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Tasmanian election: Denison form guide

Denison essentially covers all of Hobart west of the Derwent River, plus some hinterland beyond. It is the strongest electorate in the state for the Greens, having elected Bob Brown at the 1986 election and returned the party’s only member at the 1998 election, when representation was first reduced from seven members per electorate to five. The electorate also produced Tasmania’s only state Democrats MP when Norm Saunders (who later became a Senator) won a seat in 1980 and retained it in 1982. The former election was another unique feature of Denison’s history, having been held after the election of three Labor members from 1979 was ruled invalid due to breaches of a silly rule capping campaign expenditure at a mere $1500, which had hitherto been politely ignored. This led directly to the introduction of Tasmania’s joyous system of Robson rotation, which ought to be the envy of the democratic world. Wayne Crawford explained the episode thus in The Mercury in 2002:

Labor had held a conference on the West Coast to officially endorse its candidates for the by-election. The Left faction in control of the party decided to run a how-to-vote ticket in the poll and endorsed northern suburbs Left-wing lawyer John Green at the top; fellow Denison MHA and Deputy Premier and Treasurer Neil Batt – then also a federal heavyweight as the party’s national president – was put No 4 on the ticket, which he took as a snub, given his seniority … Originally, the order of candidates’ names on ballot papers was alphabetical. Thus, because of the "donkey vote" (by which many electors simply chose their favoured party and voted straight down the list) the House was full of people whose names began with A, B and C. When I started covering Parliament in the late 1960s, 15 MHAs (of the 35) had names beginning with A, B or C.

For years, a Liberal MHA for Bass, former Launceston banker Neil Robson (an intelligent man and a member of Mensa, the organisation for people with very high IQs) had been arguing for a system of "rotating" the order of names on ballot papers to give all candidates a share of "favoured" positions – that is, positions at the top or bottom of the paper or positions under well-known or popular candidates … and for years he had been dismissed (not only by Labor but by members of his own party) as "the mad professor". After the Left’s perceived snub to Batt in the lead-up to the 1980 by-election, Robson, as he recalls, abruptly went from "mad professor" to "man of vision". The government suddenly saw the wisdom of his system as a means of trumping the Left’s how-to-vote ticket. Under the Robson system, a how-to-vote card would be worthless because it would be nothing like the ballot papers, which would be printed in batches of many various forms and shuffled.

The upshot of the February 1980 by-election was that Green lost his seat and Neil Batt topped the poll (helped by not only Lowe but also Bob Hawke, then ACTU president, campaigning for him).

As the chart below indicates, the emergence of the Greens initiated a period of electoral stability that ended with the Liberals’ calamitous performance at the 2002 election, at which Bob Cheek became the first Tasmanian party leader since 1903 to lose his seat. His personal vote fell to 7.7 per cent from 12.9 per cent at the previous election – still the highest vote for a Liberal candidate, but preferences from Liberal supporters as well as opponents pushed veteran Michael Hodgman ahead of him.

Labor’s electoral slate has been wiped clean by the exit of Jim Bacon, who polled a massive 35.5 per cent in his own right in 2002. Most of his preferences went to the other senior member in the electorate, Attorney-General Judy Jackson, who surprised many when she announced her retirement last year. The dearth of established sitting members led to talk that the void might be filled by local federal MP Duncan Kerr, whose plans to move to state politics at the 2002 election were scotched by then Labor leader Simon Crean (who feared a repeat of the Cunningham by-election). Labor’s sitting members are the two candidates who fought it out for Labor’s third seat in 2002 – the eventual winner, Graeme Sturges, and David Bartlett, who entered parliament through the recount held when Jim Bacon quit due to terminal ill-health in early 2004. Sturges is a member of the Left faction and is rated by Sue Neales of The Mercury as the only Labor member certain to hold his seat, on the grounds that he is "regarded as an outstanding member representing local constituents". Bartlett is a former IT worker for the state Treasury, who copped flak during the last election campaign after he put his computer skills to use by spamming local constituents. He is thought to face a tougher assignment than Sturges, as is often the case with members elected at mid-term recounts.

