March 2014

The Nation Reviewed

The Tasmanian election

By Amanda Lohrey
The ALP, the Libs, the Greens, the split

In Tasmanian politics, there is an obsession that the Liberal and Labor parties share: if only the Greens would go away. It’s like some pesky virus from another planet, and not even the most drastic medicine can effect a cure. In 1998 the ALP and the Liberal Party went so far as to collude in altering the state’s constitution in an attempted shut-out of minor parties. The amendment reduced the number of members per electorate in Tasmania’s lower house from seven to five; there are five multi-member electorates, so the House of Assembly shrank from 35 members to 25. This move was supposed to eliminate the Greens by increasing the quota of votes necessary under Tasmania’s Hare-Clark voting system for any individual member to get elected to the parliament. It didn’t work; after a brief hiatus the Greens bounced back stronger than ever.

The state election of 2010 produced a hung parliament in which the Greens won five of the 25 seats. In a double stand-off, both the ALP and the Liberals refused to combine with the minor party to form government; finally, Labor was induced to enter into a coalition and include two Greens members in its ministry. The Liberals took the Tony Abbott line and declared minority government the end of civilisation as we know it, even though Tasmania had two minority governments supported by the Greens: with Labor in 1989–90 and the Liberals in 1996–98. Each produced notable reforms.

Two recent opinion polls suggest that Labor could be in for a hiding in the state election on 15 March. A ReachTEL poll in February gave the ALP 25%, the Greens 17% and the Liberals 47%. An EMRS poll in the same week indicated a surge in undecided voters since last November, with 23% unsure of their preference. With those voters excluded, the poll put Labor at 23%, the Greens at 17% and the Liberals at 50%. On these figures, the Liberal Party would win 14 of 25 seats, despite vapid leadership and a Campbell Newman–like pledge to make radical cuts. But it may be that Liberal support has peaked early and an attacking campaign from critics could fracture its vote.

To date, Labor has responded nervously and gone on the defensive. Just two months out from the election, Premier Lara Giddings sacked the state Greens leader, Nick McKim, and his colleague, Cassy O’Connor, from cabinet. Giddings had amicable personal relations with the Greens but her leadership was on the line. Had she baulked at the sacking, the minister for workplace relations and economic development, David O’Byrne, would have been installed in her place. Giddings now says that under no circumstances will Labor combine with the Greens in future. With this manoeuvre, Labor hopes to reverse what it perceives to be the drift of its blue-collar vote to the Liberals, but this could prove to be a miscalculation. Instead of defending its record, Labor has let the Liberals dictate the terms of the election. It now looks weaker than ever, and rankly opportunist.

The state Labor machine in Tasmania is locked into the support of an old resource-based economy that has been failing the state for two decades. This has given rise to a strong conservation movement and the great community and party schisms that emerged from the campaigns to save Lake Pedder and the Franklin River. Since then, Labor has permanently alienated its own progressive wing, and as a consequence the core Greens vote is rock solid. Labor is unlikely in the foreseeable future to win government in its own right.

Meanwhile, two factors have combined to move the Greens further towards the middle of the state’s political spectrum. The first is public regard for the former Greens ministers, McKim and O’Connor, who poll strongly in their southern electorates. As cabinet ministers, they were constructive in support of stable government and also initiated significant reforms. One was a Climate Smart energy policy that remains the strongest of any state in Australia. It is estimated, for example, that energy efficiencies in renovated low-income housing will save tenants between $300 and $800 per annum on power bills. A second factor is the historic Tasmanian Forests Intergovernmental Agreement of August 2011 and the associated Tasmanian Forests Agreement  (TFA) of 2012. The TFA is a hard-won compromise between conservation and industry groups that delivers benefits to both and might be something of a sleeper issue in the election campaign. McKim and O’Connor represent a new moderate Greens generation that was willing to support the legislative enactment of the TFA, and both took flak from Bob Brown and Christine Milne for doing so. In a further sign of generational change, one of the chief negotiators of the TFA was the campaign manager of the Wilderness Society’s Tasmanian branch, Vica Bayley, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. But the TFA is far from being implemented. The state Liberals oppose it, even though its signatories include representatives of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Country Sawmillers’ Foundation, conservative organisations whose members stand to benefit financially. The federal Liberals have followed suit by repudiating one of the key outcomes of the TFA; they have pledged to withdraw the World Heritage listing from a large area of forest that includes the magnificent Upper Florentine Valley. In doing so, they are set to reignite the 30-year forestry wars that looked to have been settled after three years of protracted negotiations, even as a major company such as the Malaysia-based multinational Ta Ann declares it won’t buy logged timber that lacks certification from the international Forest Stewardship Council. Still, who cares about the FSC? This is another front in the culture wars, a replay of John Howard’s politics of divisiveness when he flew to Tasmania during the 2004 federal election campaign to stand alongside CFMEU officials on the woodchip issue.

The Greens will comfortably hold four of their five seats in the 15 March election and fight it out with Labor for the fifth in the conservative north-western electorate of Braddon. Many Labor–Greens swinging voters who thought the Tamar Valley Pulp Mill issue was resolved when Gunns Ltd went into receivership were angered by Giddings’ sudden recall of parliament in January to push through legislation that makes it easier for potential new investors in the pulp mill to have their way. Instead of preferencing Labor, these voters may opt to exhaust their vote in the Greens ticket. In a multi-member electorate system where even a handful of preferences can be crucial, this could well decide the last member elected. Greens campaigners on the ground say the vibe is similar to that in the federal seat of Melbourne in 2013, with former Labor voters volunteering to campaign for the Greens, and it’s not beyond possibility that the Greens could win two seats in Denison.

If there is a wildcard, it is the Palmer United Party, which is contesting its first state election. The PUP has been polling at only around 5% but Clive Palmer is expected to spend heavily in the election campaign. The PUP supports the contentious pulp mill but has yet to announce its policy on the TFA. In the unlikely event that it decides to support the forestry peace agreement, the party may well attract a dissenting vote from both Liberal and Labor voters on the right. The Hare-Clark system makes any election unpredictable, and it would be ironic if the Liberals, who have campaigned so hard on the evils of a minority government, were to find themselves dependent on the volatile and inexperienced representatives of an absentee landlord.

Amanda Lohrey

Amanda Lohrey is the author of The Reading Group, Camille’s BreadA Short History of Richard Kline, and the Quarterly Essays Groundswell and Voting for Jesus.

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