A gaffe, a blunder which could cost the Greens a second seat in Denison. That was the immediate reaction of Dr Pete Hay, Reader in Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Tasmania, and a former political adviser, to Greens leader Peg Putt’s assertion that she would happily be Deputy Premier Peg to Premier Paul.

Dr Hay — in an unpublished comment from his interview (Trashing the big lie) — said the Putt declaration was a misjudgment which would startle questioning and more conservative voters fed up with Labor and Liberal and considering voting Green and prompt them to scuttle back into the Liberal or Labor folds. “They should have kept their powder dry,” said Dr Hay.

Today, Wayne Crawford on the prospect of Deputy Premier Peg:

With some justification, both the ALP and the Liberals are counting on the prospect of a “Deputy Premier Peg Putt” giving the electorate such a fright that it will increase the likelihood of a majority government being returned and the Greens being sidelined out of harm’s way to their existing place on the opposition crossbench.

It is one thing for the party to exercise its role, described by their founding leader Senator Bob Brown as “keeping a firm hand on the shoulder of government” (or as Australian Democrats founder Don Chipp put it, “keeping the bastards honest”), but it would be another thing entirely to have a radical left-wing party (by Tasmanian standards) calling the shots as part of the Cabinet.

Crawford points out that although Tasmanians regularly elect minority governments, the majority do not do so deliberately. About 80% or so of the electorate vote for one or other of the major parties to go into government in their own right:

It’s the other group of around 20%, who swing their votes around and from time to time elect Greens or Independents out of frustration with the “majors” who cause the problem for Labor and the Liberals and who have given the Greens their influence.

It may be true, and I believe it is, that the creative tension generated in minority government leads to a very healthy, very democratic and ultimately a productive reformist form of government. The occasional well-hung parliament can do wonders.
But the fact is the electorate at large does not much like it, even though it regularly returns minority governments, usually to sort out the mess created by the arrogance of one of the major parties exercising untrammelled power for too long.

Crawford quotes Nick Evers’ Tasmanian Times article (2006 hopes and aspirations) as noting, wryly, that it was ironic how the Labor and Liberal parties spent so much time bad-mouthing the Greens, yet when the House of Assembly was “hung” it was always the Greens they first turned to for help. Evers also says: “I don’t much care who wins the Tasmanian election” since it would not make much difference to the State, so similar were the policies of the major parties.

Crawford recalls when the Laborials put their heads together to “hatch and implement Tasmania’s most dramatic political and constitutional reform for generations: the ill-conceived plan to slash the size of State Parliament, in the mistaken belief it would destroy the Greens’ chances of election. In fact all it did was reduce the effectiveness of Parliament, put untold strain on the Westminster system as practised here, and increase the likelihood of minority governments.”

Crawford concludes that in Tasmania, Labor and Liberal are both essentially Centre-Right parties, with Labor more towards the Centre, and the Liberals farther out to the Right:

It’s not until you get to the Greens that you reach the substantive areas of policy difference: the opposition to the pulp mill as it is presently proposed; the demands to save native forests from logging; the opposition to maintaining the costly Sydney-Devonport ferry; a change in emphasis from major resource-based industrial development to small, eco-friendly businesses with niche markets; reforming drug laws in favour of decriminalisation rather than zero tolerance; pro-euthanasia.

It’s because Labor has, with a few notable exceptions such as the retiring Judy Jackson, vacated the left-hand end of the political spectrum, that the Greens have been able to move in and provide the more radical agenda of Tasmanian politics.

Crawford concludes that all the bluff and bluster if Tasmania does end up with another minority administration, the Lennon Government, as the party holding the existing ministerial commissions, will have no option but to find a way to work with either the Greens or the Liberals to fulfil the constitutional obligation to provide government.

While the Liberals have spent the week repeating ad nauseam their pledge “to govern in majority or not at all,” they have never actually ruled out staying in opposition but working co-operatively with a minority Labor government, altruistically, of course, as a force for political stability, but with the added incentive that it would completely sideline their left-wing nemesis, the Greens.

Wayne Crawford’s full column is in today’s Mercury. Crawford is an associate editor of The Mercury. He can be contacted at: waynecrawford@msn.com.au