Melbourne By-Election: Too Close To Call, But The Messages Are Mixed

With the Victorian Electoral Commission posting final figures for the night — on about 60% of all votes counted — Labor leads Communist Greens candidate Cathy Oke by about 200 votes after preferences. Tomorrow the count will proceed, but the trends are already clear.

Today’s by-election in the state seat of Melbourne — caused by the resignation from Parliament of controversial former Labor minister Bronwyn Pike — has as expected gone down to the wire; it will likely be some days before a definite result is known.

At the close of counting, Dr Oke has a reasonable lead on primary votes over the ALP candidate, Jennifer Kanis, and is ahead by 37.75% of the vote to 32.41% (or about 1300 votes) which gives Ms Kanis a slender 50.4% lead, after preferences, based on the nominal distribution from the votes counted by the Commission this evening.

Twitter colleague (and usually dead-eye accurate source of information) @ghostwhovotes is reporting that when postal votes are added, the Labor vote after preferences increases to 51.38%, so whilst that would put Kanis in a good position, it’s still a trifle early (at 11.30pm) to call the result.

Much has been written about this by-election in recent weeks and days, and a lot of silly interpretations of what its result would mean have been made; interesting, that, given technically there still isn’t a result to interpret.

Still, there are a few observations I would make, and these are generally out of step with some of the wild pronouncements that have been made in the mainstream press.

This is a bad result for Daniel Andrews and the Victorian ALP; 18 months after the state election that ended Labor’s stint in government, its vote has gone backwards quite sharply in an electorate it should have easily retained.

There has been a lot made of the fact the Liberal Party did not contest this by-election; accusations of cowardice have been levelled at that party for not standing a candidate on the basis it had too much to lose on account of the supposed inaction and poor performance of the state government under Premier Ted Baillieu.

This ignores the fact that the Liberals under Ted Baillieu have generally chosen not to contest vacant Labor electorates at by-elections; I think this has been a mistake, especially in Albert Park a few years ago, in Niddrie earlier this year and in Melbourne today.

Even so, looking at the votes cast today and those recorded at the state election in November 2010, it’s easy to see the Liberal vote didn’t “go” anywhere, per se; Labor and the Greens aside, the other 14 candidates pulled in about 30% of the total vote between them, and that figure — in round terms — is what the Liberals got at the last election.

And whilst Labor has suffered a swing against it based on the 2010 result, the primary vote movement has largely been a direct transfer of votes from the ALP to the Greens, and not enough — it seems — to have cost it the seat.

Indeed, the likely result looks very similar to the state election result in Melbourne from 2006, when the Liberals both stood a candidate and directed preferences to the Greens.

And so, this is a bad result for Andrews and the state ALP. Why? Very simply, having run as hard as he has for as long as he has on the theme of what might be termed the general uselessness of the Baillieu government — aided, it must be said, by the commentary and coverage of virtually every media outlet in Melbourne — Andrews and his party have gone backwards in what traditionally is a heartland electorate.

If the germs of a move back to Labor existed, they would have been visible today; as a rule, the heartland always returns to the fold of a beaten party before the marginals do, and as it stands, Labor has suffered a swing of just over 5% against it in Melbourne and will struggle to retain the seat.

And despite Andrews’ exhortations to voters in Melbourne, there is no “message” being sent to Ted Baillieu on this occasion.

It suggests Andrews has a lot of work to do; many of the issues he has been most vocal about — transport, infrastructure, public service levels — are more keenly felt in the Melbourne electorate than elsewhere in the state. Obviously, that message has not resonated. And the Melbourne electorate, today, has dealt Andrews a significant setback.

It’s been a good result, conversely, for the Greens, and whilst Dr Oke may not have won the electorate — this time — it is clear that the Greens continue to encroach into traditional Labor areas, leaching support and votes, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

I don’t think the contest between the Greens and Labor for support and votes has much to do with the federal government, and it certainly has nothing to do with the Liberals not standing today.

Rather, I believe what we are witnessing is the early stages of a fundamental realignment of the mainstream Left in Australian politics, which may well end with the emergence of a new major force representing so-called progressive policies along the lines of the Social Democratic parties in Europe and the Democrats in the USA. Time will tell.

In any case, Oke has done just as well today in receiving preferences as the Greens did in 2006, when Liberal candidates were preferencing them, which is a hint that the whole Libs not running/not directing preferences concept did not cost the Greens seats in 2010.

Clearly, nobody will ever definitively know what the result may have been had the Liberals run a candidate. But as it stands, the flow of preferences has been roughly 60% to the ALP and 40% to the Greens, which is about what might be expected — accounting for the leakage of preferences — had there been a Liberal candidate directing Labor be placed ahead of the Greens on how-to-vote cards.

