CPI strategic director and adviser to Field & Game Australia and the Australian Deer Association, Rick Brown, cautions against viewing the Northcote by-election as an endorsement of Greens policy.
Last November, the predictable happened: the Greens thrashed Labor in a Victorian by-election in Northcote, caused by the death of the sitting member, Fiona Richardson.
Experts and pundits who, not understanding of the dynamics of the electorate, relied on insider assessments and a ReachTel poll commissioned by the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) conducted nine days earlier, predicted that Labor would win the contest.
The poll was never credible and using it to claim that the creation of a new national park in the Central Highlands was not a critical issue for voters in Northcote was a high-risk tactic.
There should have been a focus on the key issues, which always were going to influence the result.
Since the 2014 state election, there has been about a 40 per cent turnover of voters in Northcote. Many of the new residents live in apartments. Few people living in apartments have children. Because of inner suburban property prices, household incomes in Northcote, and especially in suburbs like Alphington and Fairfield, need to be well above the average. At least a quarter of voters have a tertiary qualification.
This description fits the profile of a Greens’ voter.
Secondly, while the personal support for a local member is often exaggerated, there are exceptions.
Fiona Richardson was one of the exceptions. A comparison between federal election results in Northcote booths and state election results suggest her personal support was significant.
Then, the Liberals did not nominate a candidate. In the 2014 state election the Liberal candidate, who preferenced Ms. Richardson, obtained 16.5 per cent of the primary vote.
The Liberal Democrats nominated a candidate for the by-election, presumably at the instigation of Labor which they preferenced but their candidate obtained only a quarter of the 2014 Liberal vote.
For the best part of 70 years, Liberals and Labor have educated their supporters to put the candidate of the other party last on ballot papers.
Without advice to the contrary, it was foreseeable that many Liberal voters would put Labor last, bearing in mind that traditionally, in a by-election, it is easy to vote against the government.
This combination of factors easily explains a swing of 10 per cent against Labor.
However, the CFMEU tactic backfired, enabling the Greens to claim the by-election result is an endorsement of their policy to create another national park.
This result has other ramifications.
It should strengthen the position of those in both Labor and Liberal who argue that their party should focus on issues that are priorities for people living in the outer suburbs and regions, which is where most of the seats that determine governments are located.
During the election campaign, Labor announced a ban on plastic bags to carry groceries, the establishment of a heroin injecting room in Richmond and buttered up to animal liberationists. It did not get them a vote.
Being Green-lite is not the way to beat Greens. Ironically, this is an approach Ms. Richardson vehemently rejected.
Secondly, it has strengthened the argument of those inside Liberal ranks who argue that the simplest way not to waste money acting a siphon for Labor is not to nominate candidates in inner suburban seats.
This way the Liberals leave the Greens and Labor to battle it out without their having to choose between supporting Greens or acting as a prop for Labor.
Preferencing Greens has not helped the Liberals. The instinct of 80 per cent of Green voters is to preference Labor, and, regardless of carrots dangled by Greens’ leaders, their voters would not countenance their entering into alliances with Liberals.
All it has done is to send a message to Liberal voters that voting Green is a valid option.
It seems the Liberals have learnt the lesson. They have said they will not contest inner suburban seats in the Victorian elections next year and not nominate a candidate if David Feeney, the Member for Batman, of which Northcote is a significant part, has to resign, forcing another federal by-election.
Labor’s buttering up to the Animal Justice Party (AJP) to undermine the Greens was pointless.
The AJP claimed Labor secured the Party’s preferences by promising to spend $500 000 of taxpayers’ money on animal liberation issues, create Animal Welfare Victoria, issue an annual report on animal welfare issues, and devise an animal welfare plan.
Labor dismissed the claims, saying the AJP had nominated activities the Government already undertook or had intended undertaking.
Whatever the preference deal was, it was a futile exercise. Of the 773 votes the AJP attracted and the additional 160 votes they accumulated, Labor received only 30 per cent.
While the lessons to learn from the by-election appear to be obvious, it remains to be seen how Labor responds to the Greens’ challenge in the lead-up to Victoria’s state elections next November.