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Why Labor failed in Tasmania.

Two weeks before the federal election, there was another vote that was little noticed in Tasmania and ignored entirely everywhere else. As omens go, though, this one was a doozy.

The Legislative Council seat of Huon switched in a by-election from Labor to a conservative independent who is certain to support the ruling state Liberal government. Less than two years before, that seat had gone the other way. Dr Bastian Seidel, an idealistic and energetic local GP with a national profile, won 15 of 19 booths and after preferences took the seat from the conservative side by 53% to 47%.

It was the ALP’s last good moment. Just 16 months later, Dr Seidel resigned from the party and from politics after savage and reckless factional warfare had consigned Labor to yet another humiliating election loss. “I did not sign up for this,” he told journalists.

The hostile takeover of the Tasmanian ALP by factional warriors of the Right destroyed the party’s president, its parliamentary leader and its electoral viability.

Queenstown ... Labor's working heartland deserts the party

 The party’s biggest donor, the Left’s Health and Community Services Union, disaffiliated. At least 20% of the budget went out the door with the union. And immediately before the federal election, other Left unions including the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, the Maritime Union and the CFMEU – defied ALP rules to endorse the independent Local Party rather than federal Labor candidates.

The Tasmanian branch, riven by factional bastardry and uninspired leadership, is  incapable of winning an election. Its ineptitude has just cost its federal colleagues two seats they badly needed, and put a third in grave danger.

Nationally, the Coalition suffered a swing against them of 5.6%. In Tasmania, there was a swing against Labor of 5.9%.

There are always many factors in any election outcome, but two stand out here: the disunity and incompetence of the state Labor machine; and the revenge of the neglected base.

Australia’s political parties operate as federations, the national organisation heavily dependent on state branches. When a state branch falters, the federal party suffers too. The best candidates may no longer be interested. Volunteers, and supporters dwindle away, the party’s brand is degraded and the flow of money dries up.

The states in which the Liberals did badly all have state branches which are shrouded in incompetence and division: Western Australia (a swing against them of 10.4%), Victoria (5.3%) and New South Wales (5.5%).

The Tasmanian swing against Labor (5.9%) follows the same pattern.

The other theme is the revenge of the neglected base. In countries without compulsory voting, parties must inspire their core supporters to go out and vote. In Australia, they have to vote anyway – so the political strategists feel they can safely ignore their base and pitch only to swinging, disengaged voters.

This was the year the base bit back.

The affluent, well-educated Liberal heartland in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth has been all but obliterated. The party’s shift to the right, which began in earnest under John Howard, accelerated as the hard-right Nationals tail wagged the Liberal dog. Climate change denial, outdated blokeish attitudes to women, heartless craziness about transexual kids and opposition to basic integrity reforms all showed how unglued the leadership had become from their core constituency.

Labor was also guilty. The clumsy attempt to parachute Kristina Keneally from the silvertail Northern Beaches into the low-income, ethnically complex western Sydney seat of Fowler deserved the reaction it got.

And it ignored the basic concerns of working-class voters in Tasmania, Australia’s poorest state. The neglected base hit back here too.

It’s not that working-class people didn’t care about climate change, an integrity commission or an indigenous voice to parliament. It’s just that they have more urgent, personal concerns.

Too many people can’t get an appointment with a GP, and can’t afford to go even if one was available. The Launceston General Hospital is the most overcrowded, under-resourced and inadequate hospital in the country – and the state’s other three main hospitals are little better.

But Labor offered little more than rhetoric. “Strengthening Medicare” was a slogan, not a policy.

In those Labor heartland areas with high unemployment and under-employment, the inadequacy of welfare and the madness of dealing with Centrelink could have been addressed by Labor but were not.

Some of the biggest swings against the ALP in Braddon and Lyons came from the traditional disadvantaged, working-class base. For Braddon, Queenstown on the west coast registered a swing of 9.9% against Labor and 17.5% in pre-polling. It was 12.5% in Rosebery, 11.6% in Zeehan. In low-income East Devonport, Labor lost 10.4%.

In Lyons, the voters in working-class areas to the north and east of Hobart deserted Labor – Gagebrook (8%), Brighton (7.7%), New Norfolk (5.8%).

