Aston by-election: The times really are a-changing
by Peter Mac The Aston by election has confirmed the trend of recent years, which has seen a gradual fall in the popularity of the two major parties, and a rise in votes for minor parties and independents. At the time The Guardian goes to press it is not clear which of the major parties will win — on preferences. The Liberals (who held the seat) scored only 39.9 percent of the primary vote, down from 48.5 per cent in 1998. Despite having the advantage of opposing an unpopular Government party in a by-election, the vote for Labor actually fell to 37.1 per cent (from 38.5 per cent). This means that 23 per cent of the electorate voted for smaller parties or independents. The Democrats, having modified their endorsement of the GST and dumped their previous conservative leader Meg Lees, reversed their recent decline in popularity and increased their vote slightly from 7.5 percent to 8.4 per cent. The Greens, who had not previously stood a Lower House candidate in the electorate, and who were opposed by independent candidates with very similar policies on environmental issues, scored 2.4 per cent. Independent green candidate Gary Skates, the popular Mayor of a local area, won 4.7 per cent of the vote, and the Liberals for Forests 0.9 percent. Altogether, candidates who campaigned on progressive policies, particularly the environment, scored some eight per cent of the vote. The green candidates offered to direct their preferences to whichever of the two major parties had the best policies regarding ratifying the Kyoto agreement, changing the Renewable Energy Bill, banning use of wood for electricity generation, improving public transport and opposing the Scoresby Freeway. As expected, the Liberals would not alter their policies on any of these issues. However, to the amazement and dismay of many, neither the Labor Party nor the Democrats were prepared to embrace these environmental policies. The ALP had entered into such an agreement prior to the Ryan by-election. But on this occasion, showing neither principles nor sanity Kim Beazley declared proudly: "I knew it would be a close election result, but you don't surrender policy like that. ... Now that is the sort of leadership this country needs." Does this mean that the ALP will not ratify the Kyoto agreement if elected to office in the coming Federal elections? As well as indicating a gross disregard of environmental issues, Beazley's shortsighted stand may cost the ALP the seat. Gary Skates, one of the environmental candidates commented that he would have directed his preferences to the ALP if it had agreed to modify its policy on the issue of the Kyoto agreement alone. A Green Party representative claimed that improvement of the ALP's policy on any one of the issues stipulated would probably have increased its performance by some 450 votes, thus ensuring its victory. Greens Senator, Bob Brown noted that at least one of the major parties would have been forced to change its policies on greenhouse gases if the Democrats had also joined the green candidates' bloc preference position. On the other hand, Bob Brown had no illusions about the importance of the growing progressive vote. He stated that the direction of preferences in the coming federal elections would again depend on the willingness of the major parties to adopt policies in the interest of working people and the environment, in particular, an endorsement of improved funding for public schools. With Federal elections likely to be determined by the preferences of the smaller parties and independents, the Labor Party leadership could bring about a Coalition victory because of its failure to adopt environmentally sound policies and, thereby, lose the preferences of the Greens and a number of other progressive parties and independent candidates.