Tasmania election 2021: the 10 things you should know (2023)

Tasmanians are going to the polls, with the premier, Peter Gutwein, aiming to win an unprecedented third term for the Liberal party and the Labor leader, Rebecca White, shooting for an unlikely victory – or at least to push the government into minority.

From the timing to the tactics, it’s been far from a conventional state election campaign. So here’s what you need to know about the key players, what’s at stake and whether there will be a result by the end of Saturday night.

Why is an election being held now?

It wasn’t supposed to be. The election was not due for another year, but Gutwein called it early five weeks ago after his majority government slipped into minority.

This justification remains disputed. It followed the Liberal Speaker, Sue Hickey, quitting the party after Gutwein told her she would not be preselected. Two days later Madeleine Ogilvie, an ex-Labor-MP-turned-independent, announced she would run as a Liberal, immediately restoring Gutwein’s majority.

Don’t mention the pokies: Tasmanian premier refuses to detail policy before Saturday’s electionRead more

The premier argues voters should be given the chance to decide whether Ogilvie sits as part of a majority Liberal government, and that history shows a minority government diminishes confidence in the community, hurts the economy and costs jobs.

Critics point out that both Hickey and Ogilvie had promised the government supply and confidence, and suggest Gutwein was keen to capitalise on the island state’s strong performance during the pandemic, for which he has been widely praised.

Majority or bust

The importance placed on majority government in Tasmanian political debate should not be underestimated. Gutwein and White have continued a decades-long history of leaders declaring they will not govern unless elected with a majority in their own right. It has basically been code for saying they will not govern with the Greens, which have been a third parliamentary force in the state since the 1980s.

Gutwein, in particular, has argued the Liberals are the only party that can form a “stable majority” and warned against the “threat” of minority government.

Haggling over Hare-Clark

The focus on majority government is in part due to it being hard to win one in Tasmania. Like the ACT, Tasmania uses the Hare-Clark electoral system. It’s lower house has 25 members, with five MPs elected in each of five multi-member electorates (Clark and Franklin in the south, Bass in the north, Braddon in the north-west and Lyons across the middle).

In 2018, the Liberals received 50.3% of the vote, miles ahead of Labor on 32.6%, with the Greens (led by the former cabinet minister Cassy O’Connor) on 10.3%. It translated to a bare majority in parliament for then premier Will Hodgman – 13 seats for the Liberals, 10 for Labor and two Greens.

No formal independent polling has been released since February, but the Liberals start well in front and are expected to win the most votes and seats. The question is whether it will be enough to give them an outright majority at a third straight election. And the answer to that may not be clear on Saturday night.

Rise of the independents?

The picture is muddied by the presence of two high-profile independent candidates in the seat of Clark, which spans Hobart’s central and northern suburbs.

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One is Kristie Johnston, a popular mayor in the working class municipality of Glenorchy who has taken a strong stance on social issues including the damage caused by poker machines. The other is Sue Hickey, a former Hobart mayor who had a spectacular falling-out with the Liberals after she was overlooked for a cabinet post and subsequently claimed the Speaker’s chair with Labor and Greens support.

Johnston and Hickey held a joint press conference with the federal independent MP Andrew Wilkie on Thursday to make a joint case for change. That they are considered serious candidates has been reinforced by both major parties printing leaflets warning against voting independent. Analysts believe either could get up. If both did, it would narrow the government’s path back to majority.

It’s worth also keeping an eye on Craig Garland, a fisherman who claimed 10% of the vote at a federal byelection in the seat of Braddon in 2018, although he is considered more of an outside chance.

Candidate chaos

Both major parties have suffered through scandal-hit campaigns that at times have drowned out policy messages.

Labor’s first fortnight, in particular, was a trainwreck. Its left-controlled state administrative committee was loudly criticised after it failed to preselect Dean Winter, another mayor and considered by some a potential future leader. After days of public infighting, White asked the ALP national executive to intervene and Winter was belatedly added to the ticket.