I am told that Oke is earmarked by the Greens as someone with a bright political future; someone who will be the face of the Greens in Victoria for many years to come. Whilst I disagree with her party and her politics completely — on every level — she has done herself no disservice today, and her performance builds on the general momentum the Greens have been creating in inner Melbourne for several years.

Today’s result is a good one for Julia Gillard, but not for the obvious reasons; clearly, Labor winning the seat means she and her government cannot be made scapegoats for yet another electoral disaster, but by the same token Gillard has studiously avoided campaigning in Melbourne, and Andrews has studiously avoided enlisting her to do so.

Today’s result — warts and all — reflects squarely on Daniel Andrews, and if I were him I’d be looking for ways, urgently, to lift my game — and fast. This result is a loud wake up call to Victorian Labor; whether it listens or not is another matter altogether.

And of Ted Baillieu?

It’s hard to say whether this is good or bad for Baillieu; if Labor wins, his strategy to deny the Greens entry to Parliament at all costs appears vindicated; if the Greens win, the breathing room for the Coalition on the floor of Parliament becomes that little bit clearer. Either way, Baillieu wins, but here’s another reason the Liberals should contest every by-election that occurs on its watch from this point forward.

Had the Greens won today, Baillieu would confront a dilemma at the next state election: preference Labor in a seat like Melbourne and risk handing the ALP the gain of a seat at a tight election; preference the Greens and make a mockery of the “principled” anti-Greens stand made prior to the 2010 election.

If the Greens are to win lower house seats — in Victoria or anywhere else — it’s essential that they do so with a Liberal candidate on the ballot paper, even if the Liberal directs preferences away from the Greens.

To do otherwise would be to risk a repeat of the sort of scare campaign used against the Coalition over preferences and One Nation 15 years ago; it was badly handled then and it hurt the conservatives; this is precisely the type of scenario that could do so again.

The only alternative would be to pick a handful of seats — say, Melbourne, Northcote, Brunswick and Richmond — and never contest them, or to run “Independent Liberals” in these seats. Another possibility would be to run National Party candidates in these seats as “Coalition candidates.”

However, these options would simply disenfranchise voters in these areas wanting to vote Liberal, to say nothing of breeding resentment in local party branches that could intensify into a major internal brawl the Liberal Party didn’t need.

It’s obvious Labor — setting all the problems with its federal wing aside — has its fair share of problems to deal with at present; today’s vote underlines this, although it is not readily clear as to how the ALP can deal with these, let alone resolve them.

Where it goes from here, however — in Victoria at least — is a matter for another post, and another day.


Questionable Preferences: Putting Greens Last A No-Brainer For Labor

Much has been made this week of  whether the ALP should, in future, place the Communist Party Greens last on future how-to-vote cards; I say this is not simply a no-brainer, but that it goes nowhere near far enough. The Greens must be removed from Australian Parliaments.

It may surprise many readers to find me not only agreeing with an ALP apparatchik and henchman, but advocating a position that goes much further down the same path as the one that was initially proposed.

The NSW state secretary of the Labor Party, Sam Dastyari, has said the party should consider preferencing the Greens last at the looming federal election, describing them as “extremists not unlike One Nation,” saying that Labor must “stop treating them like they are part of (our) family.”

Dastyari will move a motion at next weekend’s NSW ALP Conference calling for the automatic allocation of preferences to Greens candidates to be discontinued; the motion apparently comes with a declaration that “extreme elements” of the Greens’ agenda “are at odds with the values…of many Labor voters.”

His declaration, if followed through upon and moved in those terms, is correct.

But more to the point, elements of the Greens’ agenda — extreme or otherwise — are at odds with the values and needs of almost all voters, not just those of Labor stripe.

Ted Baillieu — a Liberal — pulled off a surprise victory at the 2010 state election in Victoria; in part, this was generally attributed to a refusal by the Liberal Party to allocate preferences to the Greens ahead of the ALP across the state.

The Greens had refused to preference Coalition candidates in Victoria; in return, Baillieu’s campaign returned the favour by refusing to place the Greens ahead of Labor on how-to-vote cards.

And significantly, Baillieu stated publicly that preferencing the Greens was a one way street; for years, Greens candidates had been only too willing to accept preferences from the Coalition parties, but had mostly refused to allocate preferences to the Coalition and — in the vast majority of the historically small number of instances in which the Greens did not preference Labor — instead issued open preference tickets.

In other words, whichever way you look at it, the Liberals got nothing.

