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Melbourne after Tanner: Labor hold or green gain?

By Nick Economou - posted Monday, 5 July 2010

The recent announcement of the resignation of federal finance minister, Lindsay Tanner, at the upcoming election has increased interest in the likely outcome in his electorate of Melbourne. In a Labor-Liberal contest, Melbourne is one of Labor’s safest seats. Yet the 2007 result was not between Labor and Liberal, but, rather, Labor and the Greens. Counted in this way, Tanner won his seat with 54.7 per cent of the two-party vote. Needing a 4.7 per cent swing to change, Melbourne is, technically, an ultra-marginal government seat.

To gain some insights into the contest to come, Melbourne’s recent voting pattern is outlined in the graph produced here that tracks the primary vote for the ALP, the Liberal party and Greens between 1993 (the year Mr Tanner first won the seat) and 2007.

This graph reveals some interesting features. First, the deleterious impact of the appearance of the Greens on the Labor party primary vote stands out clearly. In 1993, the Labor primary vote was 65.7 per cent. With the appearance of the Greens in 1996, it fell to 57.7.


The Greens won 6.6 per cent in the party’s first contest, but suffered a slight decline (down 0.6 per cent) in the GST-dominated 1998 election. The graph shows, however, that in 2001 there was a dramatic leap in the Greens’ primary vote and commensurate decline in Labor support.

Here is a stark reminder of how important the September 11 terrorism attack on New York was to voting behaviour in Melbourne. Under Kim Beazley’s leadership, Labor’s strategy was to align itself with the Howard government’s policy of declaring fulsome support for the USA when it declared its “war on terrorism”. Labor also sought to align itself with the Howard government on border security. This graph indicates that Labor’s vote in Melbourne was a casualty of this strategy.

The leap in the Greens’ primary vote in 2001 established a new platform from which swings of between 3 to 4 per cent occurred in subsequent elections. The graph clearly shows that, at this rate, the Greens have been gaining on the Liberal primary vote that had been fairly stable at around 25 per cent throughout the period since 1993.

The graph then highlights two interesting aspects of the 2007 contest. First, a fall occurred in the Liberal primary vote while the Green primary vote rose again to the point where it almost matched the Liberals. With the help of preferences (some of which were the result of a 0.5 per cent donkey vote) the Greens candidate was able to overtake the Liberal candidate and thus become the second preferred candidate to Mr Tanner.

No less significant was the decline in the Labor primary vote. This was somewhat curious given that the party had, in Kevin Rudd, a newly elevated leader whose popularity helped Labor to win marginal seats in New South Wales and Queensland in what was a government-changing election. In such circumstances, the normal expectation would have been for the Labor primary vote to increase in Melbourne as well. Clearly this wasn’t the case.


Armed with this knowledge, it is now possible to outline some realistic scenarios about the battle for Melbourne. For the Greens, the task continues to have three challenges: take votes off Labor, overtake the Liberals on primary vote, and secure a Liberal party how-to-vote card that directs preferences to the Greens.

So far, the Greens have come close to displacing the Liberals as the second preferred party on primary vote, and have enjoyed the benefits of Liberal voters being asked to give the Greens their second preference in the past. Given this, the fate of Melbourne will probably rest on the direction the Labor primary vote takes at the next election.

Leaving aside Mr Tanner’s (largely unsubstantiated) claim to a personal vote, the key factor in influencing the swing on primary vote is clearly that of how the national Labor leader is perceived. The graph shows that, in 2004, Melbourne voters approved of Mark Latham, even if the rest of the country did not. By the same token, Melbourne refused to be a part of the euphoria that surrounded the Rudd ascendancy in 2007.

Presumably, had Rudd stayed on as leader the swing against Labor would have continued and the Greens’ chances of pinching Melbourne would have been enhanced. But with Julia Gillard now the leader, a swing back to the ALP in primary vote can be expected. If that is the case, any swing greater than 0.5 per cent will mean that Labor will win Melbourne on the primary vote.

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About the Author

Dr Nick Economou is a senior Lecturer in politics at Monash University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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