September 2013

The Nation Reviewed

Andrew Wilkie’s re-election campaign

By Amanda Lohrey

In the 2007 election, Andrew Wilkie was a Greens senate candidate, no. 2 on the Tasmanian ticket behind Bob Brown. On a campaign drive around the state, Wilkie stopped overnight at the house of a Greens supporter in the seaside town of St Helens. The town’s restaurants were few and mostly closed so Wilkie suggested that they dine at the RSL club. His host was dubious but Wilkie, a former lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army, signed himself in as such and was soon engaged in amicable discussion with members at the bar. It was the first and probably the last time a Greens candidate would get a friendly reception at the St Helens RSL.

Andrew Wilkie is a man not easily deterred. In 2004, this former intelligence analyst with the Office of National Assessment published Axis of Deceit, a book highly critical of the Australian government’s entry into the Iraq war and its readings of the intelligence on Iraq’s putative weapons of mass destruction. Soon after the book appeared, Wilkie’s publisher received a bizarre visit from ASIO. Later that year, Wilkie stood as the Greens candidate against John Howard in Bennelong and raised the Greens vote from 5% to 16%.

A candidate of this calibre is not to be underestimated, but in the last federal election the ALP’s strategists in the Hobart electorate of Denison did just that. Retiring Labor MP Duncan Kerr, a one-time federal minister for justice, held the seat in 2007 with 65% of the two-party preferred vote, and the ALP was complacent. Denison was a cosmopolitan electorate with similarities to the seats of Melbourne, Sydney and Grayndler, but the Greens’ 18.6% of the vote in 2007 was not considered enough to constitute a threat.

In March 2010, five months before the federal election, and having left the Greens for reasons all involved remain tight-lipped about, Wilkie stood for the state seat of Denison as an independent. He polled strongly, and declared for the federal seat with good prospects. From the left he could expect support for his early and fearless opposition to the Iraq war, as well as for his high-profile campaign against poker machines. It was also likely he would draw disaffected anti–Julia Gillard voters from Labor and anti–Tony Abbott voters from the Liberals, voters who might not be expected to support the Greens. For Labor, whose state powerbrokers had endorsed a weak candidate, it presented a perfect electoral storm. The party polled 35.8% of the primary vote; Wilkie polled 21.2% but drew preferences first from the Greens, and then from the Liberals, to give him the seat with a 1.2% margin over Labor. In the national tally room the ABC’s Kerry O’Brien declared the win a “shock” but Wilkie had long been an electoral coup waiting to happen.

In the three years since, Wilkie has put down roots, not just in the affluent but also in the working-class suburbs of his electorate. He is one of those politicians who seems to be everywhere. He continues to criticise Australia’s presence in Afghanistan and supports voluntary euthanasia, access to abortion and same-sex marriage, all of which are popular positions within the major parties locally. As an independent in a hung parliament he claims to have brought almost a billion dollars of federal money into Denison, including a $340 million deal to redevelop the Royal Hobart Hospital. On paper Denison looks like a marginal seat and, in a recent address to the Labor caucus, Kevin Rudd cited it as one of eight seats Labor could win back. But polls suggest Wilkie remains odds-on to retain the seat. Efforts by Labor to portray him as a de facto Liberal have gained little if any traction. Neither the Labor nor Liberal candidate seems to have the profile or personal following needed to dislodge him. Of interest is the Greens candidate, Anna Reynolds, a long-time community activist from North Queensland, now settled in Hobart. Reynolds is the daughter of former Queensland Labor senator Margaret Reynolds and historian Henry Reynolds, and it is tempting to read the generational change in allegiances from mother to daughter as a microcosm of Labor’s dilemma over the past two decades. In losing a significant percentage of its progressive and youth vote to the Greens, Labor has also lost a number of strong potential candidates.

Working for non-government organisations on climate change, Reynolds came to the conclusion that the Greens were the most serious about tackling the issue. Since then she has worked for both Bob Brown and current Greens leader Christine Milne. Asked if she could see a role for a green activist within the ALP, she says she admires the European model in which several parties combine in government and thinks it has brought better outcomes. But Abbott’s pledge to preference Labor over the Greens in every seat means such a scenario is all but ruled out. To compound matters, the Greens vote in lower house seats has always had a soft component, a protest vote against the major parties, so where there is a strong independent like Wilkie, the Greens are vulnerable to losing a sizeable proportion of that vote.

Reynolds disputes this. She mentions the Greens polled 24% in Denison in the last state election, and says many of those who voted for Wilkie in 2010 have since had reason to doubt his credentials as an environmentalist. Bob Brown doubts them so much he helped negotiate a preference-swap with Labor rather than with the one-time Greens candidate, an act Wilkie has described as a “betrayal” of the Greens’ core beliefs – if not on the environment, then on asylum seekers, live animal exports and the carbon tax.

Reynolds cites the mining tax as an area where Wilkie worked with the Western Australian miners to reduce the amount of tax they paid. She also points out that in parliamentary debates on the carbon tax legislation, Wilkie was one of only a handful of members who did not speak on the Clean Energy Bill, despite the fact that he represents an electorate “with possibly the nation’s highest density of climate scientists”. All of which, it could be argued, is even more likely to guarantee him Liberal preferences and a stranglehold on the seat.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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