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In their last redoubt, the Liberals lurch further to the right – and oblivion.

The Tasmanian election was a disaster for both major parties, but only Labor has a path back.

All elections carry messages which parties and politicians ignore at their peril. There have been many such messages for the Liberals, and all have been ignored.

And the core message is this: you can’t be a party of government if you confine yourself to the extreme of politics. The journey from centre-right to hard-right began under John Howard, the man who described himself as the most conservative Liberal leader ever.

The last Liberal government in Australia did not actually win the Tasmanian election. That they didn’t lose either is due solely to the incompetence of the Labor leadership and the blind brutality of that party’s factional warlords.

The re-formed Liberal government will rely for its existence on unknown and unpredictable independents. That arrangement is unlikely to last for longer than a year or two, when there will be another election.

But the more significant result of the 2024 poll has been almost entirely lost in the bean-counting of votes, preferences and seats. It is that the Liberal Party in Tasmania, as in Canberra, is now controlled by the hard Right, now led by the former senator, Eric Abetz.

The “broad church” envisaged by Menzies for the Liberal Party of Australia no longer exists. Hardline conservatives have prevailed throughout most of the nation and, by winning, have destroyed their party. It is entirely plausible that the Liberals, having comprehensively lost their heartland, may never govern Australia again.

State-level losses are worse

At state level, the wreckage is even more profound. There are now two Liberals in the parliament of Western Australia. In Adelaide, the former Liberal premier’s middle-class suburban seat has been lost to the Labor government in a by-election. In Victoria, right-wingers are suing the party’s moderate leader in court. Only in NSW has the Right so far failed to gain absolute dominance.

In Queensland, the Labor state government will almost certainly be defeated by the LNP. If this seems like good news for the Liberals, take a step back.

Since the 1989 election brought the Bjelke-Petersen era to a close, the conservative parties – dominated then as now by the Nationals – have been in power for five years: two from 1996 to 1998 and three from 2012 to 2015.

In all that time, they have won just one election (in 2012): the Borbidge government came to power in 1996 as a result of a by-election. The ALP has won 11 elections.

The Liberals are in eclipse in the ACT, probably permanently. Only in the Northern Territory do they have a real chance of recurring power.

In those jurisdictions in which the Nationals have significant representation – Queensland, NSW, Victoria and federally – they are maintaining their numbers but not increasing them. The losses are borne by their Liberal Party coalition partners, being drawn further and further to the unelectable right of politics by that coalition and by their own internal warfare. In Victoria and elsewhere, fundamentalist Christian groups have infiltrated the party, conducting branch stacking with a gusto that almost rivals the ALP at its worst.

The last bastion teeters

Right now, Tasmania has Australia’s only Liberal government.

The Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, called an election a year early because, he said, the defection of two little-known right-wingers had sent his government into minority and made governing impossible. In fact, those two voted almost always with their former colleagues and would have been most unlikely to deny supply or confidence.

Rockliff, astoundingly, claimed victory
They went into the election with 11 seats in a 25-seat House of Assembly (that’s 44%) and with the usually-reliable support of the two defectors. After suffering a swing of 12% against the government, Rockliff will now lead a party with a probable 15 members in the expanded 35-seat House, or 43%. The two defectors lost their seats and the government’s fate now rests with the two or (probably) three members of the Jacquie Lambie Network. Lambie will not have, and does not expect, to wield power in the state parliament, limiting her role to mentor and helper. The JLN members are effectively independents who – unlike the two Liberal defectors – have no background in conservative politics and no allegiance to the Liberal Party, its ideals or its leadership.

Even that support may not be enough. At best, it would give the Liberals a bare majority of 18 but they would still need to supply a speaker, raising the possibility of relying on at least one other independent to keep them in power. And there, the choice is far more limited.

The new crossbench is solidly left-of-centre. The Greens will probably have five MPs, up from two in the last parliament: they are most unlikely to support the Liberals – even if the Libs were willing to ask. That leaves just two independents: David O’Byrne, a longtime Left faction stalwart who was briefly Labor leader after the last election but was brutally defenestrated by his enemies on the Right. O’Byrne is now back in parliament elected as an independent.

