The final seat in the Tasmanian state election was decided this evening, with Greens candidate Paul O’Halloran winning the final seat in Braddon. This has produced a result of 2 Labor, 2 Liberal and one Green in all five districts, adding up to a 10-10-5 split in the House of Assembly. The state election saw the Greens win a seat in all five districts for the first time since 1992.
The result has produced a dilemma for all three parties in the Tasmanian parliament.
Thanks to the campaign promises of Premier Bartlett, the ALP is stuck in a position where it appears to prefer opposition to government. Bartlett promised during the campaign that if the Liberals won the largest number of seats, or if they won an even number of seats but won more votes, Bartlett would resign as Premier and advise the governor to give Liberal leader Will Hodgman the opportunity to form a government.
The supposed justification for such a decision comes from two motivations. The first is that the ALP’s best interests are served by sitting out on government for this term and waiting for the Liberals and Greens to implode from a failed experiment in minority government, allowing the ALP to come back with a majority after an early election.
The other motivation comes from the sense that the ALP and the Liberal Party would both be hurt by a bidding war to achieve the support of the Greens, which could see the Greens gain ministries and opportunities to demonstrate their ability to govern. You could also argue that, by refusing to talk to the Greens or even attempt to form a government, the ALP would foster the chaos they have argued is inherent in minority government.
Unlike the ALP, the Liberal Party is clearly eager to form a government, and are taking advantage of the Premier’s promises to declare victory, despite winning less than 40% of votes and only ten seats.
The Liberal Party has insisted that it will refuse to work with the Greens, which presents them with their own dilemma. As long as the ALP refuses to seek government or bring down the Liberals, it will be possible for the Liberals to remain in power, but how much stability could be achieved for a government without even the most basic support of a majority of the House?
If the Liberal Party were to sign an agreement with the Greens, they would face a situation where they would need to compromise on their policy agenda with a party diametrically opposed to their agenda. It seems highly unlikely the Liberals and Greens could maintain an agreement for a full four years, and an ensuing election would likely see a swing to the ALP, if not a majority. Thus a Liberal government has a dilemma: either rely on the support of the ALP as long as it lasts, or sign a standing deal with the Greens that would leave the Liberals vulnerable at the next election.
For the Greens, the situation is also extremely difficult. Tasmanian politics is highly polarised between the Greens and the two major parties. The Greens have arisen as an alternative to the two old major parties and the convergence of policies on forestry and many other issues. More broadly, Greens politics is based on the argument that the existing major parties have failed to deal with the ecological crisis and must be replaced. Animosity between the Greens and Labor is greater in Tasmania than in any other state, but that doesn’t mean that a deal with the Liberal Party makes any more sense.
I would argue that the best result for the Greens would be for them to stay out of government. Most hung parliaments result in a bidding war between the two major parties for the support of the crossbenches. In Tasmania, however, both major parties appear to be conspiring to avoid the need to talk to the Greens at all.
This gives a rare opportunity for the Greens to demonstrate the political reality that they argue is central to modern Australian politics: that Labor and Liberal have now converged and that the two parties provide no real choice. If the Greens can create a situation where the ALP is forced to keep the Liberals in government and the Greens are seen as the only true opposition to the ‘Gunns coalition’, there is potential for the Greens to dramatically grow their vote, and it has significant consequences for the Greens across Australia.
Of course, this choice has great risks, and would require the Greens to eschew the opportunity to grab the baubles of power, and the opportunity to demonstrate the Greens’ ability to govern.
First of all, it will be difficult for the Greens to position themselves as the opposition to a government of the two major parties. I’m assuming that Bartlett will resign as Premier, be replaced by Hodgman, and then Hodgman would first come to the House of Assembly as Premier, which would present an opportunity for either the Greens or Labor to move a motion of no confidence in the minority government. Clearly Bartlett has no intention of doing so. The Greens could then move a motion of no confidence.
The ALP would then have to either vote for it, triggering an early election, or abide by their agreement to support the government. I tend to think the ALP would support the Liberals, giving the Greens the opportunity to assert that the Liberals have refused to work with them and that the ALP’s decision to vote to continue the Liberal government puts them in a position supporting the government.
Of course, the risk here is that an early election would be triggered, where the Greens would likely be punished for bringing the state back to the polls so quickly and demonstrating the instability of a hung parliament.
While this would likely be in the long-term interests of the Greens, and makes sense when considering the closeness of the major parties, it clearly clashes with the short-term interest of some in the Tasmanian Greens. The party has now been a major political player in Tasmania for 21 years, and the party’s leaders are eager to take on the opportunity to prove themselves responsible in the balance of power and even take on ministries, even if this involves compromising their policies and supporting the conservative agenda of a Liberal government.
These short-term local interests also clash with the interests of the Greens on the mainland. While there is no love lost between the Tasmanian Greens and the Tasmanian ALP, Greens voters and potential Greens voters in the large mainland cities are overwhelmingly pro-Labor, and the ALP’s attack on the Greens has largely been based on the argument that supporting the Greens will lead to the Liberals gaining power.
In the past Labor MPs in inner-city seats have exploited lack of understanding of the preference system to raise fear that a vote for the Greens would benefit the Howard government. Just the other day federal Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner, himself vulnerable to the Greens in the seat of Melbourne, argued that the Greens “end up in de facto alliance with arch-conservatives like Tony Abbott.”
Despite the absurdity of the idea that progressive voters holding their local members to account supports Tony Abbott’s agenda, such arguments have worked to sow confusion amongst voters. An alliance with the Liberals in Tasmania would appear to give substance to such conspiracy theories, regardless of the outrageous state of the Tasmanian ALP. Despite how much such a decision could hurt the Greens in Australia’s largest states, I doubt it will be factor in decisions made by the Tasmanian branch.
If the Greens are determined to play a balance-of-power role between the two parties, they need to throw aside the notion that the two parties are equal options to be negotiated with. The Greens should acknowledge that, rather than being a centrist balance between two major parties, we clearly sit on the left of politics, and that a clear majority of Tasmanians voted for left-of-centre parties, and offer a chance to the ALP to negotiate to form a stable government.
Under this scenario, the Greens would only turn to the Liberals after giving the ALP every opportunity to engage constructively in forming a government. If the ALP continues to refuse to work with the Greens, and has clearly demonstrated that, only then can the Greens safely support a Liberal government.