New MLA for Northcote, Lidia Thorpe (Image screenshot Fairfax video)

A massive swing to the Greens in a Victorian by-election, in a seat Labor had held for 90 years, sends a strong message to Bill Shorten, says political editor Dr Martin Hirst.

In the Northcote by-election this weekend, Greens candidate and Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman. Lidia Thorpe won an overwhelming victory with a swing of almost 13 per cent over her Labor opponent Clare Burns.

Normally this would not be huge news, but Thorpe’s victory comes at the expense of the ALP in an inner-city electorate that has traditionally voted strongly for Labor.

The real question to come out of this historic by-election is: Why are Labor voters in Melbourne abandoning the party in favour of the Greens?

Labor leader Bill Shorten should be deeply interested in this question because, in my view, the answer has a great deal to do with national issues and very little to do with Victorian state politics.

Most reasonable people – and by "reasonable" I mean anyone not rusted on to the L-NP Coalition, or attached to the crazy "patriot" neo-Nazi right – would agree that Daniel Andrews is doing well as Premier of Victoria. The State ALP is managing a slender majority in Spring Street, but it is getting things done.

Andrews won the last Victorian election, in 2014, on a promise not to build the East-West Link road network and to invest more money in public transport. He’s doing this and is also currently trying to bring in progressive assisted dying laws. The ALP Government is investing in schools, has a hard line against fracking coal seam gas and is even trying to save some of the State’s old growth forests.

In other words, the Victorian ALP Government is trying to be as green as it can be without actually being Green. But after Saturday, it has to ask itself: Why isn’t this working?

It’s simple, really, on issues that environmentally conscious voters care about, the Greens will always out-green the Labor Party — as this "scorecard" produced by Thorpe’s campaign shows.

To counteract this apparent handicap, Daniel Andrews threw a lot of money at the voters of Northcote and tried to make the campaign all about local issues: more state housing, a better deal for renters, more money for schools, and better local transport.

But it didn’t bite with voters. Why not?

Well, the answer here is probably much to do with Bill Shorten too.

This by-election was won and lost on ideology, not issues. It was disaffected Labor voters, who would never vote for the Tories, who elected Lidia Thorpe and they did it because the ALP no longer represents their values.

Labor’s rightward shift unpopular with voters?

This by-election was a litmus test for Labor nationally and a strong reminder to Bill Shorten that he needs to shore up his left flank, not pander to the rightwing populism of Pauline Hanson and the PHONies.

Two key issues in the Northcote by-election were not even remotely about the electorate itself, nor were they a vote against the Andrews Government. The first and most potent is refugees; the second – until this election, perhaps a sleeper issue outside Queensland – is Labor’s support for the Adani coal mine in the ecologically sensitive Galilee Basin.

We have seen in the past 10 days some of the biggest national protests in favour of the brave refugees on Nauru and Manus, who have been imprisoned by the Reichsminister for Human Rights Abuses, Peter Dutton. Big marches around the country have been demanding an end to the bi-partisan torture of these innocent men, women and children and their continuing detention as political prisoners.

The voters of Northcote have loudly expressed their opinion on this. The Greens have been the only political party to consistently stand with the asylum-seekers on Manus and Nauru and the only party in parliament to demand that they be brought to Australia or rehomed in New Zealand.

This is a big issue at the moment and ideologically the Northcote electorate is standing with this policy against Labor’s capitulation to Dutton’s violation of the basic human rights of the detainees.

On the Adani mine, it would seem that the ALP in Queensland and nationally are slowly realising that they need to back-away from supporting this ridiculous 19th Century policy. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk is currently running away from her original strong support for Adani and it’s been reported that Shorten will do the same after secret ALP polling showed just how unpopular the project has become. Shorten has been hedging his bets on Adani, but that position now seems untenable.

The Northcote by-election was a referendum on these "big P" politics, it was not about local creches or cuts to the number 86 tram route.

There is a seismic shift occurring on the Labor side of politics. Once committed ALP voters, like me for example, are now willing to vote Green on ideological issues, even though we know that the Greens are not always a party that supports workers.

The honest truth is that the ALP is no longer that party either. Despite its history and deep ideological roots in the labour movement, the Labor party is now a centrist, soft social democrat party of apparatchiks, careerists and carpetbaggers.

In that regard, it appears to be little different from the Tories, and to most voters there seems to be little reason to vote for the ALP any more. Labor has abandoned most of its left-wing positions and I’ve watched this happen gradually, but consistently since the 1970s. Whenever Labor has been at a crossroads and having to choose the left fork or the right fork, it has always turned right.

This has made Labor palatable to the bosses, financiers and bourgeois journalists who inhabit the Press Gallery, but it has not been well received by hardcore Labor voters.

We are seeing a global recovery in left-wing politics, as the gloss of neoliberalism comes to resemble lipstick on a pig, rather than a shiny new future. Unfortunately, it is not clear that Labor can respond to this with progressive policies, or an ideological shift back to the left.

Nobody should really be surprised by the result in Northcote. The electorate and those around it already have high numbers of Greens on their local councils. The Greens nearly won the Federal seat of Batman in the last national election and Adam Bandt has represented Melbourne in Canberra since 2010.

In Victoria, it is very likely that the Greens will continue their march across the inner city. The electorates of Brunswick and Richmond are now likely to fall at the next state-wide election in November 2018.

A crucial measure of Labor’s ability to bounce-back will be the Queensland State election on 25 November. After Northcote keeping a close eye on the Greens’ vote will be crucial. Can Annastacia Palaszczuk hold off One Nation? If she shifts slightly to the left, who knows?

After Queensland, the next big test for Shorten will be the fight for John Howard’s old seat of Bennelong in the leafy northern suburbs of Sydney. I think Kristina Keneally can get close to the Liberals and she may even beat John Alexander on 16 December. If she did, it would prove my point about Northcote; Labor can beat the Coalition, its main opponents and should form an alliance with the Greens. 

If the ALP did what the majority of its voting supporters want it to do – which is to form a bloc with the Greens and not fight them at every turn – the Tories would never win another election in Australia at a local, state or federal level.

That’s what progressive voters want, Bill, are you capable of delivering?

You can follow political editor Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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