Seat of the week: Bass

The latest episode in the increasingly mis-named Seat of the Week series begins with good news (for me) and bad news (for you). The good news is that an online media entity is paying me actual money to provide them with my world-famous electorate results maps (seen in earlier posts on Stirling and Bonner). The bad news is that this inevitably involves an exclusivity arrangement, so that I will no longer be able to include the feature in this and future instalments.

Today we turn our attention to the apple isle and its famously marginal seat of Bass, one of two Tasmanian seats that switched from Labor to Liberal at the 2004 election. Bass has had a relatively straightforward history, having been frozen into the state’s north-eastern corner by the constitutional requirement that Tasmania have no fewer than five seats regardless of its population. Launceston provides it 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 noted as the focal point of the Exclusive Brethren movement. The past two elections show little distinction in voting behaviour between Launceston and the remainder, with respective two-party support for the Liberals at 52.4 per cent and 53.6 per cent in 2004, and swings of 4.6 per cent and 4.7 per cent. Within Launceston, the North Esk River that runs through the city from west to east serves as a boundary between strong Labor territory in the north, where its two-party vote remained in the high-fifties in 2004, and the more conservative suburbs in the south and west.

Bass came into existence at the second federal election in 1903, after Tasmania voted as a single electorate in 1901. Labor first won the seat 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 during the 1916 Labor split. 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 seat is still best remembered for the 1975 by-election that followed Barnard’s mid-term resignation – ostensibly on grounds of ill health, but following a year after he lost the deputy position to Jim Cairns. Kevin Newman won the seat for the Liberals as the Labor vote plunged from 54.0 per cent to 36.5 per cent, emboldening the Coalition to pursue an early election at all costs.

Bass remained in the Liberal fold for 18 years, with Tasmania bucking the national trend to Labor in 1983 due to the Franklin dam controversy. Kevin Newman retired in 1984; his wife Jocelyn became a Senator in 1986 and served for four years as a minister in the Howard government, and their son Campbell is now the lord mayor of Brisbane. Kevin Newman was succeeded 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 after 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 receiving a euphoric reception from timber workers at Launceston’s Albert Hall provided one of the main talking points of the decisive final days of the campaign. Both Bass and its still more logging-dependent neighbour Braddon fell to the Liberals, with respective swings of 4.7 per cent and 7.1 per cent. Eighteen months after her defeat, O’Byrne entered state politics at the March 2006 election; under the Tasmanian system where candidates from all parties compete for five seats in each division, O’Byrne scored by far the highest personal vote of any candidate in Bass (23.4 per cent of the primary vote).

Successful Liberal candidate Michael Ferguson (left) came to parliament with a reputation for social conservatism, having been director of the Tasmanian Family Institute and a vigorous opponent of the Tasmanian government’s gay adoption laws. He had also worked as a staffer to Senator Guy Barnett, a key player in the state party’s ascendant Right faction. The Prime Minister was at first unimpressed that the Right proposed to install a potentially contentious candidate in so sensitive a seat, and reportedly encouraged independent MLC Ivan Dean to nominate against him for preselection. Ferguson has since demonstrated his conservative credentials by accusing abortion advocates who opposed the death penalty of “breathtaking hypocrisy”, and moving restrictive amendments to legislation on stem cell research. He also earned the nickname “Sir Michael” from Labor after his website suggested he had received “the Order of the British Empire Award for Community Service”, in reference to an award he received from monarchist group the Tasmanian Association of the Order of the British Empire.

Labor’s candidate is Launceston alderman Jodie Campbell (right), who first came to prominence as an Australian Services Union official when a Launceston call centre closed upon the collapse of Ansett in 2001. She was elected to council the following year and became deputy mayor in October 2005. Campbell is associated with a breakaway sub-faction of the Left called the Progressive Policy Forum, along with Michelle O’Byrne and her brother David, state secretary of the LHMWU and until last year the state president of the ALP. She had not been the party’s first choice; an initial preselection vote held last August saw her defeated by Steve Reissig, a Scottsdale school principal and former coach of Australian rules football club Glenorchy. Reissig had been head-hunted by the party to stand at the March 2006 state election in an effort to find a high-profile replacement for retiring incumbent Kathryn Hay; it was reported that he had also considered joining the Liberal Party. His election bid failed by just 136 votes, after late counting delivered a decisive surge to Greens incumbent Kim Booth.

