Tasmania has been instrumental in giving the Senate a leftward lean over the last two elections, but this time the tide is flowing strongly in the opposite direction.
Given the Senate’s logic of providing equal representation to each state regardless of population, Tasmania is the state whose voters have the greatest bearing on its make-up, the ratio of Senators to population being about 1:43,000 compared with roughly 1: 600,000 in New South Wales. Its effect over the past two election has been to tilt the Senate balance of power leftwards, with the state producing successive results of three Labor, two Liberal and one Greens: the only “four left, two right” results in any state at either election. All the indications from opinion polling are that there is little chance of this happening again this time, with Labor facing big losses in the lower house and the Greens carrying baggage from being in coalition with Labor at state level, as well as having lost Bob Brown.
The first six elections held in the era of six-seat half-Senate elections which began in 1990 produced an even division between left and right if the latter is deemed to include independent Brian Harradine, who came from a Labor background but was notable for his Catholic-inspired social conservatism. Harradine served as one of the chamber’s few independents from 1975 until his retirement after the 2004 election, winning re-election with 10.4% of the vote in 1993 and 7.9% in 1998. Harradine’s preferences helped deliver Labor a third seat on the former occasion at the expense of the Greens, but in 1998 fell only narrowly short of making to a third quota off their own bat and did not require Harradine’s preferences to win their third seat.
In the elections not contested by Harradine, the final “left” seat was a contest between the Democrats and the Greens (meaning the party’s predecessor the United Tasmania Group in 1990, the national party not forming until 1992) in which the Greens progressively achieved ascendancy. In 1990 it was Robert Bell of the Democrats who finished ahead of the United Tasmania Group, absorbing their preferences to move ahead of the third Labor candidate and win the seat on the back of their surplus. The Greens’ first win would have to wait until 1996, when Bob Brown returned to politics after ending his 10-year state parliamentary career in 1993 to unsuccessfully contest Denison at that year’s federal election. The Greens under Brown outpolled Robert Bell and the Democrats by 8.7% to 7.1%, and then made it to a quota with their preferences. The Greens were unable to repeat the feat in 1998, falling just short of winning a seat at the expense of the third Labor candidate despite being the beneficiary of preferences from One Nation (who polled 3.6%) as well as the Democrats (3.7%).
That was to be the Greens’ last failure to date, with Bob Brown polling very near a quota in his bid for re-election in 2001 and making good the shortfall with preferences from minor candidates, even before the exclusion of the third Labor candidate. Labor ended up 2.7% short of winning the final seat, the Liberals making it to a third quota off a base vote of 38.8% (2.715 quotas) with preferences from One Nation and a split Democrats ticket. Brown’s state parliamentary successor Christine Milne joined him as a second Tasmanian Greens Senator after the 2004 election, although unfavourable preference arrangements, including a deal between Labor and Family First similar to that which elected Steve Fielding in Victoria, meant she was only narrowly successful despite polling very near to a quota in her own right. Milne made it over the line with help from Labor-turned-independent Senator Shayne Murphy, who polled 2.2% and directed preferneces to her. The surge to the Liberals which bagged them the lower house seats of Bass and Braddon at that election secured them a clear three quotas in the Senate, again limiting Labor to two seats. The Greens burst through the quota mark when Bob Brown stood for re-election in 2007, polling 17.3%, and further improved to 19.7% in 2010 on the back of their best ever national performance, giving Christine Milne a much easier win the second time around. On both occasions the Greens surplus was sufficient to push Labor over the line for a third quota.
The likelihood of a three-left, three-right result at the coming election makes it intuitively likely that the Liberals will elect a third candidate for the first time in 2004. However, the election’s explosion of preference-exchanging micro-parties also raises the possibility that the seat will instead be won by another party of the right. The bar for such a result is raised somewhat in Tasmania because smaller fields of candidates and familiarity with the Hare-Clark system at state level results in a much higher take-up rate for below-the-line voting (20.2% compared with 3.9% nationally). However, the former factor has been diminished this time around by a bloated field of 54 candidates, smashing the state’s previous record of 32. While the Greens have a long way to fall if their hold on the third “left” seat is to be imperilled, they will have few sources of preferences in a Labor-versus-Greens contest should they fall below a quota.