Bartlett faces what Sue Neales of The Mercury describes as "two high-profile and younger female candidates" who "have been keenly headhunted to fill the gap left by long-term fixture Ms Jackson". They are Tasmanian Small Business Council president Louise Sullivan (whose preselection appeared in doubt when Labor Left union official and state executive member Nicole Wells refused to endorse it in December 2005 on the grounds that she was not a financial member of the party) and Lisa Singh, a manager for Arts Tasmania and a former Hobart citizen of the year. Sue Neales reported on the weekend that internal Labor polling showed Singh was likely to win at Bartlett’s expense. Also on the Labor ticket are Julie Collins, a former Labor state president who has worked as a staffer to premiers Jim Bacon and Michael Field and Senators Carol Brown and Sue Mackay, and her Left faction colleague Joe Ritchie, who is the brother of Pembroke MLC Allison Ritchie.

Justice cannot be done in the space available to the state and federal parliamentary career of Michael Hodgman QC, which goes back to 1966 when he was elected to the upper house seat of Huon. He won the federal seat of Denison from Labor at the 1975 election and held it until defeated by Duncan Kerr in 1987, before returning to state politics in 1992. Hodgman lost his seat at the 1998 election but recovered it on a recount in 2001 after the retirement of former Premier Ray Groom. He was the only Liberal to win a seat in Denison in 2002, narrowly running down party leader Bob Cheek after preferences. In his tell-all book published last year, Cheek described Hodgman as "the darling of the Sandy Bay blue rinse set" (with "more front than Dolly Parton") and said he had "entered every leadership contest state or federal, without being asked … and rarely got more than one vote". One of Hodgman’s legal clients, noted Melbourne poet Mark "Chopper" Read, forced a rhyme from his surname by rating him "a master of the legal twist/a shrewd and artful dodge-man". Now 67, he lives out his leadership ambitions vicariously through his son, Franklin MP Will Hodgman, which are likely to be realised in the not-too-distant future.

Martine Healy reported in The Mercury last year that the initial announcement of only four candidates led to speculation that a spot was being held for a high-profile recruit – believed to be "Federal Hotels spruiker" Brendan Blomeley, who in April 2005 denied reports he had been recruited by Senator Eric Abetz. The spot ended up going to Fabian Dixon, a prominent lawyer and former Law Council of Australia president. A suspiciously short time after his nomination was announced, news reports emerged of a Law Society of Tasmania investigation into Dixon over allegations of overcharging and negligence. According to The Australian, the complainant claimed Dixon had told him that the judge hearing his case, Michael Hannon, was "an ex-partner of mine and I usually get what I want from him", and said he did not inform him that Hannon was notorious for taking years to deliver judgements (although in the Poll Bludger’s experience, taking forever to achieve bugger all at ruinous expense is par for the course in the legal system). Despite this, Sue Neales of The Mercury reported on the weekend that Dixon is well in contention to win a seat, perhaps even at the expense of Hodgman.

The other fancied Liberal newcomer is Richard Lowrie, a former rugby player and manager with Incat whose father served for 18 years in the Legislative Council. Also on the ticket is Elise Archer, yet another lawyer and the wife of state party president Dale Archer. Heather Low Choy of The Mercury included Archer (along with Michael Hodgman) in a list of the ten best-dressed Tasmanians in July 2004 for her "sharply tailored professional attire with an edge" and "beautiful accessories". Blind to the precedent of Imelda Marcos, Archer unwisely nominated shoes as as her "wardrobe fetish" and confessed to having "lost count of how many pairs I have, it’s that bad". The remaining candidate is John Klonaris, a Hobart small businessman and a figure in the local Greek community.

The safest bet going in Denison is the re-election of Peg Putt, who succeeded Bob Brown as member in 1993 and single-handedly carried the party’s banner after a changed electoral system reduced it from five seats to one at the 1998 election. The Greens have long fantasised about winning two seats in Denison, but recent polling suggests this is likely to remain beyond their reach. The most fancied of their remaining candidates is Cassy O’Connor, who has attracted attention because she worked until recently as an adviser to Labor’s Duncan Kerr. This was seen to indicate that gap that has opened between the Labor Left and the party’s pro-business, pro-forestry industry state hierarchy. O’Connor earlier made herself known as the public face of a campaign against a controversial housing and marina development at Ralphs Bay east of Hobart. Writing in The Mercury, Greg Barns took her nomination to mean that Peg Putt plans to retire mid-term so that her seat, and perhaps also her party leadership, might pass on to O’Connor (at the expense of ambitious rival, Franklin MP Nick McKim). Rounding out the ticket are social worker Marrette Corby, teacher Bill Harvey and ambulance communications officer Toby Rowallan.

