Election preview: Tasmania

Two elections this weekend: a small one close by on Saturday, and a big one on the other side of the world on Sunday. I’ll have more to say later about Italy (read my earlier thoughts here), but for now let’s take a quick look at Tasmania.

The Liberal Party, under premier Will Hodgman, has been in government in Tasmania since the last election, four years ago. It’s only the third time in their history that the Liberals have held a majority in the Tasmanian parliament. They hold 15 of the 25 seats, against seven for Labor and three for the Greens.

MPs are elected from five multi-member electorates (identical with federal electorates), five in each, by Hare-Clark proportional representation. That means Tasmania usually does much better than other states at aligning representation with voter support. In 2010, it was a textbook case of proportionality: ALP and Liberals both had a bit under 40% of the vote, the Greens were just over 20%, and they split every electorate 2-2-1, for a total of 10-10-5.

In 2014, the Liberals picked up five seats – although not, as you might have thought, one in each electorate. Denison, based on central Hobart, kept its 2-2-1, but Braddon, in the less progressive north-west of the state, actually returned four Liberals to just one ALP. The Liberals also gained a seat in each of the other three: from Labor in Bass and Franklin, and from the Greens in Lyons.

With 13 seats needed for a majority, the government can afford to lose two. Its fourth seat in Braddon, basically a fluke last time, seems certain to go, and its third seat in Franklin also looks like a probable loss (to Labor in both cases). The task is to confine the losses to that point.

At this point, Hodgman seems more likely than not to succeed. (By far the best analysis of the polls is from local expert Kevin Bonham.) The big thing running in his favor is the voters’ fear of instability: most people don’t want a minority government or a coalition with the Greens (as Labor had from 2010 to 2014), and a small but important number are willing to shift to whoever seems better placed to win a majority.

In this respect it’s the mirror image of the 2006 election. Labor had been in office for eight years and was losing support, but because it had won a landslide at its previous outing, the chance of the Liberals winning a majority was negligible. Faced with what seemed like a choice between a (reduced) Labor majority and a situation where the Greens would have the balance of power, voters swung back to Labor.

But in 2010 that dynamic had no scope to operate, because the two major parties were evenly matched – a voter who just wanted to vote for majority government had no way of knowing which way to go. As a result, the Greens won their best-ever result, with 21.6%, the only time a third party has ever topped 20% outside of Queensland.

The experience of coalition, however, was not a happy one, and both Greens and Labor suffered badly in 2014. Since then Labor has shifted to the left, and although that might make for a better relationship with the Greens if they should end up together (but no guarantee even of that), it seems to have brought Labor no closer to the prospect of majority government.

The Greens may even go backwards, since their seat in Bass is at some danger from Labor, although they could pick off a Liberal seat in Lyons. If the Liberals are to lose their majority, that third seat in Lyons will probably be the critical one. And if that happens, either Hodgman or opposition leader Rebecca White will have to find an appropriate form of words to walk back from their promise to only govern in a majority.

Which, of course, would serve them right. As I said last year:

Unfortunately, we are saddled with media and a pundit class that make a living from stoking fears of “instability”, and have taught the public to regard a single-party majority as normal and healthy rather than (as in most of the rest of the world) something abnormal and dangerous.

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