Mad as a March Hare-Clarke Election


John Howard will not be flying in to support the Liberal Party in the final days of the Tasmanian State election he is leaving Opposition leader Rene Hidding to sink or swim on his own.

But Howard’s words still echo in Tasmania, because it’s the ruling Labor Government that’s using them. When Premier Paul Lennon launched Labor’s re-election campaign last Sunday week, he used these familiar phrases:

This election will be about a clear choice. A choice between uncertainty and certainty. Between risk and security. Between instability and stability

Lennon’s pitch was pure political boilerplate a direct steal of Howard’s words during the 2004 Federal election:

The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party by John Tenniel.

The first election of the new millennium provides Australians with a clear choice. It is a choice between certainty, stability and strength on the one hand and political opportunism and a lack of a clear and coherent alternative on the other…

Lennon’s gall and the fact that no one picked him up on it is characteristic of this poll. In a campaign where a dirt unit has been set up in the Premier’s office, borrowing rhetoric from one’s opponents is a minor misdemeanour.

While Lennon borrows Howard’s words, his rivals have been busy assimilating each other’s policies. In the weird world of the 2006 Tasmanian election, voters are treated to a Mad Hatter’s tea party of choices.

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: ‘No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming

Labor’s priorities, as revealed on their election website are clear. Health and education rank eighth and tenth on the list behind working life, and smart farming. The environment ranks first, followed by infrastructure, Our Children and Sport.

Meanwhile, the Liberals are all touchy-feely, promising big spending on health, schools, dental visits for all, and a pensioners’ policy Julia Gillard might have called ‘Transport Gold.’

So, as the two main parties squabble over each other’s turf, are the Greens filling the acres of space left behind? Apparently not. The Greens fearful of being painted as a one-issue party are galloping into new territory by supporting a pulp mill; albeit one that chews plantation timber, not native rainforest. What’s more, the Greens have taken the lead from Family First with a wonderfully positive leaflet for the final days of the campaign: ‘Your family’s future is safer with the Greens.’

‘Fellow Tasmanians,’ declares Greens Tasmanian leader Peg Putt, ‘I have great pride in our island State. I offer you the strong leadership it deserves. The Greens team is set to take Tasmania into a new era of prosperity, job creation and political integrity.’ No, this is not the Liberal leader speaking although in pearls and suit jacket, Putt gives off a high conservative air.

It’s as if the three parties have all moved round one spot at the table and are now enjoying each other’s policy positions.

‘I want a clean cup,’ interrupted the Hatter: ‘let’s all move one place on’ … He moved on as he spoke, and the Dormouse followed him: the March Hare moved into the Dormouse’s place, and Alice rather unwillingly took the place of the March Hare. The Hatter was the only one who got any advantage from the change: and Alice was a good deal worse off than before, as the March Hare had just upset the milk-jug into his plate.

Putt’s Greens-lites have been attacked from all sides. The Liberals have pledged absolutely no deals with the Greens they will ‘govern in majority or not at all.’ And the ALP has run prime-time TV ads about Greens’ policy flipflops:

The Greens used to oppose wind farms now they say don’t. The Greens used to want to scrap the Sydney ferry now they say they’ll keep it.

Labor’s campaign culminated in ads about the disastrous Labor Green Accord of yore, and advocated that voters ‘put the Greens last’ and ‘Please think carefully vote Labor.’

Then there are the ‘put the Greens last’ ads from the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and the shadowy Ordinary Tasmanians for Majority Government. And in yesterday’s Tasmanian papers a secretive religious sect, the ‘Exclusive Bretheren,’ got into the act with half-page anti-Greens ads.

With all this flak directed against them, it will be very hard for the Greens to win the extra seats they need to gain leverage on government. But it’s a fair bet they’ll hold the four seats they currently have.

Over at Liberal HQ, the Party’s website gives the impression its Leader, Hidding, is thinking of voting Labor, since they’ve clearly been doing a sterling job:

Tasmania is a great place to live. Our lifestyle is second to none. It is relaxed, clean and we are surrounded by incredible natural beauty and rich heritage. Economically, we have experienced a period of sunshine. Tasmanians have worked harder and smarter to get us where we are today.

At the Liberals’ policy website there are a number of rambling press releases promising everything from flood protection to a new facility for the St Helen’s Tennis club, but revealing no over-arching theme.

Public polling has been inadequate to tell if Lennon’s spin is working. An EMRS poll last Sunday found support for Labor had risen, the electorate were rejecting the Liberals, and the Greens were treading water. In the 25-seat House of Assembly, this would translate to an 11-7-4 result with three seats too close to call that is, a likely Labor minority government.

The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland.

But the poll’s tiny sample of 200 was too small to take seriously and as all the published polls in the past six weeks have shown wildly differing results, it’s unclear if there are even any trends to discern.

Meanwhile, Liberal internal polling shows a much closer race than media predictions. Under the State’s unique Hare-Clark electoral system, Liberal insiders are confident they will pick up a second seat in the electorate of Franklin. There will be a moderate protest vote in Labor ranks against Lennon and Paula Wriedt. These votes may filter across to other ALP candidates, but there will be some leakage to the Liberals and, in particular, to popular Deputy Leader Will Hodgman. The prediction here is: ALP 2; Libs 2; Green 1.

Unless there is a total collapse in Rene Hidding’s personal vote in Lyons, the Liberal team there is strong (especially with ex-Federal Lyons candidate Geoff Page). There’s no doubt the ALP will miss former member Ken Bacon’s 8000 personal votes from the previous election (7900 of which came from voters who erroneously thought he was former Premier Jim Bacon’s brother or cousin). The Liberals’ Heather Butler will get about 1000 of those back. Failed Health Minister David Llewellyn’s vote will suffer significantly, and a lot of that leakage looks headed to the Liberals, who will go close to picking up a second seat. So in Lyons the prediction is: ALP 2; Libs 2; Green 1.

It’s unlikely the status quo will change in Bass: ALP 2; Libs 2; Green 1. Despite the Liberals fielding a powerful ticket, Labor expects ex-Federal member Michelle Byrne to pull a bi
g personal vote.

And in Braddon, Liberals are confident of holding the line, with a likely result of ALP 2; Libs 2; Greens 1.

The final result could therefore be ALP 11, Liberals 9, Greens 4 with a fifth seat in Denison undecided. This could go any of three ways, but it’s a likely Labor win if the Greens just miss out on two quotas and their surplus rushes back to the ALP.

In this scenario, Labor loses its majority and the Parliament is left in the balance, but this time the Greens are able to swing a minority government either way.

In true Wonderland style, Lennon’s campaign is being damaged most by friendly fire. His Federal ALP colleague in the seat of Franklin, Harry Quick, rejected Lennon in favour of the Greens candidate. And even union allies are sending mixed signals. At a Hobart rally on Monday, ACTU President Sharan Burrow tempered her backing for a Labor majority government by advocating ‘strong Green representation as well.’

Unions Tasmania Secretary, Simon Cocker, has led the campaign to support Labor and attack the Greens. But the same Cocker also told the media he wanted a closer relationship between Labor and the Greens that the two Parties were wasting resources fighting each other, and should concentrate on the Liberals. In the fishbowl of Tassie politics, Simon’s brother Philip is a Greens member of the Hobart City Council.

Looking at the intertwining allegiances and bewildering policy focus of the three Parties Labor on the environment, the Greens on leadership and prosperity, and the Liberals on health and education voters well might conclude, like Alice, that they ‘felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English.’

And in the end, a result that sees Labor negotiating with the Greens a Party it has vilified throughout the election to form a minority government might be the logical conclusion to a most illogical campaign.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.