Where to after the Northcote by-election

The Greens’ victory in Saturday’s Northcote by-election in Melbourne is likely to send shockwaves throughout inner city Labor in Victoria. While some did not expect it after polling showed Labor winning, robopolling has previously failed to accurately predict other contests involving Greens, most notably during the 2015 NSW state election.

Despite a good candidate and substantial resources, Labor lost the seat in a double digit swing. The contest in South Brisbane this Saturday is likely to have some bearing on the discussion as to whether it is just a Melbourne specific phenomenon but either way it seems Victorian Labor may be headed towards a minority government.

Many are yet to fully process the implications of the result but it is likely to shape debate about Labor and the Greens for the next twelve months. There needs to be some deep and reflective thinking by both Victorian Labor and the Greens. Neither are prepared for a minority government situation and their relationship seems poisonous from afar. Majority governments reduced to a minority are almost never re-elected and it has the potential to be worse than the Tasmanian experience.

The danger is the Coalition may get more seats than Labor and neither Labor nor the Greens may be able to work out their differences. If there is a minority Victorian Coalition government after 2018, its path to majority will be by pointing to chaos and instability with Labor and the Greens as the alternative. Another scenario is a loose arrangement between Labor and the Greens where the Greens make a big fuss to differentiate, creating a division and chaos narrative for 2022, leading to a majority Coalition win. Either situation would be bad for progressive politics in Victoria.

The spectre of a minority government will also put a brake on the Andrews Government’s style of wearing its progressive agenda on its sleeve and curtail its ambition on a range of issues. Already the media is being briefed about abandoning the inner city for outer suburbia and the regions with a ‘bread and butter’ agenda, shaped by a view that Greens voters are not a detached part of Labor’s existing base but rather wealthy professionals with more in common demographically with Liberal voters.

The reality is both parties need to figure out how to relate to each other in a manner that does not feed a Coalition narrative of chaos and instability or else the Coalition may slip ahead and win. Both parties also must learn the lesson of the past decade of federal politics, that is the Coalition needs to be comprehensively beaten twice or they will not drop the agenda pushed by the hard right. Whether they will is yet to be seen.

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