tasmania power

A decade ago, naming the 10 most powerful people behind the scenes in Tasmanian politics would have been a doddle. Forestry baron John Gay would have headed up a list dominated by loggers, miners and Hydro Tasmania types, with Labor powerbrokers (bullish male union sympaticos, usually seen smoking outside any given office) making up the numbers.

But as Tasmanians prepare to vote in the state election on March 15, how things have changed. Gay is disgraced, forestry has waned, and the apple isle has an increasingly mixed — and persistently troubled — economy. The old dens of power have closed, as have some large Tasmanian-owned companies. Crikey had to dig deeper to find out who’s really running the show.

After 16 years of Labor government, polls show the Liberals are likely — but not certain — to win majority government. They’re on 50% of the primary vote to Labor’s 23%, with the Greens on 17%, while the Palmer United Party’s vote is lifting. This is a Crikey list of the most influential people behind the scenes, so we’ve excluded party leaders: Labor Premier Lara Giddings, Liberal premier-apparent Will Hodgman, the Greens’ Nick McKim. Instead, these are the people who draft the strategies, whisper in the ears of decision-makers, and bankroll campaigns. When they speak, Tasmanians listen.

  1. Brad Stansfield (chief of staff to Liberal leader Will Hodgman)
  2. Bob Brown (Greens spiritual leader)
  3. Barry Prismall (Examiner deputy editor)
  4. Greg Farrell (tourism/pokies chief)
  5. Jan Davis (farming lobbyist)
  6. Robert Rockefeller and Mary Massina (property figures)
  7. Carol Brown and family (Labor veterans)
  8. Religious groups
  9. Terry Edwards (forestry lobbyist)
  10. Saul Eslake (banker)

Click here to see the top 20 …

To understand power in Tasmania, you have to understand Liberal powerbroker Eric Abetz and his coterie. The federal Employment Minister has long held sway within his party, although some loathe him. Abetz has a hand in the rise and fall of Liberals and gets his way on preselections. Abetz’s former chief of staff Brad Stansfield (@bj_stansfield) became Will Hodgman’s COS in 2010, and he’s steadied the Liberal ship, imposed discipline, and is credited with the party’s successful “small-target” strategy. Stansfield is young, savvy and knows how to get a message out. If the Liberals win the election it will be due in significant part to him, and he’ll be central to the new government. Just don’t mention his involvement in Abetz’s unfortunate Godwin Grech moment …

Speaking of Liberals, federal operator Ian Hanke (@IanHanke) is currently working with Stansfield. Hanke is a tough-love former spinner to former PM John Howard, former Liberal MP Peter Reith and footballer James Hird. He’s been smoking his trademark cigars around Hobart. And former Liberal premier Robin Gray — who can forget that $10,000 in the freezer? — retains some influence.

Second on our list is former Greens leader Bob Brown (@BobBrownFndn; pictured far right), revered by green-tinged types. They may respect Christine Milne and like Peg Putt, but it’s the man known simply as “Bob” they always listen to. Brown is the main reason the Greens have polled so well in Tasmania for so long (they regularly land the balance of power). He picks and chooses his causes now, enjoying life in a beach hamlet south of Hobart, but is still active and rolls up to events. He’s keeping them Green — and the more people vote Green, the harder it is for anyone to form majority government in Tasmania’s Hare-Clark electoral system.

Barry Prismall (@prismallb; pictured centre) is deputy editor and prolific opinion writer at the Fairfax-owned Examiner newspaper in Launceston. The Libs need to poll well in the north, hence the Ex‘s importance. But there’s more to it. Prismall was a staffer to ex-Liberal senator Guy Barnett, who is not in Abetz’s faction (and who is running in this election). The Ex is conservative and Prismall is seen as the heavy lifter on politics. He’s the man you’ve got to convince to run a story, and he writes frequently — on education, traffic congestion, unemployment, etc. He’s pro-Liberal but no patsy for Hodgman or Abetz. He’s anti-Green.

