MICHAEL FIELD Premier, Tasmania, 1989-1992

Tasmanians with a keen interest in politics will most likely have followed the last federal election, the US election and now have the run up to a state election in March to focus their attention. This article is an examination of various possible scenarios, after March 2010, and their implications.

Possum, of Possum Pollytics, is a must read for anyone seriously following national politics. In the Tasmanian scene, the poll watcher with the deepest insight and the most accurate forecasting record is Kevin Bonham. Commenting recently in the Tasmanian Times on the latest EMRS poll, he put a Labor majority government as a 50/50 possibility.

Under this scenario, David Bartlett would have a clear mandate. He would face major challenges, such as a shortage of funds, but he would have four years to implement his political program, free of political baggage built up over the previous term. This would mean a continuity of Labor in majority government for over 15 years and the Liberals and Greens would be faced with a great deal of soul searching.

Scenario two would involve Labor continuing on, but in minority. It is now clear, from statements made in the last few days by David Bartlett that this would be without any agreement being forged with the other political parties. With Labor having 14 seats and the Liberals 7 in the present parliament, there is little doubt that Labor would continue to be the largest party in the House of Assembly after the election. Unless there was a deal done between the Liberals and the Greens, a Labor Government would be sworn in and David Bartlett would continue on as Premier. This mirrors what happened with the Rundle Government in 1996.

How long this would last is anybody’s guess. Short term political considerations would limit the perspective of political players. The minority Government would be well aware that they remained in power at the whim of the Liberals and the Greens and this would be the elephant in the room during any Cabinet meeting. The tensions created would be huge and some would be looking for an election window on a continuous basis. This would put huge pressure on the Premier and his Cabinet colleagues. A no confidence motion in the Parliament could pick off any minister, at any time, for any reason.

The Liberals and Greens would also be aware of the possibility of the Governor granting an election and would have to adjust their tactics accordingly.
Another scenario is a successful no confidence motion being moved early in the term against the minority Labor Government and the Governor being satisfied that an alternative Government of the Liberals and the Greens would provide a period of political stability.

What would it take for the Greens and the Liberals to give such undertakings to provide stability? Would the undertakings relate to power sharing, particular policy outcomes or to a combination of both?

The difficulty for the Liberal Party is that there is a huge gulf between the philosophy of its core supporters and the Greens. It would be impossible for the Liberals to go to the election without clear positions on the pulp mill, forestry and Ralphs Bay. Reneging on any of these positions would create huge tensions in the Liberal Party with the distinct possibility of a split developing. The Liberals would be acutely aware of the adverse effect changes in policy would have on the investment climate, including the perceived level of “sovereign risk “ and a danger of an investment “strike”.

It is difficult to envisage the sharing of Cabinet posts in a formal coalition between the Liberals and the Greens. The Liberals would not be able to make up a full Cabinet with members who would have had previous parliamentary experience. Given that the Liberals would likely have no more that 9 or 10 seats, it would not be possible for them to provide a Speaker, a Whip and a Chairman of Committees, as well as having a Cabinet of 8 members.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that the Greens would hand government to the Liberals, without something in return. Would the positions of Speaker and/or Chairman of Committees be enough?

One thing for sure is a Liberal/Green minority Government would face difficulties passing legislation in the Legislative Council where neither party has a party member and a combination of Labor members and anti-Green Legislative Councillors would be in a clear majority. The very pro-forestry Paul Harris would have very real conflicts under these circumstances, as he has been touted as being Government Leader in the Upper House. Not to choose him and instead choosing the perceived other contender for the position, Jim Wilkinson, would create other problems.

A variation of the above scenario is that the Liberals and the Greens reach some kind of “accord” immediately after the election. If this happened, then a motion would be passed similar to that passed in 1989. The content of the “accord” would be a fascinating document. Mutual dislike of the Labor Party would be a poor basis for a long term stable relationship.

The least likely scenario is that the Liberals win enough seats to govern in their own right. The Liberals need in the vicinity of a 16% swing. It would represent the biggest swing to a political party in any general election in Australia, state or federal, since at least World War 2.

Hold on to your hats, it is going to be an interesting ride over the next 12 months.