The advance of Green majority votes into former Labor strongholds in Melbourne’s north is powerfully illustrated in an exclusive data analysis by The Citizen of voting results collected from individual polling booths from 2002 to 2017.
Swings as high as 20% over that period in key booths, including on the fringe of the inner city, signal that the Greens have a chance of sweeping all but one of Melbourne’s inner-northern state and federal seats in forthcoming elections.
The booth-by-booth analysis provides a fine-grained insight into local shifts in allegiance which psephologists predict will have a significant impact in looming elections. The first of them is the down-to-the-wire byelection for the federal seat of Batman on 17 March, triggered by the resignation of incumbent Labor MP David Feeney, who could not prove he renounced his British citizenship.
Mr Feeney’s hold on Batman was a wafer-thin one per cent at the last poll. Labor is hoping its star candidate, ACTU President Ged Kearney, will be able to fight off the Greens’ Alex Bhathal, who has gained chunks of ground over the five federal elections she has contested in the seat, although she’s now mired in internal ructions and allegations of bullying. The loss of Batman would be a significant blow to Bill Shorten in the run up to the next federal election, which is possible as early as August, but more likely to be in 2019.
State Labor’s test looms in the Victorian election set for 24 November, in which four inner-northern seats are at play.
University of Melbourne polling analyst Adrian Beaumont says recent opinion polls show that if Labor is ahead at all, it is not by much. “The Coalition could win the next Victorian election,” he says. “If Labor wins, they may indeed need the Greens.”
Demographic changes over the past two decades in the once rusted-on Labor inner-northern Melbourne suburbs have steadily lifted the Green vote in that band, and the shift is creeping further north into the middle suburbs. In November, the Greens’ Lidia Thorpe broke Labor’s 90-year grip on Northcote in the state byelection which followed the death of Victorian Government Minister Fiona Richardson.
In that poll, the Greens’ advance was highlighted by them winning the key booth of Preston South for the first time. The booth, which sits between the inner city and the more suburban outer north, is a microcosm of the socio-economic changes afoot across the entire area.
Turning Green, booth by booth
The Citizen’s interactive polling map (above) plots every federal and state election result from 2002 to 2017 where the Greens and Labor have finished in the top two in an inner-Melbourne seat. (Note: Labor-Greens two-party preferred figures are not included for Melbourne booths in the 2016 election because Labor ran third in the contest, and some figures may vary because booth distributions vary between elections.)
The map stretches across the federal seats of Batman, Melbourne and Wills and the state seats of Brunswick, Melbourne, Northcote and Richmond.
The Greens currently hold three of those seats – the state and federal seats of Melbourne, as well as Northcote. Labor holds four, and while it’s strongly tipped to retain the Wills at the next election, it faces a tough challenge to retain Batman, Brunswick and Richmond.
Dr Beaumont believes demographic changes are making the seats “more Green friendly, and it is unlikely Labor can recover Melbourne (state or federal seat)”.
The Greens won the first of these seats in 2010, with Adam Bandt’s win in the federal seat, following the retirement of popular Labor MP Lindsay Tanner. In that election, the Greens recorded 15% swings in some booths, including the booth of Carlton, located behind the multicoloured facade of Carlton Primary School. The area around the booth was once dominated by working class immigrants, but is now very much dominated by better educated, better off voters.
Further north, it’s a similar story in Croxton, the polling booth located in Northcote’s Batman Park Hall. The area is dotted with larger suburban homes, ample local parks, and the decidedly suburban Northcote Plaza shopping centre. But it, too, has become a Greens stronghold, with Labor falling short of 40% of the two-party preferred vote at the last federal election and at the state byelection.
What’s interesting is how far the shift has gone. Carlton is just above the CBD, encompassing the University of Melbourne and a long established cosmopolitan, educated, left-leaning inner-city demographic. But the Preston South booth, situated just south of Bell Street, represents the how far the “hipster-proof fence” has pushed into middle suburbia. The booth, at Preston South Primary School, is on a quiet suburban street, though the signs of deindustrialisation show in pockets around the area.
Bell Street is a major road for Melbourne’s north, but it’s also significant politically. The “Bell Street Wall” divides the northern and southern parts of the federal seats of Batman and Wills. As can be seen from examining the map, Labor wins most booths in the north and the Greens most booths in the south.
