The Batman by-election, triggered by the resignation of often controversial, often clumsy Labor MP David Feeney over doubts about his citizenship status and eligibility to sit in Parliament, was an election that pitted Labor and the Greens against each other in a two way contest. For the Greens, it was a question as to whether the party could cement its status as a significant political force in the once safe Labor strongholds in the inner city of Melbourne. It was also a test for Labor and whether they could potentially hold off the Greens, or whether these once safe seats falling to the Greens is an eventual inevitability.
This by-election told us that Labor, with the right combination of candidate and policy, can hold off the Greens. Though despite their win in Batman, Labor are still far more pessimistic about their long-term fortunes in these electorates, as one Labor source told me: "Ged Kearney has bought us a term, maybe two at most, in Batman. As house prices rise, the old working class is gradually being replaced by a wealthier younger demographic, people who's parents voted Liberal, who are economically liberal but socially progressive; they care about refugees and environment but the base economic concerns that working class people face don't really register with these voters. If Malcolm Turnbull was running the Liberal Party how he wanted to, or if the Greens didn't exist: these voters would probably vote Liberal".
The Batman divide
Labor's pessimism is probably wrongly placed. Although there is a layer of particularly younger Greens voters in the inner city who probably would vote for a more moderate, Menzies-esqe Liberal Party; there is a larger layer of Greens voters who were once Labor voters and it is these voters that Labor need to not ignore or write off as would-be Liberal voters if they are to retain or even regain seats from the Greens. There is no better proof of this from the Batman by-election than what the booth by booth results show us.
Batman is an electorate that is demographically divided in half, with Bell St (what pundits dub the 'Hipster-proof Fence') acting as the dividing line. South of this divide consists of a young, white-collar professional, university educated demographic which forms part of the knowledge economy. In the north, however, are older migrant communities and more traditional blue-collar working class families. The south of the electorate strong for the Greens - with the party winning most of these polling places. However, Labor continues to win every polling place north of this divide.
While the divide has been consistent and remains so, gentrification is steadily creeping northward as the older working class is either priced out or dies out, being replaced by a younger demographic.
The by-election produced starkly contrasting results: while the Greens still won most polling places in the south, there were big swings, mostly ranging from 5-7%, to Labor in every one of these booths, with a few that straddle along Bell St flipping from Greens to Labor. In the north, there were small, 1-2% swings registered to the Greens in a number of booths - with booths in the most northern parts of the electorate recording the biggest, 5%+ swings. Only one of the northern booths flipped from Labor to the Greens.
While the Greens focused on national issues such as the Adani coalmine and later, asylum seekers; Labor focused their campaign around more bread-and-butter issues such as housing affordability, education, transport and cost of living; particularly within a local context. While the Greens occasionally came out with policies such as renationalising the electricity grid and banning the sale of non-electric vehicles from 2030 - they remained more consistent on pushing their positions on Adani and refugees as an attempt to wedge Kearney's own stated personal positions on these issues with those of the Labor Party.
While the Greens attacked Labor heavily, promoting their brand ahead of the candidate; Kearney was front and centre of Labor's campaign and although there were other Labor MPs who often called into question the Greens record of voting with the Liberals, particularly on pensions, there was very little in the way of attacks against the Greens from Kearney or the local Labor campaign in Batman. Progressive voters don't tend to respond well to negative campaigns and Kearney's positive campaigning worked to her advantage.
Labor's announced policy of abolishing franking credits - tax free dividends on the shares of self-funded retirees - seemingly threw a spanner into the works. Both the right-wing media as well as the Liberals, predictably, came out strongly against the policy. The Greens, on the other hand, attempted to wedge Labor by playing both sides of the fence - agreeing to it in principle, but pledging to make sure that 'pensioners aren't affected'.
Richard Di Natale pitches to conservatives
The single biggest factor that cost the Greens the Batman by-election is likely Richard Di Natale's last minute pitch to conservative voters to vote for or preference the Greens ahead of Labor: “Those people who might be inclined to vote for one of the conservative parties here [or] might be inclined to stay at home, well here’s your chance to say what you think about Bill Shorten’s attack on so many people in this community."
"We’re going to look very closely at the decision by Bill Shorten and the Labor Party that has the potential to really hurt struggling pensioners. If you’re concerned about that and you want to ensure that there will be some fairness ... that there is scrutiny on this legislation and that it gets amended through the senate, well here’s your chance to do that. Vote for the Greens ahead of Labor.”
Although such a pitch, along with the fence sitting on and trying to wedge what is generally progressive policy, may resonate in an older pensioner and retiree community, reflected by the fact that the Greens achieved swings of 5%+ to them in some of the most northern booths in the Batman electorate, it was never going to wash well within the younger demographic - reflected by the fact that most of the booths in the southern half of the electorate swung against the Greens by 5 or more percent.
