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Tasmania faces minority rule

By Greg Barns - posted Friday, 17 March 2006

On the face of it, Saturday's election should be a breeze for Tasmania's Labor Premier Paul Lennon. After a decade of sluggish growth and population decline, things have never been better in the island state. But largely because of the state's electoral system, Lennon is facing the prospect of governing in minority.

Tasmania uses the Hare-Clark voting system, in which five House of Assembly MPs are elected in each of five electorates. Lennon's Government has 14 MPs in the House of Assembly, the Liberals seven and the Greens four. If the ALP loses two seats, it is in minority territory. The opinion polls suggest that Labor, which has been in office since 1998, could lose a seat to the Greens in the northwest seat of Braddon and one to the Liberals in the rural electorate of Lyons or Hobart-based Denison.

Although Lennon has refused to rule out governing without a majority in the House of Assembly, given the personalities and politics involved it's unlikely that such a situation would last long. Lennon, for example, is a strong supporter of Tasmania's forestry industry and the development of a large-scale pulp mill in the north of the state by timber company Gunns. The Greens remain implacably hostile towards Gunns and the present regulation of this industry.


Tasmanians have experienced minority government twice in the past 16 years.

In 1989, Labor and the Greens combined to form a government led by Labor's Michael Field. He managed, under those difficult circumstances, to reduce the state's enormous debt.

But the Greens, led by Bob Brown, refused to support the government after only 2 1/2 years in office and Labor lost the 1992 election to the Liberals in a landslide.

Then in 1998 the Liberal Party, which governed for two years with the support of the Greens, lost office to a man who became one of Tasmania's most popular premiers, Labor's Jim Bacon, who died of lung cancer last year.

If Lennon is not re-elected in his own right on Saturday, it will not be because of political ineptitude.

The former union leader, who was Bacon's loyal deputy for a decade, has focused on the feel-good factor in this election campaign, and for good reason. Tasmania's economy, thanks largely to steps taken by Field and his Liberal successors Ray Groom and Tony Rundle, is growing at a fast clip of about 3.5 per cent to 4 per cent. Unemployment - long in excess of 10 per cent - is down to 6.7per cent, and business confidence and investment have been at record highs. In addition, Lennon has cleverly removed planks of the Greens flagship environmental platform.


Days before the election was announced, Lennon brokered a deal between millionaire adventurer Dick Smith, Brown and landowners to save Recherche Bay, an area of significant archeological value (the French landed there in the 1790s), from logging.

And last year, along with Prime Minister John Howard, Lennon announced a phasing out of the logging of old-growth forests and the locking away of thousands of hectares of forests from loggers' chainsaws.

So what of the Liberals? After a disastrous 2002 election, when the party recorded its lowest vote in recent years and was reduced to a rump in parliament, its leader Rene Hidding has worked successfully to restore party unity and credibility. But winning six seats seems an impossible task.

The Greens have campaigned as the real choice for Tasmanians. Predictably, they argue that the Liberals and Labor are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The Greens have focused their campaign on the state's creaking healthcare system, the plight of low-income earners and the proposed Gunns pulp mill. But as polling day approaches, the prospect of the Greens holding the balance of power in the parliament may drive swinging voters back to Labor.

The refusal of the Greens to rule out causing a constitutional crisis by blocking the government's budget has not helped that party's cause. As Greens leader Peg Putt told The Australian on March 1: "I'm not about to sit here and say: 'You can get the passage of your budget for nothing."'

A majority government is desirable. After years of being the nation's economic and social basket case, Tasmania's best chance of four more years of economic sunshine is through ensuring political stability.

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First published in The Australian on March 16, 2006.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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