Election results on Saturday have largely been interpreted as some sort of endorsement of new Liberal leader Tony Abbott, yet looking at the figures the result is highly unremarkable for the Liberal Party.
Bradfield and Higgins are both incredibly safe seats for the Liberal Party. Bradfield is the second-safest Liberal seat in the country, and neither seat has ever gone to preferences. The Greens achieved a strong result in a right-wing heartland seat while running an explicitly left-wing campaign.
Ever since the Cunningham by-election, conventional wisdom always assumes that the Greens have a chance of winning any by-election in a safe seat, and build it up so that it becomes a disappointment when the Greens don’t achieve some dramatic victory. Of course, some of these races are genuine opportunities for the Greens, such as those in Marrickville, Mayo and Fremantle.
Bradfield and Higgins were never going to be seats that the Greens could win. The absence of an ALP candidate gave the Greens a shot at increasing their profile and winning more votes, but these extra voters would never come close to the numbers needed to win the seat, and the Liberals still had a solid majority of support in both seats.
Clive Hamilton polled the highest achieved by any Greens candidate in a federal lower house by-election, while Susie Gemmell polled higher than in the Cunningham or Mayo by-elections on primary votes. That was the achievement for the Greens. Ultimately the goal of the Greens in areas like Bradfield and Higgins is to bite into the ALP vote and strengthen their Senate vote. The absence of the ALP made the Greens the only progressive alternative and gave the party an opportunity as ALP voters seriously considered and voted for the Greens for the first time. If half of those voters stick with the Greens in the Senate in 2010, it will be a big step towards getting Lee Rhiannon and Richard di Natale elected.
Even if you agree with the assumption that the by-elections were a ‘referendum on climate change’, it is madness to suggest that the result in two blue-ribbon Liberal seats has national implications in terms of the climate change debate. It is also not necessarily an endorsement of climate change policy for voters who have loyally voted Liberal for decades to continue voting Liberal.
No-one has ever suggested Tony Abbott would have trouble holding on to his party’s base in their safe seats. His problem lies in marginal seats where the ALP will attack him on climate change and other issues. Those are the seats that keep the ALP in government and Abbott needs to win them to bring his party forward. Last weekend’s by-elections do not offer a shred of evidence as to how Abbott will play in the key seats, nor how those seats will react to campaigns around climate change.
It’s also worth remembering that the Greens ran on a principled, explicitly left-wing platform in both seats, focusing on strong action on climate change. Yet they managed to achieve the same vote the ALP had achieved in 2007. It is not reasonable to assume that all ALP voters would automatically switch to a party running substantially to the left in a conservative seat.
The Greens were never going to win either seat at this election. Both by-elections were great opportunities for the party to continue it’s goal of supplanting the ALP amongst progressive voters, and the Greens achieved this. In particular, the Greens have an opportunity to almost entirely push the ALP out of the north shore of Sydney over the next decade. The Greens have already come second at a state level in the seat of North Shore and beaten the ALP in Pittwater, and came close to beating them in a number of other north shore seats. By being the only progressive option in northern Sydney, it may not be enough for the Greens to win lower house seats, but it substantially increases the party’s presence and chances of electing Senators and MLCs. Bradfield helps move the party closer to turning the north shore into a series of Liberal-Green contests.
The Greens aren’t a centrist party, and aren’t going to be winning seats in conservative areas for a long time. Most of the party’s chances at a state and federal level lie in inner city areas in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth.