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Melbourne by-election results for the Greens

A by-election was conducted for the Victorian state electorate of Melbourne on Saturday 21 July 2012. Vote-counting and rechecking has now been completed, with the ALP emerging as the winning party with 51.51 per cent of votes after distribution of preferences. 

The Melbourne District takes in the CBD, Docklands, East Melbourne, Carlton, North Melbourne, Flemington, Kensington and parts of Ascot Vale. According to the 2011 Census data, the population of the Melbourne electorate is generally younger, better educated and more affluent than other Victorian electorates, with a significant proportion of workers employed in the knowledge and communications industries. The Victorian Electoral Commission reports that 68.62 per cent of those enrolled in the electorate voted, which is the second lowest recorded vote for a lower-house Victorian seat since compulsory voting was introduced in the 1920s (the lowest was in 1977 with 66.8 per cent also recorded in Melbourne District). Monash University’s Nick Economou has attributed the low turnout to voter apathy.

Sixteen candidates stood for the by-election, which was triggered by the resignation of former minister and state Labor MLA Bronwyn Pike. The two main contenders were Jennifer Kanis (ALP) and Cathy Oke (Australian Greens). The Liberal Party, which directed its preferences to Labor at the last Victorian state election, did not contest this by-election. The ALP has held the seat almost continuously since 1908. At the 2010 state election, the ALP candidate for Melbourne District, Bronwyn Pike, won 35.67 per cent of first preference votes whilst the Greens candidate, Brian Walters, won 31.92 per cent. The Liberal candidate, Luke Martin, won 27.96 per cent.

The by-election proved to be a close competition between the ALP and Greens. Pre-election opinion polling and political commentators were suggesting that the Greens could beat Labor on primary votes, as occurred in the 2002 Cunningham federal by-election in NSW and the 2009 Fremantle state by-election in WA where, in each case, the Greens won a traditional Labor seat in the absence of a Liberal candidate. In the 2010 Commonwealth election, the Greens’ Adam Bandt won the House of Representatives seat of Melbourne with the assistance of Liberal Party preferences directed to the Greens over the ALP. His win also signalled the Greens’ ability to attract strong local support in inner-city areas.

If the Greens had won in the Melbourne by-election, it would have been the first lower house seat for that party in the Victorian Parliament. The Greens had come close to winning the seat in both the 2002 and 2006 state elections as a result of Liberal Party preferences. In the 2010 state election, Liberal preferences went to Labor ahead of the Greens. The following table shows the results for the Greens in Melbourne District for the past three state elections:

State election
Australian Greens
Result after preferences

Source: Victorian Electoral Commission, State election, Melbourne District: 2002, 2006 and 2010

Early counting in the 2012 by-election showed a swing against Labor and an increase in the Greens’ primary vote. However, as counting continued, the Labor candidate retained her lead and the party claimed victory on 23 July. The Australian Greens conceded defeat via the social networking service, Twitter, on the following day. The final result for the two main parties is as follows:

First preference votes
After distribution of preferences
Two candidate preferred vote
Jennifer Kanis, ALP
Cathy Oke, Australian Greens

Source: Victorian Electoral Commission

The Melbourne by-election has prompted considerable speculation about the implications of the results for the ALP and Greens at the federal level. As one academic commentator has noted, the by-election attracted national interest because it highlighted current tensions between the ALP and the Greens federally over the Greens’ decision to vote with the Opposition on asylum-seekers. The Greens wanted a regional agreement or an onshore processing solution to the asylum-seeker issue. The by-election also coincided with attempts by some in the ALP to draw a clear distinction between the party’s core values and those of the Greens. According to The Age’s political editor, Michelle Grattan, some senior Labor figures have used the party’s close win in Melbourne to strengthen their argument that the Prime Minister’s agreement with the Greens following the 2010 federal election ‘went unnecessarily far’. Since the by-election, media reports have also speculated about the Greens’ electoral prospects in the next Commonwealth election due to be held sometime before 30 November 2013, particularly given recent statements by senior Victorian Liberals opposing future Liberal preferences going to the Greens. The Liberal Party is still to decide how it will distribute its preferences in Victoria at the 2013 Commonwealth election.