There is a wonderful sense of satisfaction when a political party's safest seats become its most vulnerable. It is one of those occasions when we should be forgiven for the tall poppy syndrome. Members sitting on two party preferred margins of 10 per cent and more are just so smug that watching them campaign when they realise that the normal rules of preference distribution do not apply is a positive delight. So it was on Saturday night as the results of the Fremantle by-election for the West Australian state parliament came in.
Fremantle for yonks has been as safe Labor as a seat can get but there were signs at last year's statewide poll where the Labor Government lost office that things were changing. A large swag of left of centre votes went not to Labor but to the Greens. Labor, with 38.7% of the votes, still won comfortably on the conventional two party measure from a Liberal polling 30.2% of the primaries and a Green on 27.6%. But that narrow gap between Liberal and Green introduced a vulnerability; if a Green snuck ahead of the Liberal then preferences would push Labor back to second place.
At Saturday's by-election there was no official Liberal candidate but a motley collection of independents provided a conduit for Liberal voters to mischievously torment Labor by directing preferences to a Green if they were not prepared to vote for one directly. And so it came to pass that the Labor primary vote remained virtually unchanged on that the previous year while the Green vote rose to over 44 per cent on primaries and to around 54% after preferences.
There will be a lot of nervous Labor members both state and federal throughout the country who study this result with alarm. The chatterati who have moved into inner city Labor strongholds are increasingly inclined to flirt with candidates further to the left than those led by the self described economically conservative Prime Minister. The theoretically safer the seat the greater the chance that their support for a Green will result in a Labor defeat. All that is required is for Liberals either not to contest such seats or to run dead enough in them to ensure that a Green outpolls them.