A column about the Marrickville by-election

So, whatsisname the new Premier (Morris Iemma, Google reminds me) has survived his second major test, narrowly winning the ‘Triple M’ by-elections – Maroubra, Macquarie Fields and Marrickville. If only he’d had as much success with his first major test – getting people to work out who he is. Still, at least we know how to pronounce his name, thanks to the ALP’s incredibly awkward radio ads: “Is it ‘I-yee-emma’? No David, it’s ‘Yemma’.” No Morris, it’s humiliating.

Of course we wouldn’t have needed that help if anyone had actually heard of him before. Iemma became Premier like Steve Bradbury won gold at the Winter Olympics – all the more experienced contenders fell over. It’s fair to say that most people in NSW, myself included, still have virtually no idea what he’s ever done, what he stands for, and where he wants to take the state. Other than to a better understanding of Italian surname pronunciation.

Which is why it was ironic to see the Marrickville by-election ads talking up the candidate, Carmel Tebbutt, as part of Morris Iemma’s team. The leader is usually featured in advertising to boost the local candidate’s profile. This time it looked more like the high-profile Education Minister boosting Iemma’s. Tebbutt’s been widely tipped as a future Premier, and why not? It doesn’t take much to get the gig in the NSW ALP these days.

The timing of the by-elections was particularly awkward for Iemma because of the furore over Mark Latham’s diaries the week before. Among the dozens of incendiary accusations, perhaps Latham’s most consistent theme has been “machine politics” – the control of the Party by backroom types who put winning ahead of policy – and, as Latham points out, aren’t necessarily all that good at it anyway. (Take Labor’s failed attempt to retake Sydney City Council by including left-wing Glebe and South Sydney, ultimately alienating the electorate.) Faceless backroomers would have to be a fairly awkward topic for the new Premier.

He received a substantial reprimand from Marrickville, a seat so left-wing that the two-party-preferred contest is between the Greens and the Labor Left candidates. The Greens won a whopping 38% of the primary vote, and Iemma’s Macquarie St machine men got a strong message that voters weren’t satisfied with Labor’s performance in areas like health and public transport.

The tragic thing about our Westminster political system, though, is that this message couldn’t have yielded any meaningful result no matter who won the election. Unlike in, for instance, the American Congress, Labor MPs always vote in the interests of their Caucus, not their local community. It would be hard to govern if they did otherwise, of course, but party discipline makes the promise of strong local representation trotted out every election-time a joke. Because you can guarantee that the views of Marrickville voters – and even Tebbutt herself, given her faction – are considerably more left-wing than anything we’ll ever see from the Iemma Government.

So if Labor won’t represent your views, why not vote Green to get your voice heard? That’s a terrible idea, particularly in a Lower House poll. If the Greens had won, it would have been a novel anomaly, like the Greens’ Michael Organ who represented the Wollongong seat of Cunningham after a 2002 by-election win but lost it last year. Unless they’re part of the majority or hold a balance of power – incredibly rare in the Lower House – the Greens’ concerns are pretty much ignored.

Look at the lack of influence the Greens have had over the Federal political agenda, even though they now hold four Senate seats. Their opposition on issues like the war in Iraq and gay marriage has accomplished nothing in policy terms. Bob Brown’s major accomplishment during the previous term was being evicted during George Bush’s speech.

The overwhelming majority of Marrickville voters wanted a strong left-wing agenda advocated in State Parliament, by a left-wing Green or Labor MP. Tebbutt is a senior minister – almost a best-case scenario for representation in our current system – but while she will be able to help local voters on local issues, her vote on state-wide matters like health and education will be determined not by Marrickville voters, but by the ALP machine. It’s not surprising so many local voters are apathetic, as The Glebe recently found, when local representation isn’t worth much more than lip service on election day. Who’d have thought that amidst the bile, Mark Latham might actually have a good point?

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