Which is why Dastyari is clearly onto something. In venting his apparent frustration toward the Greens, he says — and I quote him here from The Weekend Australian

“The Greens…take the Labor Party for granted…they have put us in a position where sometimes anywhere else would be better with our preferences, and that includes even the Coalition.” (My bolding added).

The Greens took the Liberals and the Nationals for granted for years, too, over the allocation of preferences until a stop was put to it in Victoria; now it seems some in the ALP are awake to the game as well.

On one level, they certainly should be; the Greens aren’t so much a parasite as a creeping fungus, cloaking and choking the life out of its host. But on another, this is the Labor Party we are talking about, and there is ample evidence that many in the ALP simply do not recognise the problem and refuse to see the danger, let alone address it.

To kill two birds with the one stone, it is of course necessary to look no further than the present government in Canberra to see the damage the Greens are capable of inflicting and the inability and/or unwillingness of the federal ALP to do anything about it.

Fortified by Labor preferences and armed with a hung Parliament, the Greens emerged from the 2010 federal election with the balance of power in the Senate and a critical vote in the House of Representatives obtained by winning the traditionally safe Labor electorate of Melbourne (incidentally, on Liberal Party preferences).

Desperate to hold onto power at virtually any cost — and this is an old story now — Julia Gillard cobbled together a hotchpotch alliance to enable her to form a government; whilst the key to that deal was securing the votes of Independent MHRs, its bedrock was the coalition agreement she entered into with the Greens.

The deal effectively secured a Senate majority and put Labor within reach of the lower house once key Independents signed on. Thus, Gillard and her government are beholden to the Greens.

To recognise the damage the Greens have since inflicted on the ALP, it is first necessary to look beyond the damage the ALP has inflicted upon itself; the professionalism that characterised the Labor Party of the Hawke-Keating era is long gone, replaced with a return to the mediocrity and ineptitude that symbolised Labor for decades.

The Greens might be “at odds” with the values of the Labor Party, but the Labor Party itself doesn’t exactly do a great deal to advance those values itself these days — whatever those values actually are.

Even so, virtually every major policy debacle afflicting the Gillard government has been, at best, exacerbated by the Greens.

At worst, these fiascos have been directly engineered by the Greens in ruthless exercise of their power over an abject government desperate to cling to office: firstly in the name of doing “whatever it takes,” and now to stave off the approaching electoral annihilation Labor faces for as long as possible.

For example, the carbon tax. A broken Gillard promise, yes, but this was a condition upon which Greens’ support for the government was predicated; no carbon tax, no coalition agreement.

And whilst inconceivable that the Greens would ever support a Liberal government, or Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, the ALP capitulated on this condition in return for a guarantee of support on matters of confidence and supply.

To make this worse, the level at which the carbon tax was set — $23 per tonne — is recognised (by those who support such mechanisms as an emissions reduction measure) as being well above an appropriate level based on “world standards,” which would suggest a price of $10 per tonne would be more appropriate. Yet the high starting price was largely dictated by the Greens.

And to compound this folly even further, senior figures in the government are now examining the prospect of modifying the carbon tax by reducing the price per tonne as a possible means of salving the political fury it has caused; whilst these discussions proceed — possibly as part of a wider move to change the Labor leadership again — the Greens are using the opportunity to attempt to raise the tonnage price even further.

Whilst such endeavours are unlikely to succeed, the scope for even greater political damage to be inflicted on the ALP is obvious.

To use another example, look no further than the mess which currently exists around the issues of unauthorised boat arrivals, asylum seekers, and people smuggling.

In its obsession with abandoning Howard government policies and its stubborn refusal to admit error in doing so, Labor under Kevin Rudd foolishly and ill-advisedly dismantled the so-called Pacific Solution; fast-forward four years from that event, and we now see boats arriving at will carrying thousands of asylum seekers each year.

The abolition of the Howard policy was cheered on (and waved through the Senate) by the Greens; now they have rendered Gillard incapable of achieving any meaningful resolution to the problems this caused by refusing to support any approach that includes the processing offshore of asylum seekers.

It is not unreasonable for the opposition — armed with a policy that was clearly effective for several years — to refuse to support Gillard’s half-baked schemes on this issue, especially those involving countries that were never told of arrangements supposedly made in their name (East Timor) or making five-for-one swaps that serve the interests of those countries far more than they do Australia’s (Malaysia).

But it is entirely reasonable for the Greens, as a formal coalition partner to the ALP, to be expected to reach agreement with its government ally in formulating, presenting and legislating a solution — even if such a package were to prove a failure, or be repealed by a future conservative government.

The simple fact is that on this issue, as with so many others, the Greens simply cherry-pick what is of interest to them, and dump the remaining crises in the Labor Party’s lap along with the political rancour that goes with them.

