accord, franchise, Hare-Clark, House of Assembly, hung parliament, Legislative Council, lutruwita, minority government, palawa, quota
Although Tasmania is a natural Labor state, there are increasing institutional and political challenges to traditional Labor dominance. Tasmania’s politics are profoundly affected by a sense of economic fragility and the consequent influence of large industries. The state has been both a national and global focus for environmental politics and originated the world’s first green political party. Tasmania’s voting system is unique, as are the electoral arrangements for both of its state houses of parliament. As part of the Australian federation, it is represented by 12 senators – the same number as other states.
Historically, Tasmania’s underperforming economy was a central issue. The resulting push for development of the state’s resources to create jobs has led to many environmental clashes over hydro dams, logging of native forests and, more recently, concerns about the location and scale of tourism developments.
Tasmania’s political history has been shaped by its geography and is defined by six broad eras: Aboriginal settlement; European exploration and convict settlement at the time of the early Industrial Revolution; the end of convict transportation followed by self-government during the mid-19th century; Federation and statehood followed by hydro-industrialisation for much of the 20th century; the rise of the Green movement and the decline of manufacturing from the 1970s; and the rise of tourism and the services sector from the 1990s.
Tasmania, known as lutruwita1 by its Indigenous inhabitants, the palawa people, was first settled between 30,000 and 40,000 years ago, when there was a land connection with the Australian mainland due to lower sea levels during the last ice age. Subsequently isolated by rising sea levels, there were nine tribes spread throughout the area. However, immediately before European settlement, the palawa population was estimated at less than 15,000.
The first European settlement on the Derwent River, near present-day Hobart, in 1803 was based partly on fear of French ambition, especially as George Bass and Matthew Flinders had shown in 1798 that Van Diemen’s Land was separate from the mainland and therefore might be distinct from the British claim to New South Wales (NSW).2 Tasmania’s usefulness as a jail for convicts and political prisoners was also important as it was realised that, as an archipelago of remote islands, escape was almost impossible.3
The Bass Strait islands were used by sealers from the late 18th century, and intermarriage between Aboriginal women and European sealers was common. However, a clash between the palawa and the first European settlers near modern-day Hobart led to a massacre and continuing intercultural violence, when a large hunting party of palawa were fired upon by frightened troops. Later, the ‘Black War’ (1824–31), the ‘most intense frontier conflict in Australia’s history’, led to the near decline of the palawa and their culture. About 1,000 Aboriginal people and 200 settlers were killed during the conflict.4 By 1830, there were 24,000 settlers, but only about 250 Aboriginal people remained alive.5
The independent settlement of northern Van Diemen’s Land was established on the Tamar River in 1804 at Launceston, which has since tended to look northward more than the southern capital. In fact, its establishment led to the founding of Melbourne in 1835 by the entrepreneur John Batman, whose party sailed across Bass Strait in the Hobart-built schooner Enterprize.
The fragility of the isolated southern colony was made stark in 1809, when Governor Bligh from Sydney and Lieutenant-Governor Collins from Hobart Town met after Bligh had been deposed by the Rum Rebellion and subsequently released. Bligh sailed for Hobart Town, where Collins refused to help him re-take the post of governor of NSW. Their relationship further soured when Bligh had one of Collins’ sons, a crewman on his ship, flogged for insubordination.6 During Bligh’s subsequent vengeful blockade of the Derwent aboard his 12-gun7 HMS Porpoise, all ships entering the river were ‘taxed’ some of their cargo, which contributed to the fledgling colony’s economic woes. After several months, Bligh eventually returned to Sydney upon hearing that a new governor, Lachlan Macquarie, had been appointed from England.
An 1823 Act of the British parliament separated Van Diemen’s Land from NSW, and the Legislative Council was established in 1825 to advise the lieutenant-governor. It consisted of six members chosen by him, expanding to 15 members in 1828. By 1851, it had 24 members, 16 of whom were elected. Consistent with similar jurisdictions, only men over 30 who owned a certain amount of property were eligible to vote.
The colony’s value as a remote jail faded as the local economy developed. Up until transportation ceased in 1853, nearly half of all convicts throughout the Australian colonies had been sent to Van Diemen’s Land, which was increasingly resented by the resident populace.8 The end of transportation followed the formation of an Anti-Transportation League, supported by all elected members of the Legislative Council. Many former convicts found their way to Victoria, lured by the gold rush of the 1850s, as labour was in strong demand. This brought about depopulation and economic stagnation in the southernmost settlements.
