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The Melbourne microcosm: how one seat may define the Green v Labor fight

The battle for the seat of Melbourne at this year’s federal election will be nothing short of a bruising affair. Melbourne is of enormous symbolic importance to both Labor and the Green Party. For Labor…

Melbourne MP Greens Adam Bandt is up for re-election at this year’s federal election. Lukas Coch/AAP

The battle for the seat of Melbourne at this year’s federal election will be nothing short of a bruising affair. Melbourne is of enormous symbolic importance to both Labor and the Green Party.

For Labor, the Melbourne contest is emblematic of its struggle to contain its increasingly fragmented base of support. Formerly a safe working class seat, Melbourne is now home to a growing number of affluent left-leaning voters. A failure to regain the seat will be widely interpreted as a sign that the party is losing the battle to find common ground between its progressive and more traditional working class constituencies.

In the case of the Greens, Melbourne will serve as a test of its success in converting more progressive inner metropolitan voters into rusted on loyalists. If the Greens cannot grow its support in an electorate with a demographic profile as sympathetic as Melbourne’s, then the party’s plans for political and electoral expansion beyond the Senate are sorely limited.

A loss in Melbourne will also prove problematic for the Greens in another important respect. In a party with seemingly more introverts than extroverts, Adam Bandt has emerged as one of the Greens most effective media performers. In the aftermath of Brown’s retirement particularly, Bandt’s accessible manner has helped to balance Christine Milne’s more abrasive style.

It is not surprising therefore that Bandt has been in permanent campaign mode in Melbourne since his election. But retaining the seat will be difficult, a point which Bandt acknowledges.

Bandt’s biggest obstacle takes the form of the two main parties.

While the big players have agreed about little over the course of the 43rd parliament, they do share a desire to expunge the Greens from the cross benches of the House of Representatives.

The big parties might be prepared to endure the indignities of minor parties in the Senate but they show little appetite for these interlopers in the House of Representatives, which is the equivalent of political holy ground for Australian parties.

The ALP will redouble its efforts to recapture Melbourne, which is likely to be assisted by its decision to establish its campaign HQ in Victoria.

The ALP has once again endorsed Cath Bowtell as its candidate for Melbourne. This time Bowtell’s campaign will not be hamstrung by lack of advanced notice, which blighted her efforts in 2010 owing to Tanner’s late resignation from the seat.

Bowtell is a good fit for Melbourne. Her liberal political views (not to mention her gender and local activist credentials) will bolster her appeal among the more progressive segments of the Melbourne electorate. Similarly, Bowtell’s union connections (she works for the ACTU) will enhance her credibility among Melbourne’s more traditional working class voters.

More importantly, Bowtell’s prospects of winning Melbourne are likely to receive a much needed boost from the Liberals.

While both of the main parties have been quick to denounce the Greens as radical, this belief resonates strongest within the Liberal Party and among its supporters.

It should come as no surprise that the Liberals are poised to preference the ALP ahead of the Greens in Melbourne.

There is very little risk for the Liberals in preferencing against the Greens. The Liberal’s anti-Green preference strategy was touted as a public relations triumph for the party at the Victorian State election in 2010.

There is no doubt that the wagons are circling Bandt. He is unlikely to win Melbourne on primary votes, even with aid of the much vaunted “sophomore surge”. To do so will require Bandt to achieve a herculean swing of 13.84%.

Nor is Bandt likely to secure election on the back of ALP preferences. In order for Bandt to benefit from the secondary preferences of Labor voters, Bowtell’s primary vote would have to fall below that of the (yet to be named) Liberal candidate. This would seem doubtful given the short shrift the Melbourne electorate has shown the Liberals historically.

But Bandt’s campaign is not entirely extinguished of hope. If Bandt can lift his primary vote into the mid 40% range (and the ALP’s primary vote falls slightly also) then he might just be able to get over the line with the help of leaked Liberal preferences.

This is not impossible. Not all Liberal voters will heed the party’s call to preference against the Greens. One third of Liberal voters in the seat of Melbourne at the 2010 state election defied the Liberal’s how-to-vote card instructions and preferenced the Greens ahead of the Labor candidate. If a similar percentage of Liberal voters were to do so at the 2013 federal election, Bandt could receive sufficient secondary preferences to gain election.

The stakes are undoubtedly high for both parties but for Bandt especially because there will be no easy solution to reinstating him using the senate casual vacancy option should he fail in his re-election bid. It is unlikely that one of the sitting Greens Senators will be prepared to martyr themselves on Bandt’s behalf but even if one of them did step aside, there is no guarantee that the fiercely independent state organisations would select Bandt (a member of the Victorian Greens) to replace their Senator.

