A vote for informed independence

Saturday’s election for the Legislative Council divisions of Elwick, Hobart and Prosser – hot on the heels of the watershed general election in March – is a rare opportunity for 70,000-odd Tasmanian voters to reshape their state.

For the first time in over 100 years, the annual poll in the rotating upper house election cycle will feature three vacant seats, following the retirement of independent Rob Valentine (Hobart) and the election of Labor’s Elwick MLC Josh Willie and Liberal Jane Howlett (Prosser) to the House of Assembly last month. 

The vote comes at a time when the two major parties are battling growing dissatisfaction. The 12 per cent Liberal primary drop at the March election was one warning sign; another was the fact that the Labor vote barely moved after a dreadful 2021 performance. Winners were the Greens, Lambies and independents.

The contests for the seats previously held by the Liberals (Prosser) and Labor (Elwick) will be good current indicators of support for the major parties. The Liberals, represented by long-serving Sorell mayor Kerry Vincent, will be hugely relieved to hold Prosser. If not, the likely winner would be Labor’s endorsed candidate, former leader Bryan Green. But my bet is that major party success will end there.

Elwick is in Labor heartland and was won and held comfortably by Willie, but Labor’s northern suburbs vote eroded badly in the 2021 state election. Its situation is not helped by the presence of a Labor rebel, lawyer Fabiano Cangelosi, opposing the party’s endorsed candidate, Tessa McLaughlin. No-one is standing for the Liberals.

Which leaves Janet Shelley, a senior public servant and sustainability expert standing for the Greens, and progressive independent Bec Thomas, long-serving councillor and currently mayor of Glenorchy. Both have a strong local support base and both push for better public infrastructure and services. And depending on the fall of preferences, either could take the seat.

The Hobart electorate, at the core of the state and federal seat of Clark and once a Labor stronghold, is now the domain of Greens and independents. Racist slurs have probably lifted support for Labor’s John Kamara, but he’s only an outside chance. Again, the Liberals are not even fielding a candidate.

As in Elwick, the strongest candidates for Hobart are to be found outside the main parties, and all five of them identify as progressives. Front-runners are Cassy O’Connor representing the Greens and two independents, Charlie Burton and John Kelly. 

Reasons to put Burton among the front-runners include a strong local campaign, public policy expertise, and the support of both Rob Valentine and Clark’s long-serving federal MP, Andrew Wilkie. The fact that he was Wilkie’s wife for six years will test Hobart’s acceptance of transgender people, but he should feel confident that this will be no more a barrier than Kamara’s African background.

Kelly’s transformation of the State Cinema in North Hobart into a cultural hub earned admiration from a wide cross-section of Hobart voters, myself included. He advocates better environmental protection, was opposed to the cable car and has raised questions about other high-profile Hobart developments – such as the AFL stadium – while taking a pro-business stance on others. 

Which leaves former Greens leader Cassy O’Connor, the most able parliamentary performer of her generation, who for many years compensated for the major parties’ generally appalling lack of environmental awareness with her own knowledge and skill in this supremely important area of public policy. 

O’Connor is a candidate for the Greens, but her strength lies in personal attributes: learning and knowledge, self-motivation, eloquence, passion, and a gift for parliamentary debate. She took ministerial responsibility in the 2010 Labor-Green alliance despite partisan attacks from within both parties, and she maintained her effectiveness through a decade of working in opposition.

I need to declare myself here. The only party I ever joined was Labor, as a student in the 1970s. I have since chosen to support issues and causes ahead of party ideologies. These ideologies began as ideals, but in this very different age they are expressed more in stolid stupidity and subterfuge in the name of party unity. 

The Greens are still a party, and it can be overzealous. But unlike the major parties it has not shied away from political responsibility for today’s most pressing human need, to find a way to live within our planet’s means. O’Connor has led that charge for years and campaigned accordingly. She deserves a place at the table.

Saturday’s vote is hard to predict, like all Legislative Council elections, but I believe the result will signify an embrace of informed, independent thinking. We have never needed it more.

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