At the same time, White was engaged in a battle with the Labor state president, Ben McGregor, whom she demanded quit as a candidate over inappropriate text messages he sent to a woman seven years ago. A tearful McGregor accused White of “failing in providing leadership” and threatened to sue her.

Meanwhile, the barrister Fabiano Cangelosi – who was preselected ahead of Winter despite only having been a Labor member for six months – attacked his party’s policies on poker machines (which he said would maintain “the monopolised flow of blood money”) and locking up forestry protesters.

But the showstopper was Adam Brooks, a former Liberal MP, multi-millionaire and generous party donor who is running in Braddon two years after resigning from parliament when the state’s integrity commission found he misled Hodgman.

On Friday, the ABC reported he had been accused of tricking a love interest into believing he was a man named Terry who worked as an engineer and lived in Melbourne, after she met him on the dating website OKCupid. He even reportedly produced a Victorian licence to prove his false identity.

This is after he was charged with incorrectly storing ammunition on his property.

Brooks has not responded directly to the ABC’s report about his dating profiles. Party officials have denied it and when asked about it on Friday, Gutwein said: “What you’re alleging in terms of those profiles, Mr Brooks has denied they’re his.”

Health and housing in crisis

Amid all this, there has been room for focus on major policy issues. They include health and housing, both of which are often described as being in a state of crisis.

On health, waiting lists have blown out to record levels, nurses have complained of being forced to work double shifts and ambulances have been forced to queue outside emergency departments.

On public housing, the wait list is 3,800, up 9% in a year, the average waiting time is more than a year, and the stories of people unable to find a place ahead of winter are growing. Labor and the Greens have promised to significantly increase spending on both, with the opposition making health a particular focus in the last week. The government has also promised to lift funding, but faced accusations it has failed to address the problems over seven years.

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Covid-19 and the economy

This is the centre of the government’s re-election pitch, and it is a strong one. Tasmania has had one of the lowest rates of Covid-19 in the country, and Gutwein – who became premier just before the pandemic hit after Hodgman’s shock resignation – has been applauded by supporters and critics for quickly closing borders and offering support for small business, casual workers and households.

Similarly, the economy has been improving and, after a period of decline, the population is growing faster than the national average, including in the key 20 to 40-year-old demographic. Property prices are rising rapidly – a significant problem for those outside the market, but a sign of growth to those benefitting.

Unresolved issues: poker machines

After being a central focus at the 2018 election, when Labor promised to remove them from pubs and clubs, the debate over poker machines has been largely absent from the campaign even though the government is yet to introduce promised legislation. Critics say it is a sign of the success of an expensive and aggressive campaign against Labor by the gaming industry in 2018.

Where is the environment?

Largely missing, with the government releasing last-minute policies on climate change (largely focused on tax breaks and other support for electric vehicles) and the environment (a landfill levy to encourage a circular economy), and Labor having even less to say.

Most of the focus has come from the Greens, who put out a policy suite including a “safe climate act” and a Tasmanian green new deal. Despite the lack of attention, there will be a number of environmental issues waiting for the next parliament, including a rising campaign against salmon farming, the future of private development in national parks, the viability of native forest logging and an unfunded proposal to turn Tasmania’s hydro power into the “battery of the nation”.

What will happen?

Predictions are pointless, but it is expected for the Liberals to get to 13 seats and majority government they will need to return three MPs each in their northern strongholds of Braddon and Bass and in largely rural Lyons, and two each in Franklin and Clark in the south.

Clark, and the possibility of a strong vote for independent candidates, is the wildcard. If the Liberals fall short in the south, they will be hoping Gutwein’s strong personal popularity is enough to swing an unlikely fourth seat in Bass.

Opponents will be hoping the combination of Labor, the Greens and independents will block that path – and leave Gutwein with the question of whether he will really step aside rather than attempt to lead in minority.

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