State of the states: A handful of votes could decide Tasmania’s Liberal-held seats

By Dain Bolwell and Professor Richard Eccleston, University of Tasmania

Richard Eccleston

Dain Bolwell

It was no coincidence that on the first day of the 2016 election campaign, Labor leader Bill Shorten revisited his PR triumph of ten years earlier in Beaconsfield, Tasmania – in the electorate of Bass.

This is the town that saw a media frenzy in 2006 when two trapped miners emerged from days underground. They were welcomed by a younger version of the present opposition leader, who took charge of the spectacle as leader of the Australian Workers’ Union.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull also spent time in Bass early in the campaign. He visited a vineyard that symbolises the best of Tasmania’s burgeoning agriculture and tourism industries.

Key seats

All three Tasmanian Liberal-held House of Representatives seats – Bass, Lyons and Braddon– will be critical to the election result. The remaining two lower house seats – Denison and Franklin – are likely to remain with incumbents – as is most of the Senate, but with a twist.

The volatile Bass electorate includes Tasmania’s northern capital of Launceston. It has changed hands – either person or party – at almost half the federal elections since federation. It has elected a different MP at every election since 2001.

Famously, Bass marked the beginning of the end for the Whitlam government in a 1975 byelection; it recorded a 14.3% two-party-preferred swing to the Liberals. The present one-term Liberal member, Andrew Nikolic, has a four-point margin that may seem safe. But given Bass’s history, this means very little.

In the rural Lyons electorate, Liberal incumbent Eric Hutchinson, who is still building his profile, holds the seat by a slim 1.2% margin.

While it may comfort him that only two sitting members have been defeated in the electorate since 1975, it is quite possible the seat will revert to its traditional Labor roots. Industries such as dairy and sheep farming have been hit by drought and tough market conditions, and forestry has continued to decline.

Braddon is held narrowly by Brett Whiteley, a former state MP who achieved a 10% swing from the Labor incumbent in 2013. Braddon covers the northwest and western parts of the state, involving significant mining, agricultural and tourism industries. Mining especially has been struggling; the Mt Lyell copper mine closed in 2014 following safety issues and low copper prices. This may well cut into Whiteley’s 2.6% margin.

Tasmania’s 12 Senate seats are currently split five Labor (on the back of a strong 2010 vote), four Liberal, two Green, and independent Jacqui Lambie. All are recontesting.

The state’s senior minister (for tourism and international education), Richard Colbeck, has been squeezed to fifth spot on the Liberal Party ticket by the right-dominated state preselection process. Labor’s unaligned senator, Lisa Singh, has been dropped to an even more challenging sixth spot on the party’s ticket.

Both Colbeck and Singh, however, might cling to hopes that ticket position may be less critical because below-the-line voting is popular in Tasmania, and is now easier with the new electoral provisions.

The Liberals’ Senate chances are assisted by the state government’s popularity, but will be held back by their conservative ticket. Labor benefits from a natural base but will be weakened by the low profile of some of its sitting senators.

Assuming the major parties continue to split five and four seats each, and with Greens Peter Whish-Wilson and Nick McKim likely to be re-elected, the remaining seat will most probably be fought between Lambie, Colbeck, Singh, and the Greens’ Anna Reynolds.

Key state issues

This is the first election in decades in which forestry is not a significant state issue. The state Liberal government has defused concerns by:

  • acquiescing to a recent UNESCO decision protecting the World Heritage Area;
  • replacing its controversial resources minister in February; and
  • signalling in budget briefings that the state-owned Forestry Commission will be broken up.

According to ReachTEL polling in May, the three issues of most concern to voters are health, jobs and education.

The Tasmanian economy is performing relatively well; it grew 2.8% in the last year. Increasing niche agricultural exports and booming tourism have benefited from the lower dollar and the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2014.

The health system has been rationalised, and education retention rates are improving. Many high schools now extend to year 12. Roads infrastructure and construction are also evident, especially in the state’s south.

At the same time, the prolonged spring-summer droughtand the then-severed power cable, Basslink, resulted in expensive emergency power generation measures as the state’s hydroelectric dams fell to below 14% capacity, the lowest in 50 years.

Despite recent rains, Tasmania’s renewable energy capability remains at issue due to its over-reliance on hydro generation. More wind farms are indicated in the state’s northwest, as promoted by Environment Minister Greg Hunt.

Hobart’s status as an Antarctic gateway and marine science hub was threatened by the recent CSIRO decision to cut climate research. Opposition to the cuts by the staff union in Tasmania has been vocal and has engendered public sympathy. Labor has promised to halt further staff losses after the election, while the government has backed plans to set up a separate climate research centre.

Popular Denison independent Andrew Wilkie and Whish-Wilson labelled both major parties hypocritical on the issue – Labor oversaw significant job losses while in power and the Liberals have not intervened.

Policy proposals

The so-called “backpacker tax”, unpopular in the agriculture dependent regions, will be delayed under the Coalition and abolished under Labor.

The $16 million for the Cadbury factory upgrade, originally promised by Tony Abbott in 2013, has since been reallocated mainly to Liberal-held seats as part of a jobs and investment fund.

As well as promoting renewable energy industries, the Greens have popularly proposed to legislate penalty rates, outflanking Labor on the issue.

Lambie has support for veterans as one of her signature policies.

Given Tasmania’s relatively high dependence on welfare and public services, many contend that Labor’s emphasis on fairness, as well as health and public education funding, is getting traction with swinging voters.

All agree the seats of Bass, Lyons and Braddon will be in play on July 2. Two major party sitting senators are also at risk. As in previous elections, a handful of votes may well determine the final result.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation on 16 June 2016.

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