It came as no surprise that Labor and the Greens ran a “we were robbed” line to explain their disappointing results in the Tasmanian election last Saturday. Labor leader Rebecca White and Tasmanian Greens leader Cassy O’Connor claimed the election had been bought by the gaming industry, which lent its support to Premier Will Hodgman and the Liberals.
White needed an excuse for the fact her party achieved one of its lowest primary votes in recent decades. As did O’Connor for presiding over the probable loss of two of the three Greens seats in the Legislative Assembly.
Bob Brown, the Tasmanian-based former leader of the Greens in the federal parliament, came up with the most strident criticism. Speaking on the ABC’s AMprogram on Monday, he said this was the “most corrupt election” he had seen in Tasmania and whinged that “we have a bought government”. However, he provided no evidence of corruption.
The comments from the likes of White, O’Connor and Brown are imbued with elitism. They essentially maintain that Labor and Greens voters are smart enough not to be conned by the advertising of the gaming industry but not Liberal voters.
Even some journalists ran the same line. Speaking on the ABC’s Insiders program last Sunday, Guardian Australia editor Lenore Taylor urged the ALP to hold to its position on poker machines. Commenting on the suggestion that Labor might review its policy, she said: “I think that it would send a terrible signal to vested interests that if they just put enough money into an election campaign to get rid of a policy against their self-interest, that it would work.”
It is not at all clear that Hodgman prevailed last Saturday on the poker machine issue. But it is clear that some of the politicians on the losing side, and some journalists who resent the result, do not understand Tasmania.
Labor and the Greens went to the election with a policy to remove poker machines from hotels and clubs and confine them to casinos. There are two such institutions in Tasmania: the Wrest Point Casino in the Hobart suburb of Sandy Bay and the Country Club Casino in the Launceston suburb of Prospect Vale.
If the Labor-Greens policy had been implemented, it would have meant that a man in Burnie who wanted to play the pokies would have had to travel to Launceston while a woman in Queenstown would have had to head to Hobart. Meanwhile, the absence of poker machines and the customers they attract would have put financial pressure on hotels and clubs throughout the state.
I was in northern Tasmania in January. Walking through such cities as Launceston and Devonport, it was evident that many hotels and clubs, some of them close to residential areas, had poker machines. The casinos in Sandy Bay and Prospect Vale would require car transport for most customers. Whatever the damage caused by the small number of problem gamblers, hotels and clubs give a vibrancy to local life for many citizens.
It’s true the Federal Group campaigned to retain its poker machines in hotels and clubs throughout Tasmania. That’s what the management of a legal business is expected to do. Yet Labor and the Greens are delusional if they hold the view that the Federal Group “bought” the election for the Liberal Party.
The fact is that Hodgman presided over an efficient government that was a good economic manager. Unlike during Tony Abbott’s Coalition government, there were no damaging leaks from cabinet designed to de-authorise the leader. And unlike Malcolm Turnbull’s administration, there was no fighting within the Liberal Party, and no coalition that requires managing.
Then there is Hodgman’s voter appeal. Currently the federal Coalition does not hold any seats in Tasmania. It lost Bass, Braddon and Lyons in 2016 and did not hold Denison and Franklin in the south. Yet last Saturday the Liberal Party in Tasmania won three out of the five available seats in Bass, Braddon and Lyons, and may also do so in Franklin.
In other words, the party achieved its best outcomes in northern and central Tasmania. And it was least successful in Denison, based in Hobart. Hobart is the highest earning part of Tasmania and is replete with academics, professionals and public servants. It has been described as a “progressive” city.
Hodgman, whose electorate is Franklin, always understood that, as in 2014, the election had to be won in the lower socioeconomic areas of Tasmania. And he succeeded, achieving more than 50 per cent of the primary vote.
Certainly the gaming industry’s support for the Liberals was helpful, but only in the sense that it brought the difference between the Liberals and Labor and the Greens on this issue to constant attention of the electorate. Tasmanians are not so foolish as to do the bidding of an industry group. To imply otherwise, as Brown did, is to treat more than half the state’s electors with contempt.
Tasmania has only a fraction of Australia’s total population. Moreover, it is quite decentralised and its economy is not quite like that of any other state. Even so, the Turnbull government and its advisers can learn from Hodgman’s success.
The Premier and his colleagues were able to connect with everyday voters, some of whom would have voted Labor in the past. They made a clear pitch to present themselves as pro-jobs for middle and low-income earners in the private sector. Also, the Liberal Party attacked the green-left ethos.
Then there are the tactics. Unlike Turnbull in 2016, Hodgman did not go to an early election even though he had this option late last year. The campaign was as short as it could be and the Liberal Party stayed on message, despite the fact Tasmania’s electoral system is favourable to mavericks.
In modern elections, the leader is primarily responsible for the campaign and the outcome — good or bad. Last Saturday, the Hodgman team showed how the Liberal Party can win.