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.
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