Just before dawn on Thursday the Mercury newspaper’s website, not usually the fount of all information at the best of times and certainly not at that hour of the morning, broke the news that it had an exclusive story that the Greens would back a minority Labor government in Tasmania following the March 20 election that delivered the 10-10-5 result. The five Green MPs who had been elected had decided at a meeting on Wednesday afternoon to support David Bartlett’s minority government. Unable to inform governor Peter Underwood of their decision, Greens’ leader Nick McKim instead told the Mercury.
The decision to back Labor was born of frustration. Neither Bartlett nor Liberal opposition leader Will Hodgman would engage the Greens in negotiations to secure a minority government for either party.
Hodgman had decided to go it alone, unwisely taking Bartlett at his word that he would advise Underwood to call Hodgman to form a government since the Liberals had outpolled Labor at the election. It apparently never dawned on Hodgman that Underwood would not accept such advice.
Bartlett was among those who saw the Mercury story before dawn. The Greens anointing Labor meant that, in this three-way game of brinkmanship (four-way, if you include the governor), McKim had blinked. Gone were his demands for a share of power. The Greens would give government back to Labor on a plate with a promise not to bring them down unless there were evidence of malfeasance or corruption, this from a party that has consistently and vociferously accused the Tasmanian Labor Party of being corrupt, notably over its dealings with the forestry company Gunns and with feathering the nests of Labor mates.
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The Greens’ commitment to keep Labor in power was essentially unrelated to Underwood’s decision yesterday to ask Bartlett to remain as premier. Underwood did so because Bartlett was the incumbent, and the default course for the governor was to reject Bartlett’s advice to invite Hodgman to govern but to send the incumbent back to the House of Assembly to test the parliament’s confidence in him.
Underwood had convinced himself that Bartlett’s preferred course of action, to offer Hodgman the premiership, was fraught. It was also the wrong call in the circumstances. Underwood was not influenced in that decision by the Greens’ surprise commitment to Labor, but it gave his decision a much firmer foundation or justification that long-term stability could be achieved.
Hodgman is fuming and humiliated. He claims that Bartlett had publicly declared he would never move to bring down a minority Liberal government, but privately, in a letter to Underwood, had offered no such guarantee.
The Tasmanian media had already written up Hodgman as the new pup premier. His father, Michael Hodgman, a federal and state MP dubbed the Mouth from the South, had blubbered at the declaration of the polls as he anticipated Will’s imminent realisation of the dynasty’s dreams of a Hodgman as premier. It was not to be.
As we reported consistently here at Crikey, Bartlett’s advice to Underwood to appoint Hodgman as premier had always been suspect, untenable and unpresentable.
McKim has not been the kingmaker in this scenario. It has been Underwood, because he followed the conventions that others refused to see. In this powerplay the Liberals have shown themselves poor negotiators and even worse strategists. Bartlett committed a comedy of errors. Underwood and, to a lesser extent, McKim let him off the hook.
While Underwood and the Greens played chess, Labor and the Liberals had barely mastered draughts.