A tragic failure of leadership

By definition, the world’s truest, most representative electoral system is also the world’s most accurate opinion poll. That poll has now revealed Tasmanians’ deep sense of unease at the state of the world they live in. And neither of the major parties has a clue what to do about it.

When issues like stadiums grab and hold public attention it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking no-one cares. That was my mindset a couple of weeks ago when I wrote that in this year’s election “the Greens aside, no party or individual candidate across the spectrum took on climate change as a major issue of concern.”

I was too hasty. Last week I got an email from Bob Elliston, who got 169 votes as a candidate for Franklin in the March election. Elliston’s campaign leaflet described government’s “worst crime” as “not doing nearly enough about climate change” and featured a serious-looking headshot captioned, “There’s no smile because there’s not much to smile about.”

It’s hard for independents to do what the Greens keep doing – encompass broad environmental concerns in a convincing campaign package. But in 2022 major-party candidates were beaten by the Teal Independents’ environment platforms. Anti-salmon campaigner Craig Garland has now done the same here in Braddon. 

Premier Jeremy Rockliff called an early poll to eliminate party rebels and win an outright majority. On election night, with the rebels headed for the exit and supporters chanting “four more years”, he boldly declared he’d won. With his party’s primary vote down by 12 per cent that was a brave call. Now it looks plain foolhardy.

With just 14 seats, the Liberals are still four short of an outright majority. And as political scientist Richard Herr said at the weekend, without the Greens – nearly half of Tasmania’s biggest-ever crossbench of 11 – there will be no parliamentary stability. 

Yet both Rockliff and Labor leader Rebecca White were united in their refusal to deal with the Greens, presumably hoping that the party would somehow go away. Of course it didn’t, and both major parties are now stuck with their foolish promises.

Labor won only 10 seats, but as things turned out it could have formed government in alliance with the Greens and other crossbenchers. The politics of the Jacqui Lambie Network is a work in progress, but it’s feasible and even likely that independents Kristie Johnston, David O’Byrne and Craig Garland would have supported a Labor-Green coalition.

That was the intention signalled by White’s defiant election-night speech, but we’ll never know. The next day the party that once never missed a chance to form government was cast adrift by backroom administrators who decided they weren’t even going to try.

This has history. The first Labor-Green deal way back in 1989 ended in angry finger-pointing and a disastrous election loss in 1992. The boot was on the other foot in 1998 when Tony Rundle’s Liberal government made a pact with the Greens and then collapsed in a heap. The major parties colluded to exclude Greens, cutting parliament to 25 seats, but it didn’t work. The Greens kept coming back.

Labor tried one more time to live with the Greens. After the 2010 election Liberal Opposition Leader Will Hodgman refused to deal with them, but Labor leader David Bartlett negotiated with Nick McKim, who with Cassy O’Connor joined the Bartlett-Giddings government. 

In a government that chalked up numerous legislative successes, the deal seemed to work well. Then just before the 2014 election Lara Giddings abruptly terminated it, a stand-off with the Greens that holds to this day. This year both major parties, while admitting they might enter coalitions with people outside their party, kept hammering the message that the Greens were off-limits.

Having demonstrably failed to secure the backing of Tasmanian voters, the major parties continue to show their ignorance – wilful or otherwise – of the underlying reason for their community’s dissatisfaction with them: a deep and abiding anxiety over what the natural world has in store for us. 

This is a pretty pass. No party can currently win power without forming a coalition, and lasting coalitions require agreements between parties. Past difficulties notwithstanding, the Greens are the most stable third-party bloc in the Tasmanian parliament, and have been for decades. As the only party committed to addressing pressing environmental issues, they have retained voter support. 

Contrast that with the positions of Jeremy Rockliff and Labor leader-in-waiting Dean Winter, who continue pointedly to ignore the environment while banging on incessantly about jobs and growth. 

Other important issues need attention, notably in health and education, but all depend on a stable, reliable natural environment. When that is lost everything else is lost too. The electorate understands this important truth. It’s tragic that our leaders have still not caught on.

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