by Stephen Luntz, Australian Greens Victoria Elections Analyst
and †Mike Feinstein, International Committee of the Green Party of the United States
For only the second time ever, an Austra≠lian Green has been elected in a single member parliamentary electorate, and the first time ever by finishing with more primary votes than the Australian Labor Party (ALP) candidate. The victory came in a May 16th by-election (special election), in the Western Australian (WA) lower house electorate of Fremantle, where the ALP had held onto the seat since 1924. This time Green candidate Adele Carles defeated the ALP political machineís handpicked candidate and nine other candidates.
Lower house elections are conducted in Australia by what is called preferential voting and in the United States is called Instant Run-Off Voting. Carles received 45 percent of the primary vote (first preferences) to Laborís 38 percent, and 54 percent to Laborís 46 percent, after the transfer of other preferences.
The electorate centers on the historic port city of Fremantle, located 12 miles southwest of Perth, the state capital, and includes Perthís famous fun spot, Rottnest Island. The electorate features a diverse, multi ethnic population, and an above-average proportion of rented dwellings (43 percent), a broadly mixed-class of professions, combined with high unemployment. Fremantle has long been a stronghold for the Greens, usually returning their highest vote in elections. The suburb of Fremantle itself is known for its arts and culture, and this has made it particularly attractive to Green voters. The electorate also includes a very wealthy section to the northeast, which traditionally votes conservative, and Labor voting areas to the south.
ìThere are good reasons†why more and more people are voting Green, and yesterday we received a renewed mandate.î
~ Senator Rachel Siewert
Greens vs. Labor
With the conservative Liberals declining to contest the seat, the election in 2009 became a contest between the Greens and the ALP. Voters clearly chose the Greens. On election night Carles said the ALP had moved too far to the right. “This is a victory for the people of Fremantle and for democracy” she declared. “We have forever shattered the two-party myth in Australia. People have dared to look beyond the old parties that have continually let us down. What has happened in Fremantle makes history but it is also the shape of the future.”
Bob Brown, Australian Green Senator from Tasmania since 1996, was quick to suggest this could be a trend elsewhere in Australia, with voters seeing the Greens as the true alternative. Others across the political spectrum agree. According to a post-election editorial by conservative daily, The Australian, the Green victory in Fremantle “will terrify state and federal Labor MPs in inner-city and sea-change seats all over the country. Seats as varied as ALP Finance Minister Lindsay Tannerís inner-urban electorate of Melbourne and Cunningham on the coast south of Syd≠ney.” Up to eight seats in eastern states could be in play for the Greens as states hold their next elections (Australian state elections are not synchronized).
However, some commentators have suggested the result is not really an endorsement of the Greens, claiming that Liberal voters simply chose to vote for anyone other than their traditional enemy. But this claim is contradicted by the fact that nine other candidates secured less than 20 percent between them, despite two presenting themselves as “Indepen≠dent Liberals,” with one having a significant local profile. Moreover, analysis of the vote by poll≠ing centre shows the Greens made up as much ground in areas where the Liberal vote is minimal, as in the parts where it has historically been strong. Conse≠quently it seems the new Green voters included as many disaffected Labor votes as homeless Liberals.
During her campaign, Carles talked about what a Green victory would mean: “If the Greens win this seat, it will be an opportunity to introduce more sustainable legislation into this State.
We have bills and policy prepared that will make it more affordable for all people to install solar panels on their roofsóat no extra cost to governmentóas well as other measures that will enable people to make their homes more energy-efficient, starting with those who can least afford it on their own.
“If I win this seat, I will also be moving to ensure development around Fremantle is sustainable, which means saying no to Dubai-style island developments that will threaten the future of our working port and ëyesí to good planning for development on the land.
“I will be pushing for better transport planning in Perth and Fremantle, including for the extra 100,000 people who are predicted to be adding to the existing suburbs south of Fremantle in the next 15 years, and urban pressures generally in the metropolitan area and beyond.”
Carlesí victory brings the Australian Greens up to 26 parliamentarians (5 federal, 17 state, 4 territory) of these 15 are women. With Carles joining four Green members of WAís Upper House (Giz Watson, Robin Chapple, Alison Xamon and Lynn Mac≠Laren) the Greens now hope to be awarded official party status on the state level, which would en≠≠title them to vastly increased staff and other resources. On the federal there are also two WA Green senators, Rachel Siewert and Scott Ludlam, giving WA the most elected Green parliamentarians in Australia.
The success of the WA Greens surprises many people, since the state is generally considered one of the most conservative in Australia. In part it reflects the fact that the Labor and Liberal parties, other than for a brief period under former premier Geoff Gallop, were generally to the right of those in other states.
However, the Greens strength is also partly the result of a historical accident. In 1984 the Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP) ran a strong senate campaign across Australia, winning 7.2 percent. In WA the partyís 6.7 percent was below the large eastern states, but the order of elimination of candidates saw the NDPís candidate Jo Valentine elected, while in other states the party missed out.
Soon afterwards the NDP collapsed as a result of internal divisions. Itís highest profile member, rock star Peter Garrett eventually joined the ALP and as environment minister has recently approved a host of environmentally disastrous projects, including the expansion of uranium mining within the Kakadu National Park.
Valentine, on the other hand, established a profile for herself and was re-elected first as an independent, then later in 1990 with the newly formed WA Greens. Her strong performance in parliament gave the Greens a face they lacked in the eastern states until Brownís election, and was a critical factor in the growth of the Greens in WA.
At a May 17th post-election press conference on the steps of parliament, Siewert said, “There are good reasons why more and more people are voting Green, and yesterday we received a renewed mandate. Both the WA and federal governments should hear this message from the people of Western Australia. It is time both Liberal and Labor spent less time being led by big business and more time overcoming our biggest challenges such as climate change, economic recession and building the green economy.”
Watson added that the Greens holding ëbalance of powerí in WAís Upper House had led to better decision-making. “It has broken the Liberal-Labor monopoly and improved the level of debate in our democracy,” Watson said. “We work with government when its efforts can be improved, and we are not afraid to voice strong opposition when necessary.”
Balance of Power
What does ëbalance of powerí mean? In Australia, members of parliament almost always vote with their parties. A party is considered to be in ëbalance of powerí if the government needs their votes to get legislation through the parliament without having to rely on the major opposition party. The WA Greens were in joint or sole balance of power in the Upper House from 1996 until 2008 when, despite increasing their parliamentary representation at the last election shifts between the other parties cost the Greens the balance of power in the newly elected Upper House.
While holding balance of power, the Greens were able to block a number of socially and environmentally negative bills under the Liberals power. After the change of government Greens amended Labor legislation to bring it closer to Green values. The Greens also used their parliamentary status to have a key role in a major campaign that led to the defeat of an environmentally disastrous proposal for the 280 kilometer-long Ningaloo Reef, Aus≠traliaís largest fringing coral reef, after it initially appeared likely it would proceed.
For more information: www.wa.greens.org.au