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An unbroken record of failure.

The last time the Labor party in Tasmania won a parliamentary majority was seventeen years and six leaders ago. Even against a tired, inept Liberal government, they still look unelectable.

Tasmanian politics has a record of sustained ineptitude, incompetence and stupidity that is unrivalled by any other Australian jurisdiction. Only the Northern Territory, the eternal basket case, comes close. If you want a lesson in how not to run a government, or an opposition, come here.

Tasmania has the worst public hospital system, the worst education outcomes, the least effective child protection system, the second-highest prisoner recidivism rates and the lowest-paid state government workers.

It’s true that it has the nation’s oldest, poorest and sickest population. But it’s also true that the system of GST redistribution makes sure each state has equal capacity to deliver services of a national standard. Tasmanian governments have a smaller tax base and a more needy population – but that’s taken into account.

But the GST system does not compensate inefficiency and incompetence. The overwhelming reason Tasmania has such poor public services is not funding but poor government. It has been going on for a very long time. All parties share the blame.

And the voters know it. The Liberal government, now on its third premier, is in disarray. The government continues to shrug off the appalling state of its public hospitals. It has failed to address Australia’s worst school retention rates. And it is riven by factional warfare between the right-wing interests aligned with Eric Abetz and the slightly more moderate wing aligned with Jeremy Rockliff, the amiable but ineffectual premier.

The premier has staked his career on a much-despised stadium on the waterfront that’s expected to cost well over a billion dollars. He caved in to the Australian Football League in an attempt to secure a state team and signed an extraordinarily one-sided contract which he then tried to keep secret.

Archer v Rockliff ... enemies
In the two-and-a-half years since the last election a premier, three ministers and a backbencher have
resigned. Two others, both right-wingers, have left the party in protest against the stadium and sit on the cross-bench. He removed the attorney-general, Elise Archer, from cabinet over bullying allegations: she promptly resigned from the party and from parliament. Harsh words continue to be exchanged.

Against this background, you’d expect the opposition to be doing well, but the chances of the state Labor party winning the next election seem as remote as ever. It is a tribute to a fundamental lack of vision and outstanding political and policy incompetence.

The highly unpopular stadium decision and its fumbled disclosure saw the Liberals’ poll plunge from 42% in February to 36% three months later. More chaos – the resignations, hospital scandals, internal warfare – followed. But the Liberals’ voter support, instead of falling further, began to recover. At 39%, they’re still a long way from winning an outright majority in an election held now – but they look as if they’re on their way.

But look at the Labor result:

When the Liberals slumped by six points between February and May 2023, Labor rose by just one. Given that the margin of error for these polls is plus or minus 3.1%, that’s statistical noise. By November, they were sinking again. Labor’s primary support in this most recent poll was 29%, back in an electoral wipeout position. They’re now revisiting some of their worst results: in the election rout of 2014, Labor’s primary vote was 27.3%.

The next chart shows primary support for the various parties at elections from 2006 – Labor’s last majority – to 2021. It also shows the most recent poll figures.

The election in 2010 was line-ball, with Labor eventually forming government in coalition with the Greens. It was disastrous for both.

The next year a new Premier and Treasurer, Lara Giddings, (pictured) was persuaded by conservative Treasury officials that the state was running out of money. They were wrong: it wasn’t. But her slash-and-burn budget in 2011 smashed services throughout the state, particularly in hospitals. The union movement turned against her and the government; so did the voters.

The Greens could have saved themselves by walking out at that stage. By staying aboard, they shared in the rout of 2014, when Greens representation was slashed from five to three, then to two. They have made no headway since.

Over the past five years, both major parties have followed similar trajectories in seat numbers, with Labor trailing the Liberals by three. Both have been hit not only by declining support for major parties – a national phenomenon – but by defections and the rise of independents.

The two right-wing Liberals who have left the party remain on the backbench. If they decide to stand as independents, their chances of re-election are vanishingly thin. Their departure at the next election, due by June 2025, would allow their replacement with more reliable and electable candidates.

One independent – Kristie Johnson, a former mayor of suburban working-class Glenorchy – was elected in 2021. She is popular in the Hobart electorate of Clark and can expect to remain in parliament for as long as she wants.

The story of David O’Byrne, a key Labor politician and a leading figure on the Left, points to the heart of what is wrong with the Tasmanian ALP.

O’Byrne (pictured) is undoubtedly ambitious and has been a rival to both the current leader, Rebecca White, and the former Premier, Lara Giddings. Both detest him, and he them. Having been kicked out of the party room, he now sits on the crossbench.

He is – or was – also one of the few genuinely competent policy-makers in the Tasmanian ALP. As shadow Treasurer, he had the measure of the Treasury Department, which he saw as fundamentally inadequate. “We have a Finance Department,” he said to me. “We don’t have a Treasury.”

Treasuries conduct economic research, and provide policy advice to governments on the basis of solid, comprehensive evidence. That’s not the case in Tasmania where, in the key area of infrastructure, they only calculate the costs of a project but never its benefits. No minister, no cabinet can make rational judgments without knowing whether a project provides value for money.