And Labor — under Julia Gillard, at least — cannot or will not deal with those issues, the Greens in particular, or the consequent political damage generally.

Having regard to all I have thus far said, Dastyari is dead right — his party must not only throw off the shackles of its alliance with the Greens, but go the next step and refuse to allocate preferences to them.

It has already done so, in the forthcoming by-election for the state seat of Melbourne, vacated by former Bracks/Brumby government minister Bronwyn Pike; the Liberal Party is not standing a candidate, and Labor is directing preferences to Family First over the Greens’ candidate, Melbourne City Councillor Cathy Oke.

The reactions from the Greens range between moral indignation and outrage, and with the very clear suggestion that in placing a Family First candidate ahead of Oke on their preference ticket, Labor has somehow breached the absolute limits of decent and ethically permissible political conduct; that not preferencing Oke is tantamount to a criminal offence, or something to be burnt at the stake for in days gone by.

The decision was described by Greens MHR Adam Bandt as “a dirty deal;” the rhetoric around Green preferences is one thing, but the reality is something else altogether.

Says Dastyari:

“The Greens are to the Left what Pauline Hanson and One Nation are to the Right, and they share ridiculous, albeit different, economic agendas. With Bob Brown’s departure, I can’t see how the Greens have any chance of keeping extremism in check…If I had to share a caucus room with the likes of Lee Rhiannon (Senator elected in 2010 and a former propaganda writer for the USSR), I would have walked out too.”

Here we get very near the mark; Dastyari is bang on the money, and it speaks volumes that not only is his call for distancing the Greens made with no collaboration from his federal counterparts, but that those same federal colleagues appear incapable of recognising exactly what their so-called friends at the Greens really are.

They are not a party of the mainstream, but rather of the lunatic fringe; their left-wing agenda, similarly, sits not within the mainstream Left but on the hard Left.

They are not a party of democracy; look no further than the scheme proposed by Bob Brown to deny a future Liberal government the right to implement its election promises as the simple proof of that.

And they are not a party of the environment, but a party preoccupied with rolling back personal responsibility and freedom of choice, of rolling back national security and defence policy and replacing them with open and unrestricted borders, and of social issues such as gay marriage and multiculturalism that have nothing to do with the environment in any way, shape or form.

To me, it’s a no-brainer to put the Greens last on preference tickets, be they Labor, Liberal, or those of any other candidate.

I agree with Dastyari’s assessment that the Greens represent for the Left the same type of major and potentially existential problem that One Nation posed to the Right.

The big difference — insidiously — is that the slick Greens outfit is possessed of the political smarts and strategies that Hanson and her acolytes so obviously lacked, with the result that hundreds of thousands of people cast Green votes at every election in the belief they are voting for the environment, or strategically as a check on the major parties, or similar, when in fact they are simply perpetuating a massive and highly dangerous ruse.

I don’t just think the Greens should be preferenced last by all other comers; I also think it’s time to reform the electoral process to make it far harder for fringe groups like the Greens to establish a foothold in this country’s Parliaments at all.

Specifically, the establishment of thresholds (especially in the Senate and state upper houses) as exist in many countries abroad, by which parties not achieving, say, 7.5% of primary vote are excluded from eligibility to be elected on preferences; the abolition of compulsory preferential voting across Australia; tying the availability of public election funding for minor parties directly to the achievement of the primary vote thresholds I mentioned earlier; and legislating to force any registered political party with at least one sitting member of Parliament to face the same degree of scrutiny in terms of fiscal auditing and probity of conduct as is required of the major parties at present.

In short, to remove the advantage the Greens hold of being able to say whatever they like, to promise whatever they like, free from any accountability apart from the broad provisions of the current applicable electoral acts, whilst riding into Parliament on a fraction of the vote to hold the country to ransom with the resultant balance of power.

So I say to Sam Dastyari: good luck! For once, a Labor backroom boy has it dead right.

And I say to all readers who may be Greens voters — and, indeed, to any Australian contemplating voting for them — to do their research on the likes of Lee Rhiannon and other dubious figures in the “Green” movement; get hold of their platform, read it thoroughly, and don’t believe for a minute any promise by any Greens politician that what you read in their platform will never be implemented.

Policy platforms are not published as coffee table items; the Greens’ platform is no different in that respect. Given the chance, everything in the Greens’ manifesto would be implemented, and that is a very, very scary prospect.

And that’s the point. We are not talking here about an organisation that is harmless, or possessed of high and worthy ideals, a “safe spot” to park a protest vote or — God forbid — a movement preoccupied with the advancement of environmental issues.

Simply stated, the Greens are mad, bad, and dangerous.

And that is one reality which really does transcend the cross-political divide.