An early election

Tasmania's early election, called more than a year ahead of time for March 23, presents the Liberal Party with the challenge of building on its already unprecedented record of three successive wins in the historically Labor-dominated state. The government is on to its third leader since coming to power in 2014, but neither transition was marked by disunity or controversy: Will Hodgman left of his own accord after two sweeping election wins in 2014 and 2018, and Peter Gutwein bowed out in April 2022 having won popularity and a strong electoral endorsement amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Liberals have found the going tougher on Rockliff's watch, having faded in the polls and lost their majority after Bass MP Lara Alexander and Lyons MP John Tucker moved to the cross-bench in May 2023. A sticking point for both had been the government's determination to fund half the $715 million cost of a new stadium at Hobart's Macquarie Park as part of its successful bid to secure the state an AFL team. This policy was skeptically received in Hobart and markedly unpopular in the north of the state, as represented by Alexander and Tucker.

A further flashpoint arrived after Elise Archer's resignation as Attorney-General in late September, prompting suggestions of a no-confidence motion against Rockliff and an early election. That crisis passed, but there was renewed friction with the independents in the new year over Tucker's demand for mandatory CCTV in abattoirs and opposition to another AFL-related project, a training base in the Hobart suburb of Rosny. Rockliff responded in early February by threatening an early election if Tucker and Alexander did not agree to vote only for government-backed motions and independents, rendering them independents in name only. After failing to secure their agreement, Rockliff proved as good as his word and called an election for March 26.

Hare-Clark and an enlarged parliament

The electoral environment in Tasmania has been transformed by an increase in the size of the House of Assembly that will take effect at the election. The state's five electoral divisions, which apply at both federal and state elections, will now elect seven members under the Hare-Clark proportional representation system rather than the previous five, for an overall increase from 25 seats to 35.

Hare-Clark is mathematically similar to the PR-STV systems of the Senate and mainland state upper houses, but distinguished by the “Robson rotation” method of variable candidate order on ballot papers. This means the conscious decisions of voters determine which candidates are elected, rather than a ballot paper order determined by the parties. Campaigning accordingly involves a certain amount of competition between rival candidates of the same party.

The increase in the size of the House reverses a change introduced in 1998 with backing from both parties. The main motivation was to make majority government easier to achieve, and in particular to reduce the disruptive force of the Greens, who more often than not had been winning seats in each of the five divisions. This proved immediately effective to the extent that the Greens were reduced to a single seat at the 1998 election, although they were able to build back up to five by 2010 before suffering a slump in support in 2014.

Over time, the major parties came to rue the shallowness of the pool from which ministers could be drawn under the new regime, exacerbated by the dominance of independents in ther Legislative Council. The leaders of all three parties supported a return to 35 seats as part of a 2010 agreement on parliamentary reform, and unanimous support was again offered from a parliamentary inquiry in 2020. Despite reflexive public resistance to the notion of more politicians and greater expense, effect was finally given to the recommendation after two more years and one last election for a 25-member house.

Electoral terrain

Tasmania's five electoral divisions include two dominated by Hobart – Clark, which covers the core of the city, and Franklin, covering its southern periphery and the eastern bank of the Derwent River – and three covering the state's centre and north. The latter include Bass, covering Launceston and the rest of the state's north-east; Braddon, covering the north-western and western coast; and Lyons, covering the centre of the state, extending to the outskirts of both Hobart and Launceston.

Despite the difficulty of achieving majority government under proportional representation, the feat was achieved at all but one of the seven elections held under the five-by-five model, by Labor in 1998, 2002 and 2006 and Liberal in 2014, 2018 and 2021. This partly reflects an apparent tendency among the Tasmanian electorate to resist minority government by falling in behind the major party that appears best placed to avert it. Only the 2010 election produced a hung parliament, with Labor reluctantly forming what proved an unpopular coalition with the Greens.

The Liberals' hat-trick of parliamentary majorities was achieved with over half the statewide vote in 2014 and 2018, and slightly below that in 2021. On each occasion, the party won at least two seats in the Hobart divisions and at least three in the remainder, supplemented in 2014 by a third seat in Franklin and the unprecedented feat of a fourth seat in Braddon. The only disturbance to the status quo in 2021 was independent Kirsty Johnston's win in Clark, which came at the expense of Labor's second seat. A second independent in Clark, former Liberal MP Sue Hickey, came close to joining Johnston, and would have reduced the Liberals to 12 seats out of 25 if she had succeeded.

