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Solid swings but not many ward wins - unpacking the results of the 2024 Brisbane City Council election

Well it’s six days since the council election, and the last few postal votes are being scrutinised closely, with the Greens frustratingly close to winning in a couple of different electorates both in Brissie and elsewhere in South-East Queensland.

Across Brisbane’s 26 wards, the Greens primary vote has grown by a very healthy 5.2% on average, to 23%. (There’s a few percentage points difference between the ward vote and the mayoral vote due to the two Independent mayoral candidates and the Legalise Cannabis candidate, who tend to take more votes off the Greens than from the major parties).

It’s a very respectable and encouraging swing, with over 1 in 5 voters now voting Greens in what is essentially the largest electorate in Australia (apart from state Senate seats).

Greens campaign organisers have been sharing congratulatory messages and thanking volunteers for a job well done, and rightly so.

This is easily the best Greens result we've ever had in Brisbane at the local government level. In many booths we even surpassed our federal election primary votes - a huge achievement considering how much less resourcing we have for local council campaigns, and how much harder it is to win votes off conservative local councillors who have all the benefits of incumbency, but can easily deflect local frustrations about specific issues onto higher levels of government.

But we do also have to take a closer, more critically reflective look at the results and acknowledge that while a citywide swing of 5% is pretty damn good for an under-resourced minor party trying to take on the political establishment, we didn’t win anywhere near as many seats as we were hoping to.

So here are a few thoughts on where we’ve landed, noting that at the time of writing we still haven’t seen the final official counts and preference flows, with a few booths yet to be counted.

I should preface this by emphasising again how grateful I am to all the volunteers (including the candidates, who all volunteer our time too) and paid staff who put so much effort into this campaign. It was a mammoth effort under difficult circumstances, and I'm incredibly proud of the work we all did.


Incumbency is a huge benefit

In reflecting on the council results, it's important to remember just how beneficial incumbency is at the local government level. Ward councillors have a small enough electorate that they can maintain connections and relationships with a lot of the largest and most active local community groups (noting though that Brisbane's wards are still way too big for even the hardest-working councillors to have really deep understandings of the needs of absolutely everyone they represent). As councillors, they don't have to spend anywhere near as much time in city hall meetings in the city as state and federal MPs have to spend at Parliament, so they're basically paid full-time to build relationships with the people who'll be voting for them each election.

Incumbent councillors get to give out grants for positive community projects, and allocate almost half a million dollars per year in funding for local park and footpath upgrades. They can claim credit for all the good stuff a council administration does in their area, while distancing themselves from unpopular decisions either by blaming the council bureaucracy, or more commonly, by pointing the finger at state and federal governments. At a time when Labor is in power at both the state and federal government levels, it was particularly easy for LNP councillors to direct residents' frustrations about crappy public transport and the housing crisis to higher levels of government.

Every council election, regardless of broader swings to and from different parties, the vast majority of incumbent councillors who've been in office for at least a year tend to increase their personal primary vote. A lot of people don't pay much attention to local government politics, and will just vote for whichever name on the ballot paper seems most familiar.

In this context, winning wards off LNP councillors is always going to be incredibly difficult for the Greens, even if not for the other challenges listed below.


Low turnout likely dampened the Greens vote again

Almost 1 in 5 enrolled Brisbane voters didn’t show up to vote. This is the same phenomenon we saw in the 2020 council election. Turnout appears to have been lowest in the wards where the voting population skews younger and where the proportions of renters are highest.

This isn’t surprising. We know that younger people, renters, and people who are generally more cynical of electoral politics often don’t engage as much with local government, so might not realise there’s a council election on, or haven’t updated their enrolment address if they’ve recently moved towns. Basically a bunch of young people who left Brisbane for other cities were still enrolled here but didn’t vote, while younger renters who’ve recently moved to Brissie also hadn’t yet enrolled here.