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  • 1
    Posted Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 6:15 am | Permalink

    Bob Brown played hardball politics when he ran for Denison in 1982 rather than Franklin, putting the election of Saunders (the only small-g green in state politics) at risk but it paid off for him and the Greens. Once Saunders went federal the Democrats collapsed in Tasmania at the state level which had looked so promising for them.

  • 2
    Graeme Orr
    Posted Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    William. In 500 words or less… why is capping expenditure ‘silly’? Especially relative to unrestrained expenditure – which is no longer formally allowed in such silly systems as UK, Canada, NZ.

    Or are you just objecting to the $1500 limit at the time (dunno how much Tassie tv time that would have bought in 1979).

  • 3
    Posted Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Capping expenditure is not silly – $1500 is. As indicated by the gentlemen’s agreement that seemed to exist that it would not be enforced, and the mayhem that ensued when it was broken. Not much point in having a rule like that. I have subtly amended the line to make it clearer.

  • 4
    Lee
    Posted Tuesday, March 14, 2006 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think the Green’s are “fantasising” at all about winning a second seat.
    They polled more than the Liberals last time around, and therefore require a smaller swing to get the extra than the Liberals.
    You should have given more emphasis to this possibility

  • 5
    Graeme Orr
    Posted Wednesday, March 15, 2006 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Understood William.

    It was a similar story with the federal expenditure limits, which were left to fall into desuetude. First with A/G Billy Hughes ruling that over-expenditure by losing candidates would never be looked at, then by the parliament only increasing the limit once in 70 years. The inverse of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ seems to be ‘death by non-indexation’.

    Ultimately when the Tasmanian courts treated the Tassie limits seriously – admirably – Mr Fraser had the perfect ‘death of politics’ bipartisan hysteria that enabled him to abolish the federal limits rather than rationally restructuring them.

  • 6
    Simon Baptist
    Posted Wednesday, March 15, 2006 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

    Disclosure: I have previously been a member of the Tasmanian Greens

    Denison is going to be a fascinating contest in this Tasmanian election. Names are important in Hare-Clark, and when voters get in the booth and look at their ballot papers the only big names are going to be Putt of the Greens and Hodgman of the Liberals. It’s a strong electorate for Labour, but with no real high profile candidate I suspect there’ll be a lot of leakage. The Greens have suffered a lot of leakage in past State elections, but this is because they have only been promoting one candidate per election at the State level. In Local Government elections Greens voters have shown great disclipline in sticking to the ticket (eg in Hobart City last year when Cocker was elected off a low primary vote on the back of a very strong flow of lead candidate Burnett’s preferences), and so you would expect O’Connor to pick up the vast majority of Putt’s surplus. The exception to this is Putt’s non-Green personal vote, however, this may be balanced out by Green voters putting O’Connor 1 to improve her chances knowing that Putt is safe. It will be a difficult ask for O’Connor, but if she can get a reasonable primary vote and enough of Putt’s surplus to end up on 0.6 or so of a quota after Putt is distributed and the Labour/Liberal vote is sufficiently scattered (due to lack of profile candidates) then she has a realistic chance. I doubt that Barns’ analysis is correct, Putt shows no signs of retiring and the reason to have O’Connor run in Denison is that it’s where there’s the best chance of two MPs, plus she is the kind of candidate that people in Denison go for. Putt has bought the party out of nowhere in the State arena, she is hardly going to disappear just as her influence and success is increasing.

    Majority Government is less of an issue in Denison, but to the extent that it is, soft Liberal voters will switch to Labour to get a majority making it harder for both the Liberals and the Greens to win the 5th seat. The closer the Liberals and Labour end up, the more likely a Green is to get the final vacancy.

    Putt, Hodgman and Sturges should all be OK, with Bartlett, Singh, O’Connor, Dixon and Sullivan going for the last two (roughly in that order).

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