Electoral Form Guide: Bass
Margin: Labor 1.0%
Location: Launceston/North-Eastern Regional, Tasmania
Outgoing member: Jodie Campbell (Labor)
In a nutshell: Famed for Labor’s devastating 1975 by-election defeat which helped precipitate the downfall of the Whitlam government, Bass has scarcely been less interesting in recent times, changing hands five times since 1993. Yet another layer of interest has been added at the coming election by the retirement of Labor’s winner in 2007, Jodie Campbell, after just one term.
Two-party vote map
Swing % map
Electorate analysis: Still famous for the 1975 by-election that provided a catalyst for the Coalition’s decision to block supply in the Senate, Bass has been an arm wrestle ever since. Amid the statewide realignments to the Liberals in the 1980s and Labor over the past decade, Bass has remained relatively stable. It has changed hands at five of the last six elections, the only interruption being with Labor’s consecutive clean sweeps of Tasmania in 1998 and 2001. The record will extend to the coming election regardless of who wins, as Labor’s victor of 2007, Jodie Campbell, is bowing out after a brief and troubled parliamentary career.
Bass has been little changed since it was created with Tasmania’s division into single-member electorates in 1903, having been frozen into Launceston and the state’s north-eastern corner by the constitutional requirement that states have no fewer than five seats. The current redistribution has added about 1600 new voters at Hadspen and Franklin Valley, previously in Lyons (its only neighbour), without altering the margin. Launceston provides the electorate with about 70 per cent of its 70,000 enrolled voters; other centres include George Town, a Labor-voting coastal town at the mouth of the Tamar River, and the more conservative Scottsdale, a hub of surrounding timber and farming communities.
The 2001 and 2004 elections showed little distinction in voting behaviour between Launceston and the remainder (the respective two-party vote for the Liberals in 2004 was 52.4 per cent and 53.6 per cent), but a gap opened up in 2007 with a 4.5 per cent Labor swing in Launceston compared with 0.2 per cent elsewhere. Within Launceston, the North Esk River that runs through the city from east to west serves as a boundary between strong Labor territory in the north (Labor two-party booth results were in the 60s in 2007) and more conservative suburbs in the south and west.
Labor first won Bass when the 1910 election delivered it its first-ever parliamentary majority, and lost it six years later when member Jens Jensen followed Billy Hughes into the Nationalist Party. Jensen retained the seat as a Nationalist at the 1917 election, and it remained with the party after he lost endorsement in 1919. Labor’s next win came with the election of Jim Scullin’s government in 1929, but it was again lost to a party split when member Allan Guy followed Joseph Lyons into the United Australia Party in 1931. Guy was re-elected as the UAP candidate at that year’s election, but was defeated by Labor’s Claude Barnard in 1934.
The next change came with the election of the Menzies government in 1949, when Barnard lost to Liberal candidate Bruce Kekwick. It returned to the Barnard family fold when Claude’s son Lance defeated Kekwick in 1954, going on to serve as deputy prime minister in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1974. The famed 1975 by-election followed Barnard’s mid-term resignation, ostensibly on grounds of ill health, but following a year on from his loss of the deputy position to Jim Cairns. A plunge in the Labor primary vote from 54.0 per cent to 36.5 per cent delivered the seat to Liberal candidate Kevin Newman (husband of future Senator Jocelyn and father of current Brisbane lord mayor Campbell), emboldening the Coalition to pursue an early election at all costs.
Bass remained in the Liberal fold for 18 years, as Tasmania bucked the national trend to Labor in 1983 due to the Franklin dam controversy. Kevin Newman was succeeded in 1990 by Warwick Smith, whose promising career progress was twice stymied by the vagaries of electoral fortune. In 1993 he lost the seat to Labor’s Sylvia Smith by just 40 votes, part of a statewide swing to Labor that gave the first indication on election night that things were not going according to script. Warwick Smith recovered the seat in 1996 and served as Family Services Minister in the first term of the Howard government, while Sylvia Smith returned to politics a year later as an independent member in the state upper house. The 1998 election produced a second GST backlash and another painfully narrow defeat for Warwick Smith, this time by 78 votes at the hands of 30-year-old Miscellaneous Workers Union official Michelle O’Byrne.
