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Compare the pair: politics and public policy in Tasmania and the ACT

By Brendan O'Reilly - posted Tuesday, 11 March 2014

It might seem like an odd comparison. There are, however, both striking similarities and contrasts between Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Both illustrate what you can expect from a Greens/Labor Left dominated state/territory Government. The comparison also demonstrates just how much more favourably Australian Governments react to swinging electorates, especially where they return a high ratio of Senators per voter.

At a broad level, Tasmania and the ACT are the smallest two states/territories, the two coldest in winter, and, along with the Northern Territory, have the lowest populations. (Tasmania has about 513,000 inhabitants and the ACT about 383,000.) On the other hand, Tasmania is generally regarded as Australia's poorest state/territory (an economic "basket-case" some say), while the ACT (largely because it is the national capital) is the most affluent.

There are equivalent similarities and contrasts affecting their politics and public policies. The Labor Party in both Tasmania and the ACT is dominated by its Left faction. In addition. both Tasmania and the ACT in recent years have been unusual in having Labor/Greens state/territory governments. (This coalition was dissolved in Tasmania, when the election was called, and a heavy defeat for Labor is tipped at this weekend's election.) Both governments both started off as minority Labor with Green support, graduating to formal coalitions.


In terms of federal seats, Tasmania has both much greater representation than the ACT and, more crucially, electorates that are politically more balanced and quite liable to swing. The result is that Tasmania has been regularly pork-barrelled by federal Governments, while the ACT is largely taken for granted and can be shafted with relative political impunity by either side of federal politics.

I must state my own interests. My principal residence has been in the ACT for some thirty years. I have visited Tasmania a number of times. I love its trout fishing (Hurray for The Hydro!) and am a fan of its produce, including its cheeses, wine, marine foods, and native timbers.

The greater political clout federally of Tasmania is easily illustrated. While Tasmania has only about one third more inhabitants, it has 12 Senators compared with the ACT's two, and 5 federal MPs compared with the ACT's two. (The ACT is bordering on entitlement to three federal MPs.)

The ACT's two lower house seats are considered very safe Labor, while its Senate seats have always returned one Labor and one Liberal Senator. In other words there are no swinging seats at all (federally) in the ACT, which explains why it tends to be relatively neglected by politicians during federal elections.

At the last federal election Tasmania returned three liberal MPs, one Labor and one Independent. In the election for half the Senate, Tasmania elected two Liberals, two Labor, and one each for the Greens and Palmer United. At the previous (2010) election, it had returned three Labor Senators, two Liberal Senators and one Green, while (for the House of Reps) Tasmania returned four Labor and one Independent. Labor actually won all five House of Representatives seats in Tasmania in the 2007 election.

In recent decades two Tasmanian Independents have played important roles in determining the balance of power in Federal Parliament. Andrew Wilkie MP played a key role in assisting the Gillard Government take power, while Senator Brian Harradine had often been key to passing Howard Government legislation.


While Tasmania naturally benefits and the ACT loses from fiscal equalisation across the states/territories, this is to be expected under accepted policies to correct differing capacities to fund public services. More generous treatment for Tasmania, however, extends well beyond such policies. I can think of several special measures benefitting Tasmania that have not been extended elsewhere.

The federally funded Tasmanian Freight Equalisation Scheme (costing over $100 million annually) assists in alleviating the sea freight cost disadvantage incurred by shippers of eligible non-bulk goods moved to and from Tasmania by sea. [The issue with the scheme is that no equivalent measures are in place to assist other (arguably more) isolated parts of Australia, such as Western Australia and the Northern Territory.]

The Abbott Government's decision to provide chocolate company Cadbury with $16 million of taxpayers' money to help fund tours of its chocolate factory rather contrasts with its "hands'-off" approach to other requests for industry assistance (e.g. SPC Ardmona, car industry, Qantas). [While the assistance to Cadbury was dressed up as assistance for tourism rather than manufacturing, it seems clear that the Tasmanian location and impending elections were key considerations.]

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About the Author

Brendan O’Reilly is a retired commonwealth public servant with a background in economics and accounting. He is currently pursuing private business interests.

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