Don’t feel too bad if you missed it, but there was an election in Australia on Saturday. Two seats in Tasmania’s Legislative Council were decided; Rosevears, to the north-west of Launceston, and Huon, south-west of Hobart. Voting was originally scheduled for May, but was postponed due to Covid-19.
The Tasmanian upper house is based on 15 single-member districts, of which two or three go to the polls every year, giving each member a six-year term. Usually they attract very little attention outside of Tasmania (and not a lot even there), but this one marked a historic milestone.
Results are not final, but it appears the Liberal Party has won Rosevears, whose independent member was retiring, while Labor has beaten the sitting independent in Huon. (Official figures are here; Kevin Bonham has detailed analysis and commentary.) Assuming those results hold it means that for the first time ever the two major parties – Labor with five seats and the Liberals with three – will hold a majority in the Council between them.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about voter dissatisfaction with the major parties, of which one indicator has been the rise of independents. In the federal House of Representatives, for example, only one independent won a seat in more than forty years prior to the 1990 election; they were similarly thin on the ground in state lower houses. But since then they’ve become much more common, with up to five at a time federally and six for two terms (2003-11) in the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales.
It’s possible that the independent surge has now passed its peak. Their numbers are generally down from a decade ago, although at the most recent elections the trend in their vote is upward. Even if it has, though, that doesn’t mean the major parties have recovered, since votes and seats have also been lost to minor parties. (We might have a more detailed look at this in another post.)
In Tasmania, however, there’s no room for doubt. As recently as 2012 the independents held 13 seats in the Council, with the two majors having just one each. Their decline since then has been precipitous.
The shift has been political as well. Most of the independents used to lean conservative; in Bonham’s analysis of their voting record in 2011-12, he found that only three were left-leaning, while six of them were to the right of the sole Liberal member. Those that remain, however, are more on the left, producing a reasonably reliable centre-left majority of nine to six.
The Tasmanian upper house is the only one based on single-member electorates, but in other respects its history matches those in the other states. Like them, it was designed as a brake on democracy, with a bias in favor of rural and propertied interests; universal suffrage was not introduced until 1968, and it remained badly malapportioned until 1998.
That produced conservative majorities, but they were composed of independents because the Liberal Party generally refrained from endorsing candidates. In the forty years prior to 2009 only one Liberal sat in the Council (for two terms), although a number of independents had Liberal backgrounds or connections. (Ben Raue has a graph of representation over time.)
More recently, however, the independents have been under siege from both sides – the Liberals have become more inclined to run and fair electoral boundaries have made Labor more competitive. This time around the Liberals seem to have picked up a seat formerly held by a left-leaning independent; in Huon, against a right-leaning independent, they chose not to run, but Labor won the seat instead.
So one more piece of Tasmanian exceptionalism comes to an end. Its geographical polarisation, however, remains, and was strengthened by Saturday’s result: seven of the nine left-leaning seats will now be in the south, and five of the six right-leaning seats in the north.