The lower turnout from younger people/renters has hurt our results yet again, and this is one of the major challenges the Greens will have to grapple with next council election in 2028. Whereas with state and federal elections, wall-to-wall media coverage reminds almost everyone that they have to vote, local council simply doesn’t generate the same level of buzz and engagement. If we want to ensure all those Greens-leaning young renters out there remember to vote, we’ll need a much more concerted ‘get out the vote’ focus next time around, beyond just running a one-day market stall at university orientation events in late February.


Optional preferential voting really hurts the Greens

Optional Preferential Voting (OPV) allows voters to number every box to allocate preferences in case their favourite candidate doesn’t make it into the top 2. But the LNP had a lot of marketing telling people to ‘just vote 1,’ and a lot of voters don’t understand how preferential voting works. So just like in 2020, the OPV system made winning wards a lot harder.

In all our strongest wards, the LNP primary vote was below 50%, yet they still won most of the seats, because a sizeable chunk of Labor voters just voted 1 for Labor and didn’t number further boxes to allocate preferences to the Greens. The reverse happened in several suburban LNP seats that Labor was hoping to pick up.

Across the city’s 26 wards, the LNP primary vote was 47% - less than half of Brisbane voters put a number 1 next to the LNP candidate’s name. Yet they appear to have won a whopping 18 out of the 26 wards. Responsibility for this ultimately lies with the Queensland Labor government. After the 2015 state election result, they very quickly introduced compulsory preferential voting for state elections to protect Jackie Trad in South Brisbane, but have deliberately refused to do so at the local level largely - we suspect - to keep the Greens from winning more seats on Brisbane City Council.

The OPV system means that independents and micro-parties also tend to split the Greens vote. For example, Greens-leaning people might vote 1 for an independent candidate or the Legalise Cannabis party, but not number every box, meaning that their vote doesn’t flow to the Greens.

Whereas in state and federal elections, we have compulsory preferential voting, the OPV system for local government makes it significantly harder for the Greens to win council seats than it is for us to win seats at higher levels. If we had the same voting system in council that we do for state and federal elections, the Greens would likely have won 6 wards this time, rather than 2.

But of course, OPV is not the only reason we didn’t win more wards.


We swung votes from both parties, but the Liberals also won votes off Labor

This was a particularly rough election for Labor. With a few notable exceptions, when you add it all up, Labor lost some votes to the LNP and a lot of votes to the Greens, who are now beating Labor on primary votes in 10 out of Brisbane’s 26 wards, which has significant ramifications for the state election later this year.

The problem for the Greens is that to actually win the 5+ wards we were hoping for, we needed the LNP vote to drop at least a few percent, and in many wards it actually grew slightly (and in some it grew by a lot).

We do know that there were plenty of LNP voters who swung to the Greens this time around, because we were hearing from them directly about their frustrations with the Liberals on issues like unsustainable development and inadequate active transport infrastructure. But it seems like any votes we took from the LNP were ultimately offset by a larger number of Labor voters switching to the LNP.

Examining the swings on paper, it looks like the Greens took a bunch of votes off Labor, while everyone who voted LNP in 2020 just kept voting for them this time. In reality, it’s more complex. We won over some LNP voters and a lot of Labor voters, while the LNP also attracted support from Labor-Liberal swing voters.

Comparing different wards, and different booths within wards, it does seem like we did particularly well at winning a lot of renters over from the major parties. In some outer-suburban areas where the Greens didn’t have much presence and weren’t seen as a realistic chance of winning, people who were frustrated with the Labor state government swung to the Liberals, whereas in areas where the Greens were more active, or had at least delivered some printed materials and made an effort to reach people, they swung to us.

We saw big, healthy swings right across suburbia, from Forest Lake to the Gap, both in wards that overlapped with the federal electorates the Greens won in 2022, and in areas that didn’t already have a Greens MP at another level.

In interpreting some of our biggest swings, such as in Enoggera and Moorooka wards, it’s important to acknowledge that a small part of the growth in the Greens vote was because in 2020, those wards had independent candidates who ate into the Greens vote (arguably more than they ate into the major parties' votes), whereas this time those voters came back to us. Support for the Greens in these middle-suburban wards has been rising steadily over time for a range of reasons, including younger progressive renters getting priced out of the inner-city.

