Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman

Following yesterday’s announcement that a state election will be held on March 3, Will Hodgman is set to embark on a five-week campaign in pursuit of a historically unusual feat: an election victory for the Liberals in Tasmania.

In any other state, the re-election of Hodgman’s government would be something approaching a foregone conclusion.

First-term governments usually get the benefit of the doubt from voters, and there is little in the Hodgman government’s record to suggest it deserves to be an exception.

The state’s unemployment rate, while remaining above average, has fallen twice as quickly as the national rate over the past four years, and a budget that was in deficit throughout Labor’s last term returned to surplus in 2015-16 by the grace of booming GST revenues.

But in Australia’s poorest state, Labor represents a default setting that voters gravitate back to after their infrequent acts of rebellion — previous examples of which included the Whitlam government’s wipe-out in 1975, and the Franklin Dam controversy that sustained a burst of Liberal dominance at both federal and state elections in the 1980s.

Hodgman’s success in 2014 was only the Liberals’ sixth win out of 24 state elections since the Great Depression, and it came after a federal election at which the Liberals gained three of the state’s five seats.

This time he faces the voters in the wake of a federal election at which every one of those seats flipped back to Labor, who gained a statewide swing of over 6%.

The Liberals currently hold 15 seats in a lower house of 25 members, who are elected under a proportional representation system in which the state’s five electorates return five members each.

This means the majority will go if seats are lost in more than two of the five electorates – and for the Liberals, losing a majority in Tasmania usually means losing office, since the balance of power party is almost invariably held by the Greens.

Should that transpire, Labor leader Rebecca White will become, at 34, the youngest premier in the state’s history, and the second woman after the previous Labor incumbent, Lara Giddings.

White came to parliament in 2010 after taking on three sexagenarian Labor incumbents in the electorate of Lyons, whom she targeted with a campaign message of “renewal” and a video advertisement that showed her sweeping Polly Waffle wrappers into a dustbin.

This proved effective enough to win her a seat despite Labor being reduced from three seats in Lyons to two, leaving two of the Labor’s sitting members out in the cold.

White’s bid to take her renewal pitch to a bigger stage has a clear parallel in Jacinda Ardern’s recent success in leading Labour to power in New Zealand at the age of 37, after she replaced a low-impact male leader and pitched the party further to the left.

A comparable act of audacity in White’s case is a proposed ban on poker machines in pubs and clubs by 2023, which has earned Labor a terrifyingly powerful enemy in the form of the Federal Hotels group.

An advertising campaign with strong echoes of that waged against the Gillard government over its abortive deal with Andrew Wilkie on mandatory pre-commitment technology for poker machines is already under way.

Labor will be hoping that public receptiveness to such a campaign has been blunted by the bribery allegations raised last year by investigative journalist James Boyce, and a greatest awareness of the riches Federal Hotels has amassed through its uncanny knack of getting Tasmanian governments of both stripes to see things its way.

Otherwise, a government that has a reasonably convincing story to tell on the economy might just find itself able to persuade voters that it’s too soon to return to a party that it ejected from office with such force just four years ago.

Peter Fray

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