The Tasmanian State Election in the rear view mirror

May 4, 2021

The Tasmanian election is over but it is far from over. The key questions of who will form Government and will it command a majority in Parliament have been settled. Liberal Premier Peter Gutwein has won and he will have a majority. Yet, a more fundamental question will hang in the air for some time – perhaps even until the next election. Was it worth it?

Looking back at election, we see that all the excitement in the 2021 Tasmanian State election campaign was front end loaded.   Premier Peter Gutwein’s calling of a snap election for May 1st, a year early surprise move caught everyone on the hop even his own Liberal Party. None of the parties had completed their preselection and the first week was dominated by stumbles in filling out their tickets.

The ALP suffered the most with two key errors. Factional rivalries had popular Kingston mayor, Dean Winter, controversially excluded from the Franklin ticket. Then the party’s president, Ben McGregor, resigned his candidacy under pressure from Opposition Leader, Bec White, over an historic incident of alleged inappropriate texting.

The rush to endorsements exposed a lack of due diligence by producing their own first week scandal. Franklin candidate Dean Ewington resigned when it was revealed he had been critical of the Government’s handling of Covid, the party’s main policy plank.

Further first week drama centred on the date selected for the election. May 1st was already taken for the election of three 2021 Legislative Councillors whose terms were expired.   The decision to hold concurrent elections for the first time in Tasmania’s history was seen as a challenge to the historical independence of the upper house by the majority of non-aligned MLCs fear an attempt to turn upper house into a party house in the longer term.

After the dust of the first week or so of the campaign settled, the battle for votes settled into what can best be described as an auction. It was a curiously “flat” campaign with few star candidates beyond the Leaders and the two Independents in the electorate of Clark.  In the absence of a visible ground swell of enthusiasm for either major party or their policies, the campaign drifted to its a denouement last Saturday.

With presidential approach to the hustings, Premier Gutwein and his stewardship of the pandemic dominated the Liberal appeal to voters. Although Opposition Leader White was prominent, the ALP adopted more of a team approach. This may have been as much a necessity as a campaign strategy given the ALP’s need to generate a public profile for the majority of its first time aspirants. The two sitting Green MPs attempted to make the environmental damage of salmon farming their signature concern for the 2021 election. Their efforts were helped by noted author Richard Flanagan’s book, Toxic, on this industry.

It will be another week or so before all the postal votes are counted and preferences are finalised. Nevertheless, on the night, Gutwein’s decision to call a snap election to take advantage of the Mark McGowan effect – strong state-based leadership in the midst of the Covid crisis – appeared to have worked.   The tally room speeches by the Premier and Opposition Leader, Bec White, showed they were agreed that it was a Covid election. Incumbency and Covid proved to be strong allies in the Liberals quest for a third term when Gutwein claimed victory and White conceded defeat.

As the following chart comparing the 2018 outcome with the results at the close of counting Saturday night demonstrates, there are serious qualifications on the Premier’s claim of a clear vindication for a snap poll victory. The Liberal Party failed to gain an additional seat while suffering a modest swing against it.

2018/2021 Election Results

Party 2018 Vote % Seats 2021 Vote % Seats
Liberal Party 50.26 13 48.7 13
Australian Labor Party  32.63 10 28.4 8 + 1?
Tasmanian Greens  10.30 2 12.9 2+ 1?
Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party     2.28 03.0
Independents     1.08 20.2 1

The result for the Liberal Party might appear superficially to be status quo from the 2018 but there were some benefits for the Premier. Since he assumed the leadership mid-term when former Premier Will Hodgman resigned in January 2020, Gutwein is now able to claim a mandate in his own right. He can also bask the satisfaction of being Premier when the Liberals secured their first ever third successive term.   However, perhaps most importantly, he has visited confusion on the Liberals’ primary opposition. The post-election ALP is serious trouble.

If the ALP is unable to hold onto its second seat in Bass, the party have only 8 seats in the House of Assembly. While not as low as the 7 seats following the 2014 election, it would be unable to fill out a full shadow ministry in the House of Assembly. Moreover, as the party’s failure is being linked to internal issues with factionalism, the unions and party administration, the election night ashes seem likely to force a root and branch review of the state party especially as the rot can be traced back more than a decade.

It has been an historical truism that the intra-party rivalries fostered by the state’s proportional Hare-Clark system produce more changes than the changes across the political parties. Both parties are likely to feel the sting of this verity in 2021. Dean Winter validated his late preselection in Franklin for the ALP but at the expense of fellow party member Alison Standen. In Bass, Tasmania’s only MP with aboriginal heritage, Jennifer Houston, has lost her seat probably to Janie Finlay a popular former Launceston mayor although the Green’s Jack Davenport may yet steal the seat from the ALP.

The Liberals have their own possible intra-party changes in train following the election. Former Liberal MP, Adam Brooks, is expected to regain a seat possibly from Roger Jaensch, Minister for Human Services. The Liberals had only one sitting MP from 2018 recontesting Clark but Madeleine Ogilvie on their Clark ticket in 2021 after her defection from the ALP.

She is current in a tight tussle with Simon Behrakis for the second Liberal seat here.

The election night commentary was focused on the rivalry between the two high profile Independents, Speaker Sue Hickey or Glenorchy mayor Kristie Johnston in the electorate of Clark for several reasons. The principal question was whether a win by either or both would deny the Government a majority. It now appears that Johnston will win a seat but Hickey will not win one as well. Johnston’s will be won at the expense of the ALP and so will not impact the Government’s chances for a majority.

Insofar as far the purpose for calling a snap election to secure a more secure majority, it appears Premier Gutwein miscalculated both the electoral pull of a Covid election and the mechanics of the Hare-Clark system that works against extreme outcomes. Nevertheless, the ALP is in more than a little disarray and whatever the final complexion of the new Parliament it will not include Sue Hickey who was used as an excuse for the early poll.


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