Tasmanian election: Bass form guide

The Tasmanian election campaign has already entered its final fortnight, and unfortunately there has been hardly a word on it so far on this site. Every effort will be made over the next two weeks to provide background on the contests for each of the five electorates, which will be dealt with in alphabetical order. That makes Bass, the north-eastern electorate dominated by Launceston and famed for the 1975 federal by-election result, the first cab off the rank. Time constraints mean that many important historical and psephological details will have to pass unremarked – fortunately, Antony Green‘s election guide (from which I got the figures for the vote and seat graphs below) tells you everything you need to know.

As can be seen from the graphs, Bass was an arm wrestle between the Labor and Liberal parties prior to the emergence of the Greens as an enduring force in 1989. The effect of the seismic statewide shift away from Labor at the 1982 Franklin dam election was relatively subdued here due to the electorate’s distance from the site in question, although it should be stressed that this is only true in relative terms. The Greens’ failure here in 1996 marked the first time since 1986 that they failed to win a seat in each electorate, although they in fact won more of the vote in Bass than in Braddon. Then came the electoral reform that the major parties contrived to neuter the Greens by cutting representation from seven members per electorate to five. Only Denison returned a Greens member at the 1998 election, when Labor won more seats than the Liberals in Bass for the first time since the pre-Franklin dam era.

The Greens returned to prominence at the 2002 election, doing well enough to elect members in every electorate except Braddon. Counting on election night suggested that the Liberals would be reduced to one seat in Bass, as had been the case in Denison, Franklin and Lyons. However, Liberal candidate Peter Gutwein narrowly edged out Labor’s Anita Smith late in the count despite Labor’s primary vote amounting to 2.95 quotas, a result widely put down to an apparent Labor blunder in fielding six candidates. Since Tasmanian voters are only required to number five boxes to cast a formal vote, many votes from Labor supporters who had only done the bare minimum required of them ended up exhausting. However, Antony Green assesses that the result was caused by leakage of Labor votes to Liberal candidates, Sue Napier in particular. Labor received no corresponding benefit from leaking Liberal votes because its highest profile candidates, Jim Cox and Kathryn Hay, were elected early in the count.

This indicates the importance that the popularity and profile of individual candidates plays in determining outcomes under Tasmania’s system of Robson rotation, and the damage parties can suffer when a popular incumbent retires. Those unfamiliar with such intricacies would do well to peruse Antony Green’s guide before proceeding further.

Labor’s only sitting member going into the election is the Left faction’s Jim Cox, who has had a long and interesting career in state politics. Shortly after he was first elected in 1989, Cox was the subject of a bribery attempt by local businessman Edmund Rouse, whose diverse interests included the chairmanship of the then-fledgling forestry company Gunns. Rouse hoped to entice Cox into defecting from Labor to prevent the party from forming a government in accord with the Greens, an outcome likely to damage his business interests. Cox took the matter to the police and agreed to take part in a 10-day sting operation that led to the imprisonment of both Rouse and fellow conspirator Tony Aloi. Cox lost his seat at the 1992 election that dumped Michael Field’s troubled Labor government from office, but he recovered it in 1996 and has strongly consolidated his position at subsequent elections. He currently holds the finance, racing and sport and recreation portfolios in the Lennon government.

Labor suffered a blow when its other sitting member, Kathryn Hay, announced she would not seek re-election after just one term. A former Miss Australia winner, Hay became Tasmania’s first Aboriginal MP when elected to parliament in 2002 at the age of 27. Fortunately for Labor, they have found an ideal replacement in former federal member Michelle O’Byrne, whom no-one blamed for losing Bass at the 2004 election. O’Byrne is a member of the Progressive Policy Forum faction which broke away from the Left during preselection disputes in 2003, and which also includes her brother David O’Byrne, state party president and secretary of the LHMWU. This is not O’Byrne’s first attempt to return to politics in the short time since her defeat – she had to be persuaded against nominating for the casual Senate vacancy created by the retirement of Sue Mackay in July 2005, agreeing to do so on the condition that the Left would back the eventual victor, Carol Brown. Party sources were reported as saying this was a face-saving exercise by O’Byrne, who was likely to be defeated in any case after a cross-factional deal delivered the numbers to Brown.

The highest-profile of the remaining candidates is Grant Courtney, another member of the Progressive Policy Forum. The local branch secretary of the Australian Meat Industry Employees Union, Courtney has been prominent in the union’s campaigns against live sheep exports and the lockout of Blue Ribbon meat workers. He also put his hand up to replace Sue Mackay in the Senate in July 2005, reportedly running against the wishes of his faction. Other tilts at public office included an unsuccessful run for Launceston City Council in October 2002 and endorsement as Labor’s candidate for the upper house seat of Rosevears in May 2002. His notably poor performance on the latter occasion, when he polled just 8 per cent of the vote, put an end to Labor’s pretensions of gaining a majority in the notoriously independent chamber.

