Peter Gutwein’s concocted crisis

The premier has begun his Tasmanian election campaign with a breach of public trust.

We’ve seen it all before: premiers taking advantage of favourable times by calling an early election. Robin Gray took his Liberal government to the polls early, twice. Labor premiers Jim Bacon and Paul Lennon did the same.

Besides disrupting the legislative agenda, over the years early elections add to the budgetary burden. But this was how these men – they were all men back then – liked to play their politics. A snap election gets pulses racing and the element of surprise offers a head start in the campaign.

For all that, for the past three election cycles successive premiers David Bartlett, Lara Giddings (our first female leader) and Will Hodgman held to the agreed voluntary arrangement to serve the full term. But it seems Peter Gutwein is made of different stuff.

Most past early polls were a few months ahead of time, but in Gutwein’s case it’s a year. A fixed election would have been in early March next year, but he could have extended his term out to mid-May. He can do all this because unlike all other states, Tasmania has retained the premiers’ privilege of being able to determine a date.

Gutwein didn’t have complete open slather. He needed to advise Governor Kate Warner why Tasmania needed an election before it was due – “because Tasmania can’t afford the uncertainty of minority government” – and she had to accept that advice.

Therein lies a tale of some intrigue and more than a little contrivance.

The public part of the story began on Sunday 21 March with a call by the premier on the home of House speaker Sue Hickey, who offered him coffee. As he later put it, “I informed her that there is not support across the wider party for her to be endorsed as a Liberal candidate for the next election and that is a view I share.”

Hickey’s immediate response is not on the record – perhaps just as well since she was probably quite cross – but she said later that she had always supported the government in matters of confidence and budget supply, adding that the party seemed to be in the hands of “the men in dark suits” who did not accept women who refused to be subservient.

The next day Hickey proudly declared her true independence. But alert to the possibility that Gutwein might use that as the trigger for an election, she wrote to him and to the governor assuring them that she would not deny supply or support a no-confidence motion.

Five days after seeing Hickey the premier visited Government House and then announced the early poll. A few days later, responding to mounting speculation about the election trigger, he claimed that his government had been “plunged back into minority government”.

More intriguing is Gutwein’s deal with Madeleine Ogilvie, who was voted out in 2018 but returned to parliament on the redistributed vote of Labor’s Scott Bacon after he resigned the following year. Rejecting her former party, she sat as an independent.

Ogilvie’s switch to the Liberals became public the day after the premier announced the election. For Gutwein to imply that when he met the governor he could not have been confident of Ogilvie joining his party is disingenuous in the extreme.

Ogilvie’s version of events was that after the premier’s announcement that Hickey would not be on the Liberal ticket, she “had a range of conversations”, presumably at least some of them with Gutwein. She also pointedly disclosed that “I didn’t approach the government”. 

Ogilvie’s “range of conversations”, we can reasonably assume, didn’t happen overnight. The likeliest scenario is that a deal was stitched up well before the premier met the governor. I’d suggest Ogilvie’s party membership was in the mix even before the Hickey meeting.

The sensible conclusion from this is that while both the governor and the wider public were invited to think the premier and his government were victims of things beyond their control, in reality Gutwein and his staffers had stage-managed everything.

There was no crisis of confidence within parliament. There wasn’t even a minority government. With Ogilvie’s switched vote the Liberal majority was more secure than when the government was elected in 2018. 

Parliament is not the plaything of Peter Gutwein and his staffers. A government’s legitimacy is supposed to be determined by parliament’s lower house, not at the whim of a premier sniffing victory. Under other states’ election laws he would have been required to return to the parliament to test his majority.

That’s why we need fixed-term parliaments, and why Peter Gutwein owes voters a full explanation.

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