Alex Mitchell, reporting from Hobart. The Tasmanian Chainsaw Massacre.

Mar 14, 2014

On the eve of any election it is the practice of tabloid editors to reach into battered folders containing tried and trusted headlines capable of exciting readers on polling day – PHOTO FINISH or TOO CLOSE TO CALL or sometimes IT’S A CLIFFHANGER.

With Tasmanians going to the polls this Saturday none of the above are suitable. That’s because the result is a foregone conclusion: a landslide for Will Hodgman’s Liberal Party. Perhaps we’ll see WILLSLIDE or TASSIE GOES BLUE.

As well as a Liberal victory in Tasmania, South Australia is likely to fall to the Liberals as well. This would leave the ACT as the only speck of ALP rule in the whole of the Commonwealth.

Because the Tasmanian result is a foregone conclusion, why is the campaign worth covering and what is its interest to voters-at-large?

Of engrossing interest is the Tasmanian Labor Party – which has ruled for the past 16 years – and why it is facing a bloodbath on Saturday.

It is not simply that the party is a victim of its own longevity. Like large sections of the ALP in the mainland states, the Tassie branch has lost touch with voters and stopped offering practical, meaningful and affordable policies in key areas such as health, education, jobs and housing.

Inexplicably, Premier Lara Giddings has placed the long-delayed pulp mill at the top of her campaign pitch. This is despite the fact that the project is the most divisive issue in the island’s political life and it has destroyed at least three Labor premierships.

In the final week of the campaign she gave the go-ahead for a campaign of “robocalls”, unsolicited phone calls to voters telling them: “The Greens want to destroy your jobs”.

Until January, Ms Giddings was in coalition with the Greens and there were Green MPs in her Cabinet. She unceremoniously kicked the Greens out of the government in January in an attempt to reassert the ALP’s independence in the minds of voters.

“Robocalling” 80,000 homes across the State has angered as many Labor voters as Green supporters. State ALP secretary John Dowling attempted to justify the tactic saying: “The extremists in the Greens party are taking over.” (It was almost as if he was channelling Anthony Albanese).

At the 2010 state election, Labor employed the same tactic using “robocalling” to tell voters that the Greens wanted to legalise heroin – a mischievous lie.

When the result was a hung parliament (Labor and Liberal both with 10 seats each) the ALP went into negotiations to form a coalition with the (heroin-friendly!) Greens.

Labor’s other tactical fiasco was to spend the final days of this campaign demanding criminal action against Clive Palmer, the Member for Fairfax, and Senator-elect Jacqui Lambie over the use of photographs of the main party leaders – Ms Giddings, Will Hodgman and Nick McKim (Greens) – in Palmer United Party advertisements in local newspapers.

For four days, the issue became Palmer and PUP. It was the sort of publicity that the mining tsar could only have dreamt of.

Murdoch newspapers weighed in demanding the prosecution of Palmer and Ms Lambie. If convicted they would face a maximum fine of $39,000 and/or 12 months’ jail. The sentence would be enough to destroy their parliamentary careers.

In a flying visit to Hobart, Palmer was showered with free publicity and declared: “I’m happy to go to jail. I’m happy to be like Gandhi.”

The mental image of the behemoth Clive in the slammer with the scarecrow Mahatma brought gales of laughter across Tasmania. But Palmer was milking his “martyrdom” and collecting some votes for PUP as well.

Ms Giddings put out a brief press notice the other day saying she would not attend the main tally room in Hobart on Saturday night. This breaks a decades-long tradition of the Premier being on hand to claim victory, accept defeat or set the scene for power-sharing negotiations.

She can be forgiven for wanting to excuse herself from the bloodbath. Her first public announcement will be made on Sunday when she resigns the Labor leadership and suggests a wider poll by MPs and party members to elect her successor i.e. the way Bill Shorten was chosen over Anthony Albanese.

The MP who picks up the fragments of what was once the Tasmanian ALP will face an awesome task in reconstruction. With perhaps six ALP MPs in the 25-member parliament, Labor will finish about the same size as the Greens.

The lessons of Labor’s electoral demise federally, in NSW, Queensland, NT, Tasmania, and probably South Australia, are starkly obvious: a dimwitted professional political class has usurped control of the ALP and it seems incapable of grasping the simple truth that treating the membership with contempt and insulting supporters with policy vacuity and media gimmicks will doom the party.

Alex Mitchell is a former state political editor of The Sun-Herald and author of Come The Revolution: A Memoir, NewSouth Books 2010







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