Why Adam Bandt and Melbourne are unique
In the current election, there are three seats which realistically might return a member not aligned with either major party. Bob Katter presumably will easily win his outback fiefdom of Kennedy; Andrew Wilkie seems likely to retain Denison in Hobart; and the seat of Melbourne is a genuine toss up between Labor and the Greens incumbent, Adam Bandt.
(I discount, not without regret, the chances of an independent unseating Sophie Mirabella in her northern Victorian seat of Indi.)
Katter is hoping to disrupt the current political status quo with his new party, and while there is a chance of their winning a Senate seat in Queensland, it seems very unlikely that they can break through elsewhere.
For the Greens, however, their survival as a significant force is very much in the balance: on the best of scenarios they could add one senator to their current tally, and retain Melbourne. Equally possible, they could lose two Senate seats (in South Australia and Western Australia) and see Melbourne return to Labor.
Indeed, if the Liberals switch their preferences to the ALP in Melbourne, as seems increasingly likely, Bandt would need to improve his vote considerably over the 2010 result to win. Given that polls do not suggest any real increase in Greens support, this may seem unlikely, especially after a redistribution which marginally helps Labor.
Yet Melbourne is different, even to those other inner-city seats like Sydney and Grayndler in NSW, Batman just north of Melbourne, and perhaps Fremantle or Denison, none of which realistically look within reach of the Greens.
Some of the difference is demographic; Melbourne is a seat with a remarkable concentration of students, wealthy inner-city lefties and public housing. But some of it too is a product of the changes over the past 30 years which have seen Melbourne become the most "leftist" city in Australia.
In The Conversation, Narelle Miragliotta pointed out that Melbourne is a highly educated electorate (48.2 per cent of the electorate holds a tertiary degree and/or possesses technical and further education qualifications):
But perhaps its most striking characteristic is the youthfulness of the electorate. The median age of Melbourne is 31 years, making it the second youngest federal seat in Australia. It has one of the highest concentrations of 20-24 year olds (14.6 per cent) courtesy of the two universities that lay within its boundaries.
But one cannot win an election based on 15 per cent of the electorate, and many of these university students are not eligible to vote. (Large numbers of university staff also live in the electorate, and their union is backing Bandt because of the government's cuts to higher education funding.)
Indeed, the characteristics of Melbourne and Sydney are fairly similar, and the major party vote in the two electorates is not all that different, though the Greens are noticeably weaker in Sydney. In part, this is due to the fact that the NSW Greens appear to be a motley collection of ratbags, without anyone with the gravitas and common sense of Adam Bandt. It is also worth noting that both electorates are more similar than either is with Grayndler, even though that is the electorate usually seen as the Greens best bet in NSW.
In 2010, incumbency helped Tanya Plibersek in Sydney, while in Melbourne a senior cabinet minister, Lindsay Tanner, stood down in 2010. His replacement, Cath Bowtell, was smart, sensitive and progressive, but without the advantage of incumbency. However, she is running again this year, and has been campaigning effectively since the last election.
I thought Bandt had lost until Kevin Rudd announced his PNG solution to asylum seekers. If there is an issue that might unite inner-city voters across income lines, it is probably this; even some traditional Liberal voters are appalled by the competition between the two leaders as to who can be toughest on asylum seekers. Rudd's decision to prioritise same-sex marriage seems intended to help restore his credibility amongst those voters who remember his warnings that under Gillard Australia would move to the right on asylum seekers.
Adam Bandt has presented himself as a Green in tune with inner-city dwellers; indeed, he rarely speaks of trees and has never been seen to hug one. He is an assiduous campaigner in some of the Labor heartland areas of the electorate, which include massive public housing flats in areas such as Richmond, Flemington and Collingwood, where many voters are pensioners or recent migrants.
Bandt is also helped by strong reaction to the Victorian Government's plans to build a massive tunnel through the inner-north of Melbourne, which means no money will be available for any serious development of public transport for the next decade. While Labor opposes the tunnel, the issue is likely to help Bandt more than Bowtell. Cath Bowtell, along with her Labor colleague Speaker Anna Burke, has made clear she will try to mitigate the harshness of current government policy, but a backbencher will not have the same freedom as a crossbencher to keep the issue alive.
In her negotiations to establish her government, Gillard probably conceded too much to the Greens; they would have backed her for less than she offered. Even so, the agreement ended acrimoniously, in part because of the insistence of so many Labor people who see the Greens rather than the conservatives as their chief enemy.
Of course, the Greens at times operated out of the same ruthless self-interest as does every political party. But without their presence there would have been no carbon tax, no parliamentary debate on our role in Afghanistan, and probably a far slower introduction of a dental scheme.
Effectively, Bandt has articulated what many of the left of the Labor Party believe in, which is why he is so disliked by many of the party apparatchiks.
There is a strong argument for electing decent and progressive Labor MPs, who tend to be endorsed in precisely those seats where the Greens have their best chance. But Labor has had no shortage of safe seats in Victoria, and wasted one by parachuting in Senator David Feeney, just like they wasted a House seat by giving it to Senator Thistlethwaite in Sydney to allow the party secretary, Sam Dastyari, to move into the Senate.
I should acknowledge that I am a strong supporter of Bandt, but that is based on his record over the past three years, and a dislike for the venom with which the Greens have been attacked by both sides when they, along with Oakeshott and Windsor, have been by far the most consistent politicians over the period of the Gillard/Rudd government.
In the unusual circumstances of the past three years, there were unique opportunities for minor party members and independents to establish themselves as national figures. As the one Green in the House, Bandt sometimes found himself in lonely opposition against virtually the entire rest of the Parliament. He handled this with grace, and, like Oakeshott, Windsor and Wilkie, used his position to both raise national issues and articulate the interests of his electorate.
In the end, Bandt needs the votes of a number of normal Liberal voters, even if these come in the form of second preferences. He is trying for an alliance of inner-city trendies, doctors' wives and public housing tenants that he might just pull off.
First published on The Drum on 14 August 2013.