down to 3.1%. Still, that’s neither here nor there; the Territory isn’t exactly Greens-friendly. The NSW Greens’ performance in the Heffron byelection in NSW, however, was different.
The Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi picked up a 4.5% swing by the time Saturday night’s counting finished (58.8% of the vote counted). That doesn’t sound too bad, and may yet lift as counting is finalised this week.
The problem is, the Liberals didn’t run in Kristina Keneally’s old seat. Keneally suffered a 15+% swing in 2011 in what is normally Labor heartland. In the absence of the Liberals, the Greens were the chief opposition. The Greens’ John Kaye bravely declared back in July that Dr Faruqi would give Labor’s Ron Hoenig — who’s been the ALP mayor of Botany Council since before anyone can remember — “a run for his money” and that Labor would be worried. “The old parties are losing their grip on inner city electorates across Australia,” said Kaye.
Well, perhaps. But Heffron isn’t exactly inner-city. The northern end of the electorate, which includes Redfern, might vaguely fit the inner-city stereotype, and the parts of Erskineville in the north-west of the electorate do, more comfortably. But the rest is light industrial, before you get down to Roseberry, Mascot and Eastlakes. Much of the last is still blocks of 60s-era flats rather than gentrified terraces, although you can doubtless get a coffee these days at the Eastlakes Hotel, where I was an underage drinker and dedicated Ten Yard Fight player in the 1980s (Hoenig was mayor even then). This is a suburban electorate, not an inner-city one; it will likely go Liberal before it goes Green.
Despite that, that the Greens couldn’t pick up a healthy swing in the absence of a major party is not a good sign. Admittedly Labor ran pretty hard in an effort to present a “we’re on the way back” story, with Bob Carr (former member for Maroubra, next door) and local federal MP Peter Garrett manning booths on Saturday. John Robertson, a man as little known among NSW voters as he is liked within the ALP, who is filling in as opposition leader for a few years until Labor knifes him in favour of someone who wants the job and might be competitive against an older government, was duly presented with a strong swing.
Nonetheless, despite the brave front, this continues the Greens’ poor run of form at the state level since picking up a seat at the NSW state election in 2010, along with missing out in the Melbourne byelection and going backwards at the Queensland election. Polls suggest the party’s vote has stayed solid at the federal level, hovering around 10-11% consistently for an extended period, despite Bob Brown’s departure. But at a state level — and bearing in mind the Greens are a state-based entity — the rhetoric just isn’t being matched by results.