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As Tasmanians go to the polls this weekend, the outcome remains surprisingly uncertain, balanced precariously on a crumbling health system and preferential voting that favours personalities over parties. By Danielle Wood.

Health key to Tasmanian election

Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein at Cripps Bakery in Launceston.
Credit: AAP / Sarah Rhodes

On Sunday, Tasmanians may wake to a re-elected Liberal government with a narrow majority, headed by Premier Peter Gutwein, who has ridden a wave of pandemic-born popularity. Or they may not.

Election-watchers, starved of recent poll data, are reluctant to make predictions, not because they consider the Tasmanian ballot a knife-edge contest, but because the island state’s preference-sensitive Hare–Clark voting system allows for so many possible outcomes.

The alternative to a Liberal win is unlikely to be a victory for the Labor Party, headed by Rebecca White – instead, it is likely to be a hung parliament with Greens and independents holding the balance of power: a situation that Tasmania’s major parties regard with exaggerated terror.

Given that Premier Gutwein has pledged to resign his position rather than lead a minority government – and that White has declared her party will not govern in minority – a hung parliament would deliver Tasmania into interesting times.

Ostensibly, this election, which comes a year earlier than expected, was triggered by the breakdown of the Liberals’ relationship with high-profile member of the house of assembly and speaker Sue Hickey. After Gutwein announced Hickey would not be re-endorsed as a Liberal candidate, she quit and became an independent, leaving the government without a majority.

However, the MHA for Clark, Madeleine Ogilvie – an independent originally elected for Labor – joined the Liberal Party shortly after Hickey’s election-triggering defection, effectively returning the Liberals to majority. In light of this, it’s unsurprising that commentators view Gutwein’s early election call as an opportunistic move to capitalise on goodwill generated by his hardline stance on Covid-19 border closures.

This is Gutwein’s first election as Liberal Party leader. He became premier in January 2020, after the shock midterm resignation of Will Hodgman, the popular youngest member of a Tasmanian political dynasty. Gutwein goes to the polls with the Tasmanian public grateful to have been protected from the worst of the pandemic, but troubled by entrenched problems with health and housing.

Labor’s Rebecca White lagged well behind the premier in last year’s polling, but she trounced him in a late-campaign debate. And she issued a rousing “game on” response to a tweet by ABC political analyst Antony Green when he suggested her pregnancy might “complicate” the Labor campaign.

Debate over poker machines, which dominated Tasmania’s last election, has quietened now that Labor has abandoned its policy of removing them from pubs and clubs. The Greens, some independents and the occasional rogue ALP hopeful are now the only candidates campaigning on this divisive topic.

While Booker Prize-winning author Richard Flanagan made a pre-election splash with the release of his book Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry, the environmental cost of fish-farming has yet to capture the public imagination in Tasmania to the extent it would affect election results.

Property prices on the island are rising, affordable rentals are hard to find and public housing is in high demand. But it’s the state’s beleaguered health system that has become the primary battleground on which the major parties are slugging it out. The Liberals claim to have injected $4 billion into health; Labor’s counterclaim is that the Liberals have in fact slashed the sector by $1.6 billion.

Independent health policy analyst Martyn Goddard says while both parties’ figures are rubbery, the problems in the health system are all too concrete.

He says the Liberals have refused to borrow for the improvement of health infrastructure and that this has led to devastating outcomes, with major public hospitals routinely operating at – or over – capacity, and “bed lock” contributing to about 100 preventable deaths each year.

The median wait time for an ambulance is now more than 32 minutes, according to the state secretary for the Health and Community Services Union, Tim Jacobson. The next longest wait time in Australia is New South Wales, with an average of 24 minutes.

Jacobson says that ambulance ramping – where patients are left in the back of an ambulance because the emergency department is full – is “the new normal” in Tasmania. He says about once a month every ambulance in the state’s south is ramped and unavailable for deployment.

