April 03, 2010 08:56am
SUE NEALES: THERE is no doubt that Tasmania’s now-past premier, David Bartlett, is an extraordinarily able politician.
He’s quick, sharp, and articulate. He values integrity, honour and commitments made — as he has reminded the Tasmanian people so often in the past two weeks — ostensibly to justify turning his back on government and leading Labor into opposition.
Bartlett’s ferocious attack on Thursday of former federal Labor minister in the Hawke and Keating years, Graham Richardson, for daring to suggest Bartlett should negotiate with the Greens to stay in power, was also wonderful to behold.
Richardson, powerful in Labor circles in the late ’80s and early ’90s, later retired to work as a highly paid consultant and political “fixer” for media mogul Kerry Packer and property magnate Lang Walker, among others.
David Bartlett went to great and heartfelt lengths this week — even if it also suited his willing retreat into opposition and refusal to deal with the Greens — to tell Richardson to butt out of Tasmanian Labor politics.
“Graham Richardson would crawl over his grandmother to get to power; I am not that man; I do not believe in the philosophy of ‘whatever it takes’,” Bartlett empathically said.
“My commitment to the Tasmanian people (that the political party with the most votes at last month’s election wins) is an honest one.
“I will stick to my promise and on Wednesday after the declaration of the polls I will visit the Governor and advise him that I cannot honestly say I could expect to enjoy the confidence of the House if [Labor] was asked to form the next government.”
Bartlett’s performance at what was probably his final press conference as Tasmania’s premier — at least for now — was masterful.
He managed to deliver his four key messages easily, succinctly — and almost believably.
Firstly, that he felt he had no choice but to stop being premier and to go into opposition because Labor had been given such a “clouting” at the polls by voters. (No mention though of the 10-all final score with the Liberals.)
Secondly, that he believed it was also the honourable thing to do, given his heat-of-the-moment election pledge that the team with the most “votes” wins (although even Bartlett admitted he now knows it was a “constitutionally immaterial” promise).
Thirdly, seeing Bartlett understands Governor Peter Underwood has no legal reason to honour his own top-score pledge and accept the Labor government’s self-initiated-move into opposition — he was now providing him with a constitutionally valid argument to justify Labor’s position.
That, said Bartlett, was the combined vote of no confidence on the floor of parliament last November by the Greens and Liberals against Bartlett as premier and his Labor government.
Despite that vote being specifically about Bartlett’s poor handling and misjudgments in the police commissioner affair — and taken in a now-prorogued term of a previous parliament — the premier maintained that since nothing had changed or been “recanted” by Greens leader Nick McKim or Liberal leader Will Hodgman, he could not confidently expect to rule.
And finally, just in case any of the media had dared to listen to the loud choruses of disgruntlement coming from within federal Labor circles and some slices of local Left and Right factions, Bartlett’s final message was that he had the unanimous support of all his 13 MPs to happily hand over power to the Liberals and to remain as leader of the party in opposition.
Game over, according to Bartlett, as he packed up his bat and ball and walked away from the crease, all the while muttering that he was “not a quitter”.
But politics is never that neat. Or that honourable and selfless.
And, as many have already pointed out, Mr Bartlett’s “I’m not a quitter” walk-away script of Thursday just as easily fitted another scenario entirely.
And that is the one Labor has been talking about endlessly since the March 20 poll delivered a hung parliament result and an equal number of 10 seats to both the Liberals and Labor, with the Greens holding the remaining five seats and the balance of power.
That is the long-sustained Labor narrative, upheld ever since the Michael Field-led Labor-Green accord of 1989-92 disintegrated, that says the Tasmanian Greens should never be trusted again.
This is the view that minority governments never work. That trying to rule in minority equates to too many compromises and death by a thousand cuts, resulting in a loss of economic confidence in Tasmania, political chaos and a morass of indecision.
And that whichever political party is placed in minority government will be ripped to shreds and punished severely at the ensuing state poll after their parliamentary term invariably ends up truncated in about two years time.
Labor’s view is supported by the evidence of Tasmania’s past two most recent attempts at minority government that relied on the Greens’ support on the floor of parliament.
The Labor-Green Field government disintegrated in February 1992 after 32 months, with Labor then out of power for the next six years.
The next minority Liberal-Green accord Rundle government of 1996-1998 only lasted 30 months. After that experience, the Liberals have not had a sniff of regaining government until this year.
With that background, Bartlett believes — and former premier Michael Field is one of Mr Bartlett’s closest mentors while his brother Terry Field has been his personal chief of staff for the past four years — Labor is much better off in opposition for reasons of short-term expediency.
Here’s the prevailing Labor view (and I’ve heard all of these lines from Labor in the past fortnight).
“Let the Liberals and Greens muck it up. Watch the Liberals drag Tasmania down. Laugh as the Liberals led by an inexperienced Will Hodgman are tied in knots by the Greens and slick Nick McKim.
“Labor needs to recharge its batteries, regroup and reconnect with the community, and that can’t be done from government. Let the young new Labor faces in parliament blood themselves in opposition rather than juggling with the pressures of government.
“Let Labor grow into New Labor in opposition and let the Machiavellian old Labor dinosaurs gradually go on their way. And then be ready to come back into government with our own blueprint for a better Tasmania in two to three years time, after the Greens and Liberals have stuffed it up.”
Meld those views with Bartlett’s admission that perhaps the pinnacle of political success came to him too early — in May 2008, when he was only 40, had very young children and was still at a learning-curve stage of his career.
As he likes to joke now — and there’s both truth and perhaps a hint of prophecy in the statement: “After everything I’ve been through in the past two years, I’ll probably make a very good premier one day.”
Which is all very well as a game plan serving Labor’s best interests. And probably those of Labor’s young leader too, who clearly wants another shot at leading Tasmania some time in the not-too-distant future.
But, just as there is truth in Bartlett’s admitting he was not ready to be premier, so is there truth in McKim’s accusation on Thursday that Labor is now “concocting” legal reasons to justify its own desire to retreat to the opposition benches.
McKim called Labor’s game plan a “set up” and a recipe for disaster. He said it amounted to Labor manipulating the installation of a Liberal minority government, only to then spend the next two years “throwing rocks” at the Liberals in a determined effort to destabilise government in Tasmania.
“Mr Bartlett has exposed himself as an agent of instability; let’s expose Labor’s strategy for what it is,” McKim said.
Endorsing the Greens’ view was Bartlett’s somewhat unexpected warning on Thursday at his final press conference of “dark clouds” gathering on the economic horizon.
He, rather darkly, predicted — as though already opposition leader — that private capital investment in Tasmania was now drying up at the prospect of a minority government.
He also warned that the Tasmanian economy is not through the worst of the global financial crisis, and that the real fallout of mass job losses on the North-West Coast and the collapse of the forestry industry sector is still to come.
McKim is convinced the Labor government, through its control of the economic purse strings and conversations held with major companies, knows hard times are ahead and does not want to be in power to cop the blame.
Liberal leader Will Hodgman also believes this is Labor’s strategy, backed by the advantage of prior economic knowledge.
But, either honourably or stoically, the premier-elect says the new Liberal government will just have to deal with the challenges as they arise.
“If there are dark clouds on the horizon, or stormy seas ahead, we will work through them,” Hodgman said this week as he commenced his transition to government.
“There is no doubt there are significant [economic] challenges still facing Tasmania, but the job now falls to me to get on with governing Tasmania and to deal with those challenges, while Mr Bartlett wants to walk away from them.”
And so one government ends and another begins, assuming Governor Underwood agrees with Bartlett’s call