Bronwyn piked on Melbourne, now the Greens are set to swoop

Greens candidate Cathy Oke and deputy leader Adam Bandt will be hoping for a win this Saturday. AAP Image/Juolian Smith

Thanks to the hubris of Bronwyn Pike, the Victorian Labor party is forced to contest a byelection this weekend it did not want or need.

After years of opportunities provided by the Labor party to the former Labor member for the state seat of Melbourne during the good times, Pike has left it vulnerable to the Greens in the byelection caused by her retirement. It will not be lost on her that there will repercussions at the federal level.

With friends like this, Victorian Labor leader Daniel Andrews really doesn’t need enemies.

From safe to swinging

Andrews’ position is made even more fraught when the federal impact is taken into account. Once upon a time, both the federal and state seats of Melbourne, which are geographically the same, were among Labor’s safest seats.

But since the early 2000s, the Greens have steadily been gathering momentum in Melbourne, emerging as the second most preferred party for voters behind Labor and ahead of the Liberal party. Their growth culminated in the historical win for Greens’ candidate Adam Bandt, who wrested the federal seat from Labor in 2010.

The general expectation is that the Greens will win Saturday’s byelection for the state seat. This not unreasonable forecast is based partly on a view that there is no reason why the defection of Labor voters to the Greens that began in the 2010 federal election should stop now given the approach of federal Labor under Julia Gillard to such key issues as asylum seekers.

Strategic absence

The dynamics of the Melbourne byelection appear to be identical to two other Green successes over Labor in recent federal and state byelections – the federal contest for Cunningham in 2002 and the Western Australian state seat of Fremantle in 2009.

Cunnigham had 13 candidates and Fremantle had 11, but the Melbourne byelection has attracted a Caulfield Cup field of 16 candidates. Most of these are left-leaning, directing preferences to the Greens. And yet, amongst the phalanx of starters, there is no Liberal representative.

The Liberal party’s absence from this contest is a strategic master stroke. By withholding a candidate the contest can’t become a battle between the state government and the opposition at a time when the Ted Baillieu government is struggling in the polls. Particularly since byelections tend to always produce anti-government swings anyway.

It can’t be about state issues if the state government doesn’t come out to play.

Federal angst will thus inevitably leach in to a state contest. Without a Liberal endorsed candidate, the byelection can only be a battle between the opposition forces in Victorian politics, the outcome of which is going to be very damaging for either the Greens or Labor. But in this battle, it is Labor that has much more to lose.

ALP angst

Were Labor’s Jennifer Kanis to defy the expectations of the pundits and win Melbourne, the implication for the Greens would simply be that support for the party had reached a plateau, and that it will never win a seat in the Legislative Assembly (lower house). This is not a big deal, really, for the main role for the Greens is in the proportionally elected Legislative Council (upper house) and future prospects for winning seats remain very high.

If, however, Labor loses Melbourne to the Greens, all sorts of problems will emerge for the ALP.

It will give succour to an emerging view that the Greens are enjoying such momentum that Labor is surrendering its inner-urban seats. This view will resonate in federal politics, particularly where there is interest in whether the Green momentum will secure more federal lower house seats, especially in Sydney.

It will also resonate within a federal Labor caucus already at war with itself over the nature of its relationship with the federal Greens.

Meanwhile, back in Victoria, a loss to the Greens will destroy the credibility of opposition leader Daniel Andrews. The Liberal-National coalition state government, with all its policy problems, will gleefully sit back and enjoy the sight of Victorian Labor agonising over the result and what to do with a lame duck leader.

The irony here, of course, is that the Liberal Party will eventually give the seat back to Labor, especially if they maintain the policy followed in the 2010 election of directing preferences away from the Greens.

The Greens’ Cathy Oke may be the next member for Melbourne, but her tenure will probably only extend until November 2014 when the next general election is due and when the Liberals return to the contest. In the meantime, Premier Ted Baillieu and his colleagues will toast the name of Bronwyn Pike and her contribution to giving the Liberal-National state government a break from relentless criticism at a most opportune time.

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