The global depression of the 1890s affected Tasmania’s export-based economy significantly, and there was considerable support for combining in a federation with other colonies and the promise of greater interstate trade that would follow. In the first referendum of 1898, Tasmanians voted overwhelmingly in favour of federation, with more than 81 per cent voting ‘yes’. At the second (1899) referendum, the ‘yes’ vote was even higher, with nearly 95 per cent in favour. Both ‘yes’ votes were the highest of any jurisdiction, considerably higher than NSW, where fear of a loss of influence saw ‘yes’ votes of 52 and 57 per cent respectively.9 Clearly, Tasmanians thought that they would benefit from closer economic relations with the wealthier mainland states.
The state’s key economic transformation, hydro-industrialisation, enabled electricity generation based on central highland dams. Said to be inspired by later Premier (later Commission or HEC) was created from private companies in 1914 and continued building dams until the 1980s. Industries attracted to the state as a result included paper, chocolate, zinc and aluminium production, as well as wool and carpet mills throughout the state.to the pre-war German Ruhr Valley, where the economy was booming, the Tasmanian
However, the HEC’s decision to flood the iconic Lake Pedder in the south-west so horrified a growing number of conservation-minded people that it led to the creation of the world’s first green political party in 1972 – the United Tasmania Group, later the Tasmanian Greens and subsequently the Australian Greens. Lake Pedder was flooded, but another attempt to dam the Franklin River in the early 1980s led to global protests, a blockade and the intervention of the federal government, backed by the High Court, to prevent the dam being constructed.
The Franklin River dispute marked the end of the hydro-based industrialisation strategy and confirmed the importance of tourism-related industries to the state as large-scale manufacturing employment continued to decline. A legacy of the dam-building period is that Tasmania has Australia’s highest level of renewable energy production, at 93 per cent, and is poised to export more renewable electricity to mainland Australia.10 During the 1990s, tourism marketing and air and sea access were improved, leading to a strong increase in visitor numbers, making tourism and hospitality a driver of economic growth.
Politically, the rise of the Greens on the left of the Labor Party changed the complexion of representative politics in Tasmania as well as nationally.
Tasmania’s political practice has several distinctive features, which have evolved over time, contributing to a unique political culture. The relationship between electoral systems and the success of political parties has been long studied, and Tasmania is an interesting case study in this regard.11 Tasmania (like the ACT) is unusual in that it uses a proportional electoral system to elect its lower house, having five electorates each of five seats for a House of Assembly (lower house) of 25 members. The Legislative Council (upper house) consists of 15 single-member electorates. The multi-member lower house and single-member upper house is the inverse of all other state electoral systems.
The ‘Hare-Clark’ electoral system, used in Tasmania since 1909, allows independents and minor parties to more easily secure representation in the House of Assembly. In the 34 elections since it was introduced, independents or minor parties have won seats in all but nine. In two of the nine elections where no independent was elected, Labor and the Liberal Party each won 15 seats. Since 1989, when five Greens were elected to the House of Assembly, Tasmania has had three ‘hung’ parliaments, which resulted in minority governments. It is fair to say that all Tasmanian elections are close, and there has been a long-running argument about the prospects and benefits – or otherwise – of majority government.
The number of members in the House of Assembly has changed over time. The House had at least 30 members from its origins in 1856 until 1998, when it was reduced from 35 to 25, as shown in Figure 1. This arose as a productivity offset to justify a controversial 40 per cent pay rise for MPs as a reaction to union and public pressure at a time of austere state budgets and restrictions on public sector pay rises. But it especially suited the two major parties, which saw it as a chance to make it harder for the Greens by lifting the quota required to win a seat from 12.5 per cent (one eighth) to 16.7 per cent (one sixth). A quota under Hare-Clark is the total number of votes divided by the total number of seats per electorate plus one, plus one vote.12
Tasmania’s Hare-Clark electoral system has allowed emerging social movements to secure parliamentary representation. As a result, significant trends in national party politics, including the rise of the Greens, and growing support for the Liberal Party from socially conservative working-class voters – the ‘Howard Battlers’ – were evident in Tasmanian long before other states.
In Tasmania, the Labor and Liberal two-party system13 generally prevailed at the state level between 1949 and 1982, with continuous Labor governments, occasionally with the support of independents, only disrupted by a one-term minority Liberal government between 1969 and 1972.
