26 August 2010
The green tide
What is incumbency and a personal following worth? If you are Malcolm Turnbull it is a whopping 13 per cent. That was the difference between his primary vote in Wentworth of 60 per cent and the Senate vote for the Liberal Party in the same seat of a more modest 47 per cent.
Comparing Senate voting and House of Representatives voting patterns throws up some interesting results that point to the importance of incumbency in firewalling the established parties against newcomers. This is especially the case for the Labor Party and the challenge from the Greens - as incoming Victorian senator called his party, 'the new light on the hill'.
Adam Bandt won a famous victory in Melbourne on election night, as the once safe Labor stronghold fell to the Greens with a swing in excess of 10 per cent. It was the first time since the 1920s that a new party has broken into the House of Representatives in a general election.
For Labor however, the march of the Greens into its inner city heartlands could have been yet more dramatic. ABC elections analyst Antony Green argued before the election that the departure of popular Melbourne MP Lindsay Tanner would likely see Melbourne voting patterns revert to the party lines evident in the electorate's Senate voting.
In the Senate in 2007, the Greens polled 6 per cent higher in the Senate than in the House of Representatives in Melbourne. In 2010 The Greens ultimately more than translated their 2007 Senate vote into the House of Representatives vote on the back of an exceptionally well fought local campaign. A comparison of Senate and House of Representatives voting patterns in a number of other inner city seats shows how reliant Labor is on incumbency to defend itself against the Greens.
In Melbourne Ports, where Labor's Michael Danby is the sitting member, the House of Representatives vote for the main parties in 2010 stands at Greens 21 per cent, Labor 36 per cent and Liberal 38 per cent. Compare this to the Senate vote in Melbourne Ports of Greens 26 per cent, Labor 31 per cent and Liberal 34 per cent. With far more candidates, the vote for both major parties declines, but the Greens increase - however once we go through some other similar seats the trend becomes clearer.
In Batman, the Labor high profile MP Martin Ferguson enjoys a 53 per cent primary vote, the Greens 23.5 per cent and the Liberals 19 per cent. In the Senate vote in Batman however the Labor vote falls to 46 per cent, the Liberals to 17 per cent and the Greens rise to 25 per cent.
In the New South Wales seat of Grayndler Labor frontbencher Anthony Albanese has struggled to fight off the Greens Sam Byrne in this election, forced to preferences on 46.7 per cent, to the Greens 25.5 per cent and the Liberals 24 per cent. Incumbency has certainly saved this seat for Labor.
When we look at the Senate vote in Grayndler, the figures are 41 per cent for Labor, 22 per cent for Liberals and 26.5 per cent for the Greens. The partisan vote for the Labor 'brand' in Grayndler is not much more than the primary vote achieved by Labor's unsuccessful candidate Cath Bowtel in Melbourne.
In Sydney the Labor's Tanya Plibersek has been saved by a stronger showing for the Liberals, but the difference between Labor's vote in the House of Representatives and the Senate is the same. Plibersek won 44.5 per cent to the Greens' 23.7 per cent and Liberals' 27 per cent. The Senate vote in Sydney however was a mere 36 per cent for Labor, 24 per cent for Liberals and 28 per cent for the Greens. This suggests, using the Melbourne example, that the only thing keeping Sydney from falling to the Greens at this election was Plibersek's incumbency.
These results suggest that the Greens are indeed making significant inroads into Labor's once immovable support base in the inner cities. But the Liberals cannot celebrate either. Besides the continuing collapse of the Liberals to third place in the inner cities, the Greens vote continues to rise in their blue ribbon urban seats and, should the Greens outpoll Labor and force the Liberals to preferences, similar transfers could occur in surprising places.
Returning to the seat of Wentworth, the difference between House of Representative votes for the local member is in stark contrast with the more partisan Senate vote. Turnbull won the Liberals an incredible 60 per cent primary vote. In the Senate however, the results in Wentworth stand at a far more modest 47 per cent for the Liberals, 22 per cent for the Greens and 24 per cent for Labor. It is likely that a personal following like that enjoyed by Turnbull also inflates to some degree his party's Senate vote in the area, particularly from green voters. On these figures it is not unreasonable to suggest that incumbency also firewalled Wentworth against the march of the Greens.
For the Greens, the next challenge is convincing those who support the party in the Senate in a raft of inner city seats to also vote for it in the lower house. In Melbourne in 2010, the retirement of the sitting Labor member hit the partisan 'reset' button and made that task easier. The Senate and House of Representatives vote for the Greens in Melbourne in 2010 was virtually identical, and the result was victory.
The Greens are rightfully celebrating a tremendous breakthrough, with their first House of Representatives seat and a senator in every state. Their strong adherence to progressive and green values nationally and effective local campaigning have carried them this far, but the march could only just be beginning.
Dr Aron Paul is a Melbourne-based writer and historian, and a postgraduate student in Environment and Planning at RMIT.