Politics

Everything You Missed During The Election That’s Breaking Australian Politics

No matter who wins, Saturday night is going to be wild.

Over the past few weeks Labor and the Greens have been duking it out in the inner-city Melbourne seat of Batman in the lead up to the year’s first federal by-election. Batman is one of the most marginal seats in the country and the intense contest has produced one of the most fascinating — and downright absurd — election races in recent times.

The by-election, which will be held this Saturday, was sparked by the resignation of sitting Labor MP David Feeney. Feeney resigned after failing to produce documents backing up his claim that he had rescinded his British citizenship.

Historically Batman has been one of the safest Labor seats in the country. Just a decade ago Labor won 75 percent of the two-party-preferred vote. But over the past few elections the Greens have been steadily building up their vote in Melbourne’s inner-city. In 2010 the Greens won the federal of seat of Melbourne, which adjoins Batman. Last year they won the state seat of Northcote, which is situated within the seat up for grabs this weekend.

The Greens have lifted their vote from 12 percent in 2001 to 36 percent in 2016, and they’ve narrowed Labor’s two-party preferred margin down to just one percent. Their candidate throughout that entire period has been social worker Alex Bhathal, and she’s been preselected to run again in the upcoming by-election — although not everyone in the party is happy about that.

Labor has chosen the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, Ged Kearney, as their candidate. The Liberals aren’t running a candidate, and that decision is expected to benefit the Greens. That’s because at the last election the Liberals directed preferences to Labor, which helped Labor win — even though they were outpolled on primary votes by the Greens — keeping up?

There hasn’t been much polling in the seat but the betting markets are predicting a Greens victory tomorrow night. But regardless of who wins, the battle will go down as one of the most bitterly fought, wildest election contests in a long time.

The Greens vs. The Greens

You would think that with such a crucial election looming, and an opportunity for the party to literally double its representation in the House of Representatives, the Greens might be focused and united.

Not quite.

Bhathal’s campaign has been rocked by a series of damaging leaks from within her own party. First, a 100 page dossier alleging she was a “bully” was leaked to the media. More internal disagreements continued to be leaked throughout the campaign, causing a major distraction for the Greens.

So where are the leaks coming from and why are they happening? Well even though Bhathal won preselection for the seat comprehensively (she received around 230 votes in her favour, and only 19 against), it looks like the people who didn’t back her really, really don’t like her.

Greens sources have told Junkee that there’s a group of party members in Bhathal’s branch who actively want her to lose the seat because they want a different candidate to run at the next federal election. If you ask me, jeopardising your own party’s chances of winning just so you can win at some point in the future is extremely dumb. But hey, that’s politics.

Bill Shorten’s Confusing Position On Adani

One of the biggest issues in the campaign has been over the controversial Adani coal mine in Queensland — which is an awfully long way from north Melbourne. The Greens are strongly opposed to the mine and they’ve been trying to turn the by-election into a referendum on Labor’s policy.

So what is Labor’s policy? Great question. The party is conscious of the fact that progressive voters in Batman aren’t into the idea of a huge new coal mine being dug up in Australia, but they haven’t quite taken an anti-Adani position.

Bill Shorten has said he’s “not a fan” of the mine, but won’t revoke the license or “tear up contracts” to stop the mine going ahead. It’s a pretty confusing position, and it hasn’t satisfied environment groups who are running an intense campaign in the seat to try and get Labor to firm up it’s opposition to the mine.

The Greens are likely to be the electoral beneficiaries of those campaigns, and the issue is a great example of how Labor can get wedged when it tries to play to progressive, inner-city voters.

Namaste

But here’s where things start to get really weird. Last week Labor campaigners were accused of using racial slurs on social media to attack Bhathal, by deploying the Hindi term “namaste”.

Di Natale slammed the social media posts, saying: “This abuse  is outrageous. It is not only racist, it is sexist. Clearly some people in the Labor party are threatened that a strong woman of colour has nominated to stand for what has been a safe Labor seat. This sort of behaviour is not acceptable in a modern, multicultural Australia.”

Labor campaigners defended the use of “namaste” by arguing it was an online meme regularly used to mock Greens voters. Greens campaigners suggested that even if that were case, using it to mock a women with a South Asian background, like Bhathal, wasn’t a great look.

Protest-Gate

Last weekend the Greens took part in a refugee rights rally. Sounds pretty normal, right? Wrong.

The Greens were accused by Labor supporters of sexism after Bhathal was photographed in front of a graffitied Ged Kearney campaign poster.

Some people compared the poster to the infamous anti-Gillard poster pictured behind Tony Abbott at an anti-carbon tax rally prior to the 2013 federal election:

There’s not really much to say about this one, other than it generated a lot of opinions on social media. Some Labor campaigners were adamant the sign was proof the Greens were running a personal campaign targeting Kearney, while Greens supporters hit back and said Labor deserved scrutiny over its refugee policies.

Kearney has gone on the record in the past and opposed offshore detention, but as a Labor MP she would be bound to party policy — however she has indicated that she would advocate for change internally.

Macedonia-Gate

Just when things looked like they were simmering down another scandal exploded just days before polls opened.

Kearney and Shorten were forced to apologise after Labor distributed a leaflet in Batman that featured a Greek translation under a ‘Macedonian’ subheading. According to the World Macedonia Congress Australia: “The flyer has upset Macedonian émigrés, who do not read, speak or write in the Greek language and this is a provocation by the Australian Labor Party and highly discriminatory against a sizeable Australian / Macedonian minority.”

The flyer mix-up came at a particularly bad time, with Melbourne’s Macedonian community recently being targeted by racist graffiti — linked to a naming dispute between Greece and Macedonia.

Labor blamed a “production error” for the flyer, but that wasn’t enough to stop members of the Macedonian community protesting Kearney at a campaign event yesterday.

So Who’s Going To Win?

Phew. What a bunch of scandals. The fact that the seat is so marginal is a big part of the reason why there’s been so much tension over relatively minor issues — every single vote counts.

At the start of the campaign, Labor campaigners were feeling pessimistic about their chances in Batman, but in the last few weeks they’ve started to get more confident, and the odds have narrowed slightly. The Greens have run a campaign focused on Labor’s weaknesses in the seat — Adani and refugee policy, but the internal leaks have been an unwelcome distraction.

It’s hard to pick a winner, but one thing is for sure: given how the campaign has played out so far, whichever way things go on Saturday night people are going to get extremely mad.