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30 Comments sorted by

  1. Felix MacNeill

    Environmental Manager

    Well, the one thing Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dumber can agree on is thatt hey don't want anyone upsetting the comfortable old duopoly - now there at least is one issue where they both show some resolve and consistency.

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  2. Peter Ormonde

    Farmer

    Excellent thoughtful piece.

    One quibble - when waggons are circling up this is a defensive manoeuvre where John Wayne's waggon train is being attacked by pesky redskins.

    Sharks circle menacingly, waggons do not.

    If the Greens are thinking strategically they will stand as defiant outsiders to the two party system - and attack both sides vigorously... stand on the virtues of a hung parliament. Might not win but at least it will be a real choice of sorts.

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    1. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Felix, I'm not sure a strategy that means 'you might not win' is very sound!

      Incidentally, when you say 'Tweedle-Dum' and 'Tweedle-Dumber' - doesn't that mean most Australian voters are dumb?

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    2. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Wasn't me with the dumb and dumber either James... but I suspect it has to do with the limited choice offered by the vast filtering process that is our modern electoral apparatus and preselection.

      By the time folks get through that filtration and refinement we're often looking at the difference between butter and margarine.

      As to the strategy predicated on not winning - this is sadly what the polling might be suggesting I suspect. The ALP will be pumping serious resources into this. It is up to the Greens how much effort and resources they invest.

      It's also up the Greens how they respond to such a challenge ... they can try and turn it around in coming months but losing nobly is a pretty common fate for candidates in our elections. The trick is to know how to lose in a way the helps you win later or elsewhere.

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    3. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      Thanks Peter, it was indeed me who made the dumb and dumber comment, but you've pretty much covered the reasoning behind it.

      And I agree with you on the comments about strategy. It's not, as James rather lamely suggests a strategy that means that you might not win - the fact that Bandt might not win is rather established by the behaviour of the big parties. what you're suggesting, and I very much agree with you, is that you have to nail your colours to a mast at some stage - even if that does mean you will inevitably alienate some people.

      While I still have a fair bit of respect for Julia Gillard, I think she has demonstrated the ultimately self destructive pointlessness of trying to please everyone all the time.

      You can't win them all, nor should you try, but what does matter is offering voters a clear, honest choice, based on principle-driven policies.

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    4. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "Formerly a safe working class seat, Melbourne is now home to a growing number of affluent left-leaning voters."
      You really have to wonder what they tink "left-wing" means when middle-class luvvies come out with this stunningly classist smear.
      "A failure to regain the seat will be widely interpreted as a sign that the party is losing the battle to find common ground between its progressive and more traditional working class constituencies."
      "Progressive"? WTF?

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  3. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    Why do Greens supporters tend to live so far from the natural environment? And why, as advocates for sustainable population growth, are they attracted to the most densely populated suburbs?

    Not a criticism - just curious.

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    1. John Phillip
      John Phillip is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grumpy Old Man

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James, I think their location so far away from the environment is largely in order to facilitate the consumption of large quantities of latte. This, in turn, is an enabling activity that permits their superior (i.e. not tweedledumb and tweedledumber) intellects the opportunity to see the ‘big picture’ thereby allowing them to pontificate on the best ways to protect the rest of us from ourselves.

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    2. John Newton

      Author Journalist

      In reply to James Jenkin

      James - first question, the Greens principles are four: grassroots democracy, peace and non-violence, social justice and the environment. As for the environment, many critics of the Greens can't see it for the trees. In an urban society like Australia, the built environment is also important: the environment is where you live and work. School is an environment, your apartment block, your workplace.

      As for country Australians, the Greens still suffer from a perception that they are anti-farming…

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to James Jenkin

      It is a curious irony, I think its for the same reason that rural voters are less likely to accept climate change, less likely to accept LGBT individuals, etc

      I think your question is a little mis-framed though - for the curioustiy is not why greens supporters dont live in the environment, whats curious to me is why those that do live closer to the natural environment dont support the greens.

      I mean, your not advocating for inner city greenies to move to the country - your wondering why those that live in the country are not greenies.

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    4. Peter Ormonde

      Farmer

      In reply to Michael Shand

      There's actually a glacial shift occuring Michael at least around here which is rural to the bootstraps.

      Our local council - a bastion of real estate agents, developers and local business interests has just been invaded by a mob of women - yes women - with short hair and little interest in the CWA. Suspicions have been raised to fever pitch.

