The Poll Bludger
Margin: Independent 15.5% versus Labor
Region: Central Hobart, Tasmania
In a nutshell: Andrew Wilkie nabbed the Hobart seat of Denison as an independent amid a sitting member’s retirement and a slump for Labor in 2010, then romped home for re-election in 2013.
Candidates in ballot paper order
Christian Democratic Party
Held since the 2010 election by independent Andrew Wilkie, Denison encompasses Hobart along the western shore of the Derwent River and the hinterland beyond, with the eastern shore Hobart suburbs and southern outskirts township of Kingston accommodated by Franklin. Like all of Tasmania’s electorates, Denison has been little changed since Tasmania was divided into single-member electorates in 1903, with the state’s representation consistently set at the constitutional minimum of five electorates per state. This also means it has an enrolment of around three-quarters the national average.
Denison was presumed to have developed into a safe seat for Labor at the time of Wilkie’s win in 2010, notwithstanding the local strength of the Greens. Labor first won the seat when it gained a parliamentary majority for the first time in 1910, but it was lost in 1917 when incumbent William Laird Smith joined Billy Hughes in the Nationalist Party. It was fiercely contested over subsequent decades, changing hands in 1922, 1925, 1928, 1931, 1934, 1940 and 1943. It thereafter went with the winning party until 1983, changing hands along the way in 1949, 1972 and 1975. The seat was held for the Liberals through the Fraser years by former state MP Michael Hodgman, who joined his four Tasmanian Liberal colleagues in picking up a swing against the trend of the 1983 election amid anger over Labor’s policy of preventing construction of the Franklin dam. However, Hodgman’s margin wore away over the next two elections, and he was defeated in 1987 by Labor’s Duncan Kerr. Hodgman returned to politics as a state member for Denison in 1992, and his son Will Hodgman led the state Liberals to a landslide victory in 2014, a year after his death.
The drift to Labor evident in 1984 and 1987 was maintained during Kerr’s tenure, giving him consistent double-digit margins starting from 1993. In this he was substantially assisted by preferences from the emerging Greens, who recorded steadily mounting support from 1990 onwards. The preselection that followed Kerr’s retirement in 2010 was secured by another member of the Left, Jonathan Jackson, a chartered accountant and the son of former state Attorney-General Judy Jackson. What was presumed to be a safe passage to parliament for Jackson was instead thwarted by Andrew Wilkie, who had come to national attention in 2003 when he resigned as an intelligence officer with the Office of National Assessments officer in protest over the Iraq war. Wilkie ran against John Howard as the Greens candidate for Bennelong in 2004, and as the second candidate on the Greens’ Tasmanian Senate ticket in 2007. He then broke ranks with the party to run as an independent candidate for Denison at the state election in 2010, falling narrowly short of winning one of the five seats with 9.0% of the vote.
Wilkie acheived his win in 2010 with just 21.2% of the primary vote, crucially giving him a lead over the Greens candidate who polled 19.0%. The distribution of Greens preferences put Wilkie well clear of the Liberal candidate, who polled 22.6% of the primary vote, and Liberal preferences in turn favoured Wilkie over Labor by a factor of nearly four to one. Wilkie emerged at the final count 1.2% ahead of Labor, placing him on a cross-bench of five members in the first hung parliament since World War II. He initially declared himself open to negotiation as both parties sought to piece together a majority, which the Liberals took seriously enough to offer $1 billion for the rebuilding of Royal Hobart Hospital. In becoming the first of the independents to declare his hand for Labor, Wilkie criticised the promise as “almost reckless”, prompting suggestions from the Liberals that his approach to them had been insincere.
The deal Wilkie reached with Labor included $340 million for the hospital and what proved to be a politically troublesome promise to legislate for mandatory pre-commitment for poker machines. When the government’s numbers improved slightly after Peter Slipper took the Speaker’s chair, the government retreated from the commitment. Wilkie responded by withdrawing his formal support for the government, although it never appeared likely that he would use his vote to bring it down. Wilkie was comfortably re-elected in 2013 with 38.1% of the primary vote, despite an aggressive Labor campaign that included putting him behind the Liberals on how-to-vote cards. Both Labor (from 35.8% to 24.8%) and the Greens (from 19.0% to 7.9%) recorded double-digit drops on the primary vote, and most of the northern suburbs booths that had stayed with Labor in 2010 were won by Wilkie. His final margin over Labor after preferences was up from 1.2% to 15.5%, while the Labor-versus-Liberal two-party preferred count recorded a 6.9% swing to the Liberals and a Labor margin of 8.9%.
Wilkie’s Labor opponent for the second successive election will be Jane Austin, a policy officer with Tasmania’s Mental Health Services and member of the Left. The Greens candidate is Jen Brown, a public health consultant and ultra-marathon runner.
Andrew Wilkie and Labor were on the offensive early in the campaign when the federal and Tasmanian state governments announced over $22 million in grants from money freed up by the demise of a proposed tourism visitors centre at the Cadbury’s factory in the northern Hobart suburb of Claremont. The bulk of the new projects were in the three marginal Liberal seats in the state’s north, with $6.3 million going to Lyons, $5.6 million to Bass and $3.6 million to Braddon, compared with $3.6 million in Denison and $2.9 million in Labor-held Franklin.
Together with the other four Tasmanian electorates, Denison was the subject of a ReachTEL poll of around 600 respondents on May 11 for the Sunday Tasmanian newspaper. The result suggested a comfortable victory for Andrew Wilkie with 33.2% of the primary vote, compared with 27.3% for Liberal, 22.1% for Labor, 13.3% for the Greens and 2.8% for the Jacqui Lambie Network.
Analysis by William Bowe. Read William’s blog, The Poll Bludger.