Seat du jour: Braddon

The electorate that covers the north-west of Tasmania assumed its current name of Braddon in 1955, having earlier been called Darwin. It currently covers the north coast from Port Sorell and Latrobe west through Devonport and Burnie to Smithton, along with 100 kilometres of the sparsely inhabited west coast and inland wilderness around Waratah. From a total population of 95,364, 24,011 live in Devonport and 16,996 in Burnie. Burnie is by far the strongest area for Labor, although Devonport also traditionally leans its way. Most of the remainder is finely balanced, with a slight inclination towards the Liberals in Smithton and surrounding towns in the far west.

Braddon/Darwin has historically followed its own electoral rhythms, being held by Labor legend King O’Malley from its creation in 1903 until 1917, then by conservatives of various stripes until Ron Davies won for Labor in 1958. Future Liberal Premier Ray Groom defeated Davies as part of the party’s clean sweep of Tasmania in 1975, and picked up a big swing when the Franklin dam controversy drove the state against the national trend in 1983. Groom quit to enter state politics in 1984 and was succeeded by Chris Miles, who was eventually ousted by a 10.0 per cent swing to Labor’s Peter “Sid” Sidebottom (right) in 1998.

Sidebottom had previously been a Central Coast councillor and electorate officer to Senator Nick Sherry, a fellow member of Labor’s dwindling Centre/Independents faction (known in its Hawke government glory days as the Centre Left). He consolidated his hold on the seat with a 1.7 per cent swing in 2001 and was promoted to a parliamentary secretary position by new Labor leader Simon Crean, whom he supported when Kim Beazley challenged his leadership in June 2003. Sidebottom was believed to have supported Mark Latham over Beazley when Crean stood aside six months later, although The Latham Diaries relates its author’s suspicion that he reneged on his pledge.

With a margin of 6.0 per cent, Sidebottom’s hold on Braddon was not widely thought to be in trouble going into the 2004 election. Then came Mark Latham’s lunge for the environmental vote on the last Monday of the campaign, when he unveiled an $800 million scheme to save 240,000 hectares of Tasmanian old-growth forest. Unlike neighbour Dick Adams in Lyons, Sidebottom declined to distance himself from the Latham plan. The Prime Minister responded two days later with a plan to protect only forest for which no logging plans existed, allowing him to promise no jobs would be lost. This led to potent television footage of the Prime Minister receiving a hero’s welcome from Tasmanian forestry workers in the last days of the campaign.

While Labor received little of the intended benefit in the cities, it suffered a savage swing from one end of Braddon to the other, which in many booths topped 10 per cent (as demonstrated by my booth vote and swing maps at Crikey). The combined effect was a 7.1 per cent swing that delivered the seat to Liberal candidate Mark Baker (left) by a margin of 1467 votes. Baker had previously been a high school teacher, state Aussie Rules player and president of the Tasmanian Road Trauma Support Team, cutting his political teeth as a candidate for Bass during the Liberals’ disastrous 2002 state election campaign. His preselection win in Braddon came at the expense of Burnie funeral director Stephen Parry, who received a more than satisfactory consolation prize with the winning third position on the Senate ticket. The coming election will again see Baker square off against Sidebottom, who returned to the employment of Nick Sherry after losing his seat.

The campaign for Braddon entered the national spotlight on August 1 when the Prime Minister announced a $45 million federal scheme to ensure the Mersey Hospital at Latrobe retained its full functions. Former Burnie Advocate editor Des Ryan explained the local politics of the intervention in the Canberra Times:

Just half an hour away, at Burnie, there is another fully-operational hospital, which the locals would also fight tooth and nail to keep. In 2004, the Tasmanian Government held a review into how to rationalise hospital services in the north-west. Having two major hospitals to serve such a small population was obviously irrational and unaffordable. Among several ideas, the review suggested replacing both the Burnie and Mersey campuses with a new hospital located midway between them. It was never going to happen. No politician federal or state was going to commit electoral suicide by closing either hospital, or changing very much at all. What finally surfaced was a twin-campus compromise, under which certain hospital services were offered at either one hospital or the other. Even so, the bickering was vicious. Devonport women said they would refuse to give birth at Burnie hospital. They would rather travel to Launceston hospital than have the name Burnie appear on their child’s birth certificate.They are cities divided by their parochialism. They each want a fully-operational airport. Each desires an aquatic centre with an Olympic-sized swimming pool. If one has a hospital, the other must have one, too.

Sure enough, a number of reports emerged suggesting the intervention might lose the government as much support from voters concerned over maintenance of services in Burnie as it gained it in Devonport. Among those who thought so was the aforementioned Senator Stephen Parry; speaking off-the-record to The Australian’s Matt Price in a parliamentary elevator, Parry called the intervention a “disaster” and said the hospital “should have been closed”. Unfortunately for Parry, this was said within earshot of Kevin Rudd’s press secretary Lachlan Harris, providing the opposition with a pointed line of attack during that day’s question time. Nonetheless, an EMRS poll published later in the month (albeit from a small sample of 200) suggested the Coalition had narrowed its deficit to 54-46 from 64-36 at a similar poll two months previously.

NOTE: Please keep comments on this thread on topic.

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.

14 comments on “Seat du jour: Braddon”

  1. As I pointed out on another thread recently, Braddon was by far the “safest” seat that Labor lost at the 2004 election. (see here)

    Minus the unpopular forestry policy in 2007, I think the 2004 result will prove to be an aberration. Government pork-barrelling would be better directed elsewhere.

