Tasmania led by the right person for the times

By Chris Johnson

April 5, 2022

Peter Gutwein
Tasmanian Liberal premier Peter Gutwein. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

In July 2002, I relocated from Western Australia for what turned out to be an almost three-year stint reporting on politics in the great state of Tasmania.

A state election had just been settled and a new Liberal MP for the seat of Bass, Peter Gutwien, made it his business to get to know me.

I headed up a political news bureau at the state parliament in Hobart, but the newspaper I worked for was The Examiner, headquartered in Launceston and with a readership Gutwein needed to reach on a regular basis.

He made it clear to me from the outset that he wanted to be premier of the state. He made that clear to everyone.

In fact, even as a newly elected MP, he made it known to his parliamentary party colleagues that he wanted to lead them. He threw his hat in the ring for the deputy leadership at his first meeting. He didn’t get it. In a small team, he was made shadow treasurer, however.

He had massive respect for the public sector, both the senior leaders and the footsoldiers who kept the state functioning.

From the outset, it was clear to me that Gutwein was committed to the Liberal Party. A moderate with strong economic credentials, he signed up more members to his local branch than had been known before. He won party awards for his membership drives and success.

It was also clear, however, that this highly ambitious operator was also completely committed to the betterment of the state.

He pushed for protecting and preserving Tasmania’s clean water sources, rethinking the state’s contentious approach to old-growth logging, and standing up for the most vulnerable.

It was at the end of 2003 on the vote for a Greens-led push for a commission of inquiry into child abuse when Gutwien’s principles were most put to the test – and where he became a pariah in his own party for the season.

The Jim Bacon-led Labor government was having nothing to do with the Greens’ motion and neither was the Liberal party, led by Rene Hidding.

The bill was going down no matter what Gutwein did, but he could not vote against such an important issue.

On a quiet Sunday afternoon before the week’s parliamentary session began (the best time to get an exclusive story), Gutwein called me to offer an interview in which he would say his party should vote for the inquiry. Even if the vote was going to be lost, a principled stand had to be made, he said.

That was completely against his party and leader’s position.

The news article created a furore, and during a subsequent ABC radio interview, Gutwein tried to calm the waters and suggest he wasn’t going to oppose his own party.

My next article was a comment piece saying Gutwein couldn’t say one thing and do another. He agreed and late that afternoon he called me in my tiny office in parliament house to read me the resignation letter he had just handed Hidding, and telling him he was going to vote for the Greens’ motion.

Gutwein crossed the floor that evening, was stripped of all his portfolio responsibilities, banished to the backbench and publicly berated by Hidding, his Liberal party leader.

As for Labor: they couldn’t believe anyone would cross the floor on a vote that was never going to get up anyway.

“You just got a shadow minister’s scalp,” one Labor minister said to me.

Even Hidding, the leader of the Liberals, said Gutwein only crossed the floor because I had goaded him into it with my articles.

But that wasn’t the case at all. Gutwein was and is a man of strong principles. He knew exactly what he was doing and the cost it would be to his career. He just couldn’t vote against an inquiry into child sexual abuse. 

And in the pages of The Examiner, my commentary strongly made that point – Gutwein acted on principle and that’s not something you see every day in politics.

During the press conference he held directly after the vote, Gutwein was asked if he still had ambitions to be premier (he was asked that by Andrew Probyn, who is now the ABC’s political editor).

Gutwein confirmed that he would still like to lead the state one day.

It would be a long time coming and he once commented to me that during subsequent party leadership votes, he was often reminded of his “treachery”.

He has been suspended from parliament more than any other member. He is very vocal.

You can’t keep good talent down forever.    

Gutwein is by no means perfect and not opposed to the occasional stunt. Crossing the floor wasn’t one of those stunts.

And he rose to the state’s premiership at exactly the right time. He had no idea what was coming, but he led Tasmania through the worst of the pandemic with exceptional skill and foresight.

The three years I had as a political correspondent in Tasmania were heady and exciting. Bacon led a progressive but volatile government. Bacon died while I was there. Richard Butler was appointed and sacked as governor during that period. During a federal election campaign, John Howard was loudly cheered by thousands of unionist loggers inside a Launceston hall while a federal Labor MP egged them on. Bizarre days. Fun times.

But one of the most memorable episodes of that period was watching a fairly new MP stand up for his principles.


READ MORE:

Gutwein throws towel in on pandemic premiership

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