The historic Northcote Town Hall was absolutely packed last night for what was, even by the standards of inner city Melbourne politics, one of the more dramatic candidate forums you are likely to see as the November 18 Northcote byelection contest goes down to the wire.

Twelve candidates are shooting it out in the battle to replace Labor’s Fiona Richardson, who lost her battle with cancer in August.

Liberal preferences helped Labor stave off the Greens in Northcote at the 2014 State election but the 6.04% two party preferred margin is certain to shrink because the Liberals aren’t contesting and their 16.48% primary vote is expected to splinter.

The field is a smorgasbord of progressive and radical candidates and it was the independent candidates last night who received the loudest backing from the 300-strong crowd, as both the Green and Labor candidates were noticeably pushing the party line on a range of policy areas.

Policy debate ranged from public housing to Adani, logging, inequality, indigenous issues, rental policies, pokies and the need to move away from the tired positions of the big parties.

The Greens are coming after Labor and the stakes are high given a Labor loss would leave it with a one-seat majority and give the Greens significant momentum as they push for a minority government scenario at next November’s Victorian election.

If Greens candidate Lidia Thorpe is successful, she will be the first Aboriginal women elected into the Victorian Parliament. Andrew Bolt has been attacking her on his blog, although if anything this is expected to boost her support in progressive Northcote, as this Junkee report notes.

Thorpe defeated two local Greens councillors at the City of Darebin, veteran Trent McCarthy and newcomer Steph Amir, to win the Greens preselection, and has campaigned well.

The Labor candidate Clare Burns also has wide appeal and has performed commendably, so the situation is similar to the Melbourne byelection battle in 2012 when the Greens and Labor put up good progressive female candidates for a shootout which Labor ultimately won, courtesy of some clever preferencing arrangements.

This time Labor has the advantage of being in government and is certainly pulling out all stops to hold Northcote, including the following:

  •  Premier Daniel Andrews finally caved and threw his support behind a supervised injecting facility in North Richmond, thereby shoring up preference support from Fiona Patten’s Reason Party (formerly the Sex Party), which is running Don Chipp’s daughter Laura Chipp in Northcote.
  • A total of $12 million has been promised for a range of schools in Northcote, sparking accusations from the Greens that Labor is pork barrelling.
  • The Animal Justice Party has agreed to preference Labor ahead of the Greens after a policy decision by the government through the department of Agriculture to develop a new animal welfare focus.
  • Poker machines are not popular in Northcote, so the local Darebin council received one of the largest reductions in the cap on its poker machine numbers in the latest government review and the Grandview Hotel in Thornbury was the only venue in the state to have pokies entitlements removed.
  • With 40% of Northcote voters renting, the Andrew Government unveiled a radical new policy to reduce the powers of landlords, sparking industry claims properties will now be withdrawn from the market and the Greens to go even further with a promise of government rent controls.

The seat of Northcote falls within the boundaries of the City of Darebin where there was a dramatic power-shift after last year’s local elections. A council which was perennially dominated by Labor now has 4 out of 9 Green councillors and a Green mayor in City of Melbourne sustainability manager Kim Le Cerf.

Local federal Labor MP David Feeney, who is at risk of losing his seat of Batman to the Greens at the next federal election, attended last night’s candidates forum wearing a sharp suit and retreated to the Peacock Inn Hotel across the road for some beers after the forum.

The new Victorian Greens parliamentary leader Samantha Ratnam, the former Green mayor of neighbouring City of Moreland, was also there and was seen riding her bike home at 9.30pm.

If the Greens can prevail in Northcote, its Victorian party room will expand to eight with three lower house MPs and five in the upper house. Remarkably, seven of the eight would also be female.

I reckon the Greens will prevail in a narrow contest, despite being significantly out-spent by Labor which has bought up a majority of the best billboard sites for the duration of the campaign.

 A couple of the minor issues running in favour of the Greens include a higher position than Labor on the ballot paper and a positive preference flow from Vince Fontana. Fontana, the former Labor mayor of Darebin who is standing as an independent, is likely finish third on the primaries and is directing his preference to the Greens ahead of Labor.