The Poll Bludger
Margin: Labor 10.6% versus Greens
Region: Northern Melbourne, Victoria
In a nutshell: Batman’s southern end is of a piece with the neighbouring Greens-held seat of Melbourne, but the migrant and working class vote further north has kept it secure for Labor – so far.
Candidates in ballot paper order
A traditional Labor stronghold that is increasingly coming under threat from the Greens, the inner north-eastern Melbourne seat of Batman northwards from the deep green inner-city environs of Northcote through Thornbury and Preston to Reservoir. The latter areas have lower incomes and large concentrations of Italian and Greek migrants, and accordingly remain strong for Labor. The Greens overtook the Liberals to reach the final preference count in 2010 and 2013, with the Liberals on both occasions recording their lowest primary vote in the country out of any seat not also contested by the Nationals. While Labor’s final margin over the Greens was narrower on the former occasion (7.6%) than the latter (10.6%), the Greens primary vote was up 2.9% to a new high of 26.4%.
Batman has existed in name since 1906, but was at first centred further to the south around Fitzroy, with the Bourke electorate continuing to cover what were then Melbourne’s northern outskirts. Batman’s boundaries were broadly similar to those of today from 1922 until the expansion of parliament in 1949, when the northern end became part of the new seat of Darebin, which was renamed Scullin in 1969. With the next expansion of parliament in 1984, Ivanhoe and Heidelberg went to the new seat of Jagajaga, Scullin was pushed further out into the northern suburbs, and Batman returned broadly to its pre-1949 dimensions.
Labor won both Batman and Bourke for the first time as part of its historic triumph of 1910, and retained them up to the reordering of the boundaries in 1922. Labor’s grip on Batman loosened only twice thereafter: when it fell to the United Australia Party for a term in the 1931 landslide, and when Sam Benson was expelled from the party in 1966 over his support for the Vietnam war. Benson was re-elected as an independent in 1966 on Democratic Labor Party and Liberal preferences, and the seat reverted to Labor when he retired in 1969. Darebin and then Scullin were likewise safe for Labor throughout this period.
The last close result in Batman was in 1977, when future Deputy Prime Minister Brian Howe retained the seat by 3.4% upon his debut. Big swings to Labor followed at the next two elections, and the changes to the boundaries in 1984 boosted the margin a further 7.8%. Howe was succeeded in 1996 by Martin Ferguson, a former ACTU president who together with his brother Laurie dominated a major sub-faction of the Left. Ferguson was at first a factional ally of Julia Gillard, but he emerged as a key backer of Kevin Rudd during her prime ministership. In the wake of Rudd’s abortive second leadership bid in February 2013, Ferguson resigned from cabinet and announced he would bow out at the election.
Ferguson was succeeded by David Feeney, who was elected to the Senate in 2007 and served as parliamentary secretary for defence in Labor’s second term in office. Despite his influence as a Right faction powerbroker, Feeney had been struggling to find a winnable seat going into the 2013 election, as his third position on the Senate ticket had become a hopeless proposition by 2013. The Batman vacancy was immediately seen by the party hierarchy as a chance to accommodate him, but there was resistance to the idea from the local Left, including Brian Howe, and those who thought the seat should go to a woman after Tim Watts succeeded Nicola Roxon in Gellibrand. Left support coalesced behind local party member Mary-Anne Thomas, executive manager of Plan International, but Feeney emerged victorious in the local party ballot by 383 votes to 247. Feeney was promoted from parliamentary secretary to the outer shadow ministry after the 2013 election, taking on the justice and assistant for defence portfolios.
For the third election in a row, the Greens have preselected Alex Bhathal, a social worker from Preston.
David Feeney ran into all sorts of trouble early in the campaign, starting with the revelation he had failed to declare a negatively geared $2.3 million property in Northcote on the register of members interests. The news media then applied the blowtorch to other aspects of the real estate portfolio of Feeney and his wife, and bringing unwelcome attention to his once close association with controversial ex-Health Services Union identity Kathy Jackson. As the dust began to settle, Feeney copped another round of bad press whe he had to plead ignorance over the fairly substantial election issue of the schoolkids bonus during an interview on Sky News. In response to these developments, Sportsbet’s payout on a Feeney win went from $1.35 to $2.50, and the Greens came in from $3 to $1.50.
Meanwhile, the fate of the Liberals’ preference recommendations in Batman and Wills has been a major talking point of the campaign, after the party’s influential state president, Michael Kroger, suggested the Greens might be favoured over Labor. Kroger offered that the party as led by Richard di Natale were “not the nutters they used to be”, which met a frosty response from conservative elements in the party. The quid pro quo for such a deal would involve the Greens declining to direct preferences one way or the other in the marginal seats in suburban Melbourne. Experience from the Melbourne electorate suggests a changed preference recommendation would cause the Greens’ share of Liberal preferences to collapse from over three-quarters to around a third.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.