It is not often the provincial world of Tasmanian politics attracts an audience on the mainland of this nation. But the results of the March 20 Tasmanian election and the decision last week by Governor Peter Underwood to ask Labor Premier David Bartlett to form a new government have had the rest of Australia asking, “what the hell is going on?”
Well it’s simple really. Over the past fortnight Australians have witnessed an uncommon sight –a European style result in which no one party gains a majority of seats in the parliament and has to rely on minor parties of a similar philosophical persuasion to hold office.
The election saw the ALP and Liberal parties each win 10 seats in the 25 seat House of Assembly. The Greens won five seats so hold the balance of power. Mr. Bartlett and his Liberal opponent Will Hodgman then proceeded to demonstrate that neither understood constitutional conventions or how a governor should exercise his or her Reserve Powers. Mr. Bartlett bizarrely claimed that because the Liberal Party had won more votes in the election he would tell the Governor that they should occupy the Treasury benches. Mr. Hodgman, also believing this argument to have validity, exhibited a born to rule impatience and began his transition to government manoeuvres. The Greens last week said they would support the ALP in the interests of continuity and stability. Mr. Underwood correctly applied constitutional convention, which is to say he asked himself which party could provide stability and saw that the answer was clearly the ALP. End of story.
So what we have is a Euro style result – the will of the people at the ballot box was for a centre left experience. Only 37 per cent of Tasmanians voted for the Liberal Party. The centre left Coalition now rules.
What is extraordinary is that anyone would think that the result could be otherwise. It seemed to this commentator completely implausible that the Greens, today in Tasmania more pragmatic and liberal than fundamentalist and extreme left, could countenance supporting a right of centre party in the Liberal Party.
Green parties in Europe have a default position, which is to support parties from the labor or social democrat tradition. There is the occasional exception in Germany, but where the Greens support a right of centre party that political entity is more moderate than the conservative Tasmanian Liberal Party which, with the election of a handful of hard right candidates, is moving away from the centre ground.
Of course there will be the critics who will say that a Tasmanian legislative culture that is more European than Anglo is not a desirable thing. European parliaments and governments are consensus driven and vested interest groups are able to take advantage of the inherent fragility of coalition arrangements by blackmailing parties into supporting their cause.
There is certainly some truth in this argument. However in Tasmania, Labor is not relying on a rainbow for support, simply one colour of that rainbow. And the Greens locally are not as shrill or dogmatic and manipulative as Tasmania’s Federal Green senators, Bob Brown and Christine Milne. Brown and Milne helped to destroy the previous Tasmanian experiment in Labor-Green power sharing of two decades ago.
Today’s Green leadership is more focused on social and economic inequality, as opposed to forest protection. Nick McKim, its leader, spends a good deal of his time researching, analysing and articulating arguments in areas of policy such as public housing, justice and welfare dependence. He has attracted low income voters to the Greens for the first time. Two of McKim’s team, Cassy O’Connor and Tim Morris, have also built networks around social policy.
But make no mistake, the acid will now be on the Greens to ensure their work in repackaging as a moderate Euro-style green outfit is not simply all smoke and mirrors. If they play hardball on forestry policy by making it a make or break issue for continued support of the ALP government then they will be slaughtered in the polls because the voters will think they were hood winked.
Bartlett’s Labor Party must also radically shift ground. The dead hand of the right wing of the ALP which stymies social reforms has to be curtailed or amputated. If it is then Labor has an ideal opportunity to join with the Greens in enhancing human rights and social opportunity in a way that will put Tasmania ahead of the rest of the nation.
An early test may come in the form of a proposed Human Rights Act. A Tasmanian Law Reform Institute 2008 report found very strong community support for a human rights charter in Tasmania. The ALP has been too scared by its own right of centre internal opposition to the concept. The Greens like the idea and McKim says it is on the agenda.
A Human Rights Act for Tasmanians, passed by this new parliament, would be a signal to the rest of Australia that the result of Tasmania’s seemingly curious post election events has been to deliver a progressive culture that enhances the lives of the most vulnerable.
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