The election to be held in Tasmania on March 3 is the first since Will Hodgman led the Liberal Party to a sweeping victory in 2014, ending sixteen years of Labor rule. The result was historically unusual in being only the sixth Liberal victory out of twenty-four elections held since 1934. The only previous interruptions to Labor rule in that time were from 1969 to 1972, when the Liberals were able to govern after offering the deputy premiership to the sole cross-bencher; for two terms from 1982 to 1989, when Robin Gray rode to power on local enthusiasm for the Franklin dam project, which would be scotched by the Hawke goverment and the High Court; and for two terms from 1993 to 1998, including a second term as a minority government after Labor refused to govern with the support of the Greens.
The state's Hare-Clark electoral system has made it difficult for either major party to secure parliamentary majorities, particularly since the rise of the Greens, who had their genesis in Tasmanian state politics. The Greens' emergence as a force dates from Bob Brown's entry to parliament in 1983, and reached a watershed when a loose alliance of “green independents” won seats in each of the five divisions in 1989. This cost Robin Gray's Liberal goverment its parliamentary majority, and led to Labor under Michael Field taking power under a parliamentary accord with the Greens.
Not for the first time though, dependence on the Greens proved an unhappy experience for Labor, contributing to a disastrous result at the 1992 election and a return to Liberal majority goverment under Ray Groom. When the Greens recovered the balance of power at the 1996 election, Labor refused to enter government with their support, and Groom made good on a pre-election commitment not to govern without a majority by resigning. This left the Liberals to hang on as a minority government under the leadership of Tony Rundle, until he called an early election for August 1998 shortly after joining with Labor to pass legislation that made life harder for the Greens by reducing the size of parliament.
This initially seemed to achieve its desired purpose at the 1998 election, which reduced the Greens from four seats to one and brought a return to majority goverment — in this case a Labor government under the leadership of Jim Bacon. This initiated a period of Labor ascendancy that peaked with heavy defeats for the Liberals at the 2002 and 2006 elections, the first of which cost party leader Bob Cheek his seat. Bacon resigned as Premier in between the two elections after being diagnosed with lung cancer, which would shortly cost him his life, and was succeeded by Paul Lennon. Labor held fourteen seats throughout this period, the dividend from the Liberals' losses instead being garnered by the Greens, who surged to new heights of electoral support to recover the parliamentary strength they had lost in 1998.
Labor's standing in the polls declined precipitiously after the 2006 election, to the extent that Lennon's leadership had become untenable by mid-2006. He resigned and was succeeded by David Bartlett, under whom Labor recovered sufficiently to equal the Liberals on ten seats at the 2010 election, although the Liberals secured a greater share of the vote. The Greens returned to a balance of power position with five seats, equalling the best result they had achieved in the larger parliament before 1998. Labor remained in power under an agreement that awarded the Greens two positions in cabinet, despite Bartlett's pre-election position that the party with the greatest vote share should be given the opportunity to form goverment, and with some help from Governor Peter Underwood's insistence that Bartlett was obliged to test his numbers on the floor of parliament rather than resigning.
Labor moved on to its fourth Premier in less than a decade when David Bartlett resigned in January 2011, citing family reasons. He was succeeded by the state's first woman Premier, thirty-eight year old Lara Giddings. However, the unpopularity of Labor's arrangement with the Greens, together with a general view that Labor had been in power too long, made it clear well in advance that Labor stood little chance of a fifth term. When the election came around in March 2014, the result was a disaster both for Labor and the Greens, who respectively lost three and two seats to the Liberals. This left the Liberals with fifteen seats, the best result achieved by either major party since parliament was reduced in 1998. The result Liberal triumph particularly emphatic in the state's north, most visibly in the division of Braddon, where the Liberals won four out of the five seats.
The electoral environment
Tasmania consists of five electoral divisions which are used for both federal and state purposes, with the House of Assembly comprising five members from each division. To retain their majority at the coming election, the Liberals can afford to lose no more than two of the fifteen seats they won in 2014. It will be particularly difficult for them to retain the status quo in Braddon, where they were narrowly successful in winning four of the five seats in 2014.
The central fact of Tasmania's electoral politics is its Hare-Clark electoral system, which is mainly distinctive in that the order of candidates is not fixed from one ballot paper to the next. This means the conscious decisions of voters determine which candidates are elected from a given party, rather than how the parties choose to order their tickets. As such, campaigning involves a certain amount of competition between rival candidates of the same party.
However, the more general effect of proportional representation system is in making it difficult for either major party to form a majority. This is ameliorated to an extent in Tasmania by the fact that only five members are elected per region — and also, it seems, by a certain tendency of voters to shun minority government by falling in behind the major party that appears best placed to avoid it.
