Parties and the Tasmanian upper house


The Tasmanian Legislative Council is an oddity amongst elected bodies in Australia. It’s the only state upper house elected by single-member electorates, and it is unique in being elected annually, with one sixth elected each year over a six year cycle. But I wanted to particularly focus today on its tradition of being dominated by independents.

Independent members aren’t a rare addition in the Council. Until the 2020 election, independents had held a majority of seats for the entire history of the council. Two independent members were replaced by members of the major parties in 2020, reducing the number of independents to just seven out of fifteen seats in the chamber.

This will be quite a long post looking at the historical trends and data in who holds these seats, who is running for them, and the left-right balance in the chamber.

I had realised that I didn’t have a clear picture of partisan trends in the chamber, since most analysis looks at each seat in isolation, so I wanted to zoom out a bit.

Firstly, this chart shows the long-term trend of the number of seats held by Labor, Liberal and independents. The chart starts in 1946, which is the year when the chamber became entirely elected by single-member districts (before this time Hobart and Launceston’s members were chosen to represent the whole city.

There was an overall reduction in seat numbers from 19 to 15 in 1999, so this does exaggerate the decline in independent numbers since that time.

Independent numbers have never been lower, either in raw numbers or as a percentage of the chamber, than they are now.

Labor has tended to be much more successful in the upper house than the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party was the largest party for just a handful of years around the time that they last won power in 2014.

The system of electing two or three seats each year means you see gradual evolution rather than sudden changes as you would in other elections.

I’ve also highlighted the two longest periods of Labor government in Tasmania over the last three quarters of a century, from 1934-1969 and 1998-2014. They did also hold government for most of the 1970s and for one term in the early 1990s. These periods both coincided with an increase in partisan members, and particularly Labor members. There were seven party members from 1958 until 1960.

Labor also saw an increase in MLCs in the 1990s, peaking not long after they won power in 1998.

In both cases Labor numbers started to drop off while they were still in power, bottoming out at 1-2 members in the last term of government.

Over the last two decades we’ve seen three distinct periods. There was no change to the partisan balance from the 2001 elections until the 2007 elections. Labor representation declined from 2007 until they reached a low-point of just one seat in 2012. The Liberal Party won the Pembroke by-election in 2009, which was their first upper house seat in over a decade. The chamber included thirteen independents and just two party members after the 2012 elections.

I wanted to look at which parts of the state these members represented over the last two decades.

This map can be toggled to show the electoral map as of 2001-2007, 2012-2013 and 2020-2021. The first map shows the former peak for Labor. The second map shows the peak level of support for independents. The third map shows the current distribution of seats, which is the worst ever position for independents, the best ever for the Liberal Party and the equal-best for Labor.

I had not previously realised that Labor’s successes have been entirely focused on the south of the state. I would have guessed that Labor would have been more successful in urban electorates, but that is not the case. There are five seats which are properly urban, covering less than 150 square kilometres. Four of these seats are in Hobart, and the fifth is Launceston. Labor only holds two of these five seats.

But it is the case that all five Labor seats cover some part of the Greater Hobart urban area, even if the two seats closest to its heartland are held by independents.

The Liberal seats are scattered across the state, including one in the Greater Launceston area, one in the north-west, and one in the rural south-east.

This trend of Labor holding seats around Hobart stretches back a long way. It can be seen in the 2001-2007 map, but goes back much further. Labor last held a seat outside of the state’s south when they held the west coast seat of Gordon until 1967. They also held the seat of Launceston in the 1950s.

I also decided to dive into who has been running in these elections. This comes from my results dataset, which dates back to 2007 (and is freely available if you want to use it).

There has been a big uptick in numbers of candidates in the last few years. One of the interesting developments has been the rise of parties other than Labor, Liberal and Greens running. That has included Animal Justice and Tasmanians 4 Tasmania, but in particular the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers ran for nine seats between 2017 and 2020, but are not running this year.

There has also been an uptick in Liberal candidacies. They did not run any candidates between 2007 and 2013, and again from 2015 to 2017, but have run nine candidates in the last four years.

When you look at the total number of candidates you need to factor in the number of contests each year, which alternates between two and three. This chart shows the candidate numbers as a ratio per seat:

2018 stands out in particular. Nineteen candidates ran in just two seats. But 2019 and 2020 were also higher than the medium-term average, and this year is the second-lowest number in the last decade. This is partly due to the uncontested election in Mersey. This is the first uncontested election in a decade: the last uncontested elections were in 2007, 2010 and 2011.

Finally I want to understand the overall balance of power between progressives and conservatives, which requires diving into the undifferentiated mass of “the independents”. Thankfully Kevin Bonham has already done that work for us, with this analysis covering the 2016-2020 period in the upper house. While two of these independents retired in 2020, no others have joined the chamber, so I’m assuming no big changes in their alignments. Of course it’s worth emphasising that these are general trends, and the Council is very fluid. Still I think it’s useful to understand if the MLCs usually in the balance of power lean to the left or right.

The Council now includes four left-of-centre independents, who can join with Labor to produce a 9-seat left majority. There are two other independents who Kevin says “do not belong to any cluster but currently side somewhat more with the right cluster than the left cluster.” Then there are three Liberals and conservative independent Ivan Dean, who he positions as the most right-wing member of the Council.

(As a side note, it’s worth noting that three of the four left independents hold urban seats. Webb and Valentine hold Hobart-area seats, while Gaffney holds the Devonport-area seat of Mersey, which is the smallest by land area outside of the Hobart and Launceston seats. Ruth Forrest, on the other hand, holds the largest seat in the state.)

This means that the left holds a clear majority. The right would need to poach two seats from either Labor or the four left independents to put centre-to-cente-right independents Rattray and Armitage in the balance of power.

At this year’s elections, one left-wing independent, Mike Gaffney, has been re-elected in Mersey. The sole remaining conservative independent, Ivan Dean, has retired in Windermere. The favourite for his seat is the Liberal candidate, but Dean is backing a fellow conservative independent. If the Liberal wins, this will reduce the independent ranks further, but it’s unlikely this race will shift the balance of power.

The last remaining race is Derwent, which has been Labor’s most reliable seat in the Council. It was their only seat from 2012 until 2015, and it has been in Labor hands since 1979. I think Labor are the favourites, but the Liberal Party is contesting this seat amidst a House of Assembly election where the Liberal Party lead in the polls. It’s not hard to imagine this helping tip the balance in this electorate.

If the Liberal Party gains Derwent it will leave the left with a one-seat majority in the Council.

In 2022, there is one Labor MLC up for election in the Hobart-area seat of Elwick, and the centre-right independent Tania Rattray in the rural north-western electorate of McIntyre. In 2023, left independent Ruth Forrest will be defending the vast west coast seat of Murchison, while Labor defends the seat of Rumney in the eastern suburbs of Hobart and centre-right independent Rosemary Armitage defends her seat in Launceston. I see plenty of opportunities for seats to change hands.

Of course it would be a mistake to assume that these trends will continue on infinitely. I suspect in the long run parties will have a larger role to play in the Council, but they could very well fall backwards from their current position. The Legislative Council still remains a unique parliamentary institution and one that marches to the beat of a different drum.

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  1. Interestingly the proportion of independent rose by 3 in 1968, replacing 2 ALP and the sole Liberal, which appears to coincide with the abolition of the property franchise.

    Being in the house of review, rather than the house of government, combined with the rotating annual elections increases the incentive to act as representatives of local electorates, helping promote independents. The smaller media markets probably help as well.

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