The candidates elected from the number two and number three positions in 2007 have each been promoted a spot following the mid-term retirement of the number one candidate, Nick Sherry. In first position is Carol Brown, a principal of the state’s Left faction who entered the Senate in August 2005 when she filled a vacancy created by the retirement of Sue Mackay. The second position is occupied by Right faction member Catryna Bilyk, a former official with the Australian Services Union who publicly declared her backing for Julia Gillard during Kevin Rudd’s successful leadership challenge in June 2013. Number three on the ticket is Lin Thorp, who filled the vacancy created by Sherry’s departure in May 2012.
Lin Thorp first entered politics after winning election for the state upper house seat of Rumney in 1999, serving as Human Services Minister from September 2008 and then as Education Minister after the March 2010 state election. Her career was interrupted a year later when she was defeated in the periodical election for Rumney by a self-styled “independent Liberal” in Tony Mulder. She then won backing from her Left faction, including from Carol Brown and Premier Lara Giddings, to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Sherry, who had been factionally independent after the eclipse of his old Centre faction. Left powerbroker and Unions Tasmania secretary Kevin Harkins tellingly ruled himself out as a candidate for the Sherry vacancy on the grounds that he wished to stay with the union movement as there was likely to be “a very conservative government in just a tad over 12 months’ time”. Harkins was earlier dumped as the candidate for Franklin in 2007, which it was claimed was down to Kevin Rudd having confused him with Kevin Reynolds of the Western Australian CFMEU. He was again shut out of consideration for the Senate ticket in 2010, allegedly because Rudd did not want to admit to his earlier mistake.
The order of the ticket represents a factional arrangement in which the first and third positions go to the Left and the second to the Right. This was in danger of being disturbed by the merger between the Victorian and Tasmanian branches of the Australian Services Union, which had respectively been associated with their state parties’ Left and Right factions. The approach taken by the union in Tasmania was to delay its transfer to the Left for long enough to leave the existing factional deal undisturbed. Among those displeased by the arrangement was Kevin Harkins, who indicated that the Left should have moved against Bilyk due to her opposition to gay marriage.
The top two positions on the Liberal ticket preserve the order from 2007, being respectively occupied by Richard Colbeck and David Bushby. Colbeck first entered the Senate in February 2002 upon the retirement of Jocelyn Newman, Howard government minister and mother of the current Queensland Premier. He has been at parliamentary secretary since after the 2004 election, currently in the fisheries and forestry and innovation, industry and science portfolios. David Bushby, whose father Max was a 25-year veteran of the state parliament, entered the Senate in August 2007 in place of the retiring Paul Calvert. Like most Tasmanian Senators, Bushby has a low national profile, although he worked to address this in June 2011 by making a “miaow” noise at an unimpressed Penny Wong during a Senate committee hearing. Nothing became of a reported move to have Bushby demoted on the ticket to make way for a woman. Places for women were instead found in the number three position, which has gone to trade and investment adviser Sally Chandler, and number four, occupied by vineyard owner Sarah Courtney. Others in the crowded field of preselection aspirants were Kristen Finnigan, office manager of the Launceston Chamber of Commerce; Sue Hickey, a Hobart alderman; Jane Howlett, twice unsuccessful state election candidate for Lyons; David Fry, a state member for Bass from 2000 to 2002; and Don Morris, former chief-of-staff to state Opposition Leader Will Hodgman and the number three candidate in 2010.
Facing his first federal election for the Greens is Peter Whish-Wilson, who succeeded Bob Brown upon his retirement in June 2012. Whish-Wilson was described at the time by Sid Maher of The Australian as a “wine-growing, surf-riding economist”, and by Gemma Daley of the Financial Review as having “worked in equity capital markets for Merrill Lynch in New York and Melbourne and for Deutsche Bank in Hong Kong, Melbourne and Sydney”. He moved to Tasmania in 2004 and made a name for himself as the operator of Three Wishes Winery and a Gunns pulp mill opponent, running unsuccessfully in 2009 for the state upper house district of Windermere where the proposed mill site was located.
Other minor party candidates include Family First’s Peter Madden, founder of Heal Our Land Ministries and candidate for the Christian Democratic Party against Clover Moore in the seat of Sydney at the New South Wales election in 2011; Katter’s Australian Party’s Geoff Herbert, an agribusinessman from the Central Highlands; and Jacqui Lambie, a former soldier who unsuccessfully sought Liberal preselection for Braddon.