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The role of parties in Tasmania’s upper house

May 2, 2024 - 09:30 -- Admin

Tasmania’s upper house stands out amongst Australia’s parliamentary chambers with the most unusual constitutional structure. It has single-member electorates – common for lower houses, but unique for a house of review – and those electorates are never all elected at the same time. Instead, two or three seats are elected each year, with the entire chamber refreshed over a six-year cycle.

The upper house’s separation from the process of forming government, and the gradual process of election, contribute to the chamber being far more dominated by independents than elsewhere.

In this post I’ll explore the growing party strength in the upper house, and how more contests are involving either of the major parties – or both.

While independents were few and far between in Tasmania’s upper house until the last two elections, independents held a majority of seats continuously from the establishment of the current single-member system in 1946 until 2020.

Labor has held a handful of seats in the chamber continually, but the Liberal Party was entirely absent throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and the early 2000s.

Indeed independents held all but one seat in the late 1980s, and held thirteen out of fifteen seats as recently as 2012.

The ALP’s increase in support since the mid 2010s hasn’t exceeded their previous surge in the early 2000s, although it has happened at a time where the party is much weaker in lower house elections. But it has been paired with a surge of Liberal members, to the point where there was four Liberals and five Labor MLCs following the 2021 elections.

This year’s elections are good examples of how things have changed. Major parties play a big role in all three electorates, with the Greens also putting up their best shot yet of winning a seat in the upper house.

Hobart and Prosser were due to hold elections this year, while Labor MLC Josh Willie triggered an early election for his seat of Elwick when he ran successfully for the House of Assembly. Liberal MLC Jane Howlett also jumped ship from Prosser to win a lower house seat in Lyons.

Prosser in 2018 was very much a major party contest. The Liberal and Labor candidates came first and second, with 48% of the vote between them. After the distribution of preferences, the seat ended up with a Liberal two-party-preferred margin of 2.7%. There aren’t many examples of an upper house seat where you can calculate a 2PP in Tasmania, so I was very interested to see how Howlett would’ve gone running for re-election before she jumped ship.

This year, Labor candidate Bryan Green has been running for the seat for a long time, and commentators seem to think it will end up as a Labor vs Liberal contest.

The two Hobart-area seats are a bit different, with no Liberal candidacy. But parties are also playing a big role there.

Hobart is held by left-leaning independent Rob Vallentine, who is retiring after two terms. The main contenders include progressive independent Charlie Burton, former Greens leader Cassy O’Connor and Labor candidate John Kamara.

Immediately to the north, the Labor seat of Elwick is being contested by Labor’s Tessa McLaughlin and independent mayor Bec Thomas. The Greens are also running here, but Hobart is their real shot.

In both cases, the electorates feel like contests between different flavours of the left. While we do have intra-left contests for single-member electorates on the mainland, the lack of a government majority at play seems to enhance the individualisation of contests in the Tasmanian upper house. And the different groupings in the upper house tend to be more gradated. Kevin Bonham has recently updated his excellent analysis of voting trends in the Council. Of the six independents in the Council, three of them clearly group together to the left of Labor, while the other three group together on the right, often voting with the Liberal Party but still voting apart at least a third of the time.

So how do these types of contests compare to past years?

This chart groups Legislative Council elections into five-year groups back to 2005, which appears to be the first year when party labels were put on the ballot paper.

In the late 2000s, almost two thirds of contests involved neither major party. And there wasn’t a single contest where both Labor and Liberal stood.

The Liberal Party made a serious return in the early 2010s, but there was only one contest in this period with both major parties in the race. Even in that one contest (Launceston in 2011), the winner was an independent.

The Liberal and Labor parties stood against each other a lot more in the late 2010s, with Labor standing in ten of thirteen contests. The four Labor-Liberal contests were all between 2017 and 2019, and in all four cases the parties both made the top two. These were Pembroke in 2017 and 2019, Prosser in 2018 and Montgomery in 2019.

Over the last four years, there has not been a single race where the Liberal Party has run without Labor, but Labor still contests a number of races without a Liberal opponent.

These trends have not been happening in a consistent way across the state. This chart merges together the above data but breaks it up into Hobart, Launceston and the remainder of the state split into north and south.

Most contests in the north outside of Launceston remain dominated by independents, while the south has major parties contesting almost every electorate.

Interestingly, the major parties contested four northern seats in the 2010s, but haven’t since 2020. Two of the three contests involving major parties in the north were for Montgomery, so presumably that will involve Liberal and possibly Labor when it comes up again in 2025.

Launceston has a stronger major party influence than the rest of the north, but nothing like the Hobart area. The last contest in the Hobart area not featuring either major party was Nelson in 2013.

There’s quite a few contests in Hobart where either Labor or Liberal sits out the contest, like the two we’re seeing in 2024. But in the remainder of the south, there’s actually more Labor-Liberal contests. The last non-major contest in the south (outside of Hobart) was Huon in 2008. Indeed, since 2018, there has only been one contest that either major party skipped (Huon in 2020). In most of these recent contests, Labor and Liberal have been the clear leading contenders.

The Tasmanian upper house won’t be turning itself into a clean Labor vs Liberal statewide contest any time soon. But in large parts of the state, major party domination is now the norm.

The norm now looks like Labor and Liberal facing off in regional southern seats, while Labor more often faces off against independents (progressive or conservative) in Hobart, with the Liberals sometimes showing up. In the north, Launceston is similar to the non-Hobart south, with many Labor vs Liberal contests, but in the remainder of the north, the tradition of independent contests mostly still remains the norm.