Greens' Fremantle win: Can the Greens challenge Labor?

May 23, 2009

The victory for Greens candidate Adele Carles in the May 16 by-election for the WA state seat of Fremantle is a breakthrough for the progressive movement and a testament to the Greens' consistent efforts to raise a left alternative to Labor.

Beyond the boundaries of that electorate, it is a reflection of the broader, growing popularity of the Greens.

As it becomes clearer to more people that PM Kevin Rudd is continuing many of the hated policies of the previous Coalition government, parties articulating progressive alternatives are getting more attention.

For the first time, the Greens won a higher primary vote than Labor.

With preferences from the Socialist Alliance and two independent candidates, the Australian Electoral Commission's notional preference distribution gives Carles an emphatic 53.92%, while the ALP's Peter Tagliaferri received 46.08%. This seat now gives the Greens party status in the WA parliament.

The result delivered a bloody nose to the ALP, which had held Fremantle for 85 years. In particular, it was a sharp rebuff for the party's increasing tendency to parachute in "star candidates" over the objections of local branches.

Tagliaferri is a millionaire property owner and the mayor of Fremantle. He has no history in the Labor Party, joining only in April to facilitate his nomination.

The result has sparked a lot of commentary about the threat posed by the Greens to similar inner-city ALP seats. However, the by-election was also shaped by factors particular to Fremantle that seriously undermined Labor's campaign.

1. Carles is highly respected for her leading role in a campaign against a beachfront housing project approved by the previous Labor government in breach of its own planning regulations.

2. The Greens were desperate to win their first ever WA lower house seat, probably outspending the ALP on advertising and certainly running a more creative and appealing campaign.

3. The ALP machine cynically manipulated its own rules and the timing of the sitting MP's resignation to ensure that local members had no say in the selection of its candidate. To rub salt into the wound, it emerged that Tagliaferri was a member of the Liberals' "500 Club" of capitalists who make big donations in return for special access to the top.

Some local ALP members abstained from the campaign or called on people to vote Green or socialist.

4. The ALP how-to-vote card preferenced Family First second and the Christian Democratic Party fourth, while placing the Greens and Socialist Alliance second last and last respectively. The deliberate courting of the right-wing religious parties fuelled disgust.

5. The Australian Services Union campaigned against Tagliaferri at the Fremantle May Day march because his council has been pushing non-union contracts paying 10% less than the union agreement.

The ALP's attempts to get unionists to march with its contingent instead of their union backfired and inflamed the anger.

6. Some unions refused even token endorsement of the Labor candidate, while others felt obliged formally to give the nod but did not mobilise for the election.

7. The Liberals decided not to run, splintering the conservative vote between three "independent Liberal" pro-business type candidates and three right-wing Christian parties. Undoubtedly, some former Liberal voters also went to the Greens.

8. A consortium proposing an enormous Dubai-style playground for the rich on the beach next to Fremantle Port threw a lot of advertising dollars around, hoping to stave off a Greens victory. If built, this would create pressure to close the port, angering maritime workers and people appalled by yet another proposal to, in effect, privatise a section of the beach.

Tagliaferri sensed the sharply polarised views and tried to sit on the fence, only angering people opposed to the project.

While a lot of Labor's internal debate about the loss has spilled into the open, embattled leader Eric Ripper insists that Tagliaferri represented its best chance of winning. He has predictably tried to blame the electorate for the party's loss.

First, Labor claims that, as wharfies and other blue-collar workers have moved out of Fremantle, the seat has gentrified and become more conservative.

Certainly the social composition of inner-city Fremantle has changed. It now includes more white-collar workers, professionals and university students. But the charge that its voters have become more conservative doesn't stack up. In the September, 2008 state election the Liberals scored 30.2% versus 38.7% for Labor and 27.6% for the Greens.

In the by-election, the ALP scored 38.56%, the Greens 44.05% and Socialist Alliance 2.29%. The electorate has in fact shifted to the left.

Second, Labor claims the Greens won only thanks to Liberal voters who could not bring themselves to vote Labor. Certainly some of the Greens' vote must have come from former Liberal voters, and it may be that these votes got Carles over the line. However, what Labor can't bring itself to admit in public is that there is a swathe of Labor voters who shifted to the Greens and Liberal voters who voted Labor.

In the past the Liberals have preferenced the Greens over Labor in the hope of profiting from a Labor humiliation. However, more hard-headed conservative commentators can see that this short term gain is self-defeating.

In an opinion piece in the May 19 West Australian, conservative columnist Gerard Henderson said: "on policy matters, the Coalition is closer to Labor than the Greens. So it makes little sense for the Liberals to bring about situations where the Greens win seats at Labor's expense."

It may be hard for the Greens to hang on to the seat if the Liberals run next time, especially if the Liberals finish third and take Henderson's advice to preference Labor before the Greens.

The challenge for the Greens in this scenario would not be to try to keep fragile conservative voters, but to continue to carve out a space to the left of Labor, particularly establishing roots among blue-collar workers.

The Greens now plan to target safe Labor seats in inner-city Sydney and Melbourne. As the effects of the recession continue to bite working people, and Rudd's dangerously weak stance on climate change angers many, it will be more important than ever that green, left, and socialist parties and activists continue to put forward pro-people, pro-environment solutions. People want to hear them.

[Sam Wainwright is co-convenor of the Fremantle branch of Socialist Alliance and was its candidate in the by-election].

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