A Tasmanian Green media release today confirmed what most people understood as the Green position in the Apple Isle: they would prefer a coalition government but in the meantime won’t support a no confidence motion against the Labor Government. In the absence of a negotiated settlement or outright malfeasance by Labor, David Bartlett will be able to serve out a second term as Tasmanian Premier. Yet Greens leader Nick McKim continued to offer to negotiate with either party and said they would still hold all of their pre-election policies including opposition to the proposed Gunns pulp mill, fighting to save Tasmania’s high conservation value forests, and rolling back the government’s education reform program “Tasmania Tomorrow”.
These latter three policies are likely to be major sticking points and make Bartlett’s long-term survival hopes appear tenuous. Bartlett could strengthen that position by sitting down with McKim but he has shown little sign of wanting to negotiate what would appear on face value to be an obvious centre-left coalition between Labor and the Greens. But in the poisonous world of Tasmanian politics, Labor might have been better served seeking a Coalition with the Liberals. Prior to the election, Bartlett said he had no level of trust in McKim.
The election under the Hare-Clark rules on 20 March left Tasmania with a lower house of 10 Labor seats, 10 Liberal and 5 Greens. While such a result is common in Europe and leads to perfectly workable coalitions, here the result was greeted with consternation. Both the major parties stuck their collective heads in the sand and said working with the Greens was impossible – working with each other was simply the beyond the realm of thought.
Because the Liberals took 39 percent of the vote compared to Labor’s 37, Bartlett initially held to his campaign promise that he would have over power to the Liberals in the event they outvoted them. Bartlett began to pull back from that promise in the weeks following the election as it became obvious it was dubious from the standpoint of constitutional conventions. He was also bolstered by McKim’s offer of support despite having making no efforts to woo the Greens. On 9 April, Tasmanian Governor Peter Underwood made the correct call and offered the Premiership back to Bartlett. Underwood still retains the possibility of offering the job to the Liberals’ Will Hodgman in the event it doesn’t work out. Only then would Tasmanians face another election.
Hodgman bitterly protested the decision and slammed Bartlett for going back on his promise. But this was never Bartlett’s decision to make. As Tasmanian lawyer Greg Barns said, “Underwood correctly applied constitutional convention, which is to say he asked himself which party could provide stability and saw that the answer was clearly the ALP. End of story.”
Of course, it is very far from the end of this particularly story. However, ABC election analyst Antony Green believes Bartlett and McKim are finally discussing the possibility of coalition government with the possibility that McKim and fellow Greens MP Tim Morris may be offered ministries. Former Premier Paul Lennon is also pushing for Bartlett to offer McKim a ministry. How they deal with the looming decision on Gunn’s Tamar Vale pulp mill will be an early test of such an alliance, nevertheless it is good they are talking and the Greens may find it harder to oppose from inside the tent. Australian politicians don’t take easy to compromise but it is the mark of mature governance and often the only way things get done in a democracy.