Greens Monster: How To Lose An Election, Tasmania-Style

PERHAPS TERRIFIED of voter retribution over their dalliance with the Communist Party Greens, Labor figures — both in Tasmania and on the mainland — are lining up to disown the ALP’s alliance with the Greens, and to trash the Greens themselves. Although voters are sick of Labor and now awake to the nature of the Greens, it won’t work: Tasmanians are set to throw the Left from office, and its disunity will simply fuel their intent to do so.

We don’t spend a great deal of time talking about Tasmanian politics in this column, and I suppose there’s a reason for that: very often, little that happens on the Apple Isle at a state level has much effect on us here on the mainland.

This may change, however, with Tasmania and South Australia heading off to the polls in March — and in Tasmania’s case, a change of government seems virtually certain. We’ll keep an eye on these contests as they develop.

I was originally going to entitle this article “Greens: ALP Comes To Its Senses In Tasmania,” but even the most cursory consideration of what’s been going on in Tasmania suggests the game Tasmanian Labor is playing should be taken with no more than a grain of salt.

Some time ago (and forgive me — I haven’t had time today to locate the piece) I wrote of the nature of governing alliances between one of the major parties and the Greens; in every instance to date where such an arrangement has been pursued — Tasmanian Labor under Michael Field (1989-92), the Tasmanian Liberals under Tony Rundle (1996-98) and federal Labor under Julia Gillard (2010-13), the major party involved has gone on to face landslide defeat at the hands of voters when next an election fell due.

I think precisely the same fate will befall the ALP in Tasmania in about nine weeks’ time.

There has been a debate going on within the Tasmanian branch of the ALP for some time, essentially about how to rid itself of the odious stench of the Greens without bringing down the state government; some readers will be unaware that there are two Greens MPs who serve in the Labor state cabinet.

To some extent, it had to be so; the 2010 state election saw the electorate return 10 ALP MPs, 10 Liberals and 5 Greens. Both the then-Premier, David Bartlett, and the Liberal leader, Will Hodgman, had made stout declarations of their refusal to serve in any kind of alliance with the Greens prior to that election, but Bartlett quickly reneged on his pledge.

Tasmanian Labor therefore enters the state election period fighting on three unenviable fronts: the first is the general economic torpor that has enveloped the Apple Isle on its 16-year watch, particularly in later years; the second is the “it’s time” consideration that has been such a contributing factor in helping kill off unpopular, long-term state Labor regimes in the past few years.

The same issues of longevity will also adversely affect the re-election campaign of South Australian Labor in March.

But the third is this issue with the Greens: one destined to intensify the urge of Tasmanians to swing the proverbial baseball bats at the state government, and one the ALP will find impossible to outrun.

There has been a lot of noise emanating from Tasmania for months now from Labor circles, with a debate conducted in full public view on how best to dump the Greens whilst not risking the truncation of the remainder of Labor’s term of government.

Unlike the Gillard government, the Tasmanian Greens — despite federal leader Christine Milne being a Tasmanian, and once helping make up the Greens’ numbers in state Parliament — have declined to commit the act of infidelity themselves, robbing Labor of the opportunity to present its hands as clean (which federal Labor also sought to do).

The imperative of keeping Labor bums in green ministerial leather is the kind of imperative destined to impress Tasmanian voters no end, I suspect. The same can be said of the Greens, with their two Cabinet ministers.

Now, prominent union figure and senior Labor identity Paul Howes has weighed in, calling on the ALP to ensure its split with the Greens in Tasmania marks “a final end” to its power-sharing with “fringe political parties” in Australia.

Readers will see, from the article I have linked, that Howes indulges in a rant against the Greens and their alleged (actual) misdeeds in Tasmania; the irony is that what he has to say makes perfect sense, but that any action by the ALP — in this case, in Tasmania — to act on it is implausible, and cannot and should not be believed.

Contrary to Howes’ exhortation that “if we haven’t learnt our lessons after the last few years, then nothing will teach us,” not 18 months ago — after yet another typically hung Parliament resulted from an election in the ACT — Labor’s Katy Gallagher continued in office after negotiating a formal alliance with the sole Greens MP, Shane Rattenbury. That unedifying spectacle took place well into the life of the dysfunctional Gillard government, and at a time Labor figures nationally were in open warfare with the Greens as a result of the damage the ALP-Greens coalition was doing to Labor support in reputable opinion polls.

“You’d have to have rocks in your head to be advocating this type of future again,” Howes said.

The problem is, simply, that we’ve heard this kind of thing before; Labor has solemnly promised not to form these kinds of relationships with the Greens if found wanting for a majority at an election time and again — and then gone ahead and done it anyway.

There is no reason to believe the same thing wouldn’t happen again if another hung Parliament results from the looming state election.

And this, in turn, only increases the prospect of an outright Liberal victory.

Hodgman is going around again in March; he promised not to deal with the Greens four years ago, and he didn’t. The odds are very much on him becoming Premier of Tasmania.

Yet it isn’t possible to say “the next Premier of Tasmania” because — in the latest manifestation of an old Labor disease, rumours abound of a challenge to the incumbent Premier, Lara Giddings.

It’s not difficult to see why; the latest EMRS poll of Tasmanian state voting intentions had the Liberals on 49%, with the ALP on just 22% and the Greens on 19%. Other polls on the Apple Isle consistently find the Liberal Party doing better than 50% of the vote.

But Labor is a creature that doesn’t learn its lessons, even the hard way; just like the 16-year-old ALP government in NSW that was kicked out in 2011, Tasmanian Labor, too, has already had four Premiers in 16 years: the first of these, the popular and telegenic Jim Bacon, resigned and later died after being struck down with lung cancer and a brain tumour. But successors Paul Lennon and David Bartlett both resigned in circumstances that could most kindly be described as controversial. The current Premier, Lara Giddings, is as good as useless.

Even the chaotic NSW branch of the ALP failed to spin the door five times in 16 years; should their Taswegian counterpart elect to do so, it will be an additional nail in an electoral coffin long since nailed shut.

With friends like the Greens, Labor can ill-afford enemies; yet under the Greens’ patronage, economic activity and growth in Tasmania has ground to a complete halt: not bad for a state that could, and should, be a booming example to the rest of the country.

Australia, and its states, needs minority government like it needs the proverbial hole in the head. Yet increasingly, the balance of power in such situations falls to the Greens, and without fail, it is the Labor Party which acts on the opportunity.

Howes — despite the fact I detest utterly the union movement he represents and the brand of politics he stands for — is nonetheless someone I have some respect for; probably because he knows what he stands for and, more importantly, why he stands for it.

In this case he is right. Labor would have to have rocks in its collective head to entertain ever repeating the litany of politically lethal alliances with the Greens that it has been cohort to over the years. As a passionate Labor man, he is dead right in his assessment that such things should never happen again.

But the more things change, the more they stay the same, and the only way for Tasmanians to ensure the prospect of another Labor-Greens government does not materialise is to vote for the Liberal Party in March.

It seems the Tasmanian electorate is aware of this, and ready to proceed accordingly.