For many decades, under various secretaries and successive governments, the department’s dominant policy has been to discourage borrowing. The result is that essential infrastructure remains unbuilt.

But the Treasury almost always gets its way. It is not accustomed to being challenged, and doesn’t like opposition or argument.

Someone like O’Byrne could change that. He is now unlikely to get the chance.

This is how it happened.

The Tasmanian ALP is, at first glance, less riven by faction than many other state branches. There are only two – Left and Right – but the warfare between them is as bitter and brutal as anywhere.

Just as the membership of conservative parties tends to be more right-wing than most of the politicians, Labor members are more left-wing than their MPs; so, in the powerful ALP state conferences, the Left dominates. In the way of factions, it has used that dominance against its rivals on the Right.

Winter and White
In the lead-up to the 2021 election, the Right wanted Dean Winter, a local mayor they saw as a potential future leader, to gain preselection for the seat of Franklin. The Left firmly opposed him, citing policy differences. It became very public and very nasty.

Peter Gutwein, then the Liberal premier, called the election a year early to benefit from a surge of support for incumbent governments during the pandemic, so any stoush would play out during the campaign. Neither side backed off.

The Right, under the leadership of a new convenor, declared war in a particularly brutal way. Just as the campaign began, they leaked to the media news of two text message emails sent seven years before by Ben McGregor, the state ALP president and an endorsed candidate, to a female friend. She had recently made a complaint about the texts to the ALP office and made a statutory declaration about them; it was this that was given to journalists.

“Mr McGregor said the texts were sent in jest and his wife was by his side when he sent them,” reported the ABC. “He said he had repeatedly apologised for their contents and said the woman had gone on to campaign for him when he ran for the seat of Clark in the 2019 federal election.”

The Labor leader, Rebecca White, said he was not fit to sit in parliament and the ALP federal sacked him from the presidency. McGregor began legal action.

When the case was settled almost a year later the complainant, Sarah Darcey, said this in a statement:

“I was disappointed and surprised that the details of my complaint were shared, against my understanding, with the broader community and media. It is clear that some of those involved in the Labor Party have benefited from these statements, not me …

“At no point in time has Mr McGregor sexually harassed me. At the time of the incident, he was a friend, and he apologised for the texts he sent and their attachments, which I acknowledged and accepted.”

By then, the damage was done.

The Labor campaign was centred around health and hospitals, the only major policy the party had developed. That policy was entirely due to their shadow health minister, Dr Bastian Seidel, the former national president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and it allowed Seidel and White to dominate the second half of the campaign.

But it was not enough. The factional infighting ended whatever chances Labor had of winning the election, or even of keeping all the seats they had. Their representation dropped from ten to nine. Dean Winter was preselected and won a seat in the Franklin electorate.

After the election loss, Rebecca White resigned as leader. Party members overwhelmingly elected David O’Byrne. He lasted for 22 days.

Thirteen years before, O’Byrne had been secretary of the Liquor, Hospitality and Miscellaneous Union, when he sent sexually oriented texts to a female union employee and kissed her. O’Byrne claims the subsequent relationship with the woman had been friendly and that at one event she had sat on his lap.

But by 2021, that former employee had become the wife of the state secretary of the right-wing Australian Workers Union, who was also the new convenor of the ALP Right faction.

A few days after O’Byrne became leader, a complaint about the incident of 13 years before  was made public. Two former Labor premiers, Lara Giddings and the Right faction’s Paul Lennon – both political antagonists of O’Byrne – went on radio to call on him to resign from politics. The call was echoed by Rebecca White, who subsequently banned him from the party room.

A month later an internal investigation by a former Commonwealth industrial tribunal commissioner, Barbara Deegan, found O’Byrne’s conduct had been inappropriate and wrong but did not constitute sexual harassment. The party secretary said no further action was required.

O’Byrne remained in parliament and kept his party membership, sitting on the crossbench, voting with Labor and hoping for preselection for the coming election.

By then the party’s star recruit, Dr Bastian Seidel, had resigned in protest at the destructive and self-centred factional brawling.

“I don’t enjoy political infighting,” he said in a statement. “Compared to others – I actually don’t get a kick out of it. It is sad and depressing and too often I felt like I was a dispensable pawn in somebody else’s stupid game. I did not sign up for that …

“My brief time in politics has left me disillusioned, bitter and just sad. There has to be virtue in politics. But I just can’t see it.”

At the subsequent by-election, his Legislative Council seat went to a conservative, Liberal-aligned independent.

In the wake of the Right faction’s assault the state’s largest union, the Health and Community Services Union, disaffiliated from the party. With it went around 20% of the Tasmanian ALP’s budget. The crippling effects of the upheavals was felt in the 2022 federal election campaign, when volunteers were harder to find and money was scarce. Against a national swing to Labor away from the failing Morrison government, Tasmania went backwards, losing one seat and failing to gain another it should have won.

The failure cost Anthony Albanese at least one and potentially two seats, bringing federal Labor close to minority government.