He has said he would enter any negotiations with “an open mind” – but supporting a Liberal government in power would effectively bar him from any return to the ALP under its new leadership.

The only other choice would be Kristie Johnston, a left-wing former mayor of the working-class Glenorchy suburb.

No party can take much comfort from these results. The Liberals suffered a 12% swing against them but that lost vote did not go to Labor or to the Greens: each of those had a swing to them of only 1% each. The Jacqui Lambie Network look like winners, but this is the first time they have run candidates. Independents also lost support.

Of the three established parties, the Liberals have had only one worse result in the past 35 years; Labor has had three worse results. And the Greens result is, at best, underwhelming

The lurch to the right

In the new Liberal lineup, Jeremy Rockliff and his moderates are now outmatched in numbers and power by their factional opponents. The Right has long been led by one of the party’s most conservative politicians, Eric Abetz.

Abetz, who lost his Senate place in a preselection stoush in 2022, has been elected to the state parliament for the southern seat of Franklin, which circles around Hobart from the eastern shore of the Derwent estuary to the Huon Valley to the south. It’s a mixture of suburban and rural, middle-class and working-class.

It’s a bit of an understatement to say that some people don’t like Eric Abetz. But although he is no vote magnet, he has almost universal name recognition – an essential ingredient in a ballot paper crowded with unknowns. He came in third with 9.3% of the primary vote, behind the Greens and Labor. He has been joined in that electorate by another recycled conservative, Jacqui Petrusma, on 8.4%.

For now, Jeremy Rockliff remains leader. It may suit Abetz and his acolytes to keep him there for now, letting him manage the mess he created with this unwise and unnecessary election. If – or when – they move against him, or if he decides to leave, the new Premier will be either Abetz himself or the current Deputy Premier and Treasurer, Michael Ferguson.

Ferguson is a hard-right factional player, a Pentecostalist who has routinely and rigorously opposed almost any progressive social reforms – same-sex marriage, abortion, the indigenous Voice to Parliament, transgender rights. His five years as Health Minister were marked by a sharp deterioration in the capacity of the state’s public hospital system, continual scandals about poor patient treatment and inadequate facilities, conflict with officials, poisonous relationships with doctors, nurses and other staff, and an evident refusal to advocate in cabinet for the financial resources needed to rebuild the system.

As Treasurer, he continued the fiscal austerity approach that characterised Peter Gutwein, his predecessor. Gutwein, who resigned two years ago, was nominally a moderate but the difference between the two Liberal factions does not extend to economic policy. In that, they remain committed Thatcherites.

Neither Ferguson nor Abetz seem likely to improve the government’s standing with the broader community. Thirty years ago, Tasmania was still much more conservative than the rest of Australia; today it is the opposite.

For at least the past two decades, electorates in Tasmania and the nation have moved further to the left. Younger people are no longer becoming more conservative with age. The mantras of small government are anathema: people want activist governments, providing the services and showing they care about something other than cutting budgets.

For as long as the community has become more progressive, the Liberals have veered in the opposite direction. There were many factors behind the 12% swing against them in the Tasmanian election, but that shift against the tide is at the heart of all their problems.

Can Labor now come back?

After leading her party to her third election loss the former leader, Rebecca White, once more resigned: this time, presumably, for keeps.

O'Byrne and White ... rivals
Over six years and three elections as leader, she failed to convince the electorate that she, or her party, stood for anything beyond the desire to be in power. Policy development, particularly in the crucial health area, was chaotic. There was no narrative: voters were given no idea of what a Labor government would do if it won office. Throughout the term, the pitch to voters was that the Liberals were doing a bad job: well, everyone knew that already but no credible alternative was being offered.

Within the party, White had become a divisive figure. Though she was nominally from the Left, brutal factional warfare from the Right at the time of the 2021 election resulted in their dominance in the parliamentary party. White owed her leadership to them and her Left faction, particularly the unions, regarded her as an unreliable figure who had lied to them.

Dean Winter
The factional disputes remain unresolved. They began before the last election when the Left faction tried to prevent the preselection of a Right favourite, Dean Winter. The Right had recently appointed a new convenor, and the response was ruthless. Just before the election the party president, Ben McGregor, was accused of sending sexually explicit emails to a former girlfriend. He was exonerated by a party inquiry which White did not accept, saying he was not a suitable person to be in the Labor Party. McGregor was removed from the position by the federal executive.

