Margin: Labor 6.7%
Location: Launceston/North-Eastern, Tasmania
In a nutshell: Bass has been the scene of many an epic struggle over the past four decades, most memorably with the 1975 by-election that provided a harbinger of the Whitlam government’s demise. It by all accounts looms as a danger spot for Labor at the coming election.
The candidates (ballot paper order)
CHRISTOPHER LEE DOBSON
Still famous for the by-election that provided a catalyst for the Coalition’s decision to block supply in 1975, Bass has been an arm wrestle between the two parties ever since, changing hands five times out of the six elections between 1993 and 2007. Since Tasmania has always had the constitutionally prescribed minimum of five seats, the electorate has been little changed since it was created with the state’s division into single-member electorates in 1903, at all times covering Launceston and the remainder of the state’s north-eastern corner. Launceston accounts for slightly less than three-quarters of its voters, and has been trending to Labor over the past two elections: between 2004 and 2010, Labor’s two-party vote in Launceston progressed from 47.6% to 58.3%, compared with 46.4% to 54.0% in the remainder of the electorate.
Labor first won Bass when it secured its first ever parliamentary majority at the 1910 election, and lost it six years later when its member Jens Jensen followed Billy Hughes into the Nationalist Party. Jensen retained the seat as a Nationalist at the 1917 election, and it remained with the party after he lost its endorsement in 1919. Labor’s next win came with the election of Jim Scullin’s government in 1929, but it again lost the seat to a party split when 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, before being unseated by Labor’s Claude Barnard in 1934.
The next change came when Liberal candidate Bruce Kekwick defeated Barnard when the Menzies government came to power in 1949. The seat returned to the Barnard family fold in 1954 when Kekwick was defeated by Claude’s son Lance, who went on to serve as Deputy Prime Minister in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1974. The famed 1975 by-election followed Barnard’s mid-term resignation, ostensibly on grounds of ill health, but following a year after he lost the deputy leadership to Jim Cairns. A plunge in the Labor primary vote from 54.0% to 36.5% delivered the seat to Liberal candidate Kevin Newman, the late father of Campbell Newman and husband of Howard government minister Senator Jocelyn Newman, which emboldened the Coalition to pursue its strategy of an early election at all costs.
Bass would remain in the Liberal fold for 18 years, with Tasmania strongly bucking the national trend when Bob Hawke led Labor to power in 1983 on account of the Franklin dam controversy. Kevin Newman was succeeded as Liberal member in 1990 by Warwick Smith, whose promising career progress was twice stymied by the vagaries of electoral fortune. In 1993 he lost to Labor’s Sylvia Smith by just 40 votes amid a statewide swing that gave the first indication on that 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, until the 1998 election produced a second GST backlash and another painfully narrow defeat, this time by 78 votes at the hands of 30-year-old Miscellaneous Workers Union official Michelle O’Byrne.
O’Byrne held the seat until 2004, when Mark Latham’s restrictive policy on old-growth logging invoked the wrath of Tasmanian unions and Labor politicians, with John Howard receiving a hero’s reception from timber workers in Launceston in the final week of the campaign. Michael Ferguson duly gained the seat for the Liberals on the back of a 4.5% swing, but he was defeated after suffering a 3.6% swing in 2007 and has since pursued a career in state politics. The successful Labor candidate, Jodie Campbell, would likewise serve only one term, announcing she would not stand at the 2010 election as reports emerged that her preselection was under threat. Campbell was succeeded by Geoff Lyons, a staffer to Right faction Senator Helen Polley and former manager at Launceston General Hospital. Lyons’ endorsement was determined by the intervention of the party’s national executive, an arrangement which had reportedly been smoothed by the Left not contesting the preselection for Denison. He performed strongly at the election, consolidating Labor’s hold on the seat with a 5.7% swing.
The Liberal candidate at the coming election is Brigadier Andrew Nikolic, whose military service has included postings in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has more recently worked with the Defence Department’s international policy division. Nikolic had been rated a favourite for preselection in 2010, but withdrew citing work and family reasons. He made the news in May 2012 when he threatened to send formal letters of complaint to the employers of those responsible for a satirical blog post about him, and to anyone who had liked the post on Facebook.
In the second week of the campaign, Geoff Lyons said he was sincerely sorry for telling an assembly of high school students that Andrew Nikolic had “misled” journalists about his role in the military. Lyons had claimed Nikolic had been a “bureaucrat” in Canberra for the last 25 years, a period encompassing his tenure as deputy commander of Australian forces in the early days of the Afghanistan war and commander in southern Iraq in 2005.
Automated phone polls conducted by ReachTEL before and during the campaign have consistently shown Geoff Lyons headed for a heavy defeat. A poll of 659 respondents conducted on the Tuesday before the election had, after exclusion of the 3.7% undecided, Lyons on 28%, Nikolic on 54% and the Greens on 10%, with Nikolic leading 59-41 on two-party preferred. An earlier poll of 541 respondents conducted two-and-a-half weeks out from the election had Nikolic leading 58% to 34% on the primary vote and 58.4-41.6 on two-party preferred.
Analysis written by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.