In an era of single-term governments and growing electoral volatility in Australia, the return of Will Hodgman’s Liberal government at Saturday’s Tasmanian election with more than 50% of the primary vote is significant – and will have national implications.
The Turnbull government will take comfort from a result that demonstrates voters – even in left-leaning Tasmania – are prepared to re-elect a competent Liberal government that has delivered strong economic and employment growth.
It was a strong result for the Liberals. However, the outcome was shaped as much by Tasmania’s distinctive political practices and local issues as it was by national trends.
Pokies, housing, hospitals, and – at the 11th hour – watering down gun laws might have been the specific issues that dominated the campaign, but the decisive factor was Tasmanians’ enduring apprehension about minority government.
The legacies of Labor-Green minority government of the early 1990s and between 2010 and 2014 cast a long shadow during the 2018 campaign. Both periods are associated with economic decline, rising unemployment, and budget cuts.
While there is little evidence to suggest minority government has been a cause of poor economic outcomes in Tasmania – it is more that these governments were unlucky and found themselves in charge after national downturns – the fact remains that Tasmanians have a strong preference for majority government.
Given this history, undecided Tasmanian voters tend to back the major party that’s most likely to form majority government. This was evident in both 2006 and 2014, and was always going to be a feature of the 2018 campaign given memories of the 2012-13 recession in Tasmania are still fresh in voters’ minds. And the Liberal government, which was elected in 2014, has delivered strong economic growth.
It is this bandwagon effect that helps explain why support for the government increased by ten points over the course of the campaign, rather than going to minor parties – as has been the case elsewhere.
What now for the Liberals?
The final result was an emphatic win for Hodgman. But it is also fair to say he lost a bit of skin along the way, due to the Liberals’ big-budget, brutally effective advertising campaign seeming to have been funded by gaming interests.
The reality is that Tasmania remains deeply divided on pokies and the means the gaming industry uses to protect its interests.
Tasmanians voted for political and economic stability on Saturday, but an overwhelming majority support Labor’s policy of phasing pokies out of pubs and clubs over a five-year period.
The pokies debate is far from over. Hodgman must commit to open and transparent government, and subject his gaming policies to full parliamentary scrutiny in an attempt to regain the electorate’s trust. Opposition parties also have a role to play, and must be willing to compromise to find some middle ground.
The election’s losers
The result wasn’t a disaster for Labor.
Rebecca White, after securing the Labor leadership only a year ago, performed strongly during the campaign and has consolidated her credentials as a future premier. That she will be leading a stronger opposition bolstered by handful of up-and-coming new MPs also bodes well for Labor’s future.
The real losers in the election were the Greens and Jacqui Lambie.
In contrast to their success in inner-Melbourne and Sydney, the Greens have been struggling in Tasmania in recent years. The explanation for their decline in their former heartland can be attributed to the legacies of the last government, the absence of a high-profile local environmental issue, and that Labor, under White, has championed many of their core progressive causes.
Lambie and her party could have been the wildcard of this election, but she has had a tough summer and will have to fight hard to salvage her political career. Had Lambie herself run as a candidate on Saturday, it’s likely she would have been elected – and could have held the balance of power in the lower house.
Strangely, given that personalities and name recognition are so important in Tasmanian elections, she ran a ticket of grassroots candidates under her Jacqui Lambie Network banner that, as expected, failed to secure any serious support.
Lessons for the future
As the dust settles, we can draw a few conclusions from the Tasmanian election result.
Above all else, Tasmanians are a pragmatic bunch and are prepared to reward a government that delivers political stability and good economic outcomes.
The campaign also highlighted the power of sectional interests – be they mining, gaming or other actors – in Australian politics. The collective health of our democracy depends on curbing the influence of these groups at both the state and federal level.
Given the distinctive dynamics of Tasmanian politics, not too much can be read into the swing away from minor and protest parties and back to the majors. Perhaps the real test of the national political mood will come in South Australia on Saturday week.
Read Richard Eccleston’s article Tasmanian Liberal election win brings good cheer to Malcolm Turnbull in the Australian Financial Review.