Nick Cater writes in The Australian:
How far into the ideological fringe must Labor venture to hold a seat such as Northcote in the Victorian parliament?
Quite a bit further than Daniel Andrews has yet been bold enough to go, judging from Saturday’s by-election. No one could have done more than he to support the LGBTI community, short of making membership compulsory. He has given anti-bullying bullies the run of public schools and banned religious instruction in the classroom. He has banned gas exploration, (all of it, not just fracking like those wimpy premiers in other states); he has set a 90 per cent renewable energy target; and a massive brown coal-fired power station shut down on his watch. He wants to make granny killing legal providing it’s consensual, proving surely that Andrews, by progressive moral standards, is a good man.
Yet on Saturday Labor lost Northcote for the first time since 1927. It lost not by a little but by a lot. An ungrateful 45 per cent of voters put the Greens’ Lidia Thorpe first. Thorpe will enter the next election with a comfortable 11 per cent buffer after preferences.
Northcote used to be a workers’ suburb where Greeks and Italians bought cheap houses and concreted the front lawn. Now Northcote is the new Fitzroy North, its streets lined with sensible SUVs and the less ostentatious models in the Audi and Peugeot ranges.
It’s 10 to 15 minutes from the University of Melbourne on one of those funny yellow bikes and is home to more psychologists (239) than plumbers (139). If the dripping tap drives you nuts, there’s always therapy.
The Greens’ primary vote on Saturday roughly matched the number of adults with a university education (45.1 per cent) and the irreligious (46.9 per cent). There are more psychiatrists than ministers of religion
Last year’s census shows Northcote has the fifth highest number of same-sex couples of 88 state seats in Victoria. Seven out of 10 same-sex couples in Northcote, incidentally, are female.
More than half — 58 per cent — work in the public sector. The volume of sweat per hour of work is low. There are 10 times more teachers than truck drivers, and 20 times more university lecturers than bricklayers.
It is hardly the sort of seat Ben Chifley would have recognised as Labor heartland, if indeed he recognised it as Australia at all. The changes have been so dramatic in the past 30 years that it is testimony to Labor’s adaptability that it held this seat at all.
It has lost some skin in the process, however, as it has struggled to find common ground between disparate constituencies. How does one unite blue-collar, socially conservative tradies, post-industrial professionals and the immigrant populations in unfashionable middle and outer suburbs? The task is almost impossible, particularly on the most contentious issues of the day — energy policy, transgender rights, asylum-seekers, for example — where passions are so easily inflamed.
As Labor has tried with varying degrees of success to tread a delicate middle course, its supporters have to feel less attached. When Bob Hawke won the 1987 federal election, almost half of voters described themselves as Labor partisans in the Australian Election Study. In last year’s election the ranks of Labor partisans had dwindled to less than one-third.
What complicates things is that the political class deciding Labor’s future brings its own prejudices and assumptions to the table. Its members are younger, generally speaking, than the general population, and inclined to have spent more time at university than is good for the human soul.
One suspects they feel more comfortable grabbing brunch at Northcote’s Red Door Corner Store (“Dukkah Eggs were delicious … cardamom poached pear ‘stunning’,” we read on TripAdvisor) than at the Moonlight Cafe in Westfield, Broadmeadows.
These cultural tensions, for which food fetishes can be a surprisingly good proxy, have spared neither mainstream party. Labor suffered first with a breakaway to the Greens on one side, and the defection of the Howard battlers on the other. As the Northcote election shows, it continues to suffer. Batman, once held by the stalwart Martin Ferguson, could fall to the Greens. Grayndler in Sydney’s inner west is, by broad consent, a Labor seat for only so long as Anthony Albanese contests it.
Now those same tensions are straining the Coalition, driving wedges between partners and within parties. It has prompted the departure of the conservatively minded at one end and a smaller group at the other end who have attached themselves to the Greens.
The same-sex marriage argument, which split Coalition voters roughly 50-50, was a gift for anti-conservative commentators, for whom anyone who disagreed with change was homophobic.
The noisier commentators on what is sometimes called the alt-right misjudged the moment, too, imagining that the same-sex marriage plebiscite was to Australia what Brexit was to Britain and Donald Trump’s election was to the US.
As it turned out, the result was not the popular revolt against the elite some had longed for. The Yes vote prevailed in 133 out of 150 electorates. It prevailed in seats considered conservative, such as Kevin Andrews’s seat of Menzies (57 per cent Yes) and in unfashionable outer-suburban blue-collar seats, such as Forde in Queensland (60.5 per cent).
In the federal seat of Batman, where Northcote sits, 70 per cent supported same-sex marriage in the Australian Bureau of Statistics survey.
The survey confirms that they are civic-minded. Four out of five of them returned completed forms, compared with three out of five in Ireland. It debunks the confected theory of rampant homophobia and the debilitating cult of victimhood that flowed from it.
We also know Australians value freedom, with Newspoll reporting that 62 per cent of voters want guarantees for freedom of conscience, belief and religion. Parliament has a duty to honour that desire, not just because it’s popular but because it’s necessary.
It is an obligation every bit as strong as the mandate they assume to change the Marriage Act.