The ground game
Both the Greens and Labor had hundreds of volunteers undertaking its ground campaign. However, Kearney ultimately had the backing of most of the unions - with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), Electrical Trades Union (ETU), Kearney’s own union; the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation (ANMF) and Victorian Trades Hall in particular pulling out all stops to campaign on the ground in order to get her elected - resulting in what was ultimately a bigger ground game for Labor across the whole electorate.
Despite the Greens winning the Northcote state by-election only a few months earlier (an electorate, constituting roughly the southern half of the Batman electorate, that was held by Labor by a larger margin), the excitement level just didn't exist for the Greens in Batman and they just weren't able to rustle up the same numbers on the ground as a result. It is also likely that complacency also set in: 'why put in as much effort into a seat that has a margin of just over 1% when the demographic shifts favour us anyway?'
The Ged Kearney factor
While the Greens generally ran a poor campaign which was ultimately the major contributor to their loss, it has to be remembered that Ged Kearney was a far better fit for the electorate compared to her predecessor David Feeney and it is very likely that a lot of people in Batman who voted Greens in 2016 likely did so in protest because Feeney was a poor MP.
With Kearney as the candidate, many of these people were all too willing to return to the Labor fold. The idea of electing someone with a strong track record of progressive advocacy as part of the union movement to the Federal Labor caucus; as someone who would have a voice within a party that could form government, was all too tempting for progressive voters. How this plays out long term, however, remains to be seen.
The Darebin Greens 19
There was much publicised about Bhathal's alleged conduct; with 19 members of the Darebin Greens branch signing a letter of complaint against her and 'leaking' this to the national media over the course of the campaign period in an attempt to undermine her campaign. The group of 19 is described as consisting of elected representatives, party office bearers and others who have come in around them. This group went on the record to say that they would rather see Bhathal lose in order to preserve the chance for a different candidate to run in the future.
In the preselection for the state seat of Northcote, which recently went to a by-election, Bhathal supported relative newcommer Lidia Thorpe, who went on to win that seat, over Darebin City Councillor Trent McCarthy. Many sources allege and speculate that McCarthy was the person who orchestrated the stitch up against Bhathal, though he himself denies that allegation.
Although this may have played some role in the result, it is unlikely that it was a major contributing factor. It is likely the other factors as described above that contributed more to the end result. However, that is not to say that this didn't register with voters at all.
Bhathal is the preselected Greens candidate for the seat of Batman at the next Federal Election, though it is unclear as to whether she will stand or not. She is understandably exhausted after what was a bruising campaign that saw numerous personal attacks against her from within her own party.
Kearney, however, will undoubtedly remain in campaign mode right through until the next Federal Election and will continue to build her profile within the electorate. From this point forward, it will become very difficult for the Greens to dislodge her and it is likely Batman to Kearney will become what Grayndler is to Anthony Albanese or Sydney is to Tanya Plibersek - Labor seats at least until the incumbents retire. It will give Labor some encouragement, but Kearney has some incredible star power that may be hard to match for other electorates.
Questions are also already being asked about Di Natale's own leadership; particularly given that it is likely his own comments within the final week of the campaign that cost Bhathal the election, with many people calling for his resignation. Questions will also be asked about the Greens policy focus as well as its messaging. Greens figures have already started to point fingers - going as far as to blame "Big Labor" for the loss while others are playing down the result, looking for positives within the negatives. More sensible heads, however, will be looking inwards with a critical eye.
This is an election that the Greens had nearly everything going for them: no Liberal candidate (whose preferences couldn't get Labor over the line), they had potential momentum from the recent Northcote by-election win only a few months prior and the changes in demographics. Indeed, the pundits and bookies alike were chalking this up as an almost certain Greens gain. However, in the end, Labor achieved a 3.4% swing to it in two party preferred terms. Questions will, also, therefore be asked within the Greens about their campaign tactics.
This election goes to show that community oriented candidates in particular, combined with left wing policy that resonates within a local context, is the key to winning or retaining seats in the inner city of Melbourne. Likewise, it also shows that voters within these electorates will punish incumbents and challengers alike who are seen to be pandering to the right, who are running a negative campaign, who don't focus on local issues and are otherwise seen as out of touch with the needs of their community.
About the author:
Matt Hrkac is a writer and activist based in Geelong who regularly contributes to Green Left Weekly. He has particular interests in politics, elections and the trade union movement and has had extensive involvement in a number of local campaigns. He is a former member of the Greens.