The by-election to be held on November 18 in the Victorian state seat of Northcote has resulted from the death on August 23 of Fiona Richardson, who had held the seat for Labor since 2006. With the Liberals not fielding a candidate, the by-election looms as a competitive race between Labor and the Greens, who have finished second at every election since 2002 and came within 6.0% of victory in 2014.
Fiona Richardson was a medical researcher and political staffer before entering parliament, and the secretary of the Labor Unity (Right) faction. She was initially preselected for an upper house position in Western Metropolitan region in 2006, but then won backing for Northcote after Mary Delahunty announced her retirement. This made the upper house position available to Essendon MP Justin Madden, who had stood to be frozen out amid the reduction in the size of parliament. It also had the effect of thwarting rival Northcote aspirant Kathy Jackson, then the state secretary of the Health Services Union. Jackson went on to be feted as a whistleblower against union corruption in 2015, only to herself be charged with fraud-related offences and ordered to repay $1.4 million in union funds.
Richardson was immediately elevated to parliamentary secretary after the 2006 election, and took on the shadow portfolio of public transport after the 2010 election defeat. She stood aside in June 2013 after being diagnosed with breast cancer, returning six months later in the less demanding innovation and small business portfolios. With Labor's return to power in 2014 she became Minister for Women and Minister for Prevention of Family Violence. In early August she announced she was taking medical leave, followed on August 22 by an announcement she would not contest the next election, and then the following day by her death.
Northcote takes its name from a suburb seven kilometres to the north-east of central Melbourne, which lies in the south-west of the electorate. From there it extends north up High Street through Thornbury to southern Preston, and east through Fairfield to Alphington. It is one of four adjoining inner-city seats where the Greens have finished in the top two at every election since 2002, together with Melbourne, Brunswick and Richmond (growing to five with the party's unexpected win in Prahran in 2014). However, the Greens have been somewhat weaker here than in the other three seats, reflecting the electorate's older age profile, smaller population of university students and strong Greek presence.
Labor has held Northcote since it was created in 1927 in place of abolished Jika Jika, which was gained for the party in 1917 by John Cain, Sr. Cain then assumed the seat of Northcote, and eventually went on to serve three stints as Premier between 1943 and 1955, securing the party's first ever parliamentary majority in Victoria in 1952. Cain's successors in Northcote were Frank Wilkes, member from 1957 to 1982 and Opposition Leader from 1977 to 1981; Tony Sheahan, Treasurer in the final year of Joan Kirner's government, and member until 1998; and Mary Delahunty, a former state presenter of ABC's 7:30 Report and a minister in the Bracks government.
Prior to their breakthrough in 2002, the Greens only ran in Northcote on one occasion, scoring a mere 3.8% of the vote at the 1998 by-election at which Delahunty succeeded Sheahan. The party neglected to field a candidate at the 1999 election, then recorded 25.4% of the vote in 2002, well ahead of the Liberals' 16.8% and enough to bring them within 7.9% of victory after preferences. After a status quo result in 2006, the Liberals upset the appelecart in 2010 by flipping their preference recommendation from Labor last to Greens last. This caused Labor to gain a two-party swing of 1.1%, despite losing 7.7% on the primary vote and the Greens gaining 3.5%. The trend continued at the 2014 election, when the Greens gained 4.4% and Labor lost 3.1%. This reduced the two-party margin from 10.2% to 6.0%, and may have won the Greens the seat if the Liberals were still directing preferences to them.
Labor's candidate is Clare Burns (left), a speech pathologist and political organiser with the Victorian Trades Hall Council. Burns won preselection without opposition after earlier reports the party was targeting Jamila Rizvi, former editor-in-chief of Mamamia, and that the seat might be of interest to Fiona Richardson's former chief-of-staff, Tanya Kovac. The Australian reported that Kovac faced a difficulty in being aligned with the Left, whereas the seat traditionally has gone to a member of the right.
The Greens have endorsed Lidia Thorpe (right), a Gunnai-Gunditjmara woman and managing director of Clan Corporation, which provides sustainable housing and energy to remote Aboriginal communities.
The by-election has attracted a large field of 12 candidates, eight of whom are independents. The independents include Vince Fontana, a former mayor of Darebin who resigned his Labor membership in 2012; and Laura Chipp, daughter of Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp, who is endorsed by the Australian Sex Party, which is presently in the process of reconstituting itself as the Reason Party. Also in the field are candidates of the Liberal Democrats and the Animal Justice Party.
A poll conducted for environmental groups by ReachTEL in mid-October found Labor with a narrow primary vote lead that convered to 42% to 39% after exclusion of the 10.5% undecided.