The small polity of Tasmania has always been a knot of contradictions. A week out from the state election, in which the Liberal Party are seeking a third consecutive term for the first time in the state’s history, this holds.
Both Premier Peter Gutwein and Labor leader Rebecca White have pledged they will not lead a minority government. But for several reasons, this may well be the reality one of them faces after May 1.
There’s Tasmania’s Hare-Clark voting system — which divides the state into five electoral divisions that each return five members through proportional representation and is primarily good for generating a “confused? Let me explain” style explainer every few years.
This plus a small parliament means that the difference between a “landslide” — winning three out of the five seats in each of the five electorates — and losing your majority is only three seats. As William Bowe pointed out, the Libs received 51% of the statewide vote in 2018 and still just scraped to a majority. And a lot has changed since then.
Will Hodgman, the first man to necessitate the phrase “genuinely popular Tasmanian Liberal premier” in the traditionally Labor-dominated state, retired from politics last year to go yuk it up in Singapore. He was replaced by Treasurer Peter Gutwein, last seen revealing a panther tattoo and looking at a Tupperware tub full of Chupa Chups like they owe him money while getting his AstraZeneca vaccine. Gutwein is generally regarded as having done an able job as treasurer and has had a great pandemic, but it remains to be seen what efffect the loss of Hodgman and his high personal vote will have.
Further, the reason for this early election was speaker Sue Hickey pulling a “you can’t fire me, I quit” after Gutwein told her she wouldn’t be endorsed at the next election. If Hickey, now running as an independent, wins, and the Libs don’t pick extra seats elsewhere, minority government is what will result. A fascinating postscript was Gutwein’s decision to publicly back Hickey when she alleged federal Senator Eric Abetz had made horrifying comments about alleged rape victim Brittany Higgins (which Abetz denies). The episode pointed to splits between hard-right and moderate factions in the Tasmanian Liberal Party; and the outcome of this election may well determine who comes out on top.
Labor, meanwhile, has been spooked by the 2018 experience, having abandoned their policy of taking poker machines out of pubs and clubs after a vicious campaign against them not only by the Libs but also by gambling and hospitality industry interests, who supplemented their advertising campaign by pouring staggering (by Tasmanian standards) amounts of money into the Liberal coffers. The power of Federal Group, which has a monopoly on Tasmania’s pokies, has made itself felt since the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the state established Australia’s first legal casino.
This in turn points to two other uniquely Tasmanian issues: their opaque donations laws, and the ability to maintain huge levels of influence in the state with relatively modest donations.
Accordingly, the ALP is attempting to make itself a small target, instead going after the Liberals for their record on service delivery in health and education.
In the vacuum left by significant policy debate, much of the campaign has been given over to more personal slights; White said she doesn’t know how Gutwein “sleeps at night”, while Liberal media releases stop millimetres short of calling Labor’s health spokesperson Dr Bastian Seidel a liar.
And not all of the acrimony has been between parties — there’ve been plenty of calls from inside the house. Apart from the Gutwein/Hickey/Abetz triangle, Labor candidate for Franklin Fabiano Cangelosi has criticised his own party’s stance on pokies and protest, while Labor candidate/party president Ben McGregor resigned after “inappropriate texts” sent years ago became public. McGregor claimed he’d been done over by rivals within the party, seeking to “pervert and weaponise the current justified public outrage at the treatment of women in this country for selfish, tawdry and political purposes”.
Over the next week Crikey will be Tasmania, watching how all these contradictions play out.