Is Greg Barns hoping to replace Natasha as the national leader of the Democrats. Hillary Bray, a woman occasionally accused of being Barns, explains.

The antics of Liberal refusenik and born again Tasmanian Greg Barns have been much more newsworthy than the election campaign in the Apple Isle and it’s easy to see why.

Let’s just take one Liberal promise. Bob Cheek says, if elected, he’d push to have a Tasmanian team in the AFL. It doesn’t matter that the state can’t afford it. It’s still worth a go. Everyone thinks Labor will win, so the Libs resort to pathetic gimmicks to try and stay in the race.

In that environment it’s no surprise that Greg Barns, a national figure, is much more interesting. At least he can provide some drama. Last Saturday evening he was telling the ABC he was considering running as an independent Liberal in Denison, the seat based on Hobart he was due to contest before being stripped of Liberal preselection. Come Monday, and he was a Democrat and running for the Senate.

That evening, he sent an e-mail to Crikey saying: “My interest is very much in policy and liberalism rather than whether or not I run in Denison in the State election. I can’t stay in a Party that won’t sanction a debate on refugees yet sanctions it on the ICC, for example. No Party is perfect but for me the Dems are the Party to which I philosophically have the most in common. This is a long-haul change by me.”

There’s disappointment in Hobart over Barns’ decision to go with the Dems – and, presumably, chase Brian Harradine’s seat. The Tasmanian Dems are virtually non-existent, while disaffected Libs abound.

There was talk that public interest justice groups would field candidates in the state poll under a “Justice Alliance” umbrella – and Barns’ background and advocacy skills would have guaranteed him their support if he ran as an independent Liberal. They’re sorry to see him go.

Denison is currently represented by two Liberals, two Labor members and a Green. Barns’ should have been able to draw votes from these parties, plus Democrat supporters, to get elected.

Hard-heads, however, ask why Barns would want to float around in the parliament of a state with about twice the population of Geelong. They say it’s natural for him to want to play with the big boys – and that Tasmania offers him a unique chance to snare a Senate seat.

If there is a double dissolution election, all 12 Senate positions will be contested making the quota for election lower. If there isn’t a DD, the sixth Tasmanian Senate spot will be up for grabs at the next election with the retirement of Brian Harradine. Bob Brown will not be up for election – and the Tassie Greens will probably learn that their vote is more Brown than Green.

If Barns is on the top of the ticket for the Dems the local boy made good who can pull votes from the Liberal Party then he has a good chance of picking up the last place.

However, there are fascinating murmurs in the Apple Isle that Brown may well retire from the Senate before the next election and resign to let another Green fill the casual vacancy then come back to contest the sixth position.

This would certainly maximise the Greens position and make the Tasmanian Senate competition the focus of national attention.

In the meantime, with the Democrats’ leadership tensions unlikely to go away while Natasha Stott-Despoja remains in the top job and greater focus on possible successors, Barns has the opportunity to broaden and expand his profile in his new party. Indeed, if he finds a happy home with the Democrats, he may emerge as whisper it a contender for a leading role himself.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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