By the early 1980s, a proposal to dam the Franklin River became the focus of political debate both in Tasmania and nationally, at a time of high unemployment in the state. The Liberal opposition in Tasmania supported the scheme while the Labor government was torn between maintaining its commitment to industrialisation and the demands of an increasingly vocal and influential green movement who were determined to save the Franklin. Labor Premier Doug Lowe proposed a compromise of damming an alternative river in the south-west wilderness, which would still generate more power for industry but save the Franklin River. Lowe’s plan failed; he lost the party leadership over the issue and moved to the crossbenches as a Labor independent. The government continued under his successor Harry Holgate, who called an election six months later. The Liberals, under Robin Gray, subsequently secured a landslide win in the May 1982 election on the back of unprecedented working-class support. A sign of things to come, the leader of the ‘Save the Franklin’ campaign, Bob Brown, who later became the leader of the Australian Greens, was elected to the House of Assembly in 1983. By 1989, Green independents were a political force in Tasmania, winning five seats in parliament and entering a power sharing ‘accord’ with the Labor Party, enabling Labor to return to government in 1989.
The following 30 years have seen both majority Labor and Liberal governments, with one period of minority Liberal government and a further term of Labor–Green power sharing between 2010 and 2014. Not only was the Liberal Party’s 1980s strategy to win working-class votes through a pro-development and jobs platform later echoed nationally, rivalries between Labor and the Greens for progressive votes in the inner cities were also first evident in Tasmania in the same decade.
While Tasmania has also experienced three minority governments with the Greens holding a balance of power,14 there has been a long history of independents or minor parties holding the balance of power.15 A report by an advisory committee chaired by A.G. Ogilvie noted in 1984 that ‘history has shown independents and minor parties have a tendency to gain representation in a majority of elections’.16 This is facilitated by the Hare-Clark system, which enables candidates to win seats with considerably less than 50 per cent of the vote in multi-member electorates. However, the entry of the Greens to the left of the Labor Party on the back of the conservation debates changed the complexion of representative politics within the state. Since the early 1980s, the Greens have won up to five seats in some elections. Much of their gains were at the expense of the Labor Party, which recorded a record low vote of 28 per cent and won only seven seats in 2014. In the parliament elected in 2018, the Liberals have 13 seats, Labor 10 and the Greens two in the House of Assembly, while the Liberals have two seats and Labor four seats in the Legislative Council. Nevertheless, a lack of major conservation-related issues17 at the 2018 state election probably resulted in a significant decline in the Greens vote, and they won only two of the 25 lower house seats available.
Traditionally, Tasmania’s major industries have been mining, agriculture, fishing and forestry. During the period of hydro-industrialisation, major metal and forest product processing plants were also established in the state. Aquaculture has grown from a relatively small industry in the late 1980s so that Tasmania is now a large producer of seafood, particularly salmon. However, the narrow industrial base means that average Tasmanian household income is almost 19 per cent below the national average and, as a consequence, Tasmania is more reliant than other states on federal Goods and Services Tax and grant revenue for the provision of public services and infrastructure. A reliance on exports, a small number of relatively large processing industries, the vagaries of interstate and overseas transport and reliance on federal transfers have combined to make Tasmania particularly susceptible to downturns in the Australian and international economies. From the late-1990s, improvements to sea and air passenger transport sparked a growth in tourism, which has now become one of the state’s major industries. Education has also grown in importance, attracting more overseas fee-paying students, albeit from a relatively low base. One outcome of the decades of debate over forestry, mining and the environment is that some 42 per cent of Tasmania is protected in the World Heritage Area, national parks or other reserves. Tasmania’s natural environment and clean air, and its reputation for excellent food and drink products are key factors in attracting visitors and students to the state. As of 2018, these factors were contributing to strong economic growth and, for the first time in over a decade, the Tasmanian economy was outperforming the economies of the mainland states.
The much smaller scale of Tasmania’s political system, compared with the other Australian states, is significant. Another distinctive feature of the island state is its relatively dispersed population. There are three distinctive and competitive regions – Greater Hobart and the south; Launceston and the north-east; and the north-west and west coasts, including Devonport and Burnie. These regions have different industrial bases, economies, needs and expectations. Despite the small size of the state, each region has its own daily newspaper that champions causes for its district. Overlaying this regional structure are the five House of Assembly electorates discussed above, each about the same size, in terms of voter numbers, and with boundaries drawn around communities of interest. The same electorates also give Tasmania five seats in the House of Representatives – and 12 senators in the Australian parliament, as negotiated under the federation process, primarily by Tasmanian Andrew Inglis Clark,18 an admirer of the US constitution.
