With 86 per cent of the vote counted and no clear outcome, the Tasmanian state election has seen a 12 per cent swing away from the Labor government, the Liberals surging by 7 per cent, and the Greens picking up an extra 5 per cent. For the Greens it’s a record-high vote and brings with it the balance of power in a minority government.
The electorate has savaged the Labor government, unconvinced by its agenda in office or by its dirty tricks during the election campaign. Two high-profile Labor ministers, Lisa Singh and Graeme Sturges, have lost their seats in the very green electorate of Denison, as have three low-profile backbenchers.
All the Greens have held their seats, while the Liberals have picked up Matthew Groom (son of a former premier), Adam Brooks (a self-made millionaire), Michael Ferguson (a former federal member who has polled second-highest in the state), and possibly the conservative Jacquie Petrusma.
The final election result is, however, still too close to call between the Labor and Liberal parties with each projected to win up to 10 seats — which would see Labor losing up to four seats and the Liberals gaining up to four seats, and with the Greens potentially picking one up to give them a total of five.
Under Tasmania’s Hare-Clark electoral system, it will be 10 days at least before a result is known. Redistribution of remaining preferences and the counting of postal votes takes place 10 days after the election, and may take several days to finalise, so the election result will be clear within a fortnight.
The make-up of the next Tasmanian government will, however, be determined more by which major party is able to come to a negotiated position with the Greens than by the final result. So over the coming days and weeks the real action will be the positioning of the major parties with respect to what the Greens call a power-sharing government and which party is best able to accommodate it.
Tasmania has a well-known recent history of Greens-supported minority governments, one an Accord with Labor (1989–92) and the other a less formal alliance with the Liberals (1996–98). While these were productive governments in the policy sense, they were short-lived and acrimonious, and the major parties that were supported in power by the Greens suffered at the polls when they failed.
So will minority government work this time around — and which party will be prepared to wear it?
It seems inconceivable that the Greens would negotiate an arrangement with Labor. There is too much bad blood between the parties, not only over the failed Accord, but also over Labor’s poor environmental governance, its advocacy of a pulp mill and its poor track record in general. Labor has been scandal-ridden for much of the last four years and it has been hit hard in the polls as a result.
And yet it was a defiant, aggressive and unapologetic Premier Bartlett who fronted the tally room on Saturday night, despite managing to take full responsibility for his party currently sitting on only 37.1 per cent of the primary vote. For Labor, that level is very close to their record low in 1982 of 36.9 per cent, achieved when the party imploded over the Franklin River dispute and from which it took a decade and a half — until 1996 — to recover.
Another key moment in the local antagonism between the Labor and the Greens in Tasmania was the 1998 reform (designed by Labor in opposition during the Greens-supported Liberal minority government) to reduce the size of Parliament and raise the quotas needed for election in a bid to kill off the Greens. It needed — and got — Liberal support, but it was Labor bitterness at the Greens’ impact upon the ALP’s electoral prospects that drove this successful bid.
The Greens have persisted, however, recording 10.2 per cent in 1998, 18.1 per cent in 2002, 16.6 per cent in 2006, and now a record 21.4 per cent of the primary vote achieved after a campaign that has been acknowledged as the most sophisticated, inspiring and in touch with ordinary Tasmanians of any of the parties.
It is more likely that the Liberals will approach the Greens in good faith about power sharing. Indeed, Leader Will Hodgman has staked his claim to power on the Liberals’ current two-point lead over Labor, with his party sitting on 39.1 per cent of the primary vote. Even if this evaporates, it will be the party that strikes a deal on governing processes and policy priorities with the Greens that will govern.
The Green result is an extraordinary achievement for the party, and for its much-admired centrist Leader Nick McKim, who on Saturday night likened the end of Labor majority government to a great weight being lifted from the shoulders of the community. A negotiated arrangement will be able to deliver, he added, the stability and accountability that the Tasmanian people want and deserve.
In homage to the wane of Labor machine politics, and the advent of a greener electorate, Nick McKim welcomed those who voted Green for the first time as the "new believers" who see minority government as "an opportunity for a new era of constructive, cooperative politics, for politicians to work together, not to advance their own interests or their party’s, but to advance Tasmania".
Labor will wait for the final electoral outcome before it concedes defeat, although in the electorate’s eyes defeat has been convincing and it is time to move on. The Liberals will be sorely tested in their dealings with the Greens, and Nick McKim will need consummate skill to handle shared power.
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