Also on the ticket are George Town school teacher Michael Greene, whose preselection appeared in doubt when Left union official and state executive member Nicole Wells refused to endorse it in December 2005 on the grounds that he had not been a financial member of the party for the requisite six months; Michelle Cripps, regional development consultant for Northern Tasmania Development; and Scottsdale High School principal Steve Reissing.

The Liberals are going into the election with both sitting members on board. Senior among them is Sue Napier, the former party leader deposed by Bob Cheek in August 2001. Napier reportedly did not wish to resume the leadership after the 2002 election debacle which cost Cheek his seat in Denison. Although re-elected relatively comfortably, Napier’s vote declined sharply and it was not clear on early counting that she would prevail over Peter Gutwein. There have been numerous suggestions over the year’s that Napier might exit state politics to take up one of Tasmania’s bumper crop of Senate seats. The most intriguing of these was the suggestion that the moderate faction would install her in the number two Senate position as part of a move to demote Right faction warlord Eric Abetz from one to three, but Napier herself scotched the idea. Abetz had earlier been instrumental in thwarting her move to replace the retiring Brian Gibson shortly after she lost the leadership in late 2001, installing Guy Barnett in her place. More recently, Napier was touted as a potential replacement for veteran John Watson in the event that he chose to retire mid-term, which has not come to pass.

Peter Gutwein‘s narrow victory in 2002 came at the expense of Liberal incumbent David Fry. The Liberals might have ended up wishing the outcome had been otherwise, as his maverick behaviour has won comparisons with defeated former leader Bob Cheek, who last year wrote a tell-all book about the inner workings of the state party. Early in the term Gutwein went against party policy by calling for an end to old-growth logging, and his call for Catholic Archbishop Adrian Doyle to stand aside while an inquiry into sex abuse allegations in the church was under way prompted a tongue-lashing from veteran Denison MP Michael Hodgman. Gutwein’s reputation as a moderate in a state party dominated by the Right fuelled accusations the he was undermining Rene Hidding’s leadership and hoped to take the job for himself. He was briefly dumped from the front bench in December 2003 after crossing the floor to support a Greens motion calling for a commission of inquiry into child sex abuse, which Ellen Whinnett of The Mercury reported “infuriated his colleagues, who claimed Mr Gutwein’s move was self-promoting and painted them as uncaring on the issue of child abuse”. Hidding blamed the episode for a 6 per cent drop in Liberal support recorded in an EMRS poll in early 2004, which showed a particularly poor result in Bass. The party felt compelled to reinstate him mainly because of difficulties in spreading the portfolio workload across seven parliamentary members. He currently holds the police and education portfolios.

The Liberals’ non-incumbent candidates include the aforementioned David Fry, who failed to retain the seat he assumed on a recount after Liberal colleague Frank Madill retired in 2000; Pam Fratangelo, a former Lions Club president and current executive officer of Women Tasmania, and Sam McQuestin, who owns a number of hospitality industry businesses in Launceston. The Mercury’s Insider column reported in July 2005 that Fratangelo has worked on both sides of the political fence, as a staffer in the previous Liberal government and a campaigner for narrowly unsuccessful Labor candidate Anita Smith at the 2002 state election.

Sitting member Kim Booth brought the Greens back to Bass after a term in the wilderness (so to speak) with an easy victory at the 2002 election. Interestingly, Booth is a former owner and operator of a building and saw-milling company. The best known of the Greens’ remaining candidates is Jeremy Ball, an electorate officer to Booth and former actor who had roles in the television series Water Rats and a brief cameo in the Hollywood blockbuster The Matrix, in which Keanu Reeves pinches his mobile phone (the film was shot in Sydney). He was also Booth’s successor as the party’s federal candidate for Bass at the 2004 election. Rohan Wade of The Mercury reported that Ball, who is now 36, was the youngest person to be arrested at the Franklin Dam protests in the early 1980s.

Other candidates: Les Rochester is a Tamar Valley councillor and former television journalist who has received widespread publicity for his campaign against Gunns’ proposal for a pulp mill in northern Tasmania.

Author: William Bowe

William Bowe is a Perth-based election analyst and occasional teacher of political science. His blog, The Poll Bludger, has existed in one form or another since 2004, and is one of the most heavily trafficked websites on Australian politics.

2 comments on “Tasmanian election: Bass form guide”

  1. Nice to see the Tasmanian election being covered at last; and a good report too.
    Latest polling shows the Green candidate polling between 16-22% of the vote, reassuring Booths’ re-election.
    Labor is likely to hold onto it’s 2 seats with the Liberals holding onto their two.

    As far as Les Rochester is concerned, I haven’t heard any complaints from the Greens regarding his contesting this election. On the contrary, his preference votes are likely to flow the Greens’ way if in fact the Greens can’t manage a quota in their own right ( 16.7% ). I don’t believe they’ll need it though.

    I think Rochester will probably attract just 6 or 7% of the vote though, most of the anti-pulpmill vote is likely to flow to the Greens.

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