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Mar 18, 2010

Tasmania: Labor dials 'M' for electoral murder

When Labor loses government on Saturday, it might look to a nine-year-old girl from the north-west coast to begin to understand why, writes Bruce Montgomery.

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Tasmanian Labor is on the ropes. The knockout punch is coming. It is running scared. The hard men have panicked. They’ve made bad decisions. They’ve resorted to the politics of the lowest common denominator: fear. And it has backfired on them.

When Labor loses government on Saturday, which looks inevitable, it might look to a nine-year-old girl from the north-west coast to begin to understand why.

The Labor Party caused Alice Bellamy’s phone to ring at her home in Spreyton. When she answered, an ALP robocall, an automated message, told her that a vote for the Greens would be a vote to legalise heroin in Tasmania. Alice had to ask her mum what heroin was.

That single event, lasting less than a minute, reported on the front page of the Advocate newspaper on Wednesday, represents the nadir of Tasmanian Labor’s appalling campaign for Saturday’s poll.

Their rationale apparently was that with one quarter of the voting population still undecided, it was time to nail the Greens once and for all. Former premier Paul Lennon had already corralled his Labor and Liberal predecessors Rundle, Field and Gray to put their names to a document warning of the end of the world as we know it if the Greens held the balance of power.

Labor backed it up with its robocalls warning that the Greens would not only decriminalise heroin but what would give long-serving prisoners at Risdon Prison the vote. Think Port Arthur mass murderer Martin Bryant.

If a journalist had written such a libellous summary, they would have transgressed Tasmania’s electoral laws, yet those laws do nothing to stop this garbage being broadcast over the phone lines, with no identification, no authorisation. In the US, where robocalls are commonplace, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act requires all telephone calls using pre-recorded messages to identify who is initiating the calls and to include a telephone number or address where the initiator can be reached.

The Tasmanian party was besieged by complaints from members, candidates, present and past ministers, aghast that anybody could have regarded this as clever, let alone productive. Premier David Bartlett claimed he knew nothing about it in advance. If that is true, it is an indictment on the way he has allowed the campaign to be managed. He is the bunny who has to wear it.

The damage is done. Labor has no hope of retaining government as the majority party in the 25-seat House of Assembly; the polls show the Liberals winning more seats and therefore the right to form a government. Labor is now in damage control to ensure it is not further humiliated by the Green vote on Saturday. Bartlett himself may be in trouble in his own electorate, Denison.

There is a PhD or two in the analysis of this election campaign. Because Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system of proportional representation allows voters to pick and choose candidates within each party, electors can send quite explicit messages about what they think of the parties, their policies and their candidates. The deadwood will be excised on Saturday. Hare-Clark facilitates that admirably.

Tasmania was a Labor state. That status has been destroyed by the actions of recent governments, by their too cosy relationships with companies such as Gunns and Federal Hotels, their blindfolded attitude to due process, by their failure to adapt to a smarter constituency, and by their ineptitude in this campaign.

Bartlett’s challenge, if he has a future, is to bring younger and fresher minds to the incident room of Tasmanian Labor politics, to hold a post-mortem to determine where it unravelled and to start the process of re-education and renewal.

Bruce Montgomery is a freelance journalist and former Tasmanian correspondent with The Australian.

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