analysis: Greens federal election success saw votes from Liberal, as well as Labor, voters

by Elias Clure

Before the 2016 election, Peter Khalil was one nervous politician. 

Despite being pre-selected for the traditionally safe Labor seat of Wills, he was facing an almighty challenge from a rampaging Greens outfit.  

“It was a pretty ferocious contest,” he said.

“A lot of money was put into the Greens campaign at the time … as a new candidate I wasn’t able to do that much fundraising.”

The Greens were desperate to add to their presence in the House of Representatives, or the lower house, and saw Wills and Cooper, electorates in Melbourne’s inner north, as their best chance. 

Khalil, a former foreign policy adviser in the Rudd government, is a savvy political operator but he was being out-spent by a party targeting well-educated voters in trendy Brunswick. 

“I don’t know what the estimate was, but I think they spent almost a million dollars trying to win this seat,” Khalil said. 

Labor and Khalil held on and he’s since increased his majority in the electorate, but the Greens recalibrated their strategy. 

They gave up on Melbourne’s so-called “Quinoa Belt”, which takes in the socially progressive suburbs in Melbourne’s inner north, and looked across the country for winnable seats. 

It worked. Next month, the Greens will have a record 16 federal parliamentarians including four lower house MPs — an increase from just the one that party leader Adam Bandt had before the election.

Their success has concerned Labor and Liberal insiders who’ve been impressed by their political strategy in targeting affluent inner-city voters in well-heeled parts of the east coast. 

Labor analysis of the Greens’ votes, seen by the ABC, shows that although Bandt’s party did successfully convince some ALP voters to switch, it was equally — if not more — successful with affluent voters who had previously voted Liberal. 

One Liberal insider said most rusted-on conservatives still could not bring themselves to vote for the Greens but it was clear the party had been successful in targeting some Liberal voters and their well-off children.  

“I think both parties should be concerned by their strategic maturity and [the Greens] knowing what issues will play well with voters.”

Bandt says the party has not specifically targeted wealthy voters, and he attributes their electoral success to strong grassroots campaigns. 

“This is the Greens’ best election result ever and we were very clear that we were going to campaign across the country … but focus our resources where we knew people wanted that climate action and wanted an economic alternative,” he said.

Greens leader Adam Bandt takes a selfie with Greens Griffith MP Max Chandler-Mather
Greens leader Adam Bandt takes a selfie with new Greens MP for Griffith, Max Chandler-Mather.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

Preference change leads to strategy shift

The Greens leader said that part of the strategy to move away from safe Labor seats came from the Liberal Party’s decision after the 2016 election to stop preferencing the Greens. 

“We were aware that in some inner-city seats, Liberal and Labor were working together and Liberal preferencing Labor may have made it harder for us to win those seats,” Bandt said.

The strategic advice to the Greens after 2016 was to target seats that were genuine “three-horse races” but it also received advice that blue-ribbon seats like Josh Frydenberg’s seat of Kooyong were winnable. 

But with so-called “teal” independents trying to unseat several Liberals in 2022, the Greens focused their efforts on five seats; McNamara in Victoria, Richmond in New South Wales and the Queensland seats of Griffiths, Ryan and Brisbane — which they won. 

Both Liberal and Labor believe the absence of “teals” in Queensland opened the door for the Greens’ success in the Sunshine State, but analysis of seats they lost has generated just as much interest.  

A graphic breaking down the median house prices in and around Macnamara in Victoria and how areas voted. 
Macnamara was one of the electorates where the Greens gained ground while the Liberals lost it.(ABC News: Emma Machan)

A probe into Richmond and McNamara shows their upward trajectory has followed booming house prices and a migration of affluent voters.

In the seat of Richmond, the Greens performed strongest in places like the most expensive parts of Byron Bay, where house prices have jumped over 93 per cent since the last election. 

A graphic breaking down the median house prices in and around Richmond in NSW and how areas voted. 
Areas with steep house-price increases saw increased votes for the Greens.(ABC News: Emma Machan)

Greens catching up to Labor, Coalition

Where the Greens vote was strong, the Nationals vote capitulated. 

The Greens performed worse in areas further south, like the electorate of Ballina, where house prices are substantially lower. Instead, Labor’s vote was strong. 

In McNamara, Labor believes the Greens stole both Labor and Liberal votes and performed particularly well with the seat’s young voters. 

But analysis shows the Greens romped home in the well-heeled parts of the electorate.

In booths in and around Elwood, in inner Melbourne, where the median personal income is almost double the Victorian average and house prices jumped about 20 per cent since the last election to about $2.2 million, the Greens vote climbed roughly 7 per cent in two major polling booths.

A photo of a woman with short hair in front of a bookshelf.
Jill Sheppard says the Greens, like other parties, are getting better at understanding who votes for them and why.(Supplied)

By comparison, the Liberal vote went backwards by about 5 per cent in those areas. 

But the Greens vote went backwards in some of the traditionally less well-off booths in the electorate, including St Kilda Park where the party’s vote dropped about 1 per cent 

Australian National University senior politics lecturer Jill Sheppard says while the Greens have always courted wealthy young professionals, they’ve been more successful at it in recent elections. 

“All of the parties, particularly the Greens, have become better at using low-cost data and they are drilling down into elections data, into surveys data, into understanding who votes for them and that’s paying dividends.”

She said the Greens have a natural advantage when trying to target “small-L” Liberal voters in the inner city. 

“Something the Liberals and the Greens have in common is that they attract high-income voters, a lot of women, a lot of really well-educated voters who don’t feel comfortable in the Liberal Party,” Dr Sheppard said.

“They might not like the kinds of candidates that have been put up in the last few elections so some of them have gone to the teal [independent] candidates but some of them have gone to the Greens.”