Campbell’s nomination for federal preselection had greater support than Reissig’s among local party branches, but this was outweighed by backing for Reissig from the state executive, which determines 50 per cent of the vote. This resulted from a deal in which the Left backed Reissig in exchange for Right faction support for Kevin Harkins, assistant state secretary of the Left faction Electrical Trades Union, in his bid to succeed Harry Quick in Franklin. According to Matthew Denholm of The Australian, Reissig’s backers deemed him a “more mainstream” candidate than Campbell with greater appeal to swinging voters. His opponents sought to have his nomination blocked on the grounds that he had not met party rules requiring regular branch meeting attendance, having only joined the party the previous January. This requirement was waived by the state executive, despite threats from the Progressive Policy Forum that it would upset a deal securing Senate seats for incumbents Carol Brown of the Left and Nick Sherry of the Centre if Campbell did not prevail.

Reissig announced his withdrawal last October saying he had “too much on his plate”, although there was also talk of a smear campaign involving letters sent to Reissig’s wife and the Hobart Mercury newspaper. Campbell quickly emerged as the front-runner for the second round preselection, despite the upset this would cause to the factional arrangement that installed Reissig. This prompted Nick Sherry and Right faction Senator Helen Polley to encourage a challenge from Bill Bothilo, an official of the Right faction National Union of Workers and Reissig’s campaign manager (Bolitho was Labor’s candidate for the Victorian seat of Gippsland at the 2001 federal election, and had earlier been a member of the Nationals). Harry Quick’s take on this was that Bothilo had nominated to be a “pain in the arse”, inspired by animosity over the treatment given to Reissig. The dispute was settled by a deal in which both Right and Left agreed to back Campbell.

With Kevin Rudd having officially abandoned the forestry policy his party took into the 2004 election, Bass and its neighbour Braddon would appear ripe for a correction in Labor’s favour. However, the mood may have again been soured in January when a company half-owned by the state government decided it would no longer supply pine logs to sawmills in Scottsdale, threatening 300 local jobs. This occurred against the backdrop of Gunns Limited’s contentious proposal for a pulp mill at Bell Bay just south of George Town, on which local opinion has been divided between hopes of job creation and fears over the effect on the water supply. The likely tone of the Liberal campaign against Campbell was indicated by Senator Eric Abetz’s description of her as an “urban greenie” and “yet another left-wing unionist”. The seat was predictably targeted with a generous serving of government largesse at the recent budget, which included $13 million to upgrade Launceston’s flood levee system, $10 million to protect jobs in Scottsdale, and an upgrade of Royal Flying Doctor Service coverage of islands in the Bass Strait.

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.

67 comments on “Seat of the week: Bass”

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  1. The advertiser results aren’t terribly meaningful. The sample is about 600 voters, which means that when they break it down to city and rural its about 400 in the city and 200 in the country.

    The only meaningful result is the surprising weight that is given to water issues and the associated negative view of the coalitions handling of the issue.

  2. Back to Bass. The ALP preselection conflict is interesting, Jodie Campbell is from the same occupational/factional background as O’Byrne, I would suspect there were those who thought in 1998 O’Bryne wasn’t the right sort of candidate for a seat like Bass.

  3. Surely the point of polls like the one in the Advertiser is not that they are an accurate predictor of individual seats, but that they are a general indicator that The Swing is still on. Its particularly significant that it’s in Adelaide, because Adelaide and Brisbane is where Labor gets most bang for its buck in terms of seats won per unit of swing. As others have noted, the danger for Labor is a repeat of 1998, when Labor polled 51.5% of the 2PV and still lost. Big swings in SA and Qld will prevent this.

    As previously noted, if there is a big swing in SA, it won’t matter whether La Cornes is a bimbo or not, she will win. It’s not like the Liberal candidate is Winston Churchill.

    I’m prepared to bet Downer won’t lose Mayo, unless a very strong independent emerges from somewhere. Neither Labor nor the Greens can reassemble the big Democrat vote that nearly beat him in 1990 and 1998, but a good independent might.

