Why Tasmania’s election matters for Morrison and Albanese

Tasmania will have about as many winnable marginal seats at the next federal election as any mainland state, meaning Saturday’s state election has the potential to deliver headaches for Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor’s Anthony Albanese.

It will be a crucial guide for the federal parties because Tasmania’s unusual electoral system matches the five federal seats perfectly with the five state seats. Even though Tasmanian voters distinguish between state and federal issues, the handling of the coronavirus pandemic is a key pitch for both Mr Morrison and Tasmania’s Liberal Premier Peter Gutwein.

Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein is riding high on his popularity for keeping the state mainly COVID-free and has been at pains to keep his distance from the Federal Parliament’s issues with women.Credit:Getty Images

Federally, the Liberals hold Bass and Braddon, while Labor holds Lyons. All three northern seats have changed hands multiple times in the past 10 elections, and they are all up for grabs in 2022. While other states also have seats with tight margins, Tasmania’s three have a long history of flipping and will command significant attention in the federal campaign. But beyond the rough guide on primary votes and how the Liberal and Labor brands are faring in Tasmania, the stakes on Saturday are high for Mr Albanese.

The state Labor campaign under leader Rebecca White began disastrously, with the dominant Left faction refusing to preselect popular local mayor Dean Winter in the seat of Franklin in the state’s south due to personal grievances and the fear he was too right-wing. It took the intervention of Ms White and federal Labor figures to get Mr Winter onto the ballot paper and the issue dominated the first 10 days of the campaign.

“The behaviour of the admin committee leading up to the preselection was appalling, absolutely abominable,” former Tasmanian premier David Bartlett told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

It has opened the door to a federal takeover of the Tasmanian branch, although installing new leadership without the support of the Left faction and powerful unions could create havoc. Some Labor sources believe it would be a recipe for disaster ahead of the 2022 federal campaign but Mr Bartlett thinks it’s time for a change.

“If federal intervention was to occur, I’m sure it would be welcomed by the rank and file in Tasmania,” he said.

Getting popular candidates with significant personal votes makes a real difference in Tasmania’s Hare-Clark electoral system, which uses proportional representation in a fairly similar way to the federal Senate.

Tasmania’s lower house has five electorates, which each send five MPs to Parliament House. To win a majority, a party needs 13 seats – usually three in three electorates and two in the remainder. So unless candidates have their own personal following, they compete with other candidates from the same parties for rusted-on voters.

The proportional system means that despite the government’s popularity, there will be no West Australian-style wipeout of the opposition.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visiting the Bridgenorth Football Club near Launceston during the 2019 election campaign.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

A senior Tasmanian Liberal, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to speak freely, said Labor had started terribly but had come back strongly in the final few weeks of the campaign.

They said Mr Gutwein would poll strongly in Bass, as would cabinet minister Michael Ferguson. The Liberals feel confident of winning three seats in each of Bass, Braddon and Lyons. But without vote-monster Will Hodgman, who quit as premier in early 2020, the party is vulnerable in Franklin and the unpredictable Hobart-based seat of Clark.

“People in Hobart love Gutwein for what he’s done, but he’s not on all of the ballot papers,” the senior Liberal said.

Labor has pushed hard on health spending and homelessness, which has spiralled since mainlanders started buying houses at inflated prices and locals put properties on Airbnb for tourists rather than rent them out to families.

‘I don’t need the Prime Minister to hold my hand.’

Mr Gutwein is riding high on his popularity for keeping the state mainly COVID-free and has been at pains to keep his distance from the Federal Parliament’s issues with women. While senior Liberals say they always planned to get Mr Morrison down to campaign, he has not appeared in Tasmania.

“I don’t need the Prime Minister to hold my hand,” Mr Gutwein said on Thursday.

Mr Gutwein is the favourite to be premier after Saturday night, but the result could take two weeks to be finalised. Both leaders have promised not to govern in minority, but their hand could be forced if the Clark result throws up a king-making independent.

Federal eyes will be on the primary votes in the three marginal seats, and whether Labor will decide to take over the state branch. Then Tasmanians can expect to see a lot more of Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese until polling day.

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