The state’s smallness creates issues for governing and governance. All political parties, at times, find it difficult to find capable candidates to fill vacancies. Name recognition has seen the establishment of political ‘dynasties’, where members get elected based on their family name. For example, current Liberal Premier Will Hodgman is the son of former federal and state MP Michael Hodgman, whose father, William Hodgman, was a former president of the Legislative Council. The current member for Denison, Scott Bacon, is the son of former Labor Premier Jim Bacon. The same issue causes problems in filling positions at all levels of government, from the judiciary to appointments and promotions in the public service, to filling board positions on government–business enterprises. Relatively small networks in business and politics mean it is hard to find people who have no past affiliations or business associations that can lead to suspicions of cronyism and nepotism.
More than 95 per cent of Tasmanian businesses are classified as ‘small’.19 By comparison, some government-owned businesses are big employers and have more financial resources, which give them a dominant voice in key policy arenas. The political power of a small number of private-sector business leaders, investors and large (in Tasmanian terms) employers has also been a cause for concern. For example, during the 2018 state election, a high profile advertising campaign funded by gaming industry lobby groups against a Labor and Greens policy to remove gaming machines from pubs and clubs was both effective and reminiscent of the forest industry campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. It is arguable that the government was returned due to that campaign, and thus the Liberals are in debt to the gambling industry.20
Historically, the underperformance of Tasmania’s economy is a recurring theme and the subject of numerous inquiries and attempted interventions. The 1997 Nixon report on the Tasmanian economy for the Commonwealth government, for example, noted that ‘economic activity and jobs growth in Tasmania is the worst of all the states’.21 As we have noted, the Tasmanian economy is currently experiencing a period of strong growth in what has been described as a ‘golden age’. In a speech to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), Premier Will Hodgman declared Tasmania was ‘now a stronger, prouder, more confident place and the economy one of the strongest performing in the country’.22
This economic renaissance began in the late 1990s, under Labor Premier Jim Bacon, with a program he named Tasmania Together – an attempt to unite people behind a plan to focus on Tasmania’s advantages – its natural attractions, its reputation for excellent produce, the arts – and to instil a sense of confidence in the community. Despite falling victim to irreconcilable differences over forestry, Tasmania Together succeeded in promoting growth in tourism, a turnaround from a net decline in population to growth from both interstate and overseas migrants, and recognition of the importance of education and the arts as important sectors of economic growth. The establishment of the Museum of Old and New Art, known as MONA, by professional gambler and eccentric entrepreneur David Walsh in 2011 tapped into an international market of cultural tourism and has fostered innovation and creativity across the state.
The ongoing struggle between economic development and the environment has defined Tasmanian politics. Struggles such as the fights to save the wilderness from hydro development in the 1980s and the forestry conflicts of the 1990s and 2000s seem to be abating. However, the rapid growth in tourism in recent years has led to environmental tension around the location and scale of tourism infrastructure, such as resorts, hotels and a cable car, and encroachment on wilderness areas.
The central challenge facing Tasmania is whether the island state can exploit its distinctive strengths to achieve sustainable and inclusive economic growth despite the challenges of remoteness and scale. In many ways, this is a political challenge as much as an economic one. Ultimately, Tasmania’s prosperity will depend on two factors. First, the political challenge involves resolving traditional tensions between progressive environmentalists and more conservative commercial interests. On this front, the outlook is more optimistic than it has been for decades, given that political conflict over forestry has abated significantly in recent years, although concerns about aquaculture and tourism remain. A second challenge is whether Tasmanians can have the education and skills to capitalise on the transition from an industrial to a service and knowledge-based economy. The concern here is that levels of educational attainment in Tasmania are well below the national average and that growing numbers of businesses complain about shortages of skilled labour.
Tasmania is Australia’s smallest and poorest state. Its isolation, scale and economic challenges have contributed to what is, by Australian standards, a unique political culture. In recent years, Tasmania’s economic performance and outlook have improved significantly, but it remains to be seen whether the ideological and parochial divisions that have afflicted its politics in the past will prevent the island state from realising its full economic and social potential.
Australian Electoral Commission (2011). Federation fact sheet 1 – the referendums 1898–1900. Canberra: Australian Electoral Commission.
Bennett, S., and R. Lundie (2007). Australian electoral systems. Parliamentary Library Research Paper 5 (2007–08). Canberra: Parliament of Australia.
