Northcote byelection: Greens' Lidia Thorpe takes Melbourne seat from Labor

  • Historic win sees swing of over 11% to Greens, who will now hold three seats in Victoria’s Legislative Assembly
  • Thorpe becomes first Indigenous woman elected to Victorian parliament

The Greens made a big step forward in the inner city of Melbourne on Saturday night, with Lidia Thorpe winning the byelection in the state Labor seat of Northcote, with a swing of over 11%.

Thorpe, who defeated Labor’s Clare Burns in a seat the party had held for 90 years, is the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the Victorian parliament. “We said we’d make history, and we did,” Thorpe told jubilant supporters.

“To be the first Aboriginal woman in the Victorian parliament ... I feel so privileged and honoured to have made that, made that history.”

The surprise win follows predictions of a narrow Labor win. But the Greens said their Northcote victory had been a long time coming. “This is a culmination of years of work,” state leader Samantha Ratnam said. “A lot of people, they’ve said to us they feel like the other parties have left them.”

The byelection was triggered by the August death of Labor MP Fiona Richardson, who had cancer. Richardson won the seat in 2006. Both Labor and the Greens ran high-profile campaigns, with a lot of attention and resources devoted to the seat.

The Labor state government made a number of policy announcements targeted at voters interested in the Greens, on issues such as housing affordability and renters’ rights. This didn’t have the desired effect, with the Greens winning the seat with a huge swing. On Saturday night the Greens had gained a swing of over 11%, giving the party 45% of the primary vote and 55.4% after the distribution of preferences.

The result was fairly consistent across the seat. The Greens vote (after preferences) increased by over 10% in every single booth. The Greens did better in the south-western corner of the seat in 2014 (closer to the Greens-held seat of Melbourne). The Greens vote picked up more strongly in other parts of the seat, leading to a smaller gap between the highest Greens vote and the lowest across the electorate.

Labor only managed to hold on to one small booth, but even there they suffered a swing of over 21%.

This result will have knock-on effects for Victorian state politics, and has implications for the Greens’ chances of winning more marginal lower house seats.

The Greens are clearly getting better at contesting inner-city marginal electorates, particularly in Melbourne, and it appears that their message is cutting through with more voters.

The Victorian Greens now hold three seats in inner Melbourne, with a good chance at two others at the next election. The party also did quite well in the seats of Batman and Wills at the last federal election, while strengthening their hold on the federal seat of Melbourne. It appears that success in electing lower house MPs may have a contagious effect in neighbouring seats, and that the Greens can sometimes do better when they appear successful and viable.

Lidia Thorpe, celebrates with supporters on Saturday evening.
Lidia Thorpe celebrates with supporters on Saturday evening. Photograph: Joe Castro/AAP

While you wouldn’t expect a swing as large at a general election, the Greens are hoping to win Richmond and Brunswick, both of which are Labor-held by margins of around 2%. Unless things change in the next year, the Greens would be favourites to grab these seats. If they can also hold on to their other two seats, they would end up with five seats in the new Legislative Assembly.

Unless Labor can make substantial gains in Liberal seats, they would need to negotiate with this large bloc of MPs to form government. This would put the Victorian Greens, and their new leader Samantha Ratnam, in an unprecedented position for the party, and it would be a challenge for both parties to find a way to cooperate while fiercely competing for many of the same voters.

This result also suggests that the Greens have room to grow in federal electorates in inner Melbourne. The Greens broke through into the lower house in the federal seat of Melbourne in 2010, and since then they have consolidated Melbourne and increased support in surrounding seats. Northcote overlaps with the federal seat of Batman, where Greens candidate Alex Bhathal fell short of defeating Labor’s David Feeney by only 1.03% at the last election. Ratnam also came within 5% of winning the neighbouring seat of Wills.

It’s not so clear if the party are able to export this successful model into other states. The Greens have done quite well in inner-city Sydney (and northern New South Wales) at NSW state elections, but the Greens NSW have trailed far behind the Victorian Greens in the equivalent federal contests. The Greens NSW now hold three state lower house seats, but there are not as many obvious chances for the party to increase its territory in the inner city as there is in Melbourne.

The Queensland Greens won their first seat on the massive Brisbane city council in 2016 (somewhat similar to a single-member state electorate in size), and are making a push to break through to the Queensland parliament in inner-Brisbane electorates at next weekend’s state election. There are some similar dynamics in inner Brisbane and Northcote – a first-term state Labor government which has struggled to hold on to its left flank in the inner city. The Queensland Greens will be hoping for some similar success in their election, but we can’t yet say whether the Victorian Greens model will work in Brisbane.

South Brisbane Greens candidate Amy MacMahon said on Sunday the Northcote result was a “symbol of hope for the rest of the country” that voters were putting their faith in the party.

“People can see that the Greens are offering this genuine, hopeful, alternative vision,” she said. “We’re taking a lot of positive energy from this and feeling really excited about the next seven days here in Queensland.”

The Labor deputy premier, Jackie Trad, is under threat from MacMahon, with a Galaxy poll on 13 November finding she trailed her Greens counterpart 51-49 on a two-party-preferred basis.

But the minor party’s decision to preference Labor second in the inner-Brisbane seat could help Trad get over the line on 25 November.

On Sunday the federal Greens leader, Richard Di Natale, said his party’s win in Northcote shows voters have had enough of the two old parties and their ties with big business.

“What you have got is people in Northcote who have said ‘we have had enough of the two old parties, we don’t like the fact they are two parties who are being bought by big business ... we support a party that stands strongly with the community’,” Di Natale told ABC radio.

The federal resources minister and Queensland Liberal National party senator Matt Canavan conceded the Northcote outcome could result in the Greens picking up two Brisbane seats in the Queensland election.

“That raises the spectre of a Greens/Labor coalition in the Queensland parliament,” he told Sky News.

He said that is not something Labor premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has ruled out even though she has talked a lot about rejecting One Nation.

“That would be an absolute nightmare for Queensland. The Greens want to stop jobs all over the state,” Canavan said.

Additional reporting by Australian Associated Press


Ben Raue and agencies

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