  4. If there is a swing this big on, then Labor could’ve won Mayo if they pre-selected John Schuman. He nearly ran down Downer on Labor preferences, when he ran as a Democrat in 1998.

  5. I have no idea what line Labor would take if Howard won the election . It’s hard to see a Caucus containing Combet, Shorten and Doug Cameron saying ‘OK, WorkChoices it is then.’ Did the Libs accept Medibank when Whitlam won the 1974 DD on that issue? Did Howard accept the Australia Card when Labor won in 1987? No and no.

  6. “Labor could’ve won Mayo if they pre-selected John Schuman. He nearly ran down Downer on Labor preferences, when he ran as a Democrat in 1998.”

    Um, no, it doesn’t work that way. If Schuman had run as a Labor candidate, he would have done not much better than any other Labor candidate in a seat with Mayo’s demographics. If Peter Garrett had run for Bradfield, would he have won by virtue of being Peter Garrett? Downer can only be defeated by a party or candidate which can detach large numbers of Liberal voters. In that seat, the Democrats used to have that ability, but no party does so now.

    Edward, since being reprimanded by William for biting back at Isabella I have trying to maintain a moderate and non-abusive tone here. The nasty personal tone of your comments to and about me (quite unprovoked as far as I recall) therefore forces me to place you on my “ignore” list.

  7. Is there any meaning in a lot of bureaucrats in Canberra getting messages to wrap up their projects by early August?

    Seems hard to believe. I mean who would want to go to an early election in this environment – besides Rudd that is. Having an election in August means Howard misses APEC and alienates those who hate winter elections and early elections. Worth doing if he was ahead and thought it was slipping away, but trailing by nearly the biggest margins in history? I think it just shows how keen people are on early election speculation, they’ll cling to the slightest straw.

  8. “I mean who would want to go to an early election in this environment – besides Rudd that is. Having an election in August means Howard misses APEC and alienates those who hate winter elections and early elections. ”

    And as BlackJack pointed out several speculation threads ago, misses the chance to replace Ian Callinan on the High Court, assuming that IC stays until compulsory retirement.

  9. I suspect that Howard will go when he thinks he has the best chance to win the election, regardless of anything else (eg the chance to fill High Court vacancies).

  10. I don’t know what the polls will do but I do know where the money is going. Sports Acumen has Labor 1.64 and the Coalition 2.20.

  11. “I suspect that Howard will go when he thinks he has the best chance to win the election, regardless of anything else (eg the chance to fill High Court vacancies).”

    It is clearly the major factor, and if there were clear pointers for one weekend rather than the next then it would certainly be the deciding factor.

    However in reality there is going to be no significant difference in “winnability” for an election on Oct 6 and one on Oct 13, so if choosing betweeen these dates I think the other factors would be considered.

    But yes, of course if Howard saw a short-term opportunity ealrier he’d go for it.

  12. I’d count out both days. If the Japanese and Canadian Prime Minister are going to address joint sittings of the Commonwealth parliament on 11 and 12 September, then I think it is extremely unlikely the Prime Minister would cause both speeches to be cancelled by disolving the parliament for an election. Of course, if he thought he could win he might, but it still seems unlikely. If the addresses go ahead, a minimum campaign of 33 days counts out both 6 and 13 October as possible dates.

  13. “If the addresses go ahead, a minimum campaign of 33 days counts out both 6 and 13 October as possible dates.”

    They were just hypotheticals for the discussion.

    FWIW I personally think he’ll go as long as (practically) possible to late Nov or early Dec. Particularly if coming from behind, he won’t want to end the campaign in the noise of the Melbourne Cup, so I’d be backing 17 Nov as the earliest likely date. Of course the 24 Nov gives him the chance to squeeze in one more test match 🙂

  14. Telstra has announced it is sacking 800 call centre workers today. 257 (the largest group) are from Launceston. This is precisely the sort of local issue that can swing a seat like Bass to the Opposition – especially since job cuts at Telstra are routinely associated with the Government that sold the company into private hands. Does anyone else think this will make Bass harder to hold?

  15. Word on the street around Bass (according to my commy Dad who has lived there for 20 years now) is that as long as the Federal ALP don’t do anything to threaten employment prospects around Bass they will win this seat back and have a strong margin to defend next time around.

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