It was a moderately interesting election weekend in Australia. Victorian local government elections, a state byelection in Sydney, and final results being declared from the recent ACT election.

Let’s take the ACT first. Good news for Labor, in that it will retain government and even managed a modest increase (1.5%) in its primary vote. But it lost bragging rights to the Liberals, who got a much bigger swing and outvoted it by all of 41 votes out of about 230,000. That netted the parties eight seats each — Labor up one, Liberals up two — with the balance of power held by the single remaining Green, who no doubt will again support Labor.

The ACT Greens lost almost a third of their vote and three of their four seats. That’s not quite as bad as it sounds, since their 2008 performance was abnormally strong; one of their wins then was pretty much a fluke, and so was one of their losses this time. But it’s certainly enough to feed the media’s preferred narrative of “Greens on the way out”, even though their vote stayed above 10%.

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The history of minor parties is that when their time comes, it comes suddenly and their vote drops precipitously. The Democrats fell from 7.3% to 2.1% in one Senate election; One Nation fell from 22.7% to 8.7% in one Queensland election. Further back, the DLP dropped from 5.2% to 1.4% in 1974. The Greens have not reached that point — perhaps this is a temporary rough patch, or perhaps they will again defy the precedents by staging a slow and graceful decline.

The local polls in Victoria certainly gave the Greens more encouragement. Not all results have been declared, but their stock of councillors overall seems to have stayed about the same, with losses and gains roughly cancelling out. But local elections are notoriously hard to interpret — especially in Victoria, where most councils use postal-only voting, which fosters voter ignorance and encourages dummy candidates and other shady electoral practices.

It also seems to favour incumbents, who generally do plenty well enough in Australia anyway. Name recognition counts for a great deal, and major shifts in control are rare. In the highest profile race, Melbourne lord mayor (and former state Liberal leader) Robert Doyle was comfortably re-elected with a swing of about 15% in his favour, but he will have to contend with a larger and more diverse council, including two Greens plus Crikey founder Stephen Mayne as an independent.

And that brings us to Sydney, where incumbency secured a powerful win for independent Alex Greenwich, who gained almost 50% of the vote on primaries and a comfortable 64% two-party-preferred. The actual sitting MP was Lord Mayor Clover Moore, but legislation this year prevented her from continuing to hold both jobs, and unlike everyone else in the same position she chose to give up her parliamentary seat, endorsing Greenwich to replace her.

Labor chose not to contest Sydney in order to boost Greenwich’s vote and be sure of keeping out the Liberals. It certainly worked; the Liberal vote dropped 5.5%, and the Greens gained by a relatively modest 4.8%. Greenwich, however, improved by 11.3% over Moore’s 2011 vote, a figure that exactly matched the vote of the missing Labor candidate.

At a federal level, there’s some comfort there for both Labor and the Greens. The Greens will be pleased to see Labor again shut out of the inner city, especially with their own strong vote in Adam Bandt’s patch of Melbourne.

Labor will point to the fact that it managed to hang on in the ACT, and that, taken in conjunction with recent opinion poll results, it does seem as if the worst of the anti-incumbent storm has now passed.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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