The Greens' fortunes have waned considerably during the period of Liberal dominance, a halving of their vote share from 2010 and 2018 being matched by a reduction in seat numbers from four to two. A slight improvement in vote share in 2021 failed to yield any extra seats. The party's leader from 2015 to 2023, Cassy O'Connor, is attempting to increase the party's representation by abandoning her lower house seat to run for the inner-city Legislative Council division of Hobart when it comes up for election in May, which if successful will give the party its first ever seat in the chamber.

Kristy Johnston's win in Clark marked the first time an independent or non-Greens minor party candidate had won a seat since 1986. The prospect of others joining her have been substantially increased by the increase in parliamentary numbers, and perhaps also by the rise of the Jacqui Lambie Network, which won a second Tasmanian Senate seat at the 2022 federal election and will contest the coming election after sitting out 2021. Polling conducted at the end of 2023 looked extremely promising for the party, though caution is warranted given its experience in 2018, when it emerged empty-handed after strong early support evaporated during the campaign period.

The Liberal Party's third term

Jeremy Rockliff came to the premiership in April 2022 after serving as deputy Liberal leader all the way back to 2006, four years entering parliament. This followed the unexpected resignation of Peter Gutwein, who said he had “nothing left in the tank” after a spell in the premiership that began in January 2020 and encompassed the COVID-19 pandemic and May 2021 election victory. Rockliff emerged as leader unopposed, keeping the position in the hands of the moderate faction after the leading conservative, Michael Ferguson, declined to put his name forward, instead succeeding Rockliff as deputy.

The Liberals' time in office has been marked by strong economic and population growth, accompanied by tourism and property booms. The latter has not been an unmixed blessing, with the stressed rental market reflected in a homelessness problem and increasing numbers of people living in caravan parks. It was against this backdrop that the government expressed its receptiveness to funding half the cost of a new $715 million stadium in September 2022 as part of its efforts to secure an AFL team for the state, which was achieved when the federal Labor government came on board with a further offer of funding in May 2023.

If federal and state governments alike had imagined an electoral divided awaited from delivering the long overdue AFL team, the reaction suggested they were likely to be disappointed. The Macquarie Point site had been earmarked for lower-scale housing and scientific and recreational development, and the decision to pour public money into a stadium there when the state already had two AFL-compliant stadiums appeared to misread the public mood. Concern of the decision was cited by both John Tucker and Lara Alexander when they resigned from the Liberal Party shortly after, and a subsequent opinion poll found Liberal support had fallen six points from a poll in February and nearly twelve points since the 2021 election.

Another crisis erupted in September when The Australian published text messages in which Attorney-General Elise Archer made highly unflattering reflections on Rockliff, Gutwein, Hodgman and other parliamentary colleagues and senior public servants. Archer was dumped from cabinet and at first announced her resignation from the party and the parliament, before signalling that she might remain to bring down Rockliff on the floor of parliament and usher in an alternative Liberal leader. However, Archer was believed to have been no more keen on Rockliff's likely successor, Michael Ferguson, than most of the rest of her colleagues, and the crisis was defused when she went ahead with her original plan to leave parliament.

The Archer episode further highlighted the government's precarious position, with John Tucker calling on Ferguson to challenge for the leadership and Lara Alexander saying the best outcome would be an early election. Such a prospect again came into view in January 2024 when Tucker threatened to withdraw his support from the government unless it acted on his parliamentary motions demanding mandatory CCTV in abattoirs and a halt in progress towards another AFL-related project, a $70 million training centre in the Hobart suburb of Rosny. Rockliff responded by threatening an early election unless both Tucker and Alexander committed to voting only for government-backed motions and amendments, which they duly refused.

Labor in opposition

Labor's third term in opposition has been marked by turmoil surrounding the status of David O'Byrne, who became the party's leader after Rebecca White stood aside in the wake of her second successive election defeat. O'Byrne resigned three weeks later after admitting to kissing and sending inappropriate texts to a junior employee of the union he then worked for in 2007. White returned to the leadership and joined with two former Labor Premiers, Lara Giddings and Paul Lennon, in calling for O'Byrne to resign from parliament. Fortified by support from many in the Left, O'Byrne resigned only from the Labor party room, and continued to seek preselection for the next election.

The perception of a dysfunctional state branch was bolstered when the party's national executive announced a three-year takeover of its affairs the following July, with former Senators Doug Cameron and Nick Sherry serving as administrators. Left faction stalwart Cameron was among those supporting O'Byrne's return to the party room, which was vehemently opposed by White. The extent of the division was illustrated in May 2023 when O'Byrne topped a ballot choosing delegates for the party's national conference. However, O'Byrne's bid for preselection was ultimately thwarted in December, when the national executive endorsed a slate of candidates backed by Rebecca White which naturally excluded him.