But perhaps a little depressingly for some of our most active campaigners and organisers, our vote didn’t grow anywhere near as much in the areas where we campaigned the hardest on the ground and were hoping to actually win more seats. This is a crucial challenge that we need to pay attention to.


Doorknocking alone wasn’t enough to generate big net swings off the LNP

I remember a few weeks ago telling journalists that the Greens came so close to winning Paddington Ward in 2020 that we could sneeze and win it this time. Turns out that I was a lot more confident than I should have been.

While we do seem to have won it, with the LNP losing 1.5% of the primary vote (some of which went to Labor and most of which went to the Greens), we had hoped for slightly bigger swings, particularly given that the long-serving incumbent LNP councillor had retired less than a year ago.

Meanwhile in Walter Taylor ward, our primary vote has grown by 4.8% to 39.6%, but the LNP vote remained fairly steady at 46.6%. 4.8% is a big swing in the world of electoral politics. Some of our net growth is seemingly attributable to the fact that the independent candidate who ran in 2020 didn’t run in 2024, and those voters flowed back to us, but it's mostly due to the phenomenal work that Michaela and her team did on the ground. Unfortunately, the net swing was at Labor's expense.

Over on the other side of the river, our field campaign in Coorparoo Ward was probably the biggest Brisbane local government campaign in Greens history in terms of the sheer number of doorknocking conversations we had. Kath Angus’s campaign really only kicked off around November, but even with the interruption of Christmas and the summer holidays, they managed to have approximately 5000 meaningful one-on-one doorknocking conversations with voters by early March.

And yet, despite our campaigners talking to literally thousands of voters, the LNP vote in Coorparoo remained at 45%. The Greens’ very positive net primary vote swing of more than 7% also came mostly at the Labor party’s expense (again, noting that in reality we did also win votes off the LNP, but the LNP also took votes off Labor). The same was true in Enoggera, Central and the Gap Wards, which we could also have won if the LNP vote dropped a little.

So what should we conclude from this?

Firstly, I think the Greens have to admit to ourselves that doorknocking alone can’t win seats, and perhaps never did by itself. Doorknocking is an incredibly effective tactic for swinging voters who are already open to switching to the Greens, either because they’re particularly frustrated with incumbent candidates, or have a strong appetite for progressive change and are just waiting for someone to offer it to them.

In my experience, when someone has never been doorknocked by any political party before, the sheer novelty of that kind of outreach speaks volumes – “Wow! Someone is actually coming to my door and asking me what I think rather than just spamming me with junkmail!”

When residents are used to being overlooked and taken for granted, the first campaigner who knocks on their door and connects with them personally has a pretty good chance of swinging their vote.

But when residents are being campaigned to relentlessly through a wide range of channels – including being doorknocked by two or even three different political parties’ campaigns – the novelty starts to wear off. Doorknocking still swings lots of votes in electorates that are more accustomed to field campaigns that include doorknocking, but it gets harder over time.

Doorknocking is great at picking up voters who might already be on the fence about switching to the Greens, but it’s a lot harder to shift people who are more firmly set in their voting patterns. The first campaign that does a lot of doorknocking in an area tends to scoop up a lot of swing voters, whereas voters who are more rusted-on are harder to shift without other complementary tactics and forms of organising that shift communities at a deeper level.

The importance of doorknocking has been a huge part of the ‘Greens surge in Brisbane’ narrative for a couple of election cycles now. It has certainly been a very effective tactic, and if we want to win more seats, we’re going to have to keep doing more of it in order to reach people that we just can’t get to through other channels.

But when you look back at our wins and losses in Brisbane over the past decade, you can find several examples where we won seats without doing a particularly large amount of doorknocking (e.g. my first Gabba Ward campaign in 2016, where in total we had fewer than 1000 one-on-one doorknocking conversations with voters, but we still swung over 3000 votes, almost entirely off Labor) as well as campaigns that did comparatively quite a lot of doorknocking (e.g. South Brisbane in 2017, Griffith in 2019) but couldn’t quite convert the big swings wins.

