The ALP has narrowly held on to the Victorian seat of Melbourne despite a swing to the Greens in the July 21 by-election. Greens candidate Cathy Oke won the highest primary vote, getting 36.5% to ALP candidate Jennifer Kanis’ 33.4%.
But distribution of preferences gave the ALP 52% and the Greens 48%. The Greens’ vote increased by 4.6%.
The Liberals did not run in the election, although a Liberal Party member running as an independent won 4.7% of the primary vote.
The election was ostensibly fought on local and state issues, but in the weeks leading up to the poll ALP leaders nationally made a number of public attacks on the Greens, despite the federal minority ALP government relying on Greens support.
What was notable in the local campaigns was that both main candidates — and most of the 14 other candidates — pitched their campaigns toward progressive voters: supporting increased public transport and public housing and opposing the Victorian Liberal government’s cuts to TAFE.
But it was overshadowed by vitriolic attacks on the Greens by ALP leaders in the national media and at the July 14 NSW ALP conference.
NSW ALP secretary Sam Dastyari launched the attacks. Federal parliamentary whip Joel Fitzgibbon foreshadowed a motion to the conference to automatically preference the Greens last in elections, as was done to the far-right One Nation Party in the 1990s.
Using the language of Tony Abbott’s Liberal opposition and the Murdoch tabloids’ stable of right-wing columnists, they called the Greens “loopy”, “fringe” and “extremist” on account of progressive social policies apparently unacceptable to “mainstream Australia”.
In a July 8 column in the Sunday Telegraph another figure from NSW ALP right, Australian Workers Union national secretary Paul Howes, made attacks in a similar vein.
After negotiating with the left faction, the NSW motion was modified to not automatically give the Greens preference.
ALP left faction leaders attacked the Greens along more nuanced lines. Senator Doug Cameron explained that the Greens were not loopy or extremist for having progressive policies but were obstructionist for sticking to them. “It’s all care and no responsibility for those guys,” he said in the July 10 SMH.
The context was the Greens’ refusal to compromise its human rights-based policy on refugees in federal parliament and choose between the ALP’s policy of deporting refugees to Malaysia against the Liberals’ policy of deporting them to Nauru.
The media echoed the claims that the Greens’ progressive policies are an electoral liability. But the swing to the Greens in Melbourne is consistent with steadily rising support for the Greens throughout the country.
In contrast, the ALP’s electoral fortunes are declining.
The Sex Party’s Fiona Patten came third in the Melbourne by-election with 6.6%. The Sex Party has a social libertarian outlook: opposing internet censorship, and supporting legalised abortion, gay rights, voluntary euthanasia and the decriminalisation of all recreational drugs.
Given the ALP’s attacks on the Greens for holding similar policies on these issues it is surprising that the Sex Party gave its preferences to the ALP over the Greens. Patten justified this in a July 19 interview with 3AW with concern over “anti-sex feminists” in the Greens.
Leaving aside the improbability of even the most dour feminist in the Greens being more anti-sex than the religious conservative elements in the ALP, this ignores the Greens’ and ALP’s actual policies. Moreover, as with the policy supporting marriage equality adopted last year, when the ALP does adopt progressive policies the party’s religious right is allowed to use “conscience votes” to make the policy meaningless.
Given the narrow margin by which the ALP won the two-party preferred vote, the Sex Party’s allocation of preferences was possibly decisive in the by-election result.