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Labor-Liberal amalgamation: Tasmania’s future?

By Peter Henning - posted Thursday, 28 May 2009

Last week two of Tasmania’s former premiers both decided, almost simultaneously, to enter the public debate about Tasmania’s future in relation to the issue of forestry policy.

Michael Field ("Diminishing the standing of Parliament") has suggested that worsening divisions in Tasmania about forestry “flow from differing value systems not some monopoly of the truth”, and that arguments such as mine, expressed in a recent op-ed ("Working For The Man") “diminish the standing of parliament”. Robin Gray ("Gray’s vision: the LibLab Coalition"; see also: "Bartlett’s LibLab Accord") has urged the formalisation of the right-wing Labor-Liberal accord in Tasmania into an anti-Green political coalition or merger, akin perhaps to the federal Liberal-National coalition, but perhaps the creation of a new right-wing political party.

I agree with the assumptions and understandings which underpin what both Field and Gray are saying. Field is right about a clash of value systems, and Gray is right that there is no difference between the Labor government and the Liberal opposition (opposition is a misnomer).


The only difference between Field and Gray is one of style: of modes of presentation of the same mindset. Of course “differences flow from differing value systems”. One value system wants to preserve a healthy water system, a healthy atmosphere, a healthy land, a healthy future and a sustainable and diverse economy. Field’s value system is relativist in those matters and is (at best) - because it is based on a world view which commodifies everything in strictly material terms - incapable of integrating the ecological critique with 19th century notions of progress in social policy.

Gray’s suggestion (at best) reflects a similar value system, albeit from an unambiguous neo-liberal capitalist perspective. In practical policy terms there is no difference between Field and Gray on matters of forestry, because both endorse whole-scale clear-felling; aerial spraying of catchments; wood chipping at double the current annual rate; forestry “regeneration” for the establishment of monocultural plantations; triazines in drinking water, dioxins in the marine environment; the trashing of the Tamar Valley; the trashing of farming communities in some of Australia’s most productive agricultural districts; and wholesale conversion of Tasmania’s best agricultural land into Eucalyptus nitens, a totally useless timber for anything except chips.

This falls far short of a comprehensive list in relation to the ramifications of differing “values”, but it is an adequate summary.

Robin Gray’s suggestion of a coalition or merger of Labor-Liberal is interesting and informative on several levels. It is in one sense an affirmation from a corporate insider and Liberal Party insider of a Labor-Liberal accord in Tasmania at an “ideological” or “philosophical” level (or the absence of any such underpinnings) and in policies across the spectrum. It is an affirmation that the only differences are the names of the parties and the politicians. It acknowledges that in policy and ideas and beliefs they are interchangeable. It is an affirmation from a corporate perspective (that is, Gunns’ perspective) that the parties are the same, Labor is Liberal and vice versa, and David Bartlett is Will Hodgman.

On another level it is indicative of a growing awareness among Tasmanian right-wing power-brokers across the corporate-political-union-bureaucratic-pseudo-NGO network that they are losing their grip on the reins of power and influence.

It is this aspect, in relation to Gray’s suggestion, which deserves more serious consideration and analysis. It is warranted for one very important reason. On most occasions in Australian political history since federation when major political parties have merged or amalgamated they have done so from the right, to preserve or enhance personal position, and with a view to destroy what they perceive as a strong reformist agenda, or a challenge to the prevailing power relationships in society, particularly in the distribution of wealth.


There are at least three times since federation in 1901 when this sort of political amalgamation has occurred at federal level (prompting state alignments), and it is pertinent to understand the circumstances of those political scenarios in relation to a merging of Labor-Liberal in Tasmania.

In 1909 the anti-Labor political parties in the federal parliament, the seemingly irreconcilable Free Trade Party and the Liberal-Protectionist Party, came together under Deakin in a successful attempt to destroy Fisher’s Labor government. The Fusionist government consisted of every politician opposed to the Labor Party irrespective of their views about anything else. Deakin wrote to his sister that “behind me sit the whole of my opponents since Federation”.

In the first decade of the 20th century the Labor Party was the party of reform, seeking change and legislative action on behalf of labour against ingrained establishment notions of class and privilege and the distribution of wealth, and was seen as a threat to the power of those in control of the means of production in all sectors of the economy.

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First published in the Tasmanian Times on May 25, 2009.

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About the Author

Peter Henning is a former teacher and historian. He is a former Tasmanian olive grower, living in Melbourne.

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