Of course we did do a huge amount of doorknocking to win seats in the 2022 federal election, but it wasn't doorknocking alone that shifted those voters - it was a combination of broader political currents swinging against Scott Morrison's Liberals, the support of multiple well-entrenched Greens reps at lower levels of government, substantial expenditure on printed materials and digital advertising, and some great community organising work, both around local policy issues, as well as material aid in terms of flood cleanup support and food security.

I’ve been saying this – usually just in internal campaign meetings – for several years now, but after this 2024 council election result I feel confident asserting it much more definitively: We have to stop acting like we can win seats simply by saturating neighbourhoods with doorknockers - our campaigns need to embrace a more diverse range of tactics.

Yes, we still need to doorknock and keep finding other opportunities to have one-on-one meaningful political conversations with voters, but simply having one or two 10-minute chats with a voter over the course of an election campaign is not necessarily going to be enough to swing their vote when they’re receiving so much contradictory messaging from our political opponents. Which brings me to my next point…


The Liberals saw us coming, and deployed an effective response

Over the past 8 years, every time the Greens have won a seat, we’ve taken the major parties by surprise. They didn’t rate us as a serious threat in the Gabba Ward in 2016, or in Maiwar in 2017, and they certainly underestimated us in the 2022 federal elections (our South Brisbane victory in 2020 is a little anomalous, because the LNP wanted to remove Jackie Trad and directed preferences against her).

But this time, the LNP were much more worried about losing to us than to Labor, and they turned everything they had on the Greens. Before the Greens had even started campaigning for the council, Schrinner and his advisers were running their own internal campaign within the LNP membership to convince people to take the Greens seriously, and direct big money towards defending Brisbane.

As I said above, there were plenty of LNP voters who are actually somewhat engaged with local government decision-making and feel frustrated with the Schrinner administration over issues like unsustainable development, lack of support for active transport etc. I personally spoke to hundreds of people like this over the course of the campaign who told me unprompted that they usually voted LNP, but would give us a go this time around.

However, this swing to the Greens wasn’t enough to deliver us multiple new seats because the LNP also worked very hard on winning over less-engaged, conservative-leaning voters from the Labor party by spending millions of dollars on a primary message attacking the Greens, and a secondary message tying Labor and the Greens closely together in the minds of voters.

When our volunteers - and indeed, progressive voters who swing between Labor and the Greens – saw the hyperbolic, misleading, negative materials that the LNP started pumping out targeting the Greens, the two most common responses were:

“Surely no-one’s gonna be stupid enough to fall for that?” and “Well that’s a real compliment to the Greens that they’re coming for you so hard!”

But those materials weren’t primarily intended to stop astute, highly engaged voters swinging to the Greens from the two major parties.

They were appealing to a more conservative audience who barely follows local government politics, might not have even realised that the LNP were in power in Brisbane, were a bit frustrated with the state/federal Labor governments, and were nervous about perceived rising crime rates.

Based on publicly disclosed expenditure data, it looks like the LNP spent a million dollars on digital advertising alone, and a couple million on campaign advertising and materials all up.

In contrast, our mayoral campaign spent about $7000 on digital advertising – 0.7% of what the LNP spent. In that context, voters were hearing the LNP’s messages far more often than they heard the Greens’ message, which was just enough for the LNP to hold onto the 3-4% of votes they needed to retain seats like Walter Taylor, Central, Coorparoo and Enoggera.


The LNP created a second, fake Jonno, and used him to scare conservative Labor voters

I’m going to write a separate reflective piece about this at some point, because it was truly a bizarre experience. When you think about it, there were actually two different Jonathan Sriranganathans in this election campaign...

There was me, the real Jonno, who worked for seven years as a city councillor, has an in-depth knowledge of housing policy and urban planning, and is really passionate about public and active transport.

