By Stuart Bruce, 21/12/2014
When politics doesn’t go according to the script, the stereotypes and simplifications always come out to play. A new paradigm has emerged as, for the first time ever, there are Greens in the Victorian state Lower House – two of them! Thanks to a stellar people-powered campaign from the Victorian Greens, the Greens almost took five lower house seats and actually won two.
How can this change be explained aside from the obvious, that those voters now don’t believe the major parties represent them anymore?
There will be continuing efforts to insert the narrative (in Prahran mainly) that it’s merely a few cosmopolitan, young hipsters who have swayed these seats away from their true constituency. Hard-working, middle-class families have been robbed by the twitterati, many will assert. Those who have benefited from our preferential system for years are now blaming it and claiming unfairness. Replete with the cliche conjurings of some bearded latte-sipper, taking a final sip of his soy chai and sliding off in tight jeans to a polling booth and usurping the proper way of things.
As usual, the truth is a little more complex. It is worth noting that prior to the election, there were almost no commentators or analysts that mentioned Prahran as being in play for the Greens. It might be labelled an exception, an anomaly. However, those with their ear to the ground knew that Prahran was very much in play for the Greens and no, it wasn’t built on the hipster vote.
The reality is that Prahran voters of all ages, all sizes, all professions and all genders came out to vote for the Greens. Perhaps some groups in slightly more numbers but the differences were not significantly based on demographics. This is one of the prevailing myths of democracy around the world. That a vote can be predicted based on demographics alone. It sounds ridiculous when you say it out loud – how is it meant to work? “Young, female, she will vote Green. Old, male, he will vote Liberal.” It is a distortion of the worst kind because it robs those who are stereotyped of their right to be considered to have a free choice (and thereby influencing candidates to act in their interests in order to win their vote).
It was out in force again in the confusion to scramble for explanations as to why Prahran didn’t go to course. Associate Professor Paul Strangio from Monash University was quoted in Crikey as saying, “I think Prahran is quite a unique seat in their complex and very diverse demographics and therefore voting behaviour patterns” with the embedded assumption that demographics are the central influence on voting behaviour.
Demographics are not the central influence, values are. What CAPP’s research found in the seats of Prahran and Melbourne, was that a large section of the community has pro-environment values and values supporting the welfare state and a widespread dissatisfaction with the major parties. These values align with Greens policies about serving the community and the local economy first, conserving our natural world for future generations and making sure government systems care for people properly.
There was also the key issue of major party corruption and a reluctance to equip IBAC, the anti-corruption body with the powers to root out political corruption. The Greens were the only party to reject developer donations and in Prahran (an electorate with a high risk of being dudded by poor planning processes), this may have played a key role in securing those votes that got the Greens over the line. There was also support registered from Toorak and South Yarra for the Greens, in places considered ‘blue-ribbon’ for the Liberal Party. Perhaps protecting the community and local amenity was an issue with those voters? Simply not siding with developers all the time and listening to the community as the Greens do, may be quite an attractive proposition for say, business people in Prahran whose livelihoods are heavily dependent upon the local amenity being preserved.
But most importantly, to combat the myth-making, CAPP found that the groups that held these Green values, were not very significantly younger or older. Support for Green values (and values are what really shape voting behaviour) was spread evenly across all age groups.
Their motivations vary due to individual perspectives of course, but those who changed their vote to the Greens, strangely enough, have values that align with the Greens. And those first time Greens voters must have decided that it was time for a change and that the major parties did not serve their interests anymore. Like many around Australia, they may have been getting a sneaking suspicion, growing ever so slowly, that perhaps the major parties actually don’t serve them. They actually serve someone else, somewhere else, higher up perhaps, in a corridor of power. A hushed conversation of whispers and euphemisms that benefit a lobbyist’s client and shafts the community again and again and again. We know this happens and people appear to be getting sick of it.
This time in Melbourne and Prahran, there was a change. Sure, it was close and the Greens in Prahran just got over the line but that should not take away from the stellar effort of grass-roots campaigners in these inner-city electorates and the local people of Prahran and Melbourne who were fed up and dared to change their vote. Whoever is injured by the fact that the Greens have won Prahran will be personally invested in promoting myths, as if it wasn’t the community of Prahran that this change is built upon. To those who support those myths, I’m sorry, it’s not unfair, it’s very fair. It’s democracy in action.
Stuart Bruce is executive director of the Centre for Applied Political Psychology – which conducted strategic research for the Greens in Melbourne and Prahran electorates for the recent state election.