Entering the final week of campaigning, the absence of regular and focused polling makes predicting the likely outcome almost as opaque today as when the snap poll was called a month ago. However, this uncertainty might not be resolved by better opinion polling over the course of the campaign. This can be illustrated by the last available EMRS poll, the one that contributed definitively to the Liberal Government’s decision to call this election a year early.
As I covered in a previous article, this EMRS state-wide poll dramatically revealed the effect of the Covid crisis on Tasmanian public opinion. The pandemic halted the Liberal Party’s download slide after the 2018 election where it lost three seats. For the ALP, Covid turned a slight recovery into a dangerous plunge.
However, using the EMRS graph which plots the polling results from the March 2018 election result to the February 2021 opinion poll is fraught with analytical challenges. One could look at both ends of the graph and conclude that Tasmania is likely to see a repeat of the 2018 result. This would give the Government a one seat majority and probably be dependent on the casting vote of the Speaker. However, assuming a uniform state-wide result, one could conclude that Peter Gutwein’s Liberal Government will win with a five seat majority. Both results have echoes in the past from similar opinion poll findings. So, what should we expect for 2021?
The critical determinant in Tasmania is the mechanics of the state’s multi-member single transferrable vote Hare-Clark electoral system. The five Members are elected in each of the five Tasmanian state electorates which use the same boundaries as those used for Commonwealth elections. Proportionality under Hare-Clark works against both blow-outs and complete collapses in major party fortunes. Moreover, the fact that quota for winning a seat means that, in practice, there is always nearly, but not quite enough, votes to elect a sixth seat. Choosing who takes the winning fifth seat and who gets the wooden spoon for the “almost sixth seat” depends on the flow of preferences. These may have wended their way into and out of several different candidates’ boxes before finally landing in the box of one of the last two standing. Since a ballot needs only five preferences to be valid, it is entirely possible for vote not to end up in any candidate’s box. This could be critical where a party has nominated more than five candidates in an electorate.
Historically, the northern part of the state tends to vote Liberal being conservative socially and politically. Southern Tasmania has favoured the ALP. This nuance is not reflected in the state-wide polling. Tasmanian elections are won or lost in the trenches of the five electorates where Hare-Clark has introduced another significant wrinkle in interpreting opinion polls. The overwhelming turnover of seats in elections tend to be intra-party rather than inter-party. The party-based polls can help predict which party might win seats in an electorate but not who will win. How-to-vote cards are not permitted so the voters can decide to vote for a party but clear out the “deadwood” by voting foe different personalities on the party ticket.
This dynamic is expected to be a key issue in the two southern electorates of Franklin and Clark (formerly Denison). The controversy over putting Dean Winter on the ALP’s Franklin ballot continues to simmer with café chatter suggesting the net effect being that some voters will support David O’Byrne but not Winter while others voting for Winter will not give a preference to O’Byrne. Despite this tension, if both do win a seat as expected, it seems the real casualty would be sitting Member Alison Standen. Given the unlikely prospect of a third ALP seat in Franklin, the practical beneficiary would be the Green’s Rosalie Woodruff who may need some ALP preferences. Labor defectors on the right are not likely to help the Shooters, Fishers, Farmers Party enough to win a seat. Although incumbency seems to favour the Liberal’s two sitting Members, if Bec Enders wins a seat it seems more likely to be at the expense of either Jacqui Petrusma or Nic Street rather taking a seat from either the ALP or the Greens.
The betting in Clark is that, If either Kristie Johnston or Sue Hickey, two high profile Independent candidates, win a seat it will be at the expense of a major party. If both win, the ALP and the Liberals could both be reduced to an historically unimaginable single seat in this electorate. Johnston’s chances were improved with a very favourable draw on the ballot coming second and immediately after the Greens. A single seat in Clark would compel the Liberals to win an unlikely fourth seat in Braddon to retain Government.
Braddon will be the third key electorate on the night. The Liberals won four seats in 2014 but only won its third seat in 2018 as the fifth seat which was filled without a quota. The absence of the Jacqui Lambert Network which won more than a 1/3 of quota in 2018 could make a difference but probably would not even lift Independent Craig Garland into contention. If the Liberals are more successful with their Covid message than Labor is with its criticism of the Government’s failures with hospitals in this northwest region, the potentially essential fourth seat could be possible.
Bass still looks like a 3-2 split in favour of the Liberals but with a strong ministerial team in this electorate and a solid result in 2018, the opportunity for a fourth seat here is a realistic possibility. The ALP won its second seat here in 2018 at the expense of a sitting Greens Member – but only just. It was again a case of the last candidate standing. The EMRS poll shows increased state-wide support for the Greens so the tables could be turned in 2021. However, the Greens appear to lack a strong star candidate on their ticket and, while Jennifer Houston might have counted herself lucky in 2018, she has the advantage of incumbency in 2021.
Lyons is the largest and arguably most diverse electorate. There has been little over the course of the campaign to suggest anything other than the 2018 split of 3-2 favouring the Liberals. However, the Premier’s presidential campaign has elevated Labor Leader Bec White’s profile as well. In 2018 she led the Lyon’s results and she is expected to do better in 2021. It seems improbable that this could give the ALP a third seat but the party’s surplus preferences could make a difference elsewhere on the ballot. Greens’ candidate, Tim Morris, once held a seat in this electorate and served as Deputy Speaker. If, the circumstances of former Liberal Leader Rene Hidding’s retirement from Parliament cost the party any vote, there is a very narrow pathway for a Morris return in 2021.
Perhaps the clearest indication that both Government and Opposition recognise the likely closeness of the 2021 result is the emergence of a recurrent mantra “we will not govern in minority”! Putting aside the lèse-majesté of announcing in public the advice they would give in private to the Governor, the 2021 version has an interesting twist. Bec White has said the ALP will not accept minority Government while Premier Gutwein has said he will not. Gutwein’s more careful phrasing harks back to the 1986 election where both major parties made the generic claim. In the event Liberal Premier Ray Groom lost his majority and to avoid breaking the electoral promise, he resigned in favour of his deputy Tony Rundle.
Late update: The first opinion poll held during the current campaign was published today just as this article was about to be forwarded to Pearls and Irritations. The uComms poll uses a slightly different methodology but does not change the assessments I have made above. It does underscore the Independents prospects in Clark and the Greens’ standing state-wide which could have implications in Bass.