Analysis / State Election

Difficult path back in Brunswick for Labor

Mike Williams gave his all, but it wasn’t enough

Mike Williams with some of his volunteers at the Brunswick Town Hall on Saturday, including the Member for Wills, Peter Khalil, second from left.

Mark Phillips
Monday, November 28, 2022

WHERE to now for Labor in Brunswick? That’s the big question after a state election on the weekend that saw the party’s primary vote crash below 30% for the first time in history.

For election after election through the past two decades, the Greens’ share of the vote grew inexorably until in 2018 Tim Read broke through with his historic first victory. But even then, the margin was just a half a per cent.

While there was no “green wave” this year – the swing to Dr Read on primary votes was just 1% –Labor’s primary vote fell by 8.5%.

With most parties allocating preferences to the Greens, Dr Read is set to be elected with about 63% of the two-candidate preferred vote.

What was once a marginal seat is now well and truly a safe Greens stronghold. Yes, preferences from the Liberals and Victorian Socialists, who collectively gathered almost one-in-five votes, were helpful to Dr Read, but it is the primary vote outcome that is most telling.

In neighbouring Pascoe Vale, which includes parts of Brunswick West, the primary votes of both Labor and the Greens went up slightly, and although there was an early scare, Labor’s Anthony Cianflone seems likely to win relatively comfortably. As we saw in the federal election in the seat of Wills, the further north of Brunswick you go, the higher the Labor vote.

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So what went wrong for Labor in Brunswick?

None of the blame can be attributed to the party’s candidate, Mike Williams. He ticked all the right boxes and was an amiable and hard-working candidate.

Mr Williams left nothing in the locker room, and by Saturday night was starting to lose his voice. Labor’s band of volunteers and activists knocked on 40,000 doors in Brunswick and made 10,000 phone calls.

His key message was solid, if a little underwhelming: vote for a Labor MP who can be a government insider to achieve results a minor party MP can’t.

But in an ultra-progressive electorate like Brunswick, this wasn’t enough. The Greens were able to outflank Labor on climate change, integrity in government and the rental housing affordability crisis.

The Andrews Government’s announcement of the multi-billion removal of eight level crossings in Brunswick along with an elevated railway line and a state of the art pedestrian and cycling path was a showstopper. But the Greens successfully shifted focus to the quagmire that is the future of Sydney Road with its lack of accessible public transport and safe cycling routes.

At public meetings, Mr Williams was often on the back foot and found himself trapped in the persona of the besieged incumbent, even though he was the challenger.

Having lost all 14 booths in Brunswick – including a few by a ratio of almost two-to-one – it is difficult to see where the path to winning back the electorate lies for Labor.

Dr Read is a popular local member who is comfortable taking a progressive stance on any issue, while Labor is trapped between appealing to inner city and outer suburban voters who often have different values and priorities, as well as people in regional centres.

As Mr Williams points out, the makeup of Brunswick is different from 2018 and that demographic change will accelerate as more young people move into new apartments who are not traditional rusted on Labor voters.

Labor in Brunswick is also suffering from a malaise common to mainstream established political parties around the western world where voters are rejecting the status quo and looking for new alternatives and disruptors.

The Labor candidate at the next state election will need to overcome a margin of more than 13% – not insurmountable, but very difficult.

After Saturday’s result, it is likely that Brunswick will remain green for quite a long while to come.