Should we speak ill of the dead and how will history treat Jim Bacon. Christian Kerr reports.

The Crikey editor has a curiously Victorian (as in the era, not the state) attitude towards talking about the recently deceased, but surely even he can’t avoid the recent debate that has been raging over the late BLF heavy and Tasmanian Labor Premier, Jim Bacon – who in some circles seems set to pip Mary MacKillop at the post to become Australia’s first saint.

That means Crikey has stayed out of the fray with a eulogy for recently deceased Tasmanian premier Jim Bacon for more than just what should be the bleeding obvious – that it is impossible to fairly judge a political contribution so soon after a departure.

Was Jim Bacon a good premier? History will be the judge. We will have a much better idea once his six-year reign can be put into context. We will not know the result of his legacy, good or bad, until we see how many of the things his government championed – like Basslink, reticulated gas, a monopoly gaming machine deal, vehicular ferries, and a hard-nosed clearfelling policy – shake out economically, socially and environmentally.

What we can comment on, however, is the political consequences of the post-Bacon era and the war of words that has ensued. Make no mistake, there will be two key issues that dominate Tasmanian political debate over the next two years to the election: Jim Bacon’s vision, and majority government.

Bacon’s funeral last month marked the beginning of Labor’s intention to elevate the “vision thing” to iconic status with the voters. The whole carefully stage-managed event, and the fawning beatification of Jim Bacon that has followed – much of it by journalists who should know better – has all been undertaken with one purpose: to cement in the public’s mind that Jim Bacon was a visionary crusader, that this vision has been his greatest gift to Tasmania, and that the new premier, Paul Lennon, is now the keeper of the vision.

And what is this vision? Who knows. That has never actually been articulated beyond vague warm-and-fuzzy stuff about a “new Tasmania” and “new confidence”. But that doesn’t matter. Tasmanians believe there is a vision, that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And if you want to keep the vision alive, if you want the spirit of Jim Bacon to live on, then who do you vote for? C’mon. You guess.

From here to election date watch Labor wheel out the imagery at every opportunity. Watch them defend the Bacon memory and burnish the icons. They know – as Bacon knew – that for the great majority of voters politics is not about policy (that’s strictly for the wonks) but about imagery.

Prize winning author and trenchant Labor critic Richard Flanagan played right into Lennon’s hands last week in the Age and the Tasmanian Times site, http://home.iprimus.com.au/ltuffin/flanaganemperor.html.

It was great stuff – if you’re a Green voter. Many Tasmanians will empathise with Flanagan, but the majority? Not likely. Premier Lennon took the unusual step of writing to the Tasmanian media with a rebuttal full of hurt pride for his “best mate” Jim Bacon. And what did the press do? Well, the Mercury and the Burnie Advocate ran fawning stories demonising Flanagan and immortalising Bacon. And there was Lennon carrying the torch.

Powerful imagery. The Mercury made it page one with the screaming headline “Lennon fury”, http://www.themercury.news.com.au/common/story_page/0,5936,10219863%255E921,00.html.

Labor critics in the Green movement have their own agenda to run and criticising the Bacon era certainly helps rally the troops. However, they have also given Labor get a real point of difference to attract the largely conservative and cautious Tasmanian voter. The Greens only need fifteen percent of the vote; they are quite happy for Labor and the Liberals to fight over the rest.

That’s where issue number two comes in; the question – come state election time – over who will be able to form a majority government.

Since the rise of the Green movement in the late eighties to somewhere around quota levels in Tassie’s Hare-Clarke voting system, a hung parliament is now more likely than not. We have already seen two minority governments, one Labor and one Liberal, during the nineties.

The problem is that most voters want majority government, so the question of who can deliver a majority will play heavily on their minds. At the moment in the 25 seat House of Assembly, Labor have 14, the Liberals seven and the Greens four.

No matter how well the Liberals do between now an election date, will the voters believe they can almost double their vote to win government? It is possible, perhaps, but Labor will play the “a vote for the Liberals is a vote for minority government” card for all it is worth. It was Jim Bacon’s key message in 1998 and 2002. What are the odds it will be the Labor chant again come 2006? Pretty good?

And what of forestry, that perennial Tasmanian issue? Before Bacon’s death it was set to dominate the electorate with Labor shaping up against the Greens, and the Liberals marginalised.

Now that Bacon is gone, forestry will slip somewhat in people’s minds come election date. The Greens will still use it as a rallying cry for the righteous, but Labor will be able to largely side-step a full frontal forestry battle now they have the unimpeachable Jim Bacon vision to champion.

And the Liberals? Well, post-Bacon they have made some inroads into portraying Labor as an unimaginative rabble (which they largely are, or course) but will hit a brick wall as Tasmanians, scared of another minority government, cling somewhat ghoulishly to the Bacon legacy.

PS The Flanagan fury has not debated. Track the latest on the Tasmanian Times site at http://home.iprimus.com.au/ltuffin/tuffflano.html

Peter Fray

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