“There just isn’t enough space for people who are sick,” Goddard says. “In Australia there are around 250 hospitals with emergency departments and of these, the Launceston General is the worst for bed-lock and the Royal [Hobart] is the fourth worst.”

As of last December, more than 12,000 people were on a waitlist for elective surgery. Category 3 patients, whose conditions are considered non-urgent, make up more than half of this list, and Goddard says these people “are unlikely ever to be seen”.

The elective surgery waitlist is preceded by a waitlist for outpatient appointments. “If you like, the waitlist just to get onto the waitlist,” Goddard says. Government figures show 25 per cent of people will wait longer than the number of days listed for an outpatient appointment.

The Royal Hobart Hospital outpatient waitlist provides a striking example: people requiring neurosurgery will wait 615 days if their case is urgent, 1405 days if semi-urgent and 1911 days if non-urgent.

“There would hardly be anywhere in the developed world with a worse health system than ours,” Goddard says of Tasmania.

He believes that anxiety and distress over health-related issues could translate into votes for the ALP, which has ambitious plans to reduce elective surgery wait times and boost out-of-hospital care facilities.

How the numbers fall on polling day, says University of Tasmania political analyst Associate Professor Richard Herr, may come down to whether Tasmanians feel that this snap election is a “cynical” exercise by the premier.

He points out that recent elections in the Northern Territory, Queensland and Western Australia – which all returned the incumbents, following perceived good performances during the pandemic – were held as part of the normal political cycle. Gutwein, by contrast, has gone to the polls well ahead of schedule and, notably, before handing down a budget to outline his government’s vision for the state after Covid-19.

Although Gutwein and White are driving home their majority-government-or-bust message, the state co-ordinator of Planning Matters Alliance Tasmania, Sophie Underwood, says fear of minority government may not be as widespread in the community as the major parties imagine.

“We’re seeing a lot of strong independents standing,” she says, “and minority government can potentially benefit democracy because it allows for major parties to be more effectively held to account. Health, housing, transport and the environment – they’re all intricately linked, and we need better and more transparent planning in order to achieve sustainability in all these areas. A bigger Tasmania isn’t necessarily a better one.”

 

Tasmania’s house of assembly once had 35 members – seven in each of its five electorates. By the late 1980s, the Greens had expanded their support base to the point where they held five seats. In 1994, on the pretext of cost-cutting, but clearly frustrated by the Greens’ disruption of their two-party political comfort zone, the Labor and Liberal parties teamed up to reduce the number of parliamentarians in the lower house to 25, and in the upper house from 19 to 15.

The reduction made it difficult for minor parties to secure seats in significant numbers. But the small parliament continues to contribute to unexpected election results, since there’s a small margin between holding a comfortable majority (15 seats) and being in minority (12 seats).

Politics in Tasmania is personal, and voters often respond more to candidates’ personalities than to their political allegiances. Add to this the nature of the Hare–Clark system with its multiple members representing electorates, and you have an environment in which intra-party turnover is common.

Take the southern electorate of Franklin, where the absence of Will Hodgman leaves a tantalising vacuum. The ALP’s David O’Byrne will almost certainly hold his seat, but if the party’s new star candidate – Kingborough mayor Dean Winter – is elected, it would likely be at the expense of his party’s incumbent, Alison Standen.

Another electorate to watch is the central Hobart division of Clark, where two conspicuous independents – Sue Hickey and Glenorchy mayor Kristie Johnston – plus the leader of the Greens, Cassy O’Connor, are expected to provide solid competition for the major party players.

In the northern electorate of Bass, Premier Gutwein’s quota surplus – which, under Hare–Clark, is passed on to other candidates according to voter preference – is likely to have a significant impact. But the possibility of the Liberals picking up four of the five seats remains remote.

It’s hard to tell whether the winds of change are truly blowing on the island. It may well be that the cross-breezes will deliver a parliament that looks much like the present one, at least in terms of its party-political composition, if not in terms of individual winners and losers.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Hare running".

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Danielle Wood is a Tasmanian writer and academic.