To win Batman and Wills, the Greens will probably need to make further inroads in booths north of Bell Street. At the Northcote byelection, the Greens won Preston South for the first time, with just under 52% of the vote. But they still lost Preston booths north of the border by relatively clear margins, despite recording big swings their way.
Preston South booth represents the very northern extreme of Greens territory, and the party will have to push through this frontier to achieve a big swing in the Batman byelection. While the Greens won well in the suburb of Northcote in the 2016 federal election, they lost soundly in places like the Reservoir Central polling booth. Labor got 62% of the two-party preferred vote at the booth, helping Mr Feeney hang on in Batman.
“The electorate’s not wholly favourable (to the Greens); there are some parts of it that are very strongly Labor,” explains Dr Kevin Bonham, a Tasmania-based political analyst.
Dr Beaumont says further gentrification would threaten Labor’s ability to hold Batman and Wills in the longer term, and could mean a threat to even more suburban seats. “If inner-city demographics keep changing in the Greens’ favour, then yes, they will eventually be a threat to Labor in Williamstown and Preston,” he says.
Political observers generally argue that demographic changes have delivered a bigger voter pool for the Greens in Melbourne than in other Australian cities, but there is less consensus about why that is so.
Dr Beaumont believes environmental and social policy issues are the key factors. “In the early 2000’s, Labor was seen as ignoring these issues by many on the left,” he says.
Dr Bonham sees a variety of factors at play, but singles out one as notable. “I think it’s also a collapse of organised labor movements as a motivating force for young workers,” he argues.
Political persistence is also a mark of the Victorian Greens, who often run the same candidate until they win a seat. Alex Bhathal has run for Batman in five of the last six federal elections.
Batman takes in inner city suburbs like Northcote, as well as outer neighbourhoods like Reservoir. The swing to the Greens can be seen in the Northcote polling booth, at a Catholic primary school just next to Northcote Town Hall, where the Greens now record almost two thirds of the two-party preferred vote.
“I think it’s one that they keep chipping away and away at it, and it eventually falls – it may well fall [in the byelection],” Dr Bonham says.
Dr Stewart Jackson, a former Greens national convenor and now a University of Sydney politics academic, argues that because of their lower house wins, the Victorian Greens are becoming a more “legitimate” option for some voters – less fringe and more mainstream. “You then have this breakthrough into state lower houses now – that becomes important in terms of raising your legitimacy levels.”
The popularity of high-profile Labor members has kept the Greens at bay in some past elections. But a retirement can tip the balance, as was the case in federal seat of Melbourne following Lindsay Tanner’s departure.
“I think once those long-term, powerful individuals retire … those seats will start to change their orientation. They’ll switch from Labor to Greens,” Dr Jackson argues.
High-profile Labor politicians have managed to hold back the tide in state elections, as in the case of Richmond, where popular MP Richard Wynne has managed to win despite consistently close margins.
This can be seen in the Richmond Central polling booth, which leans to the Greens federally – but to date, Mr Wynne holds the booth comfortably enough in state elections.
If the Greens now held the state seats of Brunswick and Richmond, Labor would already be in minority government in Victoria. In the November state election, both seats are at risk.
A Greens win in the Batman byelection would give the party a second lower house seat, and more sway in a close federal election this year or next.
Tight numbers in parliament would make things interesting. “The Greens support base want to see the party achieve things from the balance of power … and you don’t really get things if you easily lie down and say, ‘we’re going to let Labor govern’,” Dr Bonham says.
The other impact on Labor could be internal. The Greens’ strategy in the inner city has particularly angered Labor’s Left flank, which accuses them of targeting Labor’s most left-leaning MPs, undermining the position of progressive MPs in the party room. “It may well weaken the Left within the Labor Party,” Dr Jackson says. He argues that the Greens’ positioning means they don’t run the risk of being squeezed in the middle, as occurred with the Australian Democrats.
Dr Bonham says they also have structural advantages, with party rules that make leadership challenges harder. However he notes that other progressive candidates have often cannibalised Greens votes, as in the cases of Andrew Wilkie and Lisa Singh in Tasmania.