Inside Story

Updating the count – and why the Greens struggled in Batman

Tim Colebatch updates our coverage of the Election Commission figures and looks at what the election means for the Greens

Tim Colebatch 6 July 2016 1797 words

Still worth watching: the Greens candidate for Batman, Alex Bhathal (right), with Greens MP Adam Bandt and the party’s candidate for Wills, Samantha Ratnam, at the launch of the Wills campaign in March. Takver/Flickr

Two things happened in counting over the past twenty-four hours. As expected, the Coalition eroded part of Labor’s lead in several of the close races. And, also as suspected, counting of preferences showed that the Liberals will retain the outback SA seat of Grey.

Grey is a weird seat. It used to be a Labor stronghold, with most of its voters in the three industrial towns around the Spencer Gulf – Whyalla, Port Augusta and Port Pirie. But those towns have been in relative decline for a generation. The fishing town of Port Lincoln emerged as the new growth area and the electorate expanded to become bigger than New South Wales, covering many more farms and the beach towns of the Yorke Peninsula.

And so, after fifty years of almost unbroken Labor ownership from 1943 to 1993, Grey became a Liberal stronghold – until the fate of Whyalla’s steelworks was left swinging in the air, and Nick Xenophon became its champion, pressuring the Turnbull government for support so that the steelworks remains viable even if its owner, Arrium, goes under.

Two polls flagged that Xenophon’s candidate, Andrea Broadfoot, could come close to winning the seat. But the Australian Electoral Commission didn’t read them, or didn’t believe them; it told its poll officials to distribute preferences on Saturday night between Liberal and Labor. Only on Tuesday afternoon did it post Liberal vs Xenophon preference counts for enough polling booths to make it clear that Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey will retain the seat, albeit narrowly.

That lifts the Coalition to seventy seats more or less locked in, with Labor on sixty-seven and the crossbenchers five. There are eight seats too close to call. In Forde, Liberal MP Bert van Manen – cruelly targeted by Shaun Micallef for his ordinariness – now leads by 0.07 per cent. Labor is still ahead in four seats, but its leads are eroding: in Hindmarsh it’s down to 0.10 per cent, Herbert 0.46 per cent, Cowan 0.55 per cent and Capricornia 0.68 per cent. It is very likely that one of these, maybe more, will end up being won by the Coalition.

The Liberals now lead in four of the eight seats in doubt: Forde, Dunkley (0.50 per cent), Gilmore (0.38) and Chisholm (0.54). It is possible that one or more of these could finish up in Labor’s camp, but it is less likely than Labor leads switching to the Coalition, because pre-poll and postal votes tend to favour the Liberals.

The Coalition needs to win six of the eight to form a majority government. From previous experience, I see that as a fifty-fifty chance, though no better than that. And even a parliament with a two-seat majority would probably break down eventually unless the government negotiates understandings (we won’t use the dirty word “deals” here) with one or more crossbenchers.

It will help them that Bob Katter was a Nationals MP (and, indeed, a minister under Joh Bjelke-Petersen) for much of his long career and that, in their youth, Cathy McGowan (Indi) and the new Xenophon MP from Mayo, Rebekhah Sharkie, were both Liberal staffers. It would be in everyone’s interests if the crossbenchers at least spell out where they stand on ensuring supply, even if they also spell out that they will vote on each issue as they see fit.

One seat that is not on the undecided list is Batman, an inner-middle northern Melbourne seat contested between Labor and the Greens. We should keep watching it, though, because in 2013 the Greens clawed back a lot of ground during the counting of pre-poll, absentee and postal votes. Last time they reduced Labor’s lead by 1.21 per cent. Given that Labor’s was ahead 1.45 per cent at the end of Saturday night, Batman could still become interesting.

The Greens needed a swing of 10.6 per cent to win the seat, and at last count they’d managed 8.8 per cent. Only a handful of the 150 seats across the nation saw a bigger swing. One of them was in next-door Wills, a very similar seat, which starts in inner suburban Brunswick and heads north to the migrant working-class suburb of Fawkner. There, needing an impossible swing of 15.2 per cent, Greens candidate Samantha Ratnam got more than halfway, gaining 8.95 per cent.

Some commentators have said that the Greens failed at this election because they picked up no new seats. That is trite: it ignores the degree of difficulty involved – every seat they targeted needed a double-digit swing – and the progress they made towards winning both seats next time (and, of course, towards taking the state seats of Brunswick and Northcote). (The Greens in Sydney are a different story. We’ll talk about that another time.)

Even so, a breakdown of votes by polling booths shows why the Greens failed to win Batman. They won double-digit swings at the polling booths in the inner third of the electorate (roughly, Northcote) and the middle third (Thornbury/Preston) but fell well short of that in the outer third (Reservoir/Bundoora). Moreover, at pre-poll centres, where they did exceptionally well in 2013, they won relatively small gains this time.

Here’s the breakdown of the Greens vote, after preferences:

                                             2013        2016     swing
                                                  %              %          %

Northcote                                 50.8           63.3        12.5
Thornbury/Preston                37.6           49.8        12.2
Reservoir/Bundoora               25.8           33.5          7.7
Pre-poll centres                      46.1           50.5          4.4
Total                                      39.4        48.2         8.8

One of the factors here is evident right across Australia: Liberal supporters have become more likely to vote pre-poll than anyone else, and the growing number doing so means that swings to the left in the polling booths are overstated.

But the bottom line is clear: if the Greens want to break out of the cocoon of inner Melbourne – and the design of these seats gives them little choice – they will have to do more to sell their message to suburbs, like Reservoir, that are not natural Greens heartlands.

It was the same in Wills, although it was always obvious that the Greens could not win the seat this time without Liberal preferences. As in Batman, they nonetheless gave it a good push, at least within ten kilometres of the city. These are the equivalent figures for the Greens’ two-party vote:

                                               2013      2016      swing
                                                  %            %           %

Brunswick                                  46.9          59.0        12.1
Coburg                                        33.9          47.2        13.3
Pascoe Vale                                24.8          35.7        10.9
Glenroy/Fawkner                      21.0          31.0        10.0
Pre-poll centres                        36.2           38.6          2.4
Total                                       34.8         43.7         8.9

The Greens will have to move out into suburbia to win seats like these.

But if these results are failures, what do we call the result achieved by Malcolm Turnbull? Or Bill Shorten? Turnbull lost a lot of votes, seats and prestige, but he will still probably form the next government. Shorten will probably not form the next government, but came closer to doing so than any of his critics had forecast.

The Greens’ result too was a mixture of good and bad. There were achievements to be proud of, and failures they will have to tackle. Their failure to attract people living more than ten kilometres from the GPO is one of them. •