As lamentable as this may seem, it appears that Michael Hodgeman, the mouth from the south, is set to make a big comeback in Tasmania. Is it any wonder 55 Tasmanians leave for the mainland every day?

Last week, former federal Minister and Tasmanian Premier Ray Groom announced his intention to retire from Parliament. Under Tasmania’s Hare-Clark electoral system, vacancies are filled by a count back of the votes from the previous election which is almost certain to elect Michael Hodgman, who had been defeated at the 1998 election.

Now Groom does not have a lot of time for Michael Hodgman. Back in the Fraser government, Groom was dropped for Hodgman in the ministerial re-shuffle that followed the 1980 election. Groom had held the north-western electorate of Braddon, and with Launceston-based Kevin Newman also in the Ministry, Fraser decided he needed someone from southern Tasmania. With the only other alternatives being Bruce Goodluck and Max “I have visions” Burr, Fraser made Hodgman Minister for the Capital Territory, where he managed to make a complete goose of himself and earn the nickname “the mouth from the south”.

Groom retired at the 1984 federal election, only to move to the State Parliament in 1986, becoming Premier in 1992 after first toppling Robin Gray as Leader and then Michael Field as Premier. After four years as Premier, he lost his majority at the 1996 election, tossed his hands in the air and handballed the Premiership to Tony Rundle, who for the next two years tried to govern with the Greens on the cross-benches. Since losing the 1998 election, Rundle has been replaced by his Deputy Sue Napier, and the party has descended to bitter in-fighting over who will be the next leader. So desperate has the party become that it has had to borrow money from the Northern Territory CLP to stay afloat.

Hodgman’s career has followed a peculiar path. He first served in the Legislative Council, Tasmania’s leading stand-up comedy venue. In the strange ways of Tasmanian politics, he had been elected to his father’s seat, and on his move to Federal politics in 1975, the seat was passed to his brother Peter. After the defeat of the Fraser government in 1983, Hodgman became opposition spokesperson on immigration, becoming the first to fan the flames of racial intolerance on the immigration issue. He lost his seat of Denison in 1987, and was defeated again in an attempt to win it back in 1990.

So Michael contested Denison at the 1992 state election, correctly working out that in the state Parliament, he only needed 12.5% of the vote to get elected, rather than the 50% for Federal parliament. With the Liberals winning that election, the government nominated him as Speaker, but Labor and the Greens nominated another Liberal backbencher, and in the secret ballot that followed, Michael was humiliated by being defeated.

He was later promoted to Cabinet Secretary, but having become the one and only member of the “Michael Hodgman for Premier” faction, was eventually sacked. Perhaps his shorthand wasn’t very good.

At the 1998 election, the cut in the size of the Parliament saw Hodgman lose out in a cut-throat game of musical chairs, each seat was reduced from seven to five members, the Legislative Assembly down-sized from 35 to 25.

But even without Michael Hodgman, the 10 member Tasmanian Liberal caucus became a nest of vipers in opposition. The other member for Denison, Bob Cheek, has been vocal in his view that the Liberal Party has not been tough enough in opposition, and only he can lead the party back to government. The bitterness even came to blows after one heated meeting, Cheek left sporting a prominent black-eye, with all fingers pointing at Groom, demonstrating the skills he learnt in his VFL days as a Melbourne ruckman.

Groom supports Napier in the contest against Cheek, where numbers are currently balanced 6-4 in Napier’s favour. Groom’s retirement and Hodgman’s election mean these numbers will now be tied 5-5. On leave over the weekend, Napier has not had much to say on the prospects of a Hodgman revival.

Perhaps she is hoping that the other pretender to the vacancy, local mad monarchist Steve Mav can win. Mav has abandoned his original name Mavrigiannakis, perhaps viewing that dago names don’t go down well in Tasmania. Perhaps he should have gone for something more exotic, like that well known eccentric John His Grace the Most Noble Duke of Avram, who actually managed to get elected in 1986, thanks to appearing on the ballot paper directly under Robin Gray.

However, Mav received only 435 votes to Hodgman’s 4141, so his prospects look pretty dim. The only chance he has of winning is getting full backing from Napier. Under Hare-Clark countbacks, candidates from the last election must nominate for the ‘by-election’ re-count, so if Hodgman can be persuaded not to nominate, Mav has a chance. But trying to prevent Michael Hodgman from a position that would again give him publicity is highly unlikely.

Whatever happens, the republican Groom is going to be replaced by a florid monarchist, as Hodgman’s advocacy of the monarchy is as strong as Mav’s, made more noticeable only by his ability to create wonderful word pictures. Who can forget his wonderful description of one Labor Party National Convention, announcing “the lesbians have the Labor Party by the balls”.

Hodgman’s election will almost certainly re-ignite leadership tension. Napier’s hope is to survive until later this year, when another vacancy will occur. This time it is younger brother Peter Hodgman, who having also left the rarefied air of the Legislative Council, is now one of the state members for Franklin. He will contest the Federal seat when John Howard goes to the polls later this year.

But just at the moment, Liberal prospects in Tasmania look pretty dim. They don’t look like getting much better for quite a while.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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