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There is a long history of byelection defeats triggering major concerns or changes in a government and Victorian Labor’s loss of Northcote to the Greens on Saturday may very well be another classic of the genre.

The Andrews government threw everything at Northcote — pork-barrelling of school funding, slick preference deals with minor parties such as Reason, Animal Justice and the Liberal Democrats, $500,000 in party funding which included buying up all the best billboard sites, a range of new progressive policies and a steady stream of cabinet minister visits to the seat.

No stone was left unturned, including the deployment of almost 100 payroll personnel (MPs, staffers, paid union officials, etc) on Saturday and two-man teams hitting polling booths at lunch time on Friday to secure the best spots for bunting and corflutes.

So why did they lose?

Alas, the benefit of incumbency and big party resources was swept aside by a stunning Greens ground game involving more than 500 volunteers. The Greens outdid Labor in terms of residents putting up placards on their front fences by about five to one.

The preselection of Lidia Thorpe was the other decisive factor – the symbolism of Northcote voters making history by putting the first Indigenous woman into the Victorian Parliament was a powerful message for the door-knocking Green army to sell.

And the intelligent Northcote voters knew they could vote for Lidia Thorpe without jeopardising a progressive Labor government.

Labor’s Clare Burns was a good candidate too – but another right-wing union official who works at Trades Hall wasn’t a compelling proposition to voters. Maybe it’s time the ALP Left faction in Victoria was given Northcote because the Right certainly had no response to the Greens’ campaign on developer and gambling industry donations that Labor continues to take.

Byelections often lead to major protest votes but when the incumbent dies in tragic circumstances, as occurred with Fiona Richardson, the swing is usually much less.

A 12% swing against Labor in these circumstances makes the result all the more remarkable, especially given the government is performing quite well and the Northcote campaign was seemingly well executed.

How will Victorian Labor respond?

What will Labor under Daniel Andrew do given these sorts of swings normally presage a defeat at the next election?

We all knew Paul Keating was in huge trouble when his government got smashed in the March 1995 Canberra byelection when Labor’s primary vote crashed by 21.78%.

It was a similar story for Kristina Keneally in 2010 when Labor suffered a 25.7% swing against in it the Penrith byelection, which was later credited with giving momentum to Julia Gillard’s successful challenge against Kevin Rudd a few weeks later.

From Labor’s point of view, Saturday’s election was clearly a twin failure in terms of getting out the vote and persuading electors not to defect to the Greens, so the puzzling thing is why their polling didn’t pick this up and why they kept spending so much money as if it was always close.

I visited eight Northcote booths on Saturday pushing an anti-pokies message after the Labor government last month rushed legislation through the lower house which will issue new 20 year pokies licences until 2042.

All requests to stop, slow down, listen to victims, change direction or amend the legislation have been ignored by a government seemingly beholden to the pokies barrens. Before the Northcote earthquake, the upper house debate was scheduled to begin next week. This may now change.

The Greens have a strong anti-pokies platform so we put up corflutes, generated media, did a Tim Costello street walk in Northcote, surveyed the candidates and handed out material to electors on Saturday.

For some strange reason, the government gave ground on several other progressive issues — supervised injecting rooms, plastic bags, more power for renters – but ploughed on with its pokies legislation mid-campaign.

Tasmanian Labor is seriously considering going to next year’s election with a policy of removing the pokies from pubs and clubs, so Victorian Labor’s “business as usual” approach is under pressure and progressive voters certainly don’t like all the state-sponsored abuse and exploitation caused by letting high intensity pokies operate 20 hours a day in venues across Victoria.

Stephen Mayne is Communications Adviser for The Alliance for Gambling Reform and was not paid for this item.

Peter Fray

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