Former Tasmanian Labor premier David Bartlett today refused to resign from parliament immediately, yet having told Premier Lara Giddings he questioned whether he had the passion and commitment to continue.

Instead, he has resigned as attorney-general and will resign from parliament “in the coming weeks” or “a few months”, depending on whether you take as gospel what he said in this morning’s resignation press release or what he said at his 10.30am press conference (“a few months”).

Senior Labor figures and some, at least, of his own colleagues, are incensed at the manner of his resignation and non-departure. Can there be a clearer case of a rat deserting a sinking ship, but on the terms most favourable to himself?

Bartlett is the third minister to quit in the past six months, following the early resignation from the upper house, the Legislative Council, of former Treasurer Michael Aird and the defeat in Saturday’s Legislative Council elections of Education Minister Lin Thorp.

Bartlett, the third Labor pillar to fall, forces Giddings into a major reshuffle when she least wants it and when the state is facing its gravest fiscal crisis in 20 years.

In a lower house where Labor has only 10 members, one of whom is speaker, she has no talent to draw upon. She already has two of the five Green MPs in her cabinet.

With Thorp’s defeat she was going to reduce the nine-member cabinet to eight and in a meeting with Bartlett yesterday afternoon had opened her mouth to ask him to take on extra responsibilities from his light load when he interrupted her and confessed he could not guarantee he would be in parliament by the end of the year; that he was “a 50/50 chance”; that the question he still had after stepping down as premier on January 23 was whether he still had “the passion and commitment that was required”.

At his press conference this morning, Bartlett continually ducked Crikey‘s questioning about the suggestion that he was accepting an associate professorship with Griffith University and that he was about to be interviewed for a job with one of the world’s best-known brands in computers. He said he was not being interviewed next week or the coming weeks.

Under the Tasmanian Hare-Clark voting system, when Bartlett eventually resigns from parliament the vacancy will be filled by a recount of his primary votes; in other words, if he had not been on the ballot paper whom would people have preferred.

That is decided by scrutinising his second preferences. They will inevitably favour a Labor candidate, probably Lisa Singh, but who is to be a senator from July 1. That leaves the seat to 2010 defeated minister Graeme Sturges or lawyer Madeleine Ogilvie.

Since the Tasmanian system does not require byelections, there is no need for Bartlett to stay on. Giddings will now have to assess the backlash against Bartlett’s decision to leave cabinet, but to stay in parliament until a time that suits him to go, which, he says, will be after he has “tidied up a few projects in the electorate”.

Giddings has shown herself to be a strong leader. A strong leader would tell Bartlett to pack up and go now.