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What happened in the Tasmanian election

By Greg Barns - posted Monday, 22 July 2002

It was always going to be this way. A smashing victory for Labor because of its capacity to attract high quality candidates - a necessity in Tasmania's Hare-Clark electoral system - and the public perception of the Liberal Party as a moribund, narrow and aging political force.

And Labor's dominance of the Island State looks set to continue for at least another 8 years if one looks at the break-up of the seats in the Parliament after yesterday's election result. Labor looks set to have 15 or 14 seats, the Liberals 6 or 7 and the Greens 4.

The Liberal Party's vote of 26.9 percent is the lowest recorded by a major party in Tasmania ever - eclipsing Labor's 1992 figure of 28.9 percent.


And what is one to make of the Greens' jump in its vote from 10 percent in 1998 to 18 percent this time, just four years after the reduction in the numbers of members of parliament from 35 to 25 left them with only one seat after the last election? Firstly, it is important to note that the Greens benefited substantially from the collapse in the Liberal vote - particularly in Hobart and Launceston. Second, the Greens cleverly generated momentum on the perennial debate in Tasmania - logging in old growth forests.

As Premier Jim Bacon noted, he now effectively faces two opposition leaders - one from the Liberal Party and one from the Greens. A situation not unlike that which confronts Queensland Premier Peter Beattie, and further afield, Canadian Prime Minister, Jean Chretien.

The Liberal Party's failure to communicate any message of substance or resonance at all in this election is not surprising. The Party's leader, Bob Cheek, shoe horned himself into the leadership last year after painting himself as a plain talking maverick. His predecessor, Sue Napier, a more cerebral individual, looked dull by comparison. But Mr Cheek only won the leadership with half the small Party room's backing - 5 for him and 5 against. His detractors in the Party included former Premiers Ray Groom and Tony Rundle, the ambitious Forestry Spokesperson Rene Hidding, and Mrs Napier herself. In short, Mr Cheek has never been able to command the respect that a leader requires if his or her Party is to make progress.

His election platform was a bizarre mix of old style socialism - re-regulating shopping hours to stop Tasmanians shopping on Sundays; fiscal profligacy - over $200 million in promises to be funded by funny money deals with government businesses; and discredited 'hang 'em high' law and order rhetoric.

Coupled with this unhappy state of affairs is the fact that the organisational wing of the Tasmanian Liberal Party is geriatric, dominated by a small cabal of Christian right wing types and bereft of talented backroom operators. As to the last point, its campaign director in this election is a professional investor by day and a branch president by night with zero experience in running political campaigns!

The responsibility for the decrepit state of the Liberal's organisational wing must lie with John Howard's Special Minister of State, Eric Abetz. Senator Abetz has sought to emulate his South Australian counterpart, Finance Minister Nick Minchin, in seeking to control who climbs up the ladder in Tasmanian Liberal politics and who does not. Senator Abetz is not one to tolerate dissent or a vision of liberalism that differs from his own. A former Australian Liberal Students Federation apparatchik in the era of former Victorian Liberal President Michael Kroger, Senator Abetz' meddling in the State Parliamentary Party's affairs - something he has been at at least since the time when Ray Groom was Premier in the early 1990's - has provoked strong negative responses from individuals in the Party but no one individual or group has been prepared to curtail that influence.


Senator Abetz' other Senate colleagues are either disinclined to counsel their colleague on the damage that his meddling has done to the Liberal Party over the last decade or they sanction it.

So where to for the Liberals? Their Parliamentary ranks are threadbare - new MPs such as Will Hodgman and Jeremy Rockcliff are seen as talented, although no one is quite sure what talents we are talking about here. Meanwhile Senator Abetz will seek to shift the blame for the election debacle to everyone else but himself and the next four years will prove to be more of the same. The solution for the Liberals lies in radical surgery. Senator Abetz must go. If he were a senior company executive he would have been fired years ago - the results speak for themselves. The Party must become a broad church again and end its extraordinary conservatism in a State that, in its most populous areas, is anything but.

As for the Greens, despite the fact that its leader Ms Putt, claims that it is not a one issue party, the reality of this election is that it was on the forests bandwagon that it scored its excellent result. One might ask, therefore, what happens if the forests issue were to be resolved in the next four years? The Greens' main source of oxygen would be gone - just as it is now gone in Western Australia with Premier Geoff Gallop's banning of old growth logging in the State's South-West.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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Related Links
Tasmanian Democrats
Tasmanian Electoral Office
Tasmanian Greens
Tasmanian Labor Party
Tasmanian Parliamentary Liberal Party
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