Tassie Parliament Ready For Hanging


The 2010 Tasmanian state election, to be held this coming Saturday, is probably most interesting not for what has happened in the campaign, nor for what will happen at the election, but for what will happen immediately afterwards.

If the polls (few and difficult to interpret as they are) are right, Tasmania will again see a minority government with the Greens holding the balance of power. The previous occasions this has happened (the 1989—1992 Field Labor government, initially via a formal accord for the Greens, and the 1996—1998 Rundle minority Liberal government) were politically exciting times when much progressive legislation was passed but they were also fundamentally unstable.

The majority government now going to the polls under Labor Premier David Bartlett are the semi-rejuvenated dregs of the Jim Bacon administration that enjoyed extremely high public approval in its first term. Bacon would still be premier now and perhaps for years to come, had terminal lung cancer not forced his premature exit from office in 2004. Bacon’s deputy, Paul Lennon, led Labor to an easy win in 2006 but was not a natural premier, and over the past four years, the party — first under Lennon then under Bartlett — has lurched from one minor governance scandal or infrastructure bungle to another, only getting some degree of clean air with a Beattie-style "listening tour" in the last few months.

Tasmanians have a record of swinging from one major party to another, generally avoiding the hung parliaments which would otherwise occur. This time however, with neither party able to mount a remotely convincing case that it will win the election outright, we are left with the rare spectacle of voters voting for what they actually believe.

That said, there is not much ideological difference between Bartlett’s broadly centrist Labor regime and Will Hodgman’s soft-Right, David Cameron-style Liberal opposition (complete with pale-blue-and-green signs and saturated with Obama-style "change" rhetoric).

As a result, the 2010 campaign has not been dominated by any particular issue. It has been about personality politics as much as about issues and policies. The state’s electoral system (in which multiple candidates from each party compete against not only the other parties but also against each other in five-seat electorates) lends itself to this, as does Tasmania’s record of supporting candidates who are a bit rough around the edges.

According to his election placards, Labor’s Bryan Green, who was forced from the deputy premiership to the backbench and inconclusively prosecuted after signing a secret monopoly deal just before the last election, is a guy who just "gets things done". Infrastructure Minister Graeme Sturges, involved in several colourful moments with constituents, is just a "fair dinkum Labor" "bloke".

In one of the more amusing moments of the campaign, young Labor candidate for Lyons, Rebecca White, aired an ad for herself that appeared to take a shot at two of the more venerable Labor incumbents in her electorate. The broadcast version of the ad was, of course, quickly edited (although the original can still be seen online).

Another much-noticed candidate, Liberal Adam Brooks, seems almost too straightforward to be a politician. His ads abound with single-syllable words (though he has not yet said "great big new tax"), and he comes across more like a country bumpkin or even a Tassie "bogan" (complete with the imaginative nickname "Brooksy"), than as a typical political candidate. Yet this appearance is deceptive — Brooks is a young businessman with multi-million dollar interests in a range of industries, and has plastered the north-western and western electorate of Braddon with giant placards in a campaign that has probably cost well into six figures already.

Tasmanian politics is often dynastic, and thus, in the seat of Denison, those Labor voters not wishing to support the party’s three incumbents get only the choice of the son of one Labor premier (Scott Bacon) or the grand-daughter of another (Madeleine Ogilvie). Bacon especially has used the family connection as a trump card in a campaign that says rather little else of note. On the Liberal side in the same electorate one finds Matthew Groom, son of former Liberal premier Ray Groom.

As a sign that not much in Tasmania ever really changes, the Mount Wellington cable car proposal, which last had state funds wasted investigating its supposed feasibility under Groom Snr, is now back on the Liberal policy platform.

As a result of the unusual dynamics of Tasmanian politics, it is rare that you find issues over which Labor and the Greens appear on one side, opposed to the Liberals on the other (although the Liberals’ proposals to introduce mandatory sentencing for assaults on police and emergency workers represent one exception). For instance, as soon as Premier Bartlett announced he would negotiate to extend the Regional Forest Agreement until 2037, the Liberals matched the promise.

Forestry is the ultimate wedge issue in Tasmanian politics, a fact that was discovered the hard way by both Mark Latham and former Liberal leader Bob Cheek (who lost his seat after trying to green-tinge his party in 2002). However, on government services issues, the divide is often between Labor on one side and Liberal and Green on another — a divide reflected very often in votes in the House of Assembly. This divide is especially prominent over Bartlett’s reforms to post-Year-10 education. Bartlett, who is Education Minister as well as Premier, intends to press ahead — in slightly modified form — with energetic but somewhat confusing reforms that have seen public colleges rebranded as "polytechnics" and "academies". Both opposition parties intend to roll back his reforms.

The state of the Midlands Highway (the glorified goat-track connecting Hobart to Launceston) has been a longstanding issue that appears to have run out of oxygen in the final weeks of the campaign. The highway is in such poor repair in some places that a speed limit reduction has been semi-seriously mooted. For more than a year a huge sign declaring that the Liberals will turn the highway into a four-lane road has adorned a barn just south of Launceston. However the Liberal policy, as released, had the weakness of depending upon the election of a federal Liberal government, and it is not clear whether the Liberals have been able to convince voters that the scheme is practical and affordable.

Every election throws up a few issues out of left field. In most cases these have been candidate malfunctions, with both major parties having to go into damage control following internal bunfights and other misdemeanours, but the issue of water contamination and testing surfaced unexpectedly after the ABC’s Australian Story aired a novel "toxic trees" hypothesis by a local doctor and a scientist investigating oyster deaths and what they claim are human cancer clusters in the state’s north-east. As with many conservation issues, the science of the story immediately became politicised and it appears that the Government was successful in driving the issue off the lead pages quickly. However, figures from the booths around St Helens will be well worth watching on election night for any signs of a larger-than-usual swing to the Greens or Liberals.

If the election goes according to expectations, Labor will lose a few seats to the Liberals and perhaps one to the Greens. Should this occur, the important questions for the next few years will be: which major party can govern in minority? What terms, if any, will the Greens extract from that party? And finally: how long will it last?

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.