    And the mystery of the Latham renegger remains unsolved, doesn’t it? Crikey left Rob McClelland out of its presumed 47. Whilst Mumble leaves out Anna Burke.

  2. The Coalition’s Mersey Hospital intervention, and the NW’s response to it, is a perfect example of politics Tasmanian style. There is NO politics more parochial and personal than in Tasmania.

    This is born from a number of sources:
    – Tasmania’s largely socially conservative, regional/rural population demographic. Every town in Tassie is a country town – even the “big” ones feel that way. (Scrap that; there are no big ones.)
    – The closeness of Tasmanians to their politicians – there is one state/federal member for each 4,600 voters, compared to the national average of 16,000. EVERY Tasmanian seems to know at least one politician. This means Tasmanians take their politics personally, and the candidates have to react on a personal level. (Watching Michael Hodgman stolling the streets of Hobart greeting seemingly every passer-by by name is an illuminating experience.)
    – The inevitable chip on the shoulder that comes from being the little state left out.
    – As William’s item explains, the rivalry between Burnie and Devonport is legendary and REAL.

    Before dipping your toes into Tassie politics, get the advice of a local first. In this instance, someone like … mmm … maybe Steve Parry would have done?

  3. @3 Kev Says:

    “This is a no contest- ALP by at least 8-10%”

    Kev, a colourful online Northern Territory gaming establishment’s “board odds” tends to support your bold psephological didacticism.

    Braddon (TAS) –
    SIDEBOTTOM, Sid (ALP) 1.25
    BAKER, Mark (LIB) 3.55

  4. For Taswegians and others – will Geoff Cousins’ foray into mainlanding the pulp mill issue have any effect within Tasmainia (in either Bass or Braddon, noting that the Mayor of Burnie wants the mill at Hampshire near Burnie), or will we see Howard try on the timber trick of last election? I would have thought it a non-starter, although Gunns seems determined to build a NOT-state-of-the-art mill as it will use chlorine bleaching and so risks refusal. Add on top Rudd’s comments to “take over health” – another form of nationalisation? – will that resonate as “oh great, we’ll get full hospital services in both towns” or will it end up just rekindling fears of a Canberra take-over, and consequent loss of services through stuff-up and misunderstanding of local situations?

  5. My guess is that the Mersey intervention has done John Howard enormous political damage. It was a bad oerational decision. It won’t achieve anything in Braddon. It paired up nicely with Costello’s revelations in the Howard biography about his difficulty in reining in Howard’s spending impulses and has left the PM exposed as an outragous pork barreller. It also gave the lie to his oft-repeated theme of State ‘incompetence’ and Federal ‘responsibility’.

  6. The pulp mill …

    I am normally quite confident in my expectations on how a particular issue may run in Tasmania (not always right, but at least confident!) but I just don’t know with this, and I suspect the major parties don’t know either. I think both would prefer Turnbull not to make a decision before the ballot.

    The reason is that Tasmanians fall into different camps in their views, and those camps vary depending where they live. Bass is the electorate most directly effected by the mill. Launceston and Tamar Valley residents are quite passionately: there is a large (but still unknown) segment of normally conservative, pro-development voters who vehemently oppose the mill.

    In the rest of the community, probably a majority are against the mill (if they were asked) but a lot of that opposition is against the process rather than the mill itself. So it is soft opposition. If the federal parties were to oppose the mill then how these “median” voters might take that is problematic: my guess is that they could be resentful of the intervention, even though they may not like the mill.

    The pulp mill is a wedge for both parties. Something best not dealt with in an election campaign. But if the Libs consider both Tassie seats lost anyway, their thinking will be more influenced by outcomes elsewhere. And with Turnbull sitting in a marginal seal and a campaign on this against him, who knows? The Libs are more and more looking like an “every man for him/herself” rabble, so expect anything.

    (Notwithstanding, I am in the camp that believe Turnbull will lose his seat no matter what, if the nationwide swing is anything great than 53/47 come election day. I’m not sure why commentators think he will hold out while safer seats fall. From where I sit, he seems to annoy as many voters than he pleases. Maybe a mill refusal will help him, but I think the voter tide to Rudd is as much a problem for him as any Lib under a 10% buffer.)

    Tasmania, both federally and locally, is firmly Labor territory. There are 57 state/federal politicians in Tasmania, 26 are Labor while only 14 are Liberal. After this election, the split will likely be 28/12. (Even if the Libs keep both their seats, they will still run second to “others” – ie, independent/Green – there are 17 of them!). Providing it is the socially and economically conservative brand of Labor (D. Kerr excepted) Labor are in for the looooong haul wherever you look.

  7. I think the Grn vote will be up in Tassie at the expense of both majors at the election due to the pulp mill. This will help Labor more than the Libs, so Labor should do a clean sweep in Tassie.

  8. Lord D I agree, as the Greens are the only major party opposing the mill they should atract an unusually high vote in northern tasmania (which is usually their worst area). But the Greens will have an open ballot in this seat so Labor may only get 65% of the preferences.

  9. On the Pulp Mill: As a resident of Lyons, I think Peter Tucker is pretty spot on.

    Nationally, I think Labor has the drop on the Libs on this issue, Rudd doesn’t have to say anything until after Turnbull makes his decision. He could just agree with whatever Turnbull decides. Anyone who doesn’t like the decision, whichever way it goes, will more likely blame Turnbull.

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