Election preview: Tasmania

Tasmania goes to the polls tomorrow in the third state election held in Australia since the advent of Covid-19. In keeping with worldwide experience, the other two both saw their incumbent governments returned: comfortably in Queensland, and by an almighty landslide in Western Australia. Tasmania will probably go the same way, but there are a few complicating factors.

Most obviously, the other two were Labor governments (as were the governments in the two territories, also re-elected last year), but Tasmania has a Liberal government. The Labor states have been able to make political capital by playing off the Coalition government in Canberra, which, although it has not gone full Covid-denialist, has had some of the same problems with the health crisis as Trumpist governments elsewhere. Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein does not have quite the same latitude.

The second thing is that this is an early election. The Liberals have been in government since 2014, and were re-elected under then-premier Will Hodgman in March 2018. So the next election was not due for another twelve months, but Gutwein – who took over at the beginning of last year on Hodgman’s retirement – decided to go early after one of his MPs, Sue Hickey, resigned from the party.

Voters don’t like early elections, so this decision might work against the government, particularly since its justification was a bit thin. Although Hickey’s defection nominally reduced the Liberals to 12 seats out of 25, a 13th MP, Madeleine Ogilvie, who replaced a retiring Labor member in 2019, has supported the government and is now seeking re-election as a Liberal. So Gutwein’s government was not actually at any risk of defeat on the floor of the House of Assembly.

The other big difference in Tasmania is the electoral system. The other states all have lower houses elected by single-member districts, but Tasmania’s is chosen by proportional representation, with five members in each of five districts. Last time the Liberals had 50.3% of the vote, as against 32.6% for Labor, 10.3% for the Greens and 6.8% for an assortment of minor parties and independents. In any other state that would have been a landslide, but in Tasmania it was only 13-10, with two Greens.

Unfortunately there’s been a serious shortage of recent polling in Tasmania (discussed here at length by Kevin Bonham), so it’s a bit hard to say just how the government is travelling. But even with the recent woes of the federal Liberals, it would be surprising if their Tasmanian division dropped more than a point or two, and no great surprise if they were to improve on their 2018 result.

What might that mean in terms of seats? The Liberals’ strongest territory is in the north of the state; they currently hold three of the five seats in each of the two districts there, Bass and Braddon, and it’s hard to see them losing any. Labor holds the other two in each, but its second seat in Bass may be at some risk from the Greens. There is also a prominent independent in Braddon who might have an outside chance.

The two districts in the south, Clark (formerly called Denison) and Franklin, each split 2-2-1 last time, but in Franklin the Green had only a wafer-thin margin against the third Liberal. Hickey will be running as an independent for her seat in Clark and most pundits seem to think she will get back, but it’s not clear at whose expense – the second Labor candidate is probably most at risk.

The fifth district is Lyons, which contains bits of both north and south, as well as the thinly-populated middle of the state. Last time it returned three Liberals and two Labor and it will most probably do so again, although if the Liberal vote is down there might be a very rough chance of the Greens knocking off the third Liberal.

The upshot of all that is that unless something quite unexpected has been happening, the chance of Labor winning a majority in its own right is negligible. The best it can hope for is that the Greens and/or independents might hold the balance of power. And although the Greens in particular have valiantly tried to change the narrative on this, the plain fact is that the voters – egged on by the media and the business lobby – just don’t like minority governments.

That has two effects. Firstly, if only one party has a realistic chance of providing a minority majority government, voters tend to swing back towards that party: this boosted the Liberals last time, just as it had boosted Labor back in 2006, when it looked to be in trouble a few weeks out but finished by holding its majority intact.

Secondly, it means Labor leader Rebecca White has had to swear blind that she will not try to form a minority government (as has Gutwein, but it’s less of an issue for him). So if in fact the government does lose its majority, the voters are in the dark about exactly what will happen. Most probably, however, Labor would find some way, as it did in 2010, of forming government with the support of the Greens, and probably of Hickey as well if she’s there.

The more likely outcome, however, is that the sunny season for incumbents will continue, the electorate will again opt for majority government, and the Liberals will win a third term for their first time ever in Tasmania.

For more detail, check out the previews by Kevin Bonham, William Bowe and Antony Green. Reasonably good results should be available tomorrow evening (the pre-poll revolution has affected Tasmania less than other states), but any close seats may take up to a fortnight to be resolved.


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