The result of the Batman by-election on March 17, triggered by the resignation of Labor MP David Feeney over his citizenship status, shows Labor, with the right combination of candidate and policy, can hold off the Greens.
Labor’s Ged Kearney retained the seat, with 43% of the primary vote. The Greens’ Alex Bhathal, who many expected to win, received 39%. The Liberals did not contest the seat, although a variety of small conservative parties did.
Demographically, the Batman electorate is roughly divided in half, with Bell Street the dividing line. The Greens won most booths in the south among the white-collar professional, university-educated demographic. Labor won most booths in the north, where older migrants and a more traditional blue-collar working-class base reside.
But while the Greens won most booths in the south, there were big swings to Labor in every one of these booths. A few polling places that straddle Bell Street flipped from Greens to Labor.
In the north, the Greens recorded mostly small swings, with booths in the most northern parts of the electorate recording the biggest (5%+) swings. Only one of the northern booths flipped from Labor to the Greens.
The Greens campaign was focused on national concerns, such as the Adani coalmine and later, asylum seekers. Labor focused its campaign on local issues, such as housing affordability, education, transport and cost of living.
Although the Greens did issue some local policy, such as renationalising the electricity grid, it prioritised Adani and refugees, contrasting Kearney’s personal stance with Labor’s actual policy.
The Greens promoted its brand ahead of its candidate, while attacking Labor.
Labor made Kearney front and centre of its campaign. Although the Greens’ record of voting with the Liberals, particularly on pensions, was questioned, Labor did not attack the Greens.
Progressives do not respond well to negative campaigns and Kearney’s positive approach worked to her advantage. Labor’s newly-announced policy of abolishing franking credits — tax-free dividends on the shares of self-funded retirees — seemingly threw a spanner into the works as the establishment media and the Liberals came out strongly against it.
However, the Greens attempted to wedge Labor by playing both sides of the fence — agreeing to it in principle but pledging to make sure that “pensioners aren’t affected”.
Di Natale pitches to conservatives
The factor that likely cost the Greens most was its leader Richard Di Natale’s last-minute pitch to conservative voters. On March 16, the day before the election, Di Natale said: “Those people who might be inclined to vote for one of the conservative parties ... well, here’s your chance to say what you think about Bill Shorten’s attack on so many people in this community.
“We’re going to look very closely at the decision by Bill Shorten and the Labor Party that has the potential to really hurt struggling pensioners. If you’re concerned about that and you want to ensure that there will be some fairness ... that there is scrutiny on this legislation and that it gets amended through the Senate, well here’s your chance to do that. Vote for the Greens ahead of Labor.”
That pitch, along with the Greens’ fence sitting on tax imputation, was never going to resonate well within a progressive electorate.
The Greens had hundreds of volunteers working on its campaign, but Kearney had the backing of most of the unions and they pulled out all stops to get her elected.
Despite the Greens only recently winning the Northcote state by-election (an electorate that sits roughly within the southern half of the Batman electorate) there was not the same level of excitement for the Batman campaign. Perhaps there was some complacency, with the assumption that those who voted Greens in the past would continue to do so?
Another factor is that Kearney was a far better fit for the electorate, compared to her predecessor. Some Labor voters who may have gone to the Greens were willing to vote for Kearney. The idea of getting someone, with a strong personal record of progressive advocacy, elected who pledged to work to bring change from within was convincing.
Darebin Greens’ attack
The leaked complaint about Bhathal’s alleged misconduct by 19 members of the Darebin Greens branch would also not have helped the Greens’ campaign.
This group went on the record to say that they would rather see Bhathal lose the election to preserve the chance for a different candidate to run in the future. Although this complaint was taken up internally and it did register with voters, it is unlikely to have been the biggest contributor to the Greens’ loss.
Bhathal has been preselected by the Greens for the seat of Batman at the next federal election, though it is unclear if she will stand or not.
Kearney will become difficult for the Greens to dislodge. It will give Labor some encouragement and Kearney has some star power that may be hard to match.
Within the Greens, questions have been raised about whether Di Natale should stand aside from the leadership position. Questions are also being raised about the Greens’ policy focus.
The Greens had nearly everything going for them. Pundits and bookies alike were chalking this up as an almost certain Green’s gain. In the end, Labor achieved a 3.4% swing to it in two-party preferred terms.
This Batman by-election shows that left-wing, community-oriented candidates are key to winning or retaining seats in inner Melbourne. It also shows that people will punish incumbents and challengers who are seen to be pandering to the right or are otherwise seen as being out of touch with community needs.