Anticipate a state election next year.
It may not be the right time now to talk politics but it will be by then.
Politics is a ruthless beast. You’ve got to think with your head.
No matter how humane Peter Gutwein appears to be, dealing out daily doses of good and bad virus news, ultimately, he has to manage his party’s re-election.
In cold-hearted terms, the virus has dealt him a favourable pack.
It has handed him a crash course in becoming a popular Premier, so soon after the Hodgman era.
It enabled him to show his management skills by moving swiftly to close borders and take other emergency measures.
Apart from the North-West Regional Hospital outbreak, which was dealt with rapidly, Gutwein has avoided catastrophic bungles like the Ruby Princess and Victoria’s quarantine and nursing home tragedies.
Labor leader Bec White is in a bad place. Just as the virus has done Gutwein a favour, it has pot-holed her road to victory.
He has a prime daily leadership platform, and Tasmanians have shown their appreciation of his stewardship.
I don’t think Will Hodgman would have been as good.
The best White can salvage from this is to be an active spectator, and even on that score, she is almost invisible.
I’m a typical mug punter.
Whenever I see our various leaders praising each other for their unity I get a warm inner glow.
Whenever anyone of them whinges, I recoil.
In the early pandemic stages, when White, Cassy O’Connor and Gutwein were on the same page, there was that glow again. Now, with some criticism seeping into the relationship I’m recoiling.
That’s the dilemma for White. She is damned if she does or doesn’t. If she goes hard people recoil and if she soft pedals she’s invisible.
Her dilemma will play out for most of this year.
Next year will likely be the full economic recovery phase and the right time for the opposition to showcase their strategy.
This is why I don’t think Gutwein will wait until 2022.
He can’t afford to allow Labor a full year in 2021 to resume politics and re-enter the playing field.
I say that because Labor is stuck on the sidelines.
Entering the playing field now would actually be premature and counter-productive.
Next year, perhaps after some resistance by Labor MPs in the Legislative Council, Gutwein could justify a premature election by asking voters for a new mandate in light of the pandemic.
Voters are cynical about premature elections, but in the wake of a global pandemic, they would be more tolerant of a Premier seeking a new mandate for a strategy while emerging from the catastrophic economic malaise.
Why give your opponents time to remind voters of the alternative?
A note of caution. In 1996 a lone gunmen shot 35 people on the Tasman Peninsula and it so traumatised people, especially Tasmanians, that politics vanished for more than a year.
The consequential grief and despair was suffocating, so in early 1997 the media and the business community implored Tony Rundle’s minority government to seize the day and get us out of this mire.
So, he did. Rundle used a federal inquiry into all aspects of Tasmania to launch a massive recovery program which included local government amalgamations, selling the energy utilities and reducing the size of Parliament.
It was a breathtaking plan and Labor, in government, took up many of the non-contentious ideas, but the hydro sale and local government amalgamations were a bridge too far and the Libs were banished by voters for 16 years.
The Libs even tried to convince the world of the value of selling the energy utilities for $4 billion, but it required a complex explanation, smack bang in the middle of an election campaign.
The climate for a repeat of that fiasco exists today, although Rundle was reliant on the Greens and therefore was pushing his radical strategy from a position of weakness.
The real success was the smaller Parliament, but then only after Labor and the Legislative Council forced the government to embrace their model for reform.
In 1998 Rundle called an early election and lost.
It raises the point that voters don’t need much time to become fickle.
If a government bungles the aftermath of a traumatic event, like a massacre or a pandemic, voters will desert them.
If Gutwein is smart he will devise a recovery plan that is widely acceptable, thereby depriving Labor of a middle ground alternative.
You can see Scott Morrison attempting this by involving the unions and other normally hostile interest groups in the national recovery plan, thereby sidelining Labor.
Keep an eye on next year. The Liberals may still go the full term, but a snap poll in 2021 will be very tempting.
- Barry Prismall is a former The Examiner deputy editor and Liberal adviser