Bass, where the lesson of history is to ignore it
You know Labor is in trouble if people like Clare Mattern have their doubts. Clare has two jobs – one in a skateboarding streetwear store in Launceston – is undecided about her vote, and thinks the Prime Minister shouldn’t have declared herself an atheist.
“I work in a Catholic primary school so I know what a big deal [religion] is to a lot of people,” she said. The assessment of Abbott started similarly cynically: “He seems like a funny personality,” she said, but added: “I don’t know if you call it just being normal and human. But I’m not keen on hearing [Gillard] at all… I thought Kevin Rudd would have done a better job.”
Bagging the guvmint is a national pastime, but it should set the bomb sirens wailing in the Labor party when a Metallica-loving twenty-something lists the Prime Minister’s atheism as a political negative, thinks Kevin Rudd should be leading the party, and then says Tony Abbott seems like a knockabout bloke.
The closest thing to a confident prediction on who would carry the seat of Bass came from someone who has done it before. Michelle O’Byrne won the seat for Labor in 1998 and is now a minister in the Tasmanian state government. I bumped into her in a café and her assessment of the outcome was as follows.
The Labor candidate, Geoff Lyons, will win because he has exceptional connections in the community (which he does, being involved in over 30 community groups and boards) and preferences from the minor parties including the Greens will be directed his way.
This all makes solid pointy-headed, political wonk sense. But then this is a campaign and O’Byrne is a Labor lifer so the polite assessment of the prediction could be summed up as well, she would say that, wouldn’t she?
After spending an evening and a morning talking to voters in Launceston, seeing the hard-running Liberal campaign up close and trying unsuccessfully to get to speak to the Labor candidate, there are plenty of red flags to suggest the Labor party is in trouble in Bass, which it holds by a margin of just one per cent.
Take Mark. He works in the construction industry, has voted Labor all his life but will do so this time “with reservations”.
“I’ll give Julia Gillard a go, see how she goes, but I don’t know if many blokes will do the same,” he said. Mark has done well out of school construction projects funded by the Building the Education Revolution stimulus spending, but has concerns about his future income. “I think all the spending has dried us – it’s always a worry in our line of work, what’s going to happen next.”
His family have always been rusted-on Labor voters but get this: he thinks his mother, who recently started a business, may have changed her mind.
Or take Tony Jensen, a truck driver made of classically Tasmanian stuff who may as well have his union membership card taped to his forehead. He should be a true believer but he, too, is only reluctantly supporting a return of the government and has a list of grumbles including the rising cost of living and the government’s handling of the doomed Resources Super Profits Tax. “There’s a lot of concern around here,” he told me. “It’s not only the mining industry but the people that work indirectly from the mining industry. Not to say that the mining industry shouldn’t pay more tax but I think it would have been a lot better if it had been gradually introduced rather than going for the slam dunk.”
Articles about Bass tend to slide into historical tedium about its record of defying or starting trends. If that’s your thing you can dive into it here, here, or here; but really the only thing Bass’s history teaches is that it is no guide.
Political rules of thumb don’t apply here. It is, after all, the electorate in which John Howard got a hero’s welcome from unionists in 2004. There’s also no incumbent standing: the sitting member, Labor’s Jodie Campbell, is resigning after a messy term in office that saw her partner on domestic violence charges which were later dropped.
The Liberal candidate is Steve Titmus, a 46-year-old former sports journalist and television newsreader whose previous career comes with attendant stratospherically high recognition levels among voters. (“That nice man from the telly”, was a phrase heard more than once.) Titmus has been campaigning since the end of last year and has a goal that looks far beyond a win this weekend as he seeks to position himself as a candidate of stability for the notoriously volatile electorate.
“One of the big differences is I’m in the prime of my career, and my opponent is nearing the end of his,” Titmus told The Punch at his campaign headquarters. “My aim is to win the seat of Bass for several terms. We now as a community are behind the eight-ball. People can know that they can elect me for several terms into the future.”
Labor’s answer to the Titmus profile is former hospital manager Lyons. According to the Launceston Examiner has been involved with over 30 community boards in the past year. These connections are what O’Byrne points to in her prediction of his strong primary vote and preference flows from double-digit Greens support getting him across the line.
A poll in the Examiner at the weekend favoured Labor to hold Bass, and the bookies have Lyons at marginally shorter odds than Titmus. Also in the news last week was the matter of Titmus’s 20-year-old son, who lives in Adelaide and is from his first marriage, being charged with drugs offences – a late distraction with unpredictable repercussions for the Liberal campaign.
While Queensland and NSW will be the decisive battlegrounds for the election, the early results from Bass this weekend will be worth watching for a couple of reasons. It is home to the first rollout of the National Broadband Network. If Labor polls strongly here it could be interpreted as an endorsement of the project, which is one of the few policy areas on which there is a major difference, from the first people to benefit from it. But conversely, if there is a national swing on against the government Bass will be one of the places it shows up.
The local economy is a mixture of diverse small businesses and a large resources sector. The forestry industry is a major employer but Titmus described it as being “on its knees”. The day I was there the Mercury newspaper carried a story across the top of two pages about forestry contractors seeking a $100 million bailout.
Forestry contractor Ken Padgett explained the problems with the forestry industry have emerged over the past three years and stem from a combination of a sustained anti-industry campaign from environmental groups, the global financial crisis, regulatory confusion over accreditation standards and the strength of the dollar hurting exports. “Normally you are able to ride one or two of these things but you can’t ride the lot,” he said.
This has raised question marks over many people’s job security, something Titmus lists as among his top three issues for the area, along with cost of living pressures and opportunities for young people. Padgett’s estimate is that one in seven people in all of Tasmania are employed directly or indirectly through the logging industry. That this traditional cornerstone of the Bass economy is struggling adds another layer to the issues voters will consider over the coming week - forestry is mainly a state issue, but the economy is not.
Many voters The Punch spoke to during the third week of the campaign were still wavering. Mum Stacey Purton voted Greens before but wasn’t sure who she’d vote for this time. Dane Layton hadn’t given it “a second of thought”. Lisa Dorneau wanted more spending on mental health services but didn’t know about the Coalition’s $1.5 billion spending plan on the sector.
Damon Wecker runs a café on Launceston’s George Street. He says about 500 people come through the doors every day and from his conversations with customers his assessment is that Labor is in trouble. “The sentiment in this room is not pro-Labor,” he said. “People are almost anti the platform that [Gillard] has come up on. Tony Abbott might not be the better option but at least he is standing by the things he has always stood for.”
Wecker has also noticed a shift in mood towards Gillard since she became Prime Minister. “At first the female customers were happy to see a woman in power but the same people are not beating the drum for her now.”
If an election was based on counting signs in people’s front yards were votes, Titmus would win in a landslide. On a drive around Launceston suburbs with him he was surprised to see some of them in place. There were signs for Lyons, too, but not as many, and the Labor branding was inconspicuous.
On the town streets there were plenty of voters who were leaning towards voting Labor but were prepared to consider Titmus once you raised his name.
It’s totally unscientific but it’s an indication that the outcome in Bass could come down to a matter of a few thousand of the good people of Launceston making their minds up when they head to the polling place on Saturday.
Don’t miss: Get The Punch in your inbox every day
Get The Punch on Facebook
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…