There has been a lot of commentary on the Greens’ victory in last weekend’s Fremantle by-election result. First of all, it is clearly a significant result for the Greens. It is the first time the Greens have come first on primary votes in a state or federal election, and the result is fundamentally different to the Greens’ win in Cunningham in 2002. While the Cunningham result was largely a fluke and depended on extremely strong preferences from voters who normally voted Labor, the Fremantle result appeared to have little to do with freak circumstances aligned with a by-election.
Even if there had been no by-election in Fremantle, the seat would have been a likely gain for the Greens at the next Western Australian state election. The Greens would have won the seat in 2008 if they had overtaken the Liberals, and they came close to doing so. There appears to be two memes being pushed by ALP spinners and anti-Green conservative commentators: that the by-election was a freak occurence, and that it was because Liberal voters sneakily voted for the left-winger to hurt Labor.
As I said above, the result is no freak occurence. The Greens were already on track to win Fremantle, and it is exactly the sort of area where the Greens are strong in general elections. Adele Carles is a strong candidate who has a good shot of holding on in the future. It’s also worth considering this result as part of a trend which has seen significant gains for the Greens at the WA and ACT elections in 2008, the Mayo by-election and local government elections in New South Wales and Victoria. Even the snap Northern Territory election saw strong results for the Greens. The Queensland state election was pretty much the only major election in the last 18 months to not see the Greens gain ground.
In the near future there are a number of opportunities for Greens to gain lower house seats in state Parliaments. Balmain and Marrickville look plum for the picking in March 2011, assuming no major shifts in NSW politics (Carmel Tebbutt becoming Premier may be the only thing that could save her seat). The state seats of Melbourne, Richmond and Brunswick are all vulnerable in Victoria in late 2010, as is the federal seat of Melbourne.
I don’t think any other federal seats can fall at the next election, but Sydney could be vulnerable in 2013, and there are a whole tranche of seats that could fall if the Greens can raise their primary vote to 15-20%, such as Grayndler, Wentworth, Cunningham, Batman, Melbourne Ports, Denison, Fremantle, and, once Rudd retires, Griffith. If the ACT can get over the hump and regain a third seat, a central Canberra electorate would also be vulnerable.
If you look at the United Kingdom and Canada, you have third parties winning around 20% of the vote and winning a sizeable number of seats in their core areas. There’s no reason why, in a decade’s time, we could see the Greens holding 8-10 House of Representatives seats while comfortably electing a Senator in every state and the ACT at each election.
The other issue that has been raised is the idea that Liberal voters elected the Greens over the ALP, and somehow this makes it illegitimate. First of all, I don’t understand why it matters. If a majority of the electorate prefer the Greens to Labor, then that’s the whole ball game. Indeed, there is a problem in the preference system where a majority prefer Greens to Labor but end up with a Labor MP because the Greens fall just short of overtaking the Liberals.
But I don’t actually believe that is what happened. Considering Tagliaferri’s limited Labor credentials and conservative record, as well as the ALP’s terrible campaign effort which managed to alienate much of the union movement, I tend to think many Liberal voters would have switched to Tagliaferri, while Tagliaferri lost traditional ALP voters to the Greens. I tend to think that, if you were to simply disenfranchise all those who voted Liberal in 2008, the result would have been largely similar.