And then there was a fictional doppelganger - ‘Sri the divisive extremist’ - who wanted to break into people’s homes, create traffic chaos, cut wheelie bin collections, jack up residents’ rates, promote shoplifting and - according to one LNP flyer - even raise dog registration fees (WTF?).

This went far beyond the usual attack ads we’ve seen in previous elections. It was highly personal, disbursed widely across multiple platforms and formats, and reinforced by a compliant media that often mindlessly repeated LNP talking points, feeding the narrative their strategists were after.

It was brutal.

And for a proportion of voters without the attention span or sophistication to see through the propaganda, it was effective and persuasive.

I think I can say without hyperbole that no city council candidate in modern Brisbane history has ever been the subject of such relentless, sensationalist, slanderous attacks, particularly in the digital realm. We sometimes see this kind of grubby campaigning at higher levels of government, but to see a local council candidate caricatured and attacked so systematically – particularly via targeted online ads – was an entirely new phenomenon.

At least when attacks come via the mainstream media, candidates usually get a right of reply, but in online ads and direct mailouts, there was no way for the Greens to point out how sensationalist and deceptive the LNP’s claims were, or how my comments about certain issues - like the fact that some homeless people have been forced into squatting - had been taken entirely out of context.

What really hurt us though was that the propaganda war was so asymmetrical. If we’d had the resources to produce a lot of our own ads and printed materials, we could have at least shown voters the real Jonno, but the tidal wave of attack ads and flyers completely overwhelmed the positive messages we were trying to disseminate.

As alluded to above, our campaign’s digital ad expenditure was less than 1/100th of what the LNP spent. We weren’t just outgunned – it was water pistols versus ballistic missiles. According to Meta’s public reporting, the LNP spent upwards of $12 000 just sponsoring this one short ad on Facebook alone, implying that I wanted to break into people’s homes, with the various versions of the ad clocking up a couple million impressions (actual impressions, not just ‘reach’) from Brisbane viewers. And they ran dozens of attacks ads on all major platforms, but also via digital distribution channels that feed ads to smaller niche phone apps.

A thoughtful voter wouldn’t have been persuaded by any one of these ads in isolation, but the sheer volume and diversity of materials reinforcing this message inevitably seeps into people’s subconscious. Audiences might not necessarily come away believing the direct claims of the materials, but it certainly contributed to a more general vibe connecting me as the highest-profile candidate to underlying public fears about crime and disorder.

Other commentators have already pointed out the racialised nature of an attack strategy linking me to perceptions of home-breaking and lawlessness. It’s hard to imagine a similar strategy cutting through as effectively if it targeted Amy MacMahon or Michael Berkman, even though both those Greens politicians have also supported protests that block roads and made similar comments about vacant properties etc.

I’m pretty sure I’m the first person of colour to ever run for mayor of Brisbane. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the LNP had no qualms about using coded language and imagery to tap into latent racism at the heart of the conservative dominant-culture Australian psyche, while being very smart about not doing so explicitly.

Obviously as a councillor I have at times said things that are provocative and challenging to Brisbane’s orthodox political consensus. But remember, last weekend down on the Gold Coast, Ryan Bayldon-Lumsden ran for election while on bail for a charge of murder. And here in Brisbane, the LNP’s candidate for Deagon Ward had a recent history of numerous convictions for fraud, break and enter, trespass, receiving tainted property and knife possession. Neither of those candidates were subject to anything like the sustained attack ads that were directed against me.

I don’t want to over-cook this element in my analysis of the city council campaign. But the hundreds of thousands of dollars the LNP spent on targeted anti-Jonno propaganda suggests it was a major part of their strategy.

It was relatively easy for the LNP to argue that Labor and the Greens would likely work together if the LNP lost its majority on council, because we were openly acknowledging that reality. And the media was very helpful to them in continually running stories asking about preference deals etc rather than actual policies.

So with a link made between the Greens and Labor, the LNP machine then used fears of Sri the Extremist to convince just enough conservative Labor-Liberal swing voters to switch back to the LNP, comfortably offsetting the votes that they were losing to the Greens.