Tourism is big bucks in Tasmania, and no one makes more of them than Greg Farrell, long-time managing director of the Federal Group. The group employs 1700 people in mid- to-high-end resorts like Saffire, the Country Club and Wrest Point casino (some are being sold). Federal has a controversial monopoly over Tassie’s pokies. But while Farrell has clout — he gets meetings with party leaders and is listened to — you won’t hear him sounding off in the media. He chooses to exert less influence than he perhaps could, and he’s selective. Horse-loving Farrell lives some of the year in Tasmania. If you want to know what Farrell thinks, tourism lobbyist Luke Martin (@lukemartin83) is a good start.

At No. 5 is Jan Davis (@TFGACEO; pictured far left), outspoken CEO of the Tasmanian Farmers and Growers Association, the farmers’ peak body. She’s a prolific, blunt and effective agent in the local media. Davis is influential because agriculture matters — there’s a lot of opium grown in Tasmania — and because she’s a policy wonk and strong communicator. She’s arguably the state’s best-known lobbyist. She’s conservative, as most farmers are. A Liberal MP told Crikey Davis is “not afraid to poke anyone in the eye”.

Yes, Tasmania has its own Rockefeller millionaire — but he’s no relation to the American branch. Robert Rockefeller made his money in property (shopping centres, hospitals, pubs). Rockefeller is very private and says almost nothing publicly. His brother Herman was murdered in an infamous sex crime in 2010. Robert is past president of the state’s Property Council, his wealth and connections have brought power, and he works behind the scenes with Labor and the Liberals. His company, Nekon, sponsors a government arts program. Rockefeller’s public voice is via Property Council executive director Mary Massina. A Labor operator described them to Crikey as a “successful double act”.

The influence of Labor Senator Carol Brown (@SenCarolBrown) is routinely underestimated. She’s low profile and media shy, but she — and her family — have clout. Her sister, who has worked for her, is a candidate in this election. One Labor insider told Crikey that people “tell Brown things”. Another says she’s had “a lot of influence on the rank and file, she’s certainly the mover and shaker in the Left [faction]”. Former premier Michael Field is also influential, and MP David O’Byrne is waiting for an election loss to lead Labor.

Mysterious Tasmanian religious groups sometimes fund pro-conservative election ads. Previously the Exclusive Brethren (who don’t vote on principle — the ABC reported on their links to John Howard) have spent tens of thousands on anti-Green ads. The Liberals were involved. Will the Brethren donate in 2014?

Rumour has it that Liberal campaign coffers are full, Labor’s are low, and someone is funding pro-Green ads — could it be environmental NGO Pew? Watch out for pro-Green support, via money or public statements, from conservation-leaning retailer Jan Cameron, Wotif’s Graeme Wood and pulp mill crusader Geoffrey Cousins.

The forestry industry is a shadow of its former self with Gunns and Gay gone, a peace deal in place and bitter divisions within the industry — but Terry Edwards, chief of the Forest Industries Association of Tasmania, retains significant influence. He’s pro-peace deal so some in the industry — and some Liberals — shun him. The state Libs want to scrap the peace deal, but key industry figures want to keep it, making Edwards influential if the Liberals win. Also influential are Scott McLean from the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and conservationist Vica Bayley.

Rounding out Crikey‘s top 10 is a merchant banker who doesn’t live in Tasmania: Saul Eslake. Why? Eslake is from Tasmania, maintains a close interest in its economy, arts and education scenes, and is moving back this year (he’s bought a historic Hobart home). He speaks publicly about housing and the arts, is involved in Hydro Tasmania, and has noisily campaigned for a Tassie AFL team. He’s one of the country’s best-known economists — 14 years as ANZ chief economist — and a bit of a media tart.

Eslake has influence on Tasmanian politics because he knows what he’s talking about, he’s not partisan, he has a vision — he can see Tasmania’s potential with an expat’s eye — and he communicates well. The public and elites listen to him. The state’s political leaders talk to him, too. He ruled out a political career when Crikey called.

Peter Fray

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