After the election loss, White did not stand for reappointment as leader. After a ballot of members the job went to the Left’s David O’Byrne, a rival of White. Almos immediately, he was publicly accused of inappropriate conduct (principally involving a kiss) to a former employee of the union of which O’Byrne, at the time, had been secretary. The alleged incident happened 13 years earlier and the complainant is now the wife of the Right faction convenor.

O’Byrne was cleared by an independent inquiry but White insisted on his removal from the party room. Throughout the subsequent term of parliament, he sat on the crossbench and voted consistently with the ALP.

Before the most recent election, White blocked his preselection for Franklin. At that point, O’Byrne resigned from the party and stood successfully as an independent.

These incidents caused massive rifts in the Tasmanian ALP. Left-wing unions were outraged and the biggest, the Health and Community Services Union, disaffiliated, taking with it affiliation contributions amounting to around 20% of the party’s budget.

Josh WIllie
Rebecca White’s position is now vacant. There are two likely candidates: the Right’s Dean Winter and the Left’s Josh Willie. At the time of writing, only Winter has nominated but Willie is expected to follow.

If there is more than one candidate, party rules say this:

Following every House of Assembly election where the Party does not form Government, and at all other times when in Opposition, the Leader shall be elected by a ballot of Party members and members of the SPLP [State Parliamentary Labor Party].

(a) The Leader must be elected by:

(i) a ballot of eligible Party members, and

(ii) a ballot of the members of the SPLP,

where the results of each ballot are given equal weighting and added together.

In the caucus, the vote is likely to be fairly evenly split. But the party membership is solidly left-wing: many are angry at the actions of the Right and see Dean Winter as complicit. Josh Willie, then, must be regarded as the overwhelming favourite.

He is perhaps the only person capable of both reuniting the party and providing a policy base for the next election, which is likely to occur well before the officially due date of 2028. If Winter got the job, the split would continue.

The Greens should stop crowing

The Greens have been widely praised – and have praised themselves – as being the real winners of this election. The figures show that’s untrue.

In 35 years, they have been unable to shift their voter support above the long-term average of around 14%. This chart also shows the disastrous effect of supporting minority governments, which they have done three times. At each subsequent election, their vote collapsed. On the basis of this evidence, there is no reason to believe the Greens will become a party of government in the foreseeable future, if ever.

The Greens share of the vote still has not fully recovered from its decision in 2010 to support Labor in its disastrous final term. Two Greens became ministers but, by failing to leave when a devastating slash-and-burn budget in 2011 plunged the state into recession, faced a rout at the next poll, going from five seats in a 25-seat House to two, where they remained until now.

The most likely result is that their representation will now be back to five, but that’s only because the House of Assembly has been expanded to 35. In an election in which both rival parties were in chaos and deep disfavour, the Greens should have got more than three extra seats. They seem to have secured two in the left-leaning Clark electorate, which covers most of Hobart but failed to win any in Braddon, which covers the north-west of the state and is the most conservative. In 2010, they managed to win a place but this time managed only 6.3% of the vote.

What now?

Tasmania urgently needs a government that has some idea about why it exists. Tasmanians are utterly tired of always being the worst-performing state with the least capable public services. In the past three years, 3,720 more people have left Tasmania for mainland states than have gone the other way: only overseas migrants have avoided net population loss.

According to surveys, voters are most concerned about, in order, the health system, cost of living, and housing. Neither major party went to the election with any coherent plan to address any of those concerns.

Public hospitals are the most inefficient and inadequate in the country. School retention rates remain as bad as ever. In a state without any pressure from increasing population, the housing and homelessness crisis is unforgivably bad.

Tasmanians, understandably, are despondent and deeply worried. Nobody likes being last all the time. After ten years of budget cuts, almost everyone knows the Liberals will not help: a YouGov poll just after Christmas found only 27% of respondents thought the government deserved to be re-elected – but they had even less faith in Labor.

It doesn’t have to be like this. But until a serious and intelligent reformist government take office, nothing will change.


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