The Poll Bludger
Margin: Liberal 4.0%
Region: Launceston/North-Eastern, Tasmania
In a nutshell: A perennial swing seat since the Liberals’ famous by-election win in 1975, Bass has changed hands at six out of the last eight elections, most recently with a double-digit swing against Labor in 2013.
Candidates in ballot paper order
MALCOLM PETER BEATTIE
Covering the north-east of Tasmania and dominated by Launceston, Bass has loomed large in Australia’s recent electoral history, having changed hands at six of the last eight elections. It is also famous for the 1975 by-election result that emboldened Malcolm Fraser to block supply. Launceston provides about 70% of its voters, but there are also population centres at Scottsdale further west, and George Town at the mouth of the Tamar River. Together with the rest of northern Tasmania, the electorate is distinctive for low levels of income, education attainment and ethnic diversity, although not to quite the same extent as Braddon and Lyons. The electorate has existed on much the same boundaries since Tasmania was first divided into single-member electorates in 1903, in consequence of the state’s constitutionally mandated minimum of five seats. It is currently held for the Liberals by Andrew Nikolic, who unseated Labor’s Geoff Lyons in 2013.
Labor first won Bass when it secured its first ever parliamentary majority at the 1910 election, and lost it six years later when Jens Jensen followed Billy Hughes into the Nationalist Party. Jensen retained the seat as a Nationalist at the 1917 election, and it stayed with the party after he lost its endorsement in 1919. Labor’s next win came with the election of Jim Scullin’s government in 1929, but it again lost the seat to a party split when Allan Guy followed Joseph Lyons into the United Australia Party in 1931. Guy was re-elected as the UAP candidate at that year’s election, before being unseated by Labor’s Claude Barnard in 1934. Barnard retained the seat until the election of the Menzies government in 1949, when he was defeated by Liberal candidate Bruce Kekwick.
The seat returned to the Barnard family fold with Kekwick’s defeat in 1954 by Lance Barnard, son of Ken, who went on to serve as Deputy Prime Minister in the Whitlam government from 1972 to 1974. The famed 1975 by-election followed Barnard’s mid-term resignation, ostensibly on grounds of ill health, but following a year after he lost the deputy leadership to Jim Cairns. A plunge in the Labor primary vote from 54.0% to 36.5% delivered the seat to Liberal candidate Kevin Newman, the late father of Campbell Newman and husband of Howard government minister Senator Jocelyn Newman, which emboldened the Coalition to pursue its strategy of an early election at all costs.
Bass would remain in the Liberal fold for 18 years, in part reflecting Tasmania’s bucking of the national trend to Labor under Bob Hawke due to the Franklin dam controversy. Kevin Newman was succeeded as Liberal member in 1990 by Warwick Smith, who found his promising career twice stymied by the vagaries of electoral fortune. In 1993 he lost to Labor’s Sylvia Smith by just 40 votes, following a statewide swing that provided the first indication on that election night that things were not going according to script. Warwick Smith recovered the seat in 1996 and served as Family Services Minister in the first term of the Howard government, until the 1998 election produced a second GST backlash and another painfully narrow defeat, this time by 78 votes at the hands of Michelle O’Byrne, a 30-year-old Miscellaneous Workers Union official.
O’Byrne retained the seat with a slight swing in her favour in 2001, but her chances of repeating the feat in 2004 may have been scuttled when Mark Latham’s restrictive policy on old-growth logging invoked the wrath of Tasmanian unions and Labor politicians in the final week of the campaign, and caused John Howard to receive a hero’s reception from timber workers in Launceston. Michael Ferguson then won the seat for the Liberals with a 4.5% swing, but was ousted when the pendulum swung 3.6% the other way in 2007, and now serves as Health Minister in Will Hodgman’s state government. His Labor successor, Jodie Campbell, would likewise serve only one term, announcing she would not stand at the 2010 election as reports emerged that her preselection was under threat. Geoff Lyons easily retained the seat for Labor when Tasmania again bucked a national trend in 2010, but proved to be yet another one-termer when all three northern Tasmanian electorates changed hands on double-digit swings in 2013.
The seat has since been held for the Liberals by Andrew Nikolic, an army brigadier who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lately worked with the Defence Department’s international policy division. Nikolic had been rated a favourite for preselection in 2010, but withdrew citing family and work commitments. He made the news in May 2012 when he threatened to send “formal letters of complaint” to the employers of those responsible for a satirical blog post about him, and to anyone who had “liked” the post on Facebook, and in March 2015 when he wrote to the vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania to query if an academic had broken employment rules by criticising the government in a letter to the Launceston Examiner. Shortly after the first spill motion against Tony Abbott was voted down by the party room in February 2015, Nikolic was appointed government whip following the much-criticised removal from the role of party elder Philip Ruddock. He was dropped from the role the following September after Malcolm Turnbull deposed Tony Abbott, with whom he had been closely identified.
Labor’s candidate for the coming election is Ross Hart, a Launceston barrister.
Together with the other four Tasmanian electorates, Bass was the subject of a ReachTEL poll of around 600 respondents on May 11 for the Sunday Tasmanian newspaper. The result credited Labor with an insufficient swing of 2%, leaving Andrew Nikolic with leads of 46.2% to 36.0% on the primary vote, and 51.9-48.1 on two-party preferred. The Greens were on 9.7%, with the Jacqui Lambie Network on 4.9%. Another poll conducted by ReachTEL for GetUp! during the third week of the campaign, of 824 respondents, was more encouraging for Labor, crediting them with a 51-49 lead.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.