In Bass, with fewer economically depressed communities, the swing against Labor was only 0.7%. The Liberal incumbent, Bridget Archer, is not a vote magnet after all.

In three years time, Tasmania faces state and federal elections. That doesn’t give much time for the ALP to turn its fortunes around. It’s probable that the new federal government, having established itself and with the Liberals in disarray, will find the ticker to confront the nation’s healthcare crisis, the inadequacy of welfare and the bastardry of Centrelink. Ending the local factional wars might take rather longer.

The party’s biggest donor, the Left’s Health and Community Services Union, disaffiliated. At least 20% of the budget went out the door with the union. And immediately before the federal election, other Left unions including the Communications, Electrical and Plumbing Union, the Maritime Union and the CFMEU – defied ALP rules to endorse the independent Local Party rather than federal Labor candidates.

The Tasmanian branch, riven by factional bastardry and uninspired leadership, is  incapable of winning an election. Its ineptitude has just cost its federal colleagues two seats they badly needed, and put a third in grave danger.

Nationally, the Coalition suffered a swing against them of 5.6%. In Tasmania, there was a swing against Labor of 5.9%.

There are always many factors in any election outcome, but two stand out here: the disunity and incompetence of the state Labor machine; and the revenge of the neglected base.

Australia’s political parties operate as federations, the national organisation heavily dependent on state branches. When a state branch falters, the federal party suffers too. The best candidates may no longer be interested. Volunteers, and supporters dwindle away, the party’s brand is degraded and the flow of money dries up.

The states in which the Liberals did badly all have state branches which are shrouded in incompetence and division: Western Australia (a swing against them of 10.4%), Victoria (5.3%) and New South Wales (5.5%).

The Tasmanian swing against Labor (5.9%) follows the same pattern.

The other theme is the revenge of the neglected base. In countries without compulsory voting, parties must inspire their core supporters to go out and vote. In Australia, they have to vote anyway – so the political strategists feel they can safely ignore their base and pitch only to swinging, disengaged voters.

This was the year the base bit back.

The affluent, well-educated Liberal heartland in Melbourne, Sydney and Perth has been all but obliterated. The party’s shift to the right, which began in earnest under John Howard, accelerated as the hard-right Nationals tail wagged the Liberal dog. Climate change denial, outdated blokeish attitudes to women, heartless craziness about transexual kids and opposition to basic integrity reforms all showed how unglued the leadership had become from their core constituency.

Labor was also guilty. The clumsy attempt to parachute Kristina Keneally from the silvertail Northern Beaches into the low-income, ethnically complex western Sydney seat of Fowler deserved the reaction it got.

And it ignored the basic concerns of working-class voters in Tasmania, Australia’s poorest state. The neglected base hit back here too.

It’s not that working-class people didn’t care about climate change, an integrity commission or an indigenous voice to parliament. It’s just that they have more urgent, personal concerns.

Too many people can’t get an appointment with a GP, and can’t afford to go even if one was available. The Launceston General Hospital is the most overcrowded, under-resourced and inadequate hospital in the country – and the state’s other three main hospitals are little better.

But Labor offered little more than rhetoric. “Strengthening Medicare” was a slogan, not a policy.

In those Labor heartland areas with high unemployment and under-employment, the inadequacy of welfare and the madness of dealing with Centrelink could have been addressed by Labor but were not.

Some of the biggest swings against the ALP in Braddon and Lyons came from the traditional disadvantaged, working-class base. For Braddon, Queenstown on the west coast registered a swing of 9.9% against Labor and 17.5% in pre-polling. It was 12.5% in Rosebery, 11.6% in Zeehan. In low-income East Devonport, Labor lost 10.4%.

In Lyons, the voters in working-class areas to the north and east of Hobart deserted Labor – Gagebrook (8%), Brighton (7.7%), New Norfolk (5.8%).

In Bass, with fewer economically depressed communities, the swing against Labor was only 0.7%. The Liberal incumbent, Bridget Archer, is not a vote magnet after all.

In three years time, Tasmania faces state and federal elections. That doesn’t give much time for the ALP to turn its fortunes around. It’s probable that the new federal government, having established itself and with the Liberals in disarray, will find the ticker to confront the nation’s healthcare crisis, the inadequacy of welfare and the bastardry of Centrelink. Ending the local factional wars might take rather longer.

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