Tasmanian state election result has important lessons for Labor and Liberal parties

May 5, 2021

The headlines and bland media commentary about the island states weekend election indicates that the Tasmania’s Liberal Government won a major vote of confidence for its policies. But they may end up with just a one seta majority.

Premier Gutwein was rewarded for his leadership role during the Covid pandemic, and his significant personal vote in his Bass electorate reflected this. However, a number of his ministers will be disappointed in their individual electoral performances indicating that some suffered a backlash against current government policies and management of their portfolios.

The surprise election called a year ahead of schedule was dominated by the political leaders, Peter Gutwein and Rebecca White, so members and candidates struggled to make any impact in the campaign.

The Labor Opposition set the agenda with its focus on ineffective management of the Health budget, which has resulted in disturbing statistics about elective surgery waiting lists, ambulance ramping and emergency services. Yet the Health Minister, Sarah Courtenay was missing from the debate, because only the Premier would respond to questions about her portfolio. Meanwhile in sharp contrast the Opposition greatly benefitted from the intervention of Shadow Health Spokesperson, Dr. Bastian Seidel who obviously has a strong working knowledge of how the state health service should be managed.

Both Liberal and Labor leaders insisted that they would only lead a “majority” government. Rebecca White modified this commitment to possible negotiation with an Independent but demonised the Greens as totally unacceptable. This is typical of Labor myopia about the minor party, even though it shares some comparable policy commitments, though of course as a minor party the Greens enjoy the luxury of loudly proclaiming bold initiatives, which it need neither cost nor implement. Nevertheless, the juvenile rhetoric that both Labor and Greens exchange about each other is quite foolish in real politics when we might expect a more sophisticated agreement about how these parties could cooperate in the best interests of the community.

Similarly, the determination of Peter Gutwein to only govern in majority ignores the reality of the Tasmanian Hare Clark system and the size of the parliament which makes majority government quite difficult to achieve. Furthermore, it is arrogant of political party leaders to insist they will disregard the views of the electorate in determining future governance arrangements. In many parts of the world democracy is enhanced by leaders having to negotiate and form appropriate coalitions based on the will of the voters. Tasmania has had several recent coalition governments which have relied on Green support and Julia Gillard was able to govern very effectively with the support of the Greens and Independents. Conservative coalitions of Liberal and National parties are common, yet progressive coalitions attract paranoia !

What should the two major parties learn from Tasmania’s recent election and how might it help them perform better at the next Federal Election?

Both major parties continue to choose some candidates who appear to offer little vision for a career in shaping public policy for a changing community. Too many are unknown political party loyalists, whose skills, personalities and ethics are not effectively scrutinised. In the recent Tasmanian election campaign both Labor and Liberal parties were severely embarrassed by the preselection of candidates who failed to measure up to community standards. This attracts unfavourable publicity and undermines confidence in the political process as it reinforces negative perceptions of “politicians”. The local ALP administration committee even blocked the preselection of a popular young candidate simply because he might threaten the career path of a factional powerbroker.

Fortunately, common sense prevailed when, at the request of Opposition Leader, Rebecca White the Federal Executive intervened and as a result fresh talent will now join her team.
In the forthcoming Federal election campaign both parties need to review both how they preselect and when. It is unfair to the candidate to preselect in the weeks leading to an election campaign. The ideal candidate may already have a public profile, but newcomers need several months to introduce themselves and become familiar with the issues of concern to their electorate. It is also unreasonable to impose an unfamiliar candidate on the electorate, Political parties need to represent their communities so it should be obvious they need to be recruiting individuals, who have already demonstrated their commitment to problem solving in their communities. Sadly, too many preselections are based on individual and party interest with scant attention to the understanding and expertise a candidate brings to the role.

The Australian Labor Party must stabilise its Tasmanian branch and stop the factional games that focus on personalities rather than policies. A diverse debate about ideas and the best way of to win elections is healthy, but recent Tasmanian factional negotiations have failed to prioritise the candidates most likely to attract support in the community. Loyal time servers are not necessarily best suited to winning over a sceptical electorate. Current closed preselection practices are out of step with many voters, who want to relate to candidates who are highly visible and able to offer refreshing new ideas about how they will work within the community.

The Tasmanian Liberal Party can also be criticised for its choice of candidates who must first receive the endorsement of a senior powerbroker committed more to preserving the status quo than introducing fresh policy reform. The increasing popularity of small parties and Independents is an obvious warning to political parties that they have not updated nor professionalised their preselection systems.

The results of the Tasmanian election indicate that the electorate will nor necessarily vote for candidates chosen behind closed door, because voters are more discerning and want to be represented by people who understand their communities. Of course, being part of a political party ticket offers distinct advantages, but the treatment of several Liberal ministers in this election shows that more voters are questioning their political party choices and a leader’s popularity does not necessarily flow through to all candidates. Yes a majority of party faithful will vote according to the recommended party ticket, but that loyalty is diminishing when community priorities are ignored.

A key lesson from the Tasmanian experience for the two major parties is the role and treatment of women Nationally the Federal Parliament scandals of recent months are an urgent reminder that women expect respect and civility in politics. Women voters will not accept bullying arrogant behaviour from male politicians more interested in power than community wellbeing. Violence against women and sexual harassment policies are absolute priorities that must be part of political reform.

Rebecca White set a new standard for Australian women as she stared down her critics who dared to ask whether an expectant mother could take on the challenge of an early election when her second child is due in Jun . Well of course she could and indeed the Opposition Leader radiated good health and policy commitment as she travelled around the state during a gruelling five-week campaign. On election night when conceding defeat, she offered genuine praise to her political opponent but promised to continue working for a fairer deal for all Tasmanians. It was gracious speech delivered by an independent woman who recognised her family but did not need to use them as political props on the stage when facing the national media.

The Tasmanian Legislative Assembly will have a majority of women when the vote is finalised – most likely 13 women and 12 men. Of course, at least three women will be members of the government so Tasmania will need to rely on the voices of ten progressive women in opposition to question the new government and keep it accountable.Federally political leaders would be wise to discard old habits and respect voters who want a new style of politics, which values the community and keeps the focus on its well being.

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