Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein (Image: AAP/Sarah Rhodes)

You’d barely know Tasmania is having an election tomorrow. I’ve not encountered a single canvasser for any party or candidate on the streets of Hobart in the last week, though on Friday morning I did pass Liberal candidate Simon Behrakis and friends on Macquarie Street, shaking his sign at passing cars like there’s a garage sale on.

I passed far more corflutes on the way to Port Arthur than I encountered in the city. The only high-profile federal politician to campaign on behalf of anyone appears to be Clark independent Andrew Wilkie, who conducted a couple of press conferences on behalf of the indies running in his state equivalent.

In fact, this miniscule target approach may have been working too well — polling of the readership in the local Murdoch paper The Mercury (generally regarded as pro-Liberal) early this week showed a big swing towards independents and the Greens. The reader poll supplemented a uComms poll for the Australia Institute, which gave the Liberals 41.4%, Labor 32.1%, the Greens 12.4% and independents 11%. Sure, there are many reasons to think that overstates the progressive vote, but even local psephologist Kevin Bonham (with all the usual caveats) found it all “a little eye-opening”.

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But of course incumbency during COVID-19 has proved time and time again to be a hell of a drug. Premier Peter Gutwein has been comfortably ahead in every major poll since the start of the pandemic and (thanks to the seemingly unwavering support of Labor-independent-Liberal Madeleine Ogilvie) had the votes to continue governing even after Liberal-turned-independent Sue Hickey quit.

As yet, there are no major scandals on Gutwein’s watch. On Thursday, the premier did have to interrupt announcing his “100-day plan” to field some awkward questions about a series of dating app profiles with the face of candidate Adam Brooks and other peoples’ names. It served to remind voters that Brooks — a former MP and possibly a bit of a loose unit — was back in the frame, but it’s hardly the October surprise.

The impression is that, as one Tassie-based Crikey reader put it earlier in the week, Gutwein “hasn’t done enough to lose”. But has he done enough to get what he (or Labor leader Rebecca White, for that matter) considers a victory: a majority?

Five divisions with five seats each

Remember the Hare-Clark system delivers five divisions with five seats each. It seems the divisions to watch closest are Bass and Clark; Clark is the most left-leaning electorate in Tasmania, the hardest to predict and the one where Bonham reckons the majority of the responses to the polling above would’ve come from, skewing it left and independent.

In Bass, Gutwein’s division, the Liberals are confident of picking up a fourth seat to offset their potential loss in Clark. Labor need to win a second seat to get close and, as discussed elsewhere today, the Greens think they may be able to regain the seat they held there between 2002 and 2018.

Bear in mind too, Hare-Clark means the difference between a “landslide” (15 seats) and minority is three seats, and it only takes votes shifting a few percent to potentially make that kind of change. According to Bonham, since 1959 the lowest vote share to win a majority was 44.79% (Labor in 1998) and the highest vote share to fail to was 47.68% (Labor again, in 1969). The Libs got more than 50% of the statewide vote last time and scraped a single-seat majority.

All of this, as you can probably tell, is the long way of saying I have no idea what’s going to happen. This is a state with, say, the most progressive laws regarding transgender people in the country and also two major parties who want to throw “serial protestors” in jail and won’t tell us where they get their money. Nothing here is straight forward.

Most likely the Liberals will get their majority, with no major scandal or big risky reform to dent Gutwein’s strong popularity since the onset of COVID-19.

But the most fun plausible scenario I’ve encountered is that Labor keep their nine and the Greens their two while the Libs lose Ogilvie in Clark, can’t replace Will Hodgman’s huge personal vote in Franklin, and don’t pick up a fourth in Bass, leaving them with 12 seats. Then Hickey and maybe another independent win in Clark, giving us the very situation Gutwein said he wanted to avoid; minority government, with the added spice of having to secure the support of the woman whose axing kicked this whole thing off. The majors are certainly treating a scenario like that as plausible, if their final week advertising is anything to go by.

Then what? Possibly a constitutional debate like the one in 2010 and maybe a challenge against Gutwein from the Christian right of his party. Either way, the contradictions of Tasmanian politics might well be playing out on the national stage for a little longer yet.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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