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.