Boyce, J. (2008). Van Diemen’s Land. Melbourne: Schwartz.
Clark, M. (2012). A history of Australia, volumes 1 and 2. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press.
Clements, N. (2014). The Black War: fear, sex and resistance in Tasmania. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.
Department of State Growth (2019). Small business. https://www.stategrowth.tas.gov.au/about/divisions/industry_and_business_development/small_business
Harman, K. (2018). Explainer: how Tasmania’s Aboriginal people reclaimed a language, palawa kani. The Conversation, 19 July. http://theconversation.com/explainer-how-tasmanias-aboriginal-people-reclaimed-a-language-palawa-kani-99764
Hodgman, W. (2017). CEDA state of the state address. Hobart, 1 December. http://www.premier.tas.gov.au/speeches/ceda_state_of_the_state_address2
Kippen, R. (2014). The population history of Tasmania to Federation. Carlton, Vic.: Centre for Health, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, University of Melbourne.
Newman, T. (1992). Hare-Clark in Tasmania, representation of all opinions. Joint Library Committee, Parliament of Tasmania. Hobart: Government Printing Office.
Nixon, P. (1997). The Nixon report: Tasmania into the 21st century. Hobart: Commonwealth Government.
Whitson, R. (2018). Tasmanian Greens’ fortunes may be waning but party’s not over, leader Cassy O’Connor says. ABC News, 21 December. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-12-21/tasmanian-greens-to-focus-on-rebuilding/10639504
Winfield, R. (2008). British warships in the Age of Sail 1793–1817: design, construction, careers and fates. Barnsley, UK: Seaforth.
Richard Eccleston is professor of political science and founding director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania. He publishes in the fields of comparative and international political economy, and his recent books include The dynamics of global economic governance (2013), The future of federalism in an age of austerity (2017) and Business, civil society and the new politics of corporate tax justice (2018). Richard is also a respected commentator on Tasmanian politics.
Dr Dain Bolwell is an associate with the Institute for the Study of Social Change. He has extensive experience in several countries in labour and development with the United Nations. He is the author of Governing technology in the quest for sustainability on Earth (2019), as well as To the lighthouse: towards a global minimum wage building on the international poverty line (2016). He writes for several journals and newspapers on politics and sustainability, including for The Conversation.
Mike Lester is a former political journalist and commentator in Tasmania, where he has worked for the ABC, the Launceston Examiner, the Burnie Advocate and the Hobart Mercury. He worked as a political adviser to former Tasmanian Premier Jim Bacon between 1998 and 2002. Mike has run several public relations and media communication businesses. He is currently a PhD candidate researching how the legacies of past government formation and performance affect the formation of subsequent governments in hung parliaments in Australia. Mike has written articles for the Australian Journal of Politics and History and the Australasian Parliamentary Review.
1 The written form of the Tasmanian Aboriginal language, palawa kani, has only lower case letters following a decision by the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre to discontinue capitals (Harman 2018).
2 Clements 2014.
3 Although, in 1834, ten audacious convicts managed to build a boat, commandeer it and sail to Chile (Courtenay 2018).
4 Kippen 2014.
5 Clements 2014.
6 Clark 2012.
7 Winfield 2008.
8 Boyce 2008.
9 Australian Electoral Commission 2011.
10 Climate Council of Australia 2014, 31–2.
11 See, for example, Bennett and Lundie 2007 on the effects of Hare-Clark in Tasmania.
12 Where there is only one seat, the quota is therefore half the number of votes, plus one vote – which is the same as used throughout Australia in all single-member electorates.
13 The National Party has never achieved state-level representation in Tasmania.
14 These three hung parliaments with the Greens holding a balance of power were the Field Labor government of the Labor–Green Accord between 1989 and 1992, the Rundle Liberal minority government between 1996 and 1998 and the Bartlett–Giddings Labor government, with two Greens in Cabinet, between 2010 and 2014.
15 Newman 1992, 198–201.
16 Newman 1992, 98.
17 Whitson 2018. Although salmon farming was an issue, its restriction lacked significant support, and the earlier question of a pulp mill on the river Tamar had been long buried.
18 The same Clark as in the ‘Hare-Clark’ voting system.
19Department of State Growth 2019.
20 See also Knaus and Evershed 2019 on the gambling lobby’s donations to the Liberals ahead of the 2018 state election, totalling $500,000.
21 Nixon 1997, v.
22 Hodgman 2017.