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The meandering mess of Tasmania’s politics.

Tasmania’s three Lambie-ist MPs, now propping up an unpopular and inept state government, are getting cold feet. When will the plug be finally pulled?

The three unwise Lambies: Rebekah Pentland, Andrew Jenner and Miriam Beswick

Tasmanian politics, the nation’s longest-running situation comedy, is almost three months into its latest season. This season, like the previous two, is likely to be short.

The story so far...

In March this year the Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, called a snap election only three years into a theoretical four-year term. The parliament, he said, had become unworkable because two mutinous right-wing Liberals had effectively put the government into minority.

Rockliff ... losing control
The governor, Barbara Baker – a former Federal Court judge – did not have to grant an election but, somewhat controversially, did anyway. But when the results came in, it became clear that Rockliff’s crash-through-or-crash stunt had backfired badly.

In a parliament newly expanded from 25 to 35 seats, everyone did well except the two major parties. In 2021, the Liberals won 13 seats; this time, with an extra 10 seats available but with a swing against them of 12.1%, they ended with 14. To govern, they need the support of at least 18 members.

Labor did little better. The leader, Rebecca White – having failed over eight years to convince voters than she or her party stood for anything much – lost her third election. An anaemic swing to Labor of 0.8% gave them just one of the extra ten seats. White resigned and was replaced by Dean Winter, a protégé of the Right faction.

The new and expanded crossbench changed the state’s political scene profoundly and perhaps permanently. The Greens got five, up from two in the previous parliament, and – for the first time ever – have two members in a single electorate. There are now three independents, all generally progressive.

Then there are the Lambies.

Three candidates nominated by Jacqui Lambie under her JLN banner were elected. All were political novices and all have displayed shocking naivety. They immediately signed an agreement with the Liberals that gave the governing party almost everything in return for almost nothing.

But that is just the beginning.

Now read on …

After the factional warfare which beset Labor’s 2021 campaign, the Right’s Dean Winter, the new Labor leader, was considered a divisive character. Since assuming the top job in April, he has managed to unite the party, appointing two leading Left figures to the key Treasury and Health shadow portfolios.

Winter ... unifying
Both are well-regarded and capable. Leading factional allies have been relegated to minor portfolios.

But the party has yet to craft a convincing narrative and has not developed any significant policies. The single poll since the election showed no meaningful change since the election.

If an election was held now, Labor would lose again.

But an election is most unlikely for at least another ten months. The Lambies’ agreement with the Liberals was for only a year and will end in April. But it may not continue beyond that, at least in anything like its present one-sided form.

In that agreement, the Lambies surrendered the right to support a no-confidence motion in the government under any circumstances. They appear to have decided they want to be independents after all, and will insist on the right to vote against the Liberals in a confidence motion.

No election, then, until at least April. But after?

Labor will not move or support a no-confidence motion in the government until it is ready to fight an election. That is unlikely to be until later in 2025.

But the government is shaky. They rely not only on the three Lambies but also on two independents to form a majority. That has led to three embarrassing losses in the House of Assembly.

First, a speaker had to be elected. There were two candidates: the Liberal incumbent, Mark Shelton; and Labor’s Michelle O’Byrne. O’Byrne, seen by the crossbench as the best-and-fairest of the two, won. One of the independents voting for her was her brother, David. He was briefly Labor leader before being forced out by vicious factional brawling; he was denied preselection for this election and stood instead as an independent, costing Labor a seat.

Then, in quick succession, opposition parties introduced two bills of their own: Labor’s to introduce industrial manslaughter as a crime, and the Greens to repeal laws against begging.

Normally, neither would get a hearing but this time they did. Both, to the government’s extreme annoyance, were passed within two hours on a single June afternoon.

Too much weight is perhaps being given to the Lambies’ influence on affairs. The industrial manslaughter bill passed on the voices, so how they voted is unclear. On the begging legislation, they supported the government but the bill passed anyway.

If a motion of no confidence in the government was supported by Labor and the rest of the crossbench – the Greens and the three independents – the Lambies would be irrelevant. The motion would pass, the government would resign and a new election would be called.

It would not be in the Lambies’ interests to support any measure that shortened the life of this parliament because their chances of re-election would be slim indeed. They have established themselves as gullible, foolish and politically purposeless. They have no policies and no defining ideology.

In all of that, they are the polar opposite of the person on whose name they were elected. Voters thought they would be getting a version of Jacqui Lambie but they have shown none of her decisiveness, idealism and native intelligence.

Instead, they have sought to distance themselves from her. Launceston’s The Examiner reported that they had given an “ultimatum” to Lambie, telling her to “butt out” of state affairs. This was swiftly denied – was it an ultimatum or something else? – but the rift is clear.

At the next election, those three seats would be most likely to go to Labor. The Greens, with five, may be close to their peak. In the absence of new high-profile and credible independent candidates – and none is obvious – the crossbench is unlikely to expand much further.

The key Labor personnel are new to their portfolios. In the thirteen weeks since the election results were finalised, they have had to find their way through complex and critical policy areas and establish their offices, as well as fighting the usual infantry battles against their opponents. They are nowhere near ready to fight an election, and know it.

That, for now, may be the government’s main guarantee of survival. For now.

The nation's worst hospitals
Three issues, in order, dominate public concerns: health and hospitals first, then the cost of living, and then housing. State governments can do little about the cost of living but the Liberals’ failure over a decade to attend to the other two principal issues is their vulnerability – and, potentially, Labor’s opportunity.

But previous electoral defeats should by now have convinced the new Labor leadership that telling voters that the government has inflicted serious damage on the community won’t win seats in parliament. People already know that. Labor door-knockers consistently hear the same response: we don’t like the Liberals but we don’t think you’d be any different.

For well over a decade, the ALP in Tasmania has had no coherent narrative and few firm and saleable policies. The two go together: you can’t tell your story unless you also tell people what that story means in practice.

Development of new policy, and the articulation of an over-arching purpose, are critical. The party must tell people, finally, what it stands for and what it will do if elected.

Tasmanians are in a despondent mood, reminiscent of the mid-1990s when, as now, a tired and unpopular Liberal government coincided with a slump in population, property prices and economic performance.

That was followed by the election of a Labor government. But the government led initially by Jim Bacon had few practical, concrete ideas – and those it had came, mostly, to nothing. Through 16 years in office, it failed to do anything much beyond minding the shop before, in its disastrous final term, crashing the economy and rendering itself unelectable for a decade.

The Bacon-Lennon-Bartlett-Giddings government was the antithesis of the great Labor tradition of transformative governments: of Curtin and Chifley, of Whitlam, Hawke and Keating.

It is likely that, by the end of next year, Tasmania will have a new government. The state is badly in need of competent leadership with reforming vision and practical ability.

We’ll see.

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