Talking Point: Big questions left hanging after debate

This opinion piece by Institute for the Study of Social Change director Professor Richard Eccleston first appeared in the Mercury on October 25, 2017.

The gloves are finally off in the 2018 state election campaign with Premier Will Hodgman and Opposition Leader Rebecca White going head to head in a leaders’ debate outside Parliament, writes Richard Eccleston.

It was a pretty sedate and largely policy-free affair but did provide a few valuable insights into the forthcoming election campaign.

First, it’s now clear that if the Liberals hoped to exploit White’s relative inexperience they had better think again. The Labor Leader was calm, composed and quite convincing throughout. As polls have shown, White is a significant electoral asset for the ALP. Only time will tell if she can win the hearts and minds of enough Tasmanians to make Labor competitive.

One clear shift in the political debate in recent years relates to education and a recognition, to quote the Premier, “that Tasmania’s education system has failed”. While both parties agree more needs to be done they disagree on how this might be achieved. Hodgman plans to extend all high schools to year 12 (the implications for colleges is unclear) whereas Labor proposes more support for early childhood education. Perhaps we should do both?

There was also discussion about the demographic profile, with the Premier pointing out population growth of 0.6 per cent a year is the highest in years and we are on track to reach 530,000 by 2020.

The Opposition Leader argued we need to focus on who we attract to maximise productivity and growth. My colleague, demographer Lisa Denny, has long argued we need to attract or retain more adults of child-bearing age. White’s quip “We don’t want to be the aged care capital of the world” was insensitive and politically risky.

Older Australians on average require more public services but they also make significant contributions. Also, retirees who migrate tend to have assets and savings and spend more. Researchers at the Institute for the Study of Social Change will be analysing new Census data so we have a better understanding of the changing demographic.

There was predictable haggling over the proposed TasWater takeover and some discussion of Labor’s plan to encourage superannuation funds to invest in infrastructure projects. The one, excuse the pun, concrete proposal promoted by White was support for the northern suburbs rail corridor. While there are many supporters, few independent experts believe there will ever be the population density along the route to make it viable.

The most surprising aspect was the complete absence of meaningful discussion of health services, given they consume most of the state budget and are consistently ranked as the most important issue by voters.

Hodgman was at his most convincing when talking about achievements and when warning Tasmanians a change of government would be a risky step into the unknown.

Both parties ruled out forming a partnership with the Greens. But the leaders were not asked whether they would be prepared to govern in minority without the formal support of minor parties or independents. The Liberals may be required to form a minority government but would they be willing to negotiate with other independents or minor parties? Would they use parliament and committees to develop and negotiate policy in order to deliver stable government? These are likely scenarios which should be discussed more fully in the coming months.

The Liberals’ campaign is based on the claim they are best placed to form a majority government. While this has been a tried and true strategy in elections past, voters the world over are turning their backs on established governments and have been embracing new parties, leaders and fresh ideas. Given this context the outcome of the March election remains as uncertain as ever.

Professor Richard Eccleston is a political scientist and director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania.

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