I will be unfolding my Tasmanian election guide electorate-by-electorate over the next month, starting today at the front of the alphabetical queue with Bass. Some highlights from the first week of official campaigning:
• The campaign began with the shock announcement by Sue Napier that she would be unable to contest the election due to a return of breast cancer, with which she was first diagnosed in 2008. Napier has been a Liberal member for Bass since 1992, and was Opposition Leader from 1999 to 2001. Her withdrawal further lengthens the already long odds on the Liberals gaining a third seat in the electorate. It’s likely to present an opportunity to former federal member Michael Ferguson, who is surely the front-runner to take the second Liberal seat. Following Napier’s withdrawal, the party promptly endorsed Michelle McGinity, said to have “worked in public relations in Canberra”. According to Sue Neales of The Mercury, McGinity hesitantly told a reporter she had been a member of the Liberal Party for “about a month”, prompting a party minder to step in to clarify she had in fact meant to say “for a day”.
• A surprise Labor promise to boost its existing $8 million commitment to a health facility in Glenorchy to $21 million prompted The Mercury to report the government was “seriously worried about its standing in the battler heartland of Denison’s south”. David Bartlett’s problems in the area are said to include the fact that he is an “iPod-loving, bicycle-riding, latte-sipping trendy whose interests, experiences and financial pressures are far removed from their own”. The report notes that Bartlett scored a hit with these voters when he “stood up to Aboriginal protest groups in January and announced he was barging through with construction of the Brighton bypass despite concerns that Aboriginal artefacts and middens might be destroyed”. Labor appears to be actively hoping that accident-prone Denison incumbent Graeme Sturges will lose his seat to Scott Bacon, son of the late former Premier Jim Bacon.
• According to Sue Neales of The Mercury, David Bartlett managed to “singlehandedly destroy the carefully crafted work of teams of public relations experts over the past two months” during Thursday’s appearance on ABC Statewide Mornings with Tim Cox. Bartlett’s “aggressive, arrogant, narky and cocky” performance, says Neales, was “definitely not a demonstration of good leadership, or the way to go about convincing a sceptical community that all the recent talk of listening, hearing, changing and fixing was anything more than a good PR line designed to win votes”.
• Labor opened the campaign by launching an attack site masquerading under the name of the Liberals’ own election slogan, www.liberalsrealchange.com. The site startlingly makes use of an L-plate in “Liberal”, copying a device from the last two Liberal federal campaigns. Featured are four YouTube ads: two hard-hitting frontal attacks, and two compare-and-contrast exercises – one quite effective, the other rather too smarmy. The site predictably drew a negative media response, to which the Premier responded by starting a poll on his Facebook page asking whether the site should be removed. Among the respondents was troublesome former federal Labor MP Harry Quick, who wrote: “David, if you really want to know what your ‘friends’ think about your strategies and the negative way you are travelling, why don’t you do a bit of old-fashioned doorknocking by yourself. Have you the balls to do something like this? I think not!”.
• A couple of noteworthy issues about electoral broadcasting have emerged. Followers of recent events in South Australia might be interested to learn that under the state’s laws, the Hobart Mercury feels compelled to demand that blog commenters provide a real name and suburb. However, my brief perusal of the site showed up one commenter who had been let through with a Christian name only, another who is a blogosphere identity I know to be using a pseudonym, and others that looked suspect. The Mercury evidently didn’t get the memo from its News Limited stablemate in Adelaide, offering the following in an editorial last Saturday: “That’s a rule that has long applied to newspapers during election campaigns and it’s always been our rule for our many letter writers every day of the year. Tasmanians have happily put their names to their opinions – just as candidates do. If it’s good enough for candidates to stand up and be counted, it’s good enough for those who hold opposing views to do the same.” The Electoral Commissioner has also revealed that new legal advice refutes the long-held view that negative personal advertisements on television and radio are effectively prohibited during the campaign period. As the laws had always been interpreted in the past, any use of a political candidate or figure in advertising during the campaign required their permission.
• According to Peter Tucker of Tasmanian Politics, we can expect an EMRS poll later this week.
Finally, here’s an overview of the election I wrote for last Monday’s Crikey Daily Mail:
That a Tasmanian state election will be held on March 20 is not exactly news – Premier David Bartlett has been making clear for the past year that the state would again go to the polls on the same day as South Australia, to the chagrin of election watchers across the land. Nonetheless, it’s worth noting Bartlett’s visit to the Governor on Friday, marking the official start of what promises to be a tough five-week campaign for the government.
Like a number of its mainland counterparts, the Tasmanian Labor government has suddenly begun feeling its age. After successive landslide wins, it now faces an election for the first time without the electoral asset of a conservative government in Canberra. The Liberals have found in Will Hodgman their most convincing leader in many years, and are presenting a relatively united front despite occasional public eruptions of factional hostility. Labor will no longer benefit from the perception of being the stronger horse, which in the past has attracted large numbers of voters hostile to minority government – a fact Bartlett has acknowledged in distancing himself from Labor’s long-standing position that it would not govern with Greens support.
The most recent poll in the state, an EMRS survey of 1000 voters conducted in early November, had Labor’s vote plunging to 33%, with the Liberals on 44% and the Greens on 21% (compared with 49.3%, 31.8% and 16.6% at the 2006 election). Liberal leader Will Hodgman had also opened up a commanding 40-28 lead as preferred premier, a dramatic reversal on earlier polling which suggested Bartlett had righted the ship after taking the reins from Paul Lennon. If this is even remotely accurate, Tasmania is all but certain to emerge with a minority government for the first time since the number of members per electoral divisions was cut from seven to five in 1998.
Labor would need to limit its losses to one seat to maintain its majority, and it can practically chalk up one loss to the Liberals already in Franklin. Labor won its third seat in Franklin by the skin of its teeth in 2006, and two of the three elected members have since quit parliament, leaving the seats to be defended by little-known newcomers. The swings required for the Liberals to make gains from Labor in Lyons and Denison are somewhat greater, but still in the eminently achievable range of 5 to 6 per cent. If Labor experiences any appreciable decline in Braddon, they will only be able to hold their third seat if a substantial lift in the Liberal vote freezes out the Greens. Should that lift be too substantial – in the order of 12 per cent – Labor would then be at risk of losing the seat to the Liberals instead. Only in Bass, where Labor is defending two seats rather than three, can they be truly confident of holding the line.
A majority for the Liberals would involve the enormous achievement of six seats gained from five electorates, requiring an increase in the primary vote far beyond even the most optimistic readings of the polls. The Greens on the other hand need only hold their ground to assume a balance-of-power position that has eluded them since 1998, and their record when faced by unpopular Labor governments suggests this will not be a problem for them. They would be hopeful of winning an extra seat in the only division that currently denies them, Braddon, and are perhaps fantasising once again about winning a second seat in Denison.