Labor repeated its 1998 clean sweep of Tasmania in 2001, but came disastrously unstuck in 2004 when Mark Latham’s policy on logging of old-growth forests provoked the wrath of the CFMEU, Premier Paul Lennon and Lyons MP Dick Adams. Vision of the Prime Minister being cheered by timber workers at Launceston’s Albert Hall provided one of the main talking points of the campaign’s decisive final days. Both Bass and its still more logging-dependent neighbour Braddon fell to the Liberals, whose candidate Michael Ferguson overhauled the 2.0 per cent margin with a 4.5 per cent swing. O’Byrne entered state politics at the March 2006 election, recording exceptionally strong personal votes in 2006 and 2010.
Ferguson was unable to repeat his coup at the 2007 election, when the seat again captured national attention owing to Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s conditional approval to Gunns Limited’s proposed Tamar Valley pulp mill north of Launceston. Local opinion in Bass was said to be divided between hopes of job creation and fears of the impact on the water supply, and the seat accordingly recorded a 3.6 per cent swing broadly in line with the statewide trend. This was 1.0 per cent more than the existing margin for Ferguson, who also found refuge in state politics when he won one of the Liberals’ two seats in Bass at the March 2010 election.
Jodie Campbell came to parliament via the Australian Services Union, Launceston City Council and an association with a breakaway sub-faction of the Left called the Progressive Policy Forum, associated with sister-and-brother state MPs Michelle and David O’Byrne. Campbell twice made the news in mid-2009 when her partner was charged with assaulting her, and two of her staff members abruptly and mysteriously resigned. It was reported at the time that the former event had halted a “gathering momentum” that would have cost Campbell preselection, and that she remained “under pressure to lift her performance”. Campbell confirmed her decision not to context the next election four months later.
At the time doubts were first raised about Campbell’s long-term future in politics, Matthew Denholm of The Australian noted that “while Ms Campbell is from Labor’s Left faction, many in the Right see Bass as their seat”. Loretta Johnston of the Launceston Examiner reported in January that a decision by the Right not to challenge the Left over the succession to Duncan Kerr in the federal seat of Denison indicated a deal has been struck that would leave Bass clear for Geoff Lyons, a staffer to Right faction Senator Helen Polley and former manager at Launceston General Hospital. Danielle Blewett of The Examiner surprisingly offered word from “Labor sources” that Kevin Rudd had “made it clear he wanted a man to run for Bass after the recent distress experienced by incumbent Bass MHR Jodie Campbell”. Two women were nonetheless named at different stages as possible successors: Kathryn Hay, a state member for Bass from 2002 until her surprise early retirement in 2006, and Michelle Cripps, North Tasmanian Development consultant and state candidate from 2010. Also named was Winnaleah District High School principal Brian Wightman, who instead went on to win one of Labor’s two seats in Bass at the state election. Lyons ended up getting the nod as anticipated in a decision imposed on the local party in April by the national executive.
The Liberal preselection initially loomed as a contest betwen Brigadier Andrew Nikolic, veteran of numerous overseas postings and until recently the Australian Defence Force’s director-general of public affairs, and Senator Guy Barnett, who would otherwise have had to settle for the slighly less appealing number three position on the Liberal Senate ticket. However, Nikolic withdrew from contention in July last year citing family and work issues, and nothing further was heard of the Barnett proposal. Into the breach stepped Steve Titmus, a former television news reader and PR consultant for local favourites Gunns Ltd.
The Liberals made a late play for Bass in the middle of the final week of the campaign, unloading what the Launceston Examiner described as a “$62.5m Bass splash”: a $60 million early intervention mental-health unit for Launceston, and $2.5 million to address the Tamar River’s silt problem made unconditional on the provision of state funding. In the second week of the campaign Labor promised $11.5 million in funding for Launceston’s flood levees as part of the Natural Disaster Resilience Program.
EMRS has conducted statewide polls in the second last late in the second last week of the campaign showed Labor’s vote holding up in Tasmania, and it included a small-sample (200) breakdown for Bass which had Geoff Lyons leading 57-43. The JWS Research-Telereach poll conducted on the final weekend of the campaign, covering 400 respondents with a margin of error of about 5 per cent, had Labor leading 60-40.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read Bowe’s blog, The Poll Bludger.