Tassie Will Be A Gimme For The Libs


Three weights hang around the neck of the Giddings Labor Government as it heads into the 15 March Tasmanian state election.

The first is long incumbency. Labor has ruled for over 15 years, and it is decades since any state retained a government that old. The second is Tasmania's eccentric economy, recently blighted by high unemployment and dipping in and out of recession. The third is that for the past four years, Labor has governed in coalition with the Tasmanian Greens, with Nick McKim (Greens leader) and Cassy O'Connor holding Cabinet positions and ministries.

The 2010 election produced a hopelessly hung parliament. Labor took 10 seats, 10 went to the Liberal Party and the Greens picked up five. After the Liberals failed to convince the Governor that Labor intended to support them, Labor formed government with formal Greens support, though then-Premier David Bartlett had spent the campaign saying he'd be doing no such thing. Within a year Bartlett was gone, citing the timeless political cliché of family reasons, and the state's first-ever female Premier, Lara Giddings, was in charge.

The alliance has been much more stable than the state's two previous experiments in governing with Green support, but it has rarely been even close to popular. Since 2011, all of 17 opinion polls by local phone pollster EMRS and national robodialler ReachTEL have predicted Will Hodgman's Liberals could win an election. The polls vary as to which of the governing parties would bear the brunt of the damage.

Indeed, appalling polling has driven Labor to end the arrangement with the Greens two months out, vowing never to allow them into Cabinet again. In trying to justify this "fake divorce", Labor has trod a tortured path of boasting of its record in government while defending the expulsion of its governing partner. In the process it has dragged out the Bell Bay pulp mill proposal, a long-dormant pie-in-the-sky that has caused it major scandals in the past and that sent forestry giant Gunns broke.

This really should be easy for the Liberals under Hodgman's steady if uninspiring leadership. They need only point to polling showing only they can win majority government, and to the issues of the economy and jobs, and they need not do anything fancy. But winning a majority under Tasmania's Hare-Clark system, in which the five divisions (identical to the state's five federal seats) proportionally elect five state members each, is always at least slightly challenging.

The easiest path is for a party to win three out of five seats in each of at least three divisions, and a party needs close to half of the primary vote in those seats to do this. The Liberals' best (and very likely) bets to do this are the economically depressed northern seats of Bass and Braddon and the similarly struggling rural seat of Lyons. In each of these seats, Labor and the Greens have both looked vulnerable.

Labor lost all three at the federal election, with Lyons recording the biggest swing to the Coalition in the nation. The swing was huge in Lyons' timber towns, where the forest industry has experienced a savage downturn after being monstered by the high dollar, increased competition and market attacks from environmentalists. The government forged a historic peace deal between the remaining loggers and some of the more mainstream conservation groups, but it has done nothing to stem the flow of votes to the opposition.

The fourth division where the Liberals might get three seats is Franklin. The bases are loaded in this mixed southern electorate where the Liberals' Paul Harriss, after 18 years in Tasmania's upper house, will try to move downstairs against a talented field including all three party leaders and Labor's likely future leader, unionist David O'Byrne.

The wild card in this election is the Palmer United Party. The new party has been prominent since ex-soldier Jacqui Lambie narrowly won a Senate seat last September. Since then infighting has seen candidate Marti Zucco quit the party, leaking a trail of damaging emails and irate phone messages in the process.

By normal standards this would be hugely damaging, but in Tasmania PUP has much of its appeal among low-income ex-Labor voters for whom politics is just another crazy reality TV show. Speculation about PUP pinching the seats the Liberals need for their majority is rampant, but polling has shown them with plenty of slack in their three best divisions, and at the federal election PUP took more votes from Labor anyway.

Hare-Clark elections are not just about contests between parties but also contests within parties, giving a personal flavour to the campaign. Two incumbents to watch on election night will be the Greens' Kim Booth and Labor's Brenton Best.

Booth is a purist who opposed the alliance with Labor and repeatedly threatens to move no-confidence motions against the government (especially if it says "pulp mill"). Best is a backbench lifer who joined with the Liberals in a no-confidence motion against Nick McKim as minister, and somehow escaped any sanction. Meanwhile Labor's ex-minister David Llewellyn, who lost his seat to another Labor candidate in 2010, is asking voters to "re-elect" him!

The election is the least likely to have federal implications of this year's crop of state elections. But one potentially prominent federal issue is Tasmania's generous (some would say mendicant) share of GST revenue. Should the Liberals fail, much will be said of Tony Abbott's failure to reassure the state that its funding is secure. However, the election shapes as such a gimme for the Liberals that not even Abbott should be able to spoil their party.

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.