Monday, December 7, 2009

Misreading the By-elections

One of the odd things about the post-mortems written on the Higgins and Bradfield by-elections is the common assumption that the starting point for the Greens should be the combination of the Green and Labor votes in 2007.

In some cases this is just people who hate the Greens setting an ridiculously high bar so they can gloat about it not being reached, but the extraordinary thing is that some people actually seem to believe it, including some Greens who are downcast that it was not achieved.

It’s rather hard to imagine why anyone would expect such a thing. The ALP is many things, but amongst those it is the party of Martin Ferguson and Michael O’Connor, of Dick Adams and Gary Gray and Peter Walsh. It is the party which for 15 years sent Graeme Campbell to Canberra. On the issues the Greens ran on - climate change and refugees – all these people are well to the right of Malcolm Turnbull and some of them are more hardline than Tony Abbott. It’s unlikely any of them would vote Green ahead of a Liberal, particularly a moderate such as Kelly O’Dwyer. Why would one expect the voters they represent to do so?

The people who voted Labor in Higgins in 2007 had 12 options before them. To vote Green, or Liberal or for one of eight other candidate, or informalise their vote or to not turn up and risk a fine. By far the largest portion chose the Greens. We’ll have to wait for all the prepoll and postal votes to come in, but it appears that those who didn’t turn up are a very, very comfortable second. Those who chose the Liberals don’t seem much more numerous than those who chose the DLP or the Sex Party.

In Bradfield there were 24 options, and the Greens again streeted the field, although it seems the fine-riskers may have been closer to the rest of the pack.

The closest thing I can find to a justification for the expectation that the Greens will pick up almost all Labor voters is the theory that voters are tribal, and with generations of hating the Liberals in their blood Labor voters will always back the most obvious opponent. It’s an odd theory, when you consider that the Liberal vote has declined in Higgins over recent years. Some of this may be new people moving in, but mostly its former Liberal voters shifting their first preference. Not a lot of tribal loyalty there.

What’s more the conclusion is totally a-historical. Consider two elections in Liberal held seats in which neither the Greens nor Labor ran. In Menzies the Democrats took 22%, and two other candidates got 10.2%, of which a little over half flowed to the Democrats on preferences. The combined Labor and Democrat vote at the previous election had been 39.5%, so the Democrat primary was barely half this figure.

In Warringah in 1993 the ALP and Democrats combined for 38.1%. Two years later the Democrats got 15.9%. An extraordinary 13.5% voted informal. If so many Labor voters wouldn’t support the Democrats over a Liberal when the Democrats were in their hey-day, why would you expect them to all back the Greens now? Note that the Liberal candidates in those cases were Kevin Andrews and Tony Abbott – possibly less attractive figures to Labor votes than O’Dwyer.

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