Finally, two months after the federal election, the party’s federal executive suspended the state organisation and appointed a pair of administrators, former senators Doug Cameron and Nick Sherry, to sort out the mess. Preselection decisions during intervention are made by the national executive on advice from the administrators, but the wishes of the state parliamentary leader are critical.

On 1 December, the party announced its preselected candidates for the next election. David O’Byrne’s name was not among them. Nor was that of another key Left figure, Ryan Posselt.

For now, the rift within Labor remains as wide as ever. There has been no visible attempt to placate the Left; the Right remains dominant and will remain so until at least the end of the administration period. The administrators, despite strenuous efforts, have failed.

There will have to be another state conference at some time. It will be a doozy.

But that won’t be before the next election. At the time of writing, David O’Byrne is considering his options and talking to colleagues and supporters. If he resigns from the ALP and runs as an independent in Franklin, he will probably win. O’Byrne is no magical vote magnet but he is very well known and has been assiduously working the electorate.

“O'Byrne running as an independent would at least have a realistic chance of re-election,” wrote election analyst Kevin Bonham, “and is widely expected to win if he runs.”

He has plenty of time to make up his mind.

Could Labor actually win?

There are two reasons for the dire electoral position of the Labor Party in Tasmania. The first is the continuing factional warfare.

The second, and perhaps the most significant, is the failure of the parliamentary party, and particularly of the leader, to convince the electorate that it stands for anything at all. For the past decade and more, voters have waited in vain for any meaningful program of reform or any serious statement of purpose. There are plenty of empty platitudes – “we are here for ordinary people” – but any politician will say that. To the voter – and to most Labor supporters – it means nothing.

The entire focus of Labor’s messaging is to criticise the Liberal government. There’s plenty to criticise, but it’s not enough. People in Tasmania came to their own (generally negative) conclusions about the government long ago and are unmoved by transparently self-interested propaganda from the opposition.

Door-knockers and focus groups are discovering the same message: the electorate doesn’t like the government but don’t think Labor would be any different.

Attacking the Liberals while endorsing most of their policies looks like the hypocrisy it is.

After campaigning for the 2016 election on banning pokies from pubs and clubs, they now warmly embrace the gambling industry. Paul Lennon, the former Premier, now works as a lobbyist for the casino operator, Federal Group. While in that job, he was also a member of the ALP campaign committee for the last election.

Just as the salmon industry becomes more and more tarnished, Labor hugs it closer and closer.

Ever since losing the 2014 election, they have only once proffered a viable health policy. But its architect, Bastian Seidel, is back being a GP.

They have lambasted the stadium project but voted with the government to make it a project of state significance, taking it out of the normal planning processes and massively increasing its likelihood of being built.

There is, in short, no narrative. No vision. Nothing to convince a swinging voter to make the switch.

The Labor leadership seems convinced that the Premier will be forced, by the chaos in his own party, to call an early election. For that reason, Labor’s preselection process is over and its candidates are in place.

Three or four months ago, when the Liberal infighting was at its height, an early election seemed a real possibility. Now, the Liberals are heading upwards in the polls and Labor is going the other way. For the Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, to go to an early election while these conditions persist would be somewhere between eccentric and insane.

In theory, there is plenty of time for Labor to craft and periodically release a program of inspired and popular reform. But impressions of Rebecca White – and the whole party – solidified long ago. It’s questionable whether any policy platform can turn that around.

Labor’s chances of an outright majority are next to zero. But minority government, with the support of the Greens and independents, might still be possible.

With the next election, the House of Assembly will be expanded from 25 members to 35, meaning an extra two in each of the state’s five multi-member electorates. Labor can reasonably expect to secure some of these. But so can the Liberals.

The Greens say they are reasonably confident about expanding their membership from two to four, which would given them about 11% of the chamber. Labor says they will not go into any agreement with the Greens, knowing the possibility of such a deal is politically toxic.

But how credible is that? When the votes are in, will that pre-election pledge trump the attractions of winning government?

With both major parties in disrepute, and the failure of the Greens to attract disgruntled voters, attention is swinging towards independents. The two rogue Liberals will disappear at the next election but Kristie Johnson and (if he stands) David O’Byrne could be significant in the eventual outcome. Both would be expected to back Labor; but two independent votes, without the Greens, would be unlikely to make White, finally, Premier.

In past elections, one of the Liberals’ most potent arguments has been that it is the only party capable of forming stable, majority government; and that Labor would inevitably team up with the Greens. Those propositions have lost none of their force.

Josh Willie ... future leader?
Eighteen months is a long time in politics. It is too early to write Labor off completely. But a fourth election loss in a row – and a third defeat for Rebecca White and her leadership – right now looks unavoidable.

The party’s best hope is for new leadership after July 2025, a renewed vision and a reordered team. Peace must be found with the Left and its union donors. And the time-servers, those who are comfortable in opposition where there are modest demands and a large salary that they would not get anywhere else, must go.

There is one bright spot. Josh Willie, perhaps the most capable of the current Labor politicians, is making the switch from the upper house to the House of Assembly. If he becomes leader after another loss, he represents perhaps the best hope for a resurgent party that actually has some ideas.


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