      There has been a steady increase in the numbers of greenies - not Greens incidentally - moving into the area, playing an active role in the community…

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    5. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to James Jenkin

      Higher density living means less wild habitat is developed for housing. That's a logical answer.

      In essence, though, the Greens are a mix of urban leftist, anarchists and old-style green conservationists. Often, these two 'wings' don't see things in the same way.

      And if anyone thinks this lot drink lattes, you ain't been there! (Actually, does anyone drink lattes?) Mr Phillip must be thinking of the environment wing of the Liberal Party -- all two of them.

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    6. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Yuri Pannikin

      Two of them, Yuri? Don't tell me yet another schizophrenic has joined the party?

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    7. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to Michael Shand

      No, Michael, the issue is not that country folk are not "greenies". The issue is that country folk do not vote for The Greens. They are not stupid. Everyone knows The Greens are just a bunch of watermelons, non-repentant Stalinists, with kooky fixations on 'Zionists', 'imperialism', and other issues from the 1930s. Not much in that to tantalise country folk.

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    8. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Newton

      John, I'm not sure what your idea of "grassroots democracy" is. But I'm pretty sure that more than 95% of Australians do not think that being governed by the UN is "grassroots democracy". But that is precisely what The Greens not only aim for, but already believe. They believe the UN is morally, politically, and legally a superior and more legitimate government of the Australian people than is the Australian parliament.

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    9. Kim Darcy

      Analyst

      In reply to John Newton

      "So why do most live in the city? Because the Greens have the most educated members of any of the parties, and that's where the jobs are."
      Hmmm...that's if you consider teachers and social workers "the most educated". The real standout demographic fact about urban Greens voters is their bizarre disproportionate childlessness. Why would inner-city middle-class childless types vote for The Greens? It's clearly not about 'the future of the planet/environment'.

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    10. Iain Cook

      Project Manager

      In reply to John Newton

      Adam Bandt was a student Marxist, which was and is an anti-democratic, anti-peace and pro-violence, and anti-justice movement, and would have been diametrically opposed to three out of four Green principles! How things have changed.

      On a more serious note, the Greens are notoriously reactionary with regard to material and technological progress and (shall we say) "adventurous" when it comes to social issues. Generally speaking, Labor working class voters are materially progressive and socially…

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    11. Yuri Pannikin

      Director

      In reply to Iain Cook

      "Adam Bandt was a student Marxist, which was and is an anti-democratic, anti-peace and pro-violence, and anti-justice movement."

      Many 'old school' conservationists and environmentalists left the Greens when the urban left moved in. We have little in common, and for the most part, many of them have a limited interest in environmental matters.

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  4. Michael Wilbur-Ham (MWH)

    Writer (ex telecommunications engineer)

    Is this election about policy or supporting your political football team?

    I suspect that many Labor supporters and voters have not yet realised that Labor is now a conservative party of the right.

    I bet that many Labor supporters and voters would like Labor to have:

    A mining tax that raises real revenue;
    Not reducing payment to single mothers;
    Taking real action on climate change (not just a 0.5% reduction by 2020);
    Significant new investment in public transport instead of roads (federal…

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  5. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    In Oz politics the originator of the :"Tweedle Dumb and even Dumber" tag was Aust Democrats leader Don Chipp. He also talked about keeping the bastards honest. That sounds awfully old fashioned now.

    A.B. is doing good job but the preferential system puts him at a disadvantage unless we get some socialists, trots or marijuana party candidates - or the anarchist society perhaps, if that's not a contradiction in behaviour. Then they can direct their 2% each to AB.- he might just get a toe ahead of the ALP candidate.

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  6. Ian Morley

    logged in via Facebook

    We all know that it hardly matters what Cath Bowtell's abilities and political views are; they will be stifled by her own party's right wing. Labor will regain the seat, but without learning a single lesson from it.

    If only Australians weren't so desperately afraid of electing anybody but the usual duopoly...

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    1. Craig Minns

      Self-employed

      In reply to Ian Morley

      The most significant thing about Bowtell was in the article: "she works for the ACTU". Just another political careerist from the bosom of the machine with nothing to offer.

      Bandt irritates me unaccountably, but I hope he holds on.

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  7. takver takvera

    Journalist and Editor at Indymedia

    I suspect Melbourne will be very close, and it will depend whether Bandt can end up ahead of Labor after minor preferences are distributed with enough leaking of Liberal preferences to put him over the line. He has worked his guts out for his electorate, but it will still be a tough battle. There will be a lot of media focus on this seat, but it is quite possible the Greens may lose this seat but surprise elsewhere in other seat/s if they do some serious grassroots campaigning with good candidates…

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