Tasmanians will go to the polls on March 15, Premier Lara Giddings yesterday confirmed, setting up a super Saturday of simultaneous state elections in Tasmania and South Australia. In both cases, the hopes of Labor — the last remaining Labor governments at a state or federal level — look grim.
Labor’s prospects look particularly bleak in Tasmania, where the party has been in power since 1998. That makes the Bacon-Lennon-Bartlett-Giddings government the same age as Kristina Keneally’s in New South Wales and two years older than Anna Bligh’s in Queensland at the time of their respective massacres in 2011 and 2012. In each case, a strong sense prevailed that all concerned would have been better off if the governments had gone down to more honourable defeats a term sooner.
However, Tasmania offers one sharp distinction with NSW and Queensland: the Hare-Clark electoral system, in which each of the state’s five electorates return five lower house members through a brand of proportional representation much beloved by election watchers. This has traditionally made life for the Liberals very difficult indeed, given their position on the Right of a three-party system in which the centre is occupied by Labor.
The 2010 election result had the Liberals clear winners in terms of votes cast, with Labor reduced from 14 seats to 10 and the ALP vote crashing by 12.7%. As then-premier David Bartlett had spent the campaign talking up his party’s determination not to govern with the support of the Greens, the talk on election night was of an imminent change of government. But with the Liberals likewise finishing the count stranded on 10 seats and the Greens standing firm in their refusal to do business with them, Labor remained in office by default.
Four years on, Labor finds the burdens of long-term incumbency weighing more heavily than ever, having spent the last term governing from a position of political weakness through a coalition arrangement with the Greens (which Giddings pointedly brought to an end yesterday).
High as the Hare-Clark hurdle may be, the Liberals — who remain under the leadership of Will Hodgman, as they were in 2010 — will go into the campaign with every confidence of clearing it.
Parallels between the federal and state spheres are misleading more often than not, but the present situation in Tasmania looks very much like an exception. The period of Labor-Greens rule has mostly coincided with Labor being in minority government federally, and both opinion polls and the federal election result have offered a strong impression that the unpopularity of each was feeding into the other.
In particular, the Liberals’ success in poaching Bass, Braddon and Lyons from Labor at the federal election — with respective swings of 10.7%, 10.1% and 13.5% — suggests a path to majority government has opened in the state’s north.
“To crudely simplify the maths of Hare-Clark, the Liberals can expect to gain the three seats they need …”
To crudely simplify the maths of Hare-Clark, the Liberals can expect to gain the three seats they need if their vote improves by 2% in Braddon, 5% in Lyons and 6% in Bass (or by 4% in the Hobart fringe electorate of Franklin, where the federal election swing was only half as big). That happens to be roughly the difference between the Liberal vote at the 2010 state and 2013 federal elections in the case of Bass and Braddon, and at least 3% less in the case of Lyons.
The Liberals have two reasons to hope they can do quite a bit better than that, the first being the polls. Large-sample polls conducted by ReachTEL over the past six months have consistently found the Liberals to be doing at least 5% better at state than federal level, and Labor doing correspondingly worse.
The second is the rhetorical trump card the Liberals have in being the only party that can credibly claim to be a potential majority government, an asset that greatly boosted Labor as it powered to its landslide wins in 2002 and 2006.
There is, however, a fly in the ointment in the shape of the Palmer United Party, which succeeded in winning a Tasmanian Senate seat and stands poised once again to blitz the airwaves with television advertising. An encouraging development for the new party is the decline in support for the Greens, whose vote in Tasmania fell by half at the federal election. That raises the possibility of PUP candidates emerging as piggies in the middle of 2-2-1 results of the kind that have traditionally delivered seats to the Greens.
A particularly promising prospect is the north-western electorate of Braddon, where a Greens candidate was elected by a razor-thin margin in 2010. The PUP’s lead candidate in the electorate is Kevin Morgan, whom Clive Palmer has proclaimed with characteristic reserve to be “the next premier of Tasmania”.
In one sense, the Palmer insurgency presents the Liberals with a potentially substantial obstacle on their path to majority government. But it also promises to sharpen their message that they and they alone offer an alternative to four years of parliamentary chaos.