Labor by-election breakup looms — it’s not you, it’s Batman

Preston, in Melbourne’s north, may seem like a typical Australian suburb.

Preston Market is the vibrant, foodie heart of the community.

For locals it even surpasses the famous Queen Victoria market in the city.

But in terms of politics, the suburb is a community in the midst of a transformation.

As this map indicates, Preston represents the front line in the progressive political battle.

The polling booths in the electorate of Batman are divided almost neatly into two groups.

It’s Labor to the north and Greens to the south. Preston in the middle.

But down in the trenches it’s not just the Greens Labor is fighting.

Welcome to the Batman by-election

After a century of almost continuous Labor control of Batman, the ALP is struggling to hold on.

Former Batman MP David Feeney resigned in January following controversies over dual citizenship and a failure to declare investments.

Consequently, a by-election will be held this Saturday.

He had only narrowly held the seat at the 2016 election, by a margin of 1 per cent.

On that day he saw off local social worker Alex Bhathal.

She is running again, this time against Labor’s Ged Kearney, a former union official and nurse.

But the merits and capabilities of the candidates will only go so far in determining the outcome on Saturday.

Labor’s vote in Batman has slipped steadily since the 1990s.

 

The declining Labor vote has accompanied a growth in Greens support — as well as a change in the region’s makeup.

According to Shaun Ratcliff, lecturer in political science at the United States Studies Centre, Greens voters are typically young, well educated, atheists, on middle incomes, and in professional occupations.

In the 25 years since 1991, Batman’s demography has shifted heavily in this direction:

  • Residents with “no religion” — 12 to 36 per cent
  • Residents in professional occupations — 19 to 31 per cent
  • Residents with tertiary qualifications — 11 to 27 per cent

But not even statistics can fully explain the rising Greens support.

Dr Ratcliff says if two people with identical demographic characteristics were compared — except one lived in the inner city and one lived in the outer suburbs — the inner city dweller would be more likely to support the Greens.

“There’s something about culture of the neighbourhood that can influence political preferences.”

The way of the south

On High Street in Northcote, trams rumble past the candidates’ campaign posters.

“Stop Adani” stickers are almost as prevalent, spotted in cafe windows and stuck to traffic signs.

Christine Proscino is planning to support the Green tide.

“I’m voting the Greens, to me it’s about the environment,” she says.

I don’t have young kids at school and those kind of issues so for me it’s about protecting the environment.

Another Northcote resident, Amber Russo, believes the Greens have more integrity as a party.

“They’ve got policy that is more about the real person, all aspects of living,” she says.

“I feel like they might serve us best.

“I think it’s always about the bigger picture and how as a small community we can contribute to that.”

ABC election analyst Antony Green has noted how the rise of the Greens is linked to changing characteristics of electorates: use of public transport, density of residence and university education.

Labor’s vote in Batman has slipped steadily since the 1990s.

But the merits and capabilities of the candidates will only go so far in determining the outcome on Saturday.

“The variable that comes up most commonly in explaining the rise of centrist and leftist third parties in Australia in the last three decades is university education,” Green says.

“Survey data starting with the Australia Party in the late 1960s, through the Australian Democrats from the 1970s and now with the Greens, show these parties have drawn support disproportionately from amongst the ranks of university educated voters.”

Northcote, in Batman’s south, recorded the seat’s strongest Green vote at the 2016 election.

More than half of its adult residents are university graduates — one in six with a postgraduate degree.

The area has seen extraordinary growth in Greens support in the past decade.

In 2016, the Northcote West booth recorded Greens support from almost three in four voters — the highest in the electorate.

In 2007, supporters of the Greens were in the minority.

Despite these shifts, local Labor supporters abound, too, ready to embrace the party’s new candidate.

One man walking down High Street gestures to his kids.

“Education is pretty important,” the man, who wished to remain anonymous, says.

“I’ll probably go for Ged Kearney … for a combination of her capability and the policies that have come out.”

In the north

Reservoir — a suburb not pronounced like the body of water — has a very different feel than the southern end of the electorate.

It is industrial and suburban.

Promises to extend the number-11 tram line have been welcomed by the electorate.

But other news during the campaign has made the decision difficult for Susie Britton, who was put off by bullying allegations made against the Greens candidate Alex Bhathal.

“I’m a swing voter in this by-election,” she says, declaring she has not made up her mind.

Clearly the Adani mine is a huge issue for me, for this electorate.

“And whether it’s right or wrong the Greens are keeping a balance of power.

Although overall levels of university education are higher in the south of Batman compared to suburbs like Reservoir in the north, the rate of change is faster in the north.

Up until now, Labor’s vote had held firm in the north of the electorate.

The Merrilands booth recorded the greatest amount of Labor support in Batman — more than three in four voters.

The same level of support was recorded in 2007, with little consistent swing against Labor candidates since then.

But as soon as Labor loses favour here, it’s likely the seat will be lost.

Richard Coulson in Reservoir declares himself a staunch Labor man and a follower of the party.

But he does not feel optimistic about Labor’s chances of holding onto the seat, anticipating the Greens will win.

Chart showing swings against Labor at the 2016 election in Batman by booth

“I think they probably will, it’s happened in the state election,” Mr Coulson says.