It was largely with this objective in mind that Liberal and Labor combined to reduce the House of Assembly from thirty-five seats to twenty-five ahead of the 1998 election, while also reducing the Legislative Council from nineteen seats to fifteen. With each division returning five members rather than seven, it was presumed that the Greens, who had won seats in each division and 1989 and 1992 and all but one in 1996, would henceforth be confined to their stronghold in Hobart. However, the party has largely defied this expectation by continuing to build electoral support, at least until the reversal of 2014, when it was still able to retain three seats.
While a federal redistribution for the state was recently finalised, this will not apply at the state election, where the boundaries will be those that applied in both 2010 and 2014. The election is for the House of Assembly only, since elections for the single-member Legislative Council electorates are held separately according to a staggered six-year cycle in which either two or three seats are up for election each May.
Liberal in government
Will Hodgman is the product of a Tasmanian political dynasty extending back to his grandfather, Bill Hodgman, and including his father, Michael Hodgman, and uncle, Peter Hodgman. Michael Hodgman progressed from the Legislative Council to the House of Representatives to the House of Assembly through a career running from 1966 to his retirement in 2010, three years before his death, and he and his son were in parliament together from 2002 to 2010. Will Hodgman replaced the defeated Rene Hidding as leader after another sweeping Labor victory in 2006, and appeared set to head a minority government after leading the Liberals to a much stronger performance in 2010. While this did not transpire, there was never any doubt about his hold on the Liberal leadership, and he was able to lead a united party to a landslide win in 2014.
On the surface, the government's record would appear to leave it well placed to secure a second term, with the budget returning to surplus on the back of strong GST revenues in 2015/16, and the unemployment rate falling from 7.6% at the time it came to power to 6.1% at the end of 2017, compared with a slower rate of decline nationally. While it has courted controversy through endeavours to crack down on anti-logging protests and reduce the functions of the Tasmanian Integrity Commission, it has avoided major scandals. Perhaps the most serious flare-up involved Human Services Minister Jacquie Petrusma's response to a Four Corners report on allegations of neglect of children in care.
The difficulty for the government lies in its essential structural weakness in the state and the burden of an unpopular Coalition government in Canberra, which was underscored by a poor result for the Liberals at the 2016 federal double dissolution election, which cost it all three of its House of Representatives seats. Alarmingly for the Hodgman government, these were the the northern Tasmanian seats of Bass, Braddon and Lyons, which had been the key to the party's success at the 2014 state election.
Labor in opposition
Bryan Green emerged at the head of Labor's decimated ranks after the 2014 election, perhaps owing to the fact that a more likely contender, David O'Byrne, had lost his seat in Franklin, where Lara Giddings was Labor's only survivor. Green had limited success in cutting through as Opposition Leader, and polling suggested a softening in Liberal support evident from last 2016 had been more to the advantage of independents and minor parties than to Labor. He also carried baggage from two criminal trials he had faced over a decision he made as a minister in 2006 to award two former Labor ministers a monopoly position in building industry accreditation.
In March 2017, reports suggested Lara Giddings was under growing pressure to quit parliament so that David O'Byrne could take her seat and replace Green as leader. Any such move was forestalled when Green announced his resignation both from parliament and the leadership. His unopposed successor was Rebecca White, despite reported qualms from Left faction leaders over what The Mercury described as her “independent streak”. White came to parliament in 2010 at the age of 27, when she won one of Labor's two seats in Lyons at the expense of two of the party's sitting members. Although her ministerial experience was limited to three months as Human Services Minister, polling conducted in 2014 and 2015 found her strongly favoured ahead of both Green and O'Byrne to lead the party. More recently, polls have credited her with a lead over Will Hodgman as preferred Premier, and Labor with support at least sufficient to cost the government its majority.
Minor party contenders
After being reduced from five seats to three at the 2014 election, and slumping from an unprecedented height of 21.6% of the statewide vote in 2010 to 13.8%, the Greens have gone through further turmoil with the departure of two of their three members over the past term. Nick McKim stood aside as leader after the election in favour of Kim Booth, and moved to the Senate in August 2015 to fill the vacancy created by Christine Milne's retirement. Booth himself had resigned from parliament the previous May, citing family reasons and the need for renewal. The party has since been led by Cassy O'Connor, its member for Denison.
The Greens have been the only presence on the cross bench since 1998, and the experience of 2010 in particular suggested the Liberals would need to govern either with a parliamentary majority or not at all. However, the recent emergence of the Jacqui Lambie Network opens a potential pathway for the Liberals to hold on to government if they fall one short. The party is fielding candidates in the three divisions outside Hobart, and could potentially secure a seat in Braddon on the strength of Lambie's popularity around her home town of Burnie. There were suggestions she might seek election there herself after she was disqualified from the Senate over her dual citizenship in November 2017, but she declared herself set on a return to federal politics.