Tasmania experienced what might have been an Australian electoral first on Saturday: a by-election at which the incumbent party didn’t have the bottle to contest its own seat.

Spooked by the circumstances of sitting member Allison Ritchie’s departure, state Labor calculated that a forfeit in the eastern Hobart upper house district of Pembroke would be less humiliating than a defeat.

While the scattered vote among eight candidates leaves a lot of preference counting to be done, it’s clear the seat will go to Liberal candidate Vanessa Goodwin, a Hobart criminologist who had previously performed well at state and federal elections without quite bringing home the prize.

Labor’s calculation that the absence of its own candidate might muddy the waters in favour of a friendly independent proved badly misplaced.

The field included two independents identifiable with the Labor cause: Honey Bacon, widow of former Premier Jim Bacon, and James Crotty, a left-winger considered to be the front-runner for a Labor preselection which never eventuated.

Both woefully under-performed despite considerable pre-election publicity, failing to poll 20 per cent between them, while Goodwin easily headed the field with 38.5 per cent.

Goodwin will become only the second endorsed Liberal candidate to win a seat in the history of the Legislative Council, owing to a peculiar set of electoral rules which are so encouraging to independents (conservative ones in particular, due to the concentration of Liberal support in rural areas) that the party has long felt its interests are best served by keeping above the fray.

The decision to break from tradition by fielding Goodwin, who had been lined up for a second tilt in the five-member lower house division of Franklin, represented a bold challenge by Opposition Leader Will Hodgman to David Bartlett’s government, which is due to seek a fourth four-year term in March.

As well as demonstrating Hodgman’s tactical nous, Goodwin’s success boosts the Liberal cause in terms of morale, fundraising potential and parliamentary talent, providing a capable addition to an Opposition which has had the same seven-member line-up since the 2002 election disaster.

The result also suggests Labor has next to no chance of again returning three members in Franklin, which it only narrowly succeeded in doing in 2006.

Two of the three then elected, Paula Wriedt and former Premier Paul Lennon, have since left parliament, leaving low-profile neophytes to defend the seats.

One more loss on top of Franklin would cost Labor its majority, returning the Greens to a balance-of-power position they have not enjoyed since the major parties sought to nobble them by reducing the size of parliament in 1998.

Visit the William Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.