Welcome to episode six of Seat du jour, an opportunity for you to read about and (hopefully) discuss the individual contests that will determine the May 18 election. Earlier instalments covered Pearce, Lindsay, Gilmore, Dickson and La Trobe.
Today we go to Tasmania and the seat of Bass, which you can learn about in still greater detail on the Poll Bludger electorate guide. Encompassing Launceston and surrounding territory in the north-eastern corner of Tasmania, Bass has changed hands at seven out of the last nine elections – and a big part of the Coalition’s strategy for re-election rests on making that eight out of ten. This is despite the seemingly solid margin of 6.1% that Labor’s Ross Hart emerged with in 2016, when the tide to the Liberals in 2013 swept all the way back and then some, the swing in this case being 10.1%.
Bass has a place in political folklore for the drubbing Labor suffered at a by-election in June 1975, which emboldened the Coalition under Malcolm Fraser to block supply. It also marked a turning point in a seat Labor had held since 1954, but would henceforth be in Liberal hands until 1993. The member from 1975 was Kevin Newman, the late father of Campbell Newman, who was succeeded in 1984 by Warwick Smith.
The seat’s era of volatility began when Sylvia Smith gained the seat for Labor by 40 votes in 1993, amid a statewide swing to Labor that gave an early indication on election night that things were not going according to script. Warwick Smith recovered it in 1996, only to suffer another painfully narrow defeat in 1998, this time by 78 votes at the hands of Michelle O’Byrne. O’Byrne survived two terms before a 4.5% swing tipped her out in 2004, after then Labor leader Mark Latham’s restrictive policy on old-growth logging invoked the wrath of Tasmanian unions and Labor politicians in the final week of the campaign.
O’Byrne was followed by three one-term members, her Liberal successor Michael Ferguson falling victim to a 3.6% swing in 2007, and later pursuing a career in state politics. Labor retained the seat in 2010, but the victor in 2007, Jodie Campbell, did not seek a second term. Geoff Lyons then served one term for Labor through to 2013, when all three of the northern Tasmanian seats flipped from Liberal to Labor. Andrew Nikolic, an army brigadier and arch-conservative, then had a term has Liberal member through to 2016, when emphatically flipped back.
The Liberals’ hopes for another of Bass’s trademark pendulum swings were encouraged early in the campaign by a uComms/ReachTEL poll, conducted for the Australian Forest Products Association, which showed a 54-46 lead for their candidate, George Town mayor Bridget Archer, from primary votes of Liberal 42.8% (and Nationals 1.2%), Labor 32.6% and Greens 10%. In an account of a potential path to victory being plotted by the Coalition, the Financial Review reported Bass was among four Labor-held seats it was relying on gaining to redress losses elsewhere. The party believes it was overwhelmed in 2016 by the resources put into the electorate by GetUp!, and is encouraged that it is not repeating the exercise this time. Nonetheless, Greg Brown of The Australian reported last week that Labor was confident it would retain its Tasmanian seats.