In parts of the city where the LNP were more worried about Labor, and weren’t distributing quite as many materials attacking the Greens, the net swing to the Greens was a lot stronger. Whereas in areas where the LNP really focused their resources on anti-Greens and anti-Jonno messaging (e.g. Paddington), our vote barely moved.


The Greens are still rising

All of the above is a very long way of saying that now that the major parties see us as a serious threat, the Greens here in Queensland will have to get much much better at warding off attacks. The Liberals in particular have shown themselves to be very happy to play dirty, and Labor will too in the seats we threaten them in.

Future attacks won’t necessarily be quite so focussed on individual candidates. It was particularly easy for the LNP to come for me specifically because of the combination of my big public profile, my history of provocative statements about how unjust current systems are, and how easy it is to convince conservative Brisbanites that people of colour want to break into their homes.

But with the state election coming up later this year, and both the major parties declaring an arms race to see who can be toughest on crime, we can’t assume that mass doorknocking by itself will be enough to win seats off incumbent Labor and Liberal MPs.

Despite the slightly bitter aftertaste of being the target of a multi-million dollar smear campaign, I’m still happy with the overall swing to the Greens. I’m even happier that we managed to swing votes and pick up another ward while running on such a bold platform against parties that were far bigger and better resourced.

The term ‘radical’ gets thrown around a lot in describing Greens policies, even though there’s really nothing that radical about bike lanes or a freeze on rent increases when you look at what other cities around the world are doing.

But it’s fair to say that policy-wise, we didn’t pull any punches. Our platform was a direct challenge to the property industry, the gambling industry, and car-centric urban planning, and a lot of people voted Greens for the first time, knowing very well what we stood for.

We had far more media coverage and social media engagement for our policies than ever before, so people who voted Greens did so knowing that we stood for a freeze on rent increases, shutting down horseracing tracks to build public housing, and turning car lanes into bus lanes. They knew we were calling for some very big changes to the way our city is designed and governed, and they still supported us.

This should hopefully give future Greens campaigns – both in Brisbane and elsewhere in the country – the confidence not to water down what we’re calling for. The LNP could have attacked us on the basis of our rent freeze, or our First Nations 'pay the rent' policy or banning poker machines from community clubs, but our policies were so popular with swing voters that with the exception of the Eagle Farm racetrack vision, they mostly focussed instead on personal attacks that were unrelated to policy.

For Greens members who get involved in vigorous policy debates about whether what we’re calling for might be too extreme for voters, this election result should serve as a reminder that we can win over a lot of voters even with quite an ambitious policy platform, and that if the major parties do want to attack us, they’ll straight-up lie about what we stand for. They’re going to attack us anyway, so we might as well campaign for the changes we actually want to see, rather than watered-down incremental reforms.

Personally I don’t think there’s much political value in trying to win seats without also winning people over to our vision for society. Sure, we can adopt the Labor ‘small target’ strategy of not saying anything that significantly challenges the status quo, but as this election shows, there’s no guarantee that will win over more voters either.


What’s next?

There’s a lot more to say about what we did and didn’t do well in the council campaign, but I’ll save that for the internal debriefs and reviews. I might email out a few more updates once the final results are confirmed, so you can sign up to my mayoral list at this link if you want to hear more from me. If you’ve read this far and you’re wondering “what’s next?” I should point out that in addition to the upcoming state election later this year, there’s also a lot of amazing activism happening on the streets of Brissie in solidarity with Palestine, as well as so many other local struggles against oppression and environmental destruction.

So if you’re feeling compelled to step up and do more to help change society for the better, don’t just wait until someone calls you up to volunteer for the Greens again - look for opportunities on the ground in your community to build connections with your neighbours, get your hands dirty, and start creating a better world.


Thanks again to everyone who put time and effort into this campaign. We didn't win as many seats as we'd hoped, but we've set a new high-watermark for the Greens vote in Brisbane, and things are looking pretty damn positive for us over the coming years.

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