In the past six elections, the Tasmanian electorate of Bass has changed hands six times. And if flap factor runs on form, it’ll swing back to the Liberals, writes Shane Maloney from the deep south.
'Expect the Unexpected'
declares the sign at the Launceston airport exit. I take it for a promise as I lob for a quick squiz at Bass, north-east Tasmania’s perennial side-swapping electorate.
With three weeks remaining until the election, the country doesn’t need, doesn’t want, doesn’t give a stuff about and won’t change anything worth a damn, perhaps the Taswegians will provide a flicker of enlightenment.
Bass occupies the eastern top of the island, separated from Braddon in the west by a pointy protuberance atop the electorate of Lyons. The overwhelming majority of its 66,000 voters live in Launceston and surrounds. In the hinterland, they grow poppies for the pharmaceutical industry, French fries for McDonald's and plantation timber for ponzi-scheme tax dodges. Scottsdale, the only other major town, is a hotbed of Bible bashers, notably but not exclusively Exclusive Brethren. Further east, Bass extends out to Flinders Island, the Bermuda of Bass Strait.
In the past six elections, it has changed hands six times. It is, in short, the dunny door of Australian politics. Labor won it in 2007. If flap factor runs on form, it’ll swing back to the Liberals.
The Labor and Liberal candidates are new to the fray. The Labor incumbent, Jodie Campbell, decided not to recontest after her personal life went train wreck. Her would-be successor, Geoff Lyons, is a hospital administrator. Safe, amiable and solid but not exactly a household face.
Steve Titmus, his opponent, on the other hand, is former local news anchor with a high recognition factor. He’s so well-known that Gunns hired him to front an infomercial campaign, prompting Southern Cross television to recuse him from newsly duties on perceived conflict grounds.
The Greens, a hardy Tasmanian perennial, scored a 15% primary vote in 2007 but their focus is now on the Senate and they won’t be surprised if their Reps share shrinks down to the core. Their candidate, Sancia Colgrave is a political-class professional, ex-Labor, ex-Democrats.
The only other runner, Adrian Watts, from the Stark Raving Looney Lyndon Larouche Global Conspiracy Citizens Electoral Council of Gullible Nitwits, is campaigning on a pledge to put a Tasmanian on the moon, build the Franklin Dam and connect Eurasia with North America by high-speed train. Fair dinkum. It was in the Launceston Examiner
, so it must be true.
So here I am, Saturday, thermometer poised to take the electoral temperature.
The actual temperature is 12 degrees and it’s drizzling. I’m standing in the liniment-scented lee of the changing rooms at Rocherlea footy oval, watching their under-19s get trounced by the lads from Longford.
Rocherlea is a modest, house-proud suburb of low-slung bungalows on a hillside about eight kilometres from the centre of Launceston. It rates low on the national socio-economic index and footy provides a fair dollop of the social glue. The seniors game is still a couple of hours away but the tribe is already gathering. Runners, trainers, coaches and players are all wearing team livery. A fair impost, I can’t help but think, if you’ve got a couple of kids and dad involved. Most people around here vote Labor. Nothing I hear suggests they are about to turn Tory.
The canteen serves a decent sav, so I have one, watch a family connection boot a goal for the visitors and head for the hustings in search of the candidates.
I’ve been ringing Steve Titmus for three days without a reply. I try again, get the same result. Maybe he’s door-knocking, but I don’t know where. If you’ve seen the poster, I’m told, you’ve met the man. Geoff Lyons is door-knocking, too, but he’ll see me when he’s finished.
Meanwhile, I take a quick turn of the Tamar Valley. My guide is local wine grower and holder of the unwinnable second spot on the Green’s Senate ticket, Peter Whish-Wilson. An ex-international banker, he’s one of the board-room savvy activists who stymied Gunn’s pulp mill project. The mill’s not completely dead, he tells me, but it’s off the boil as a divisive local issue. No shed burnings for a while now.
We tootle through a landscape burdened with picturesque scenery. Signs point to strawberry farms and riverside jetties. The rain has stopped and dappled sunlight falls gently upon the Christine Milne posters on fences in little hamlets commuting distance from the university. But despite its apparent charms, Peter tells me, the area has some very real problems. Tree changers come but don’t stay. Old Tasmania does not welcome change. Young people leave and don’t come back. There’s funding for infrastructure but not for recurrent costs. Attracting and retaining health care professionals is difficult. Youth unemployment feeds mental health problems.
Come four o’clock and Lyons has finished his door-knocking. He’s now on his football rounds, checking the state of play in his role as president of the Northern Tasmanian Football Association. He picks me up in his campaign ute. "You won’t miss it," he says.
How could I? It’s got a dirty big fluorescent yellow board on the back with his name in giant letters. Considering its potential impact on the final result, you’d think the genius power-brokers on both sides would be tipping major campaign resources into a place such as this. What I find is a scattering of foam-core posters, a Labor candidate in a ute who prints his flyers at home and pays for his own promotional T-shirts, and a Liberal candidate who doesn’t have an office and doesn’t answer his phone.
We head to the Australian Maritime College for the final quarter of the Uni Maubray-Old Launcestonians game. Maubray, over by the greyhound track, was once a working-class suburb. The Old Launcestonians were the ex-Grammar boys. In the olden days, I was told, it would’ve been a bloodbath. There’s no blood today but the oval is churned to a quagmire and there’s so much mud you can’t tell the teams apart. One of the Old Launcestonian supporters urges Geoff to keep Abbott out or "he’ll bring back that Work whatsit thing". So much for class struggle.
As we drive back through town, we pass York Park, the stadium where Hawthorn will play Freemantle on election day. Today, its Launceston versus Devonport in the state league. Christ, these people love football.
Politically, there’s no upswelling here and bugger-all local machinery. The whole campaign is a top-down marketing exercise. The candidate just has to look keen, knock on doors and tread water. The big chiefs fly in for a couple of hours, grip and grin, announce something that was probably in the pipeline anyway, then head for the boarding gate. There’s a bit of pork, but not much. There was probably more in my footy frank.
Gillard’s been here twice, overnighting at The George, the old base hospital turned fancy boutique hotel. Marn Ferson lobbed on Wednesday to announce funding for Tamar Valley wine marketing. Swan was here Friday for a photo op with Lyons but the shine was taken off his whistle-stop by reporters from the Launceston Examiner
, who had an attack of the Laurie Oakes and badgered him ragged for a scoop on his relationship with Rudd. He wouldn’t be drawn, so they ran a snaky little piece that tried to make it look like he’d come to town for the specific purpose of evading their questions.
So that’s Bass, standing in the cold rain at the end of the earth, waiting for its chance to grab the ball and run. Half-time, level pegged, and game could go either way. There’s no draws in the big league, so one of the teams will definitely win. Expect the expected.
This is the second in the Marginalia series. Re-visit the first stop, Townsville here.