(Image: Private Media)

We meet in Hobart’s opulent town hall for the Australia Institute’s candidates forum for the seat of Clark. The walls are daubed with pastel portraits of baroque composers, floating above images of flower-wreathed fountains.

The focus of the event is good governance. There is much to discuss … and insufficient time. Towards the end, the Animal Justice Party candidate notes with good natured disappointment the questions didn’t have time to get to Tasmania’s salmon fishing industry.

Even by Tasmania’s standards, Clark’s candidates list is eccentric. We have former Liberal speaker turned independent apostate Sue Hickey, plus Madeleine Ogilvie who, since 2018 has pulled the full Joe Lyons — Labor to independent to Liberal candidate. Clark is also the site of the Ben McGregor saga, the Labor candidate who resigned after old “inappropriate texts” surfaced, arguing he’d been offed by his own side. Neither Ogilvie nor Attorney-General Elise Archer show up for the forum.

Present are current incumbent MP Ella Haddad of the ALP, the Greens’ Vica Bayley, AJP’s Tim Westcott, and a raft of independents including Hickey and Glenorchy Mayor Kristie Johnston.

The crowd skews older, as these events always do, but there are far more young people than equivalent forums I’ve been to in other states.

To round up the lower profile indies: there’s Mike Dutta, with a long grey beard and a sonorous voice — he reportedly had a past with the church and it shows. He deals with questions with the smooth assurance of a first-class cover band. He says much the same as the other candidates, but delivers it with such crowd-pleasing pizzazz that he gets a cheer every time.

There’s Lisa Gershwin — a bright, confident speaker, a marine scientist with Asperger’s and homelessness in her past, running largely on fixing Tasmania’s mental health system. She kinda nails it; she has a mix of conviction and an outsider’s bewilderment, and the crowd love her. There’s also Jax Ewin, a florist and member of the city council who has also experienced homelessness. They are understated and duck out during the second question of the forum (“I’ve got work in the morning and I’ve been on the clock for 12 hours,” they say with a wry smile).

Long debate on the details

Haddad, predictably, gets the toughest time. While the others can say it’s time for change and broadly commit to getting pokies out of clubs or pushing laws on truth in political advertising, Haddad gets drawn into a long debate on the details of the donations disclosure bill she put forward.

And, inevitably, she has to address the head-snapping U-turn the ALP made on its 2018 gaming policy. She does OK given the impossible situation, telling perhaps half the story — the public had a chance to vote in a Labor Party with a serious policy on pokies and they didn’t take it. But the missing detail — the party’s eagerness to avoid the battering it got from gaming interests last time — means the apportion of blame is a little off.

The Greens’ Bayley, following her, talks about 2018 representing the most “poignant and stark” example of the corruption of Tasmania’s system: “We all saw the millions spent, the billboards, the lies.” He almost sounds sympathetic.

But it clearly wears on Haddad — at one point she says, “I know there’s a theme in the room of making the ALP the enemy, because the government didn’t show up …” and you could hear it failing to land. Someone shouts from the crowd, “Take responsibility for Labor’s policy!” It’s the only time the fairly immaculate civility of the night falters.

Still, as Hickey, who actually was a member of that Liberal government, got a cheer for her answer to the next question, Haddad could be forgiven for being faintly aggrieved.

Indeed, Hickey plays the event well. Her stated disgust with the Liberals and shame at her involvement means that nothing the government has done seems to stick to her. Her underlying theme is: “You think YOU hate the Liberals? Honey, try working with them!”

This smooths over some of the vaguer edges of her pitch and her position, which is well to the right of most of this crowd.

Despite the major parties’ declarations that they won’t govern without a majority, Hickey says “majority government is dangerous for Tasmania”. It gets a cheer every time. And it’s noteworthy, as Johnston points out, that if voters are going to prevent that, Clark is likely to be where it happens.

In so many ways Hobart really does feel like a big country town — geographically (walled-in by green and blue on all sides) as well as politically. Not just the tendency for monopoly and the shorter/cheaper paths to serious influence, but the familiarity of it all.

Practically every questioner appears to be familiar to the sitting MPs: one promises to send Hickey a follow-up email, who replies, with what feels like genuine affection, “I can always rely on you for that.”