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TAS

Mar 17, 2014

Tasmania wakes to a new era -- now comes the hard part

The Liberals have won the Tasmanian election after a long time in the wilderness, consigning Labor and the Greens to history. Here are the biggest challenges they face this term ...

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The last time the Liberals were in power in Tasmania, Google had not been invented. Bill Clinton was in trouble over his relations with a certain intern, the Spice Girls were on the radio, and Pete Sampras triumphed at Wimbledon.

That was 1998 and the start of a 16-year era of Labor government in Tasmania. That ended on Saturday when the Liberals thumped Labor at the state election to win a clear majority. The Liberals will hold 14 or 15 seats in the 25-member lower house — a win so emphatic they may get two terms.

So where to next for Tasmania? Premier-elect Will Hodgman has every reason to celebrate, but he faces serious challenges in governing a state that has long tended to fall behind economically. The Australian has been running a campaign that the Greens, who shared power with Labor since 2010, have ruined the Tasmanian economy — “a shameful legacy” — and the Liberals will “set about reopening Tasmania for business”. But it’s not that simple.

To the results first. The Labor/Green administration has long been troubled as resentment built over the minority government, unemployment, economic stagnation and the bitter dispute over forestry. The Liberals were at short odds to garner the 13 seats needed to form majority in Tasmania’s quirky Hare-Clark system; they did this and then some.

With about 80% of the vote counted the Liberals have won 51.4% of the primary vote, a 12.4% swing. They have taken 14 seats and may win another (Braddon).

Labor suffered a painful 9.5% swing the other way, holding just 27.4% of the primary vote and six seats (Labor might win one more). The party is probably two terms away from decent representation. MPs like prospective party leader David O’Byrne, Brian Wightman and Brenton Best are probably out.

The Greens fared the worst. They bled more than a third of their votes and lost crucial seats. They started on five and could end with two (although they will probably win Bass as well, and are a long shot in Lyons, where Lazarus-like candidate Tim Morris could fight back). This tends to happen to Tasmania’s minority governments. The voters punish everyone involved.

Clive Palmer’s hopes of a Palmer United premier in Tasmania have been dashed. PUP polled 5% and probably won’t win a seat. They’re a chance in Braddon but won’t be in balance of power. Perhaps Palmer should have tried South Australia instead?

With the result unequivocal, here are the four major challenges the Liberals face in governing in Tasmania over the next four years. It’s worth noting that their No. 1 promise is to reduce unemployment, which is at 7.4%, by about a quarter.

1. Keep their promises while balancing the budget

One of Hodgman’s key pledges is to “get budget spending under control”. Apparently he will do this by: spending more on health and education, hiring 105 teachers, 108 cops, 85 nurses and 26 literary specialists, spending $30 million on irrigation schemes, $33 million on shipping, $28.5 million on forest burns, $76 million on elective surgery, etc.

But the state budget is in a hole, and spending money won’t get it into surplus. The Liberals’ approach is a little Clive Palmer-esque.

From the 2013-14 Tasmanian budget, negative figures are in brackets

Hodgman has promised to cut 500 public service jobs and find $500 million in budget savings, but it’s going to be a tricky juggle. To meet expectations, the Liberals must cut unemployment, spend more on services, and reduce the budget deficit. But it’s possible that many people won’t pay attention, because of …

2. The forestry issue

The Labor/Greens government signed a peace deal between loggers and conservationists to end the 30-year war over Tasmania’s forests. The deal, which reserved some more forests in exchange for turning some other areas over to logging, did alienate some Labor voters, but it seemed to be working. The Liberals are strongly opposed to the deal and have pledged to remove it.

We don’t know the details of what Hodgman will do on forestry and which reserves will be turned over to logging; the policy is threadbare, and it amounts to tougher treatment of forest protesters and greater rights for businesses to sue protesters.

The thing is, as Crikey wrote last week, if the Liberals really scrap the deal then they will face another round of the forest wars, which may overshadow much of what they do. This is a minefield, and plenty could go wrong for Hodgman. It may be the toughest policy issue he faces.

3. Convince other Liberal leaders not to cut Tasmania’s funding

Tasmania gets more from the federation than it puts in, as The Australian regularly reminds us. It relies quite heavily on GST payments from the federal government, plus federal welfare payments (the participation rate is low). But there’s a push from cashed-up mining states to change the GST system so they lose less money to poorer states. And the federal government has flagged that it may cut some welfare spending. Both would spell trouble for Hodgman. He may be in the same party as most other leaders, but it could get tense around the Council of Australian Governments table.

4. Manage a lack of ministerial experience

That is, none — no Liberal MP has ever been a minister. The closest they’ve got is several MPs had a father or uncle who was a minister. It took a while for this reporter to google it because, well, Google wasn’t invented when the Liberals were last in office.

The Liberals have been a very effective opposition: disciplined, on-message and united behind Hodgman. But there’s a difference between pointing out when things go wrong and being in charge. With such a fresh frontbench, mistakes will happen. This challenge is not insurmountable, however; key Liberal MPs — Hodgman, Jeremy Rockliff, Rene Hidding and Peter Gutwein — have been in Parliament a long time, so they know how things work, and MPs Michael Ferguson and Guy Barnett have sat in federal Parliament.

Cathy Alexander —

Cathy Alexander

Freelance journalist and PhD candidate in politics at the University of Melbourne

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