“I think it’s very probable that it will be in the federal too.

“Most of the old Labor vote, or voting base, has moved out. We’re no longer an industrial area, we’re a more gentrified area.”

Dr Ratcliff believes if the traditional pattern of support for the Greens holds, and the party holds together, Batman is likely to fall as the demographics change — if not this time, then soon.

“Demographically, the Batman area is becoming increasingly gentrified, increasingly well-educated, and that gentrification is moving northwards every year, into Preston and even further north as housing prices in particularly push younger people further north,” he says.

“If current trends continue, and if the Greens continue to do well with those groups, Batman would likely fall sooner or later, it’s just a matter of when.”

The declining Labor vote has accompanied a growth in Greens support — as well as a change in the region’s makeup.

According to Shaun Ratcliff, lecturer in political science at the United States Studies Centre, Greens voters are typically young, well educated, atheists, on middle incomes, and in professional occupations.

In the 25 years since 1991, Batman’s demography has shifted heavily in this direction:

  • Residents with “no religion” — 12 to 36 per cent
  • Residents in professional occupations — 19 to 31 per cent
  • Residents with tertiary qualifications — 11 to 27 per cent

But not even statistics can fully explain the rising Greens support.

Dr Ratcliff says if two people with identical demographic characteristics were compared — except one lived in the inner city and one lived in the outer suburbs — the inner city dweller would be more likely to support the Greens.

“There’s something about culture of the neighbourhood that can influence political preferences.”

The way of the south

On High Street in Northcote, trams rumble past the candidates’ campaign posters.

“Stop Adani” stickers are almost as prevalent, spotted in cafe windows and stuck to traffic signs.

Christine Proscino is planning to support the Green tide.

“I’m voting the Greens, to me it’s about the environment,” she says.

I don’t have young kids at school and those kind of issues so for me it’s about protecting the environment.

Another Northcote resident, Amber Russo, believes the Greens have more integrity as a party.

“They’ve got policy that is more about the real person, all aspects of living,” she says.

“I feel like they might serve us best.

“I think it’s always about the bigger picture and how as a small community we can contribute to that.”

ABC election analyst Antony Green has noted how the rise of the Greens is linked to changing characteristics of electorates: use of public transport, density of residence and university education.

“The variable that comes up most commonly in explaining the rise of centrist and leftist third parties in Australia in the last three decades is university education,” Green says.

“Survey data starting with the Australia Party in the late 1960s, through the Australian Democrats from the 1970s and now with the Greens, show these parties have drawn support disproportionately from amongst the ranks of university educated voters.”

Northcote, in Batman’s south, recorded the seat’s strongest Green vote at the 2016 election.

More than half of its adult residents are university graduates — one in six with a postgraduate degree.

The area has seen extraordinary growth in Greens support in the past decade.

In 2016, the Northcote West booth recorded Greens support from almost three in four voters — the highest in the electorate.

In 2007, supporters of the Greens were in the minority.

Despite these shifts, local Labor supporters abound, too, ready to embrace the party’s new candidate.

One man walking down High Street gestures to his kids.

“Education is pretty important,” the man, who wished to remain anonymous, says.

“I’ll probably go for Ged Kearney … for a combination of her capability and the policies that have come out.”

In the north

Reservoir — a suburb not pronounced like the body of water — has a very different feel than the southern end of the electorate.

It is industrial and suburban.

Promises to extend the number-11 tram line have been welcomed by the electorate.

But other news during the campaign has made the decision difficult for Susie Britton, who was put off by bullying allegations made against the Greens candidate Alex Bhathal.

“I’m a swing voter in this by-election,” she says, declaring she has not made up her mind.

Clearly the Adani mine is a huge issue for me, for this electorate.

“And whether it’s right or wrong the Greens are keeping a balance of p

Although overall levels of university education are higher in the south of Batman compared to suburbs like Reservoir in the north, the rate of change is faster in the north.

Up until now, Labor’s vote had held firm in the north of the electorate.

The Merrilands booth recorded the greatest amount of Labor support in Batman — more than three in four voters.

The same level of support was recorded in 2007, with little consistent swing against Labor candidates since then.

But as soon as Labor loses favour here, it’s likely the seat will be lost.

Richard Coulson in Reservoir declares himself a staunch Labor man and a follower of the party.

But he does not feel optimistic about Labor’s chances of holding onto the seat, anticipating the Greens will win.

Chart showing swings against Labor at the 2016 election in Batman by booth

“I think they probably will, it’s happened in the state election,” Mr Coulson says.

“I think it’s very probable that it will be in the federal too.

“Most of the old Labor vote, or voting base, has moved out. We’re no longer an industrial area, we’re a more gentrified area.”

Dr Ratcliff believes if the traditional pattern of support for the Greens holds, and the party holds together, Batman is likely to fall as the demographics change — if not this time, then soon.

“Demographically, the Batman area is becoming increasingly gentrified, increasingly well-educated, and that gentrification is moving northwards every year, into Preston and even further north as housing prices in particularly push younger people further north,” he says.

“If current trends continue, and if the Greens continue to do well with those groups, Batman would likely fall sooner or later, it’s just a matter of when.”

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