The Guardian July 18, 2001

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 

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 

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 

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.

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