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Friday, January 06, 2006

The Mercury: Bets are on for an early poll [07jan06]

Bets are on for an early poll

Chief Reporter SUE NEALES seeks an answer to the most-often asked question in Tasmania


TEST cricket might be on the radio but there is really only one game around town these days -- guessing when this year's state election will be held.

It's hard to hold a conversation in Hobart without the inevitable question creeping in: "When do you reckon it's going to be?"

Followed closely by the twin query: "And why?"

For the record, the 2006 Tasmanian state election does not have to be held before Saturday, September 23, a date more auspicious for also being AFL Grand Final day.

But the prevailing wisdom, supported by rumours, hints and suggestions from "sources" and "contacts" of varying degrees of reliability, is that Labor Premier Paul Lennon is certain to "go early".

And not just premature by a few weeks, but six months.

Most political pundits or players contend -- once again with varying degrees of reliability -- that the early election date will be one of three Saturdays in late February or early March; February 25, March 4 or March 11.

At least 34 days' advance warning is needed before an election is to be held.

So if February 25 was to be Tasmania's day of reckoning, the date would be announced in around a fortnight's time, on Friday, January 20 or, at its latest, on Sunday, January 22.

The Liberal Party clearly seems to think just such an early poll is looming.

It has already entered its formal pre-election phase, announcing big spending policies daily and with leader Rene Hidding prominent on the hustings.

Meanwhile, new state Liberal party director, Damien Mantach, fresh from the inner sanctum that masterminded the last federal Liberal Party victory, is hard at work in the Liberal Party's new Davey St bunker.

And, unusually, it is Liberals who have fired the first real shot in the current phoney election war.

The $20,000 phase one of Mantach's advertising campaign rolled out last Tuesday in the shape of the red roadside billboards featuring Mr Lennon looking like a Mafia hitman alongside the slogan "Not Good Enough".

In contrast to the Liberals' eagerness, the Premier has disappeared entirely from the public eye. He is not due to officially surface until mid-January after having been holidaying with his family on Tasmania's West Coast, according to his ever-faithful and attentive Office of Media Spin.

However, an appearance by the Premier at next Wednesday's Devonport Cup, with its prizemoney for the wining racehorse and jockey doubled to $120,000 because of the Government's Betfair deal, is certainly on the cards.

It is not merely the Premier who is absent. Almost all his cabinet ministers are also on vacation, with just the odd press release being put out in their names or a mobile phone call made to give the impression the Good Ship Lennon is still manned and on course.

This would seem another possible indicator of an early poll. The Government's seven senior Ministers would all benefit from relaxing on a proper break now, if they have to throw themselves into the hectic election fray in February.

Holding the fort in the Hobart Executive Building is just earnest young backbencher, soon-to-be first-time father and the most vulnerable ALP member for Denison, David Bartlett.

He seems to be churning out hourly public pronouncements of little import across every portfolio left absent by his holidaying seniors, in what the Liberals have said is "an ill-fated attempt to gain cheap publicity to protect his seat and promote his own ministerial ambitions".

In a catty phoney election press release of its own, the Liberals allege that "Mr Bartlett has never had the support of the Labor caucus and is even less liked by Labor candidates, so seeing him swan around as a pseudo acting-Premier is stirring internal Labor tensions".

But Mr Bartlett is not the only Labor politician getting excited about the threat of polling day. There are weird press releases emanating from usually silent Labor backbenchers like Heather Butler (we don't hear from her too often) and even more reticent Labor Legislative Councillors such as Doug Parkinson and Lin Thorp; both of which would suggest an imminent election.

Other pointers to an early poll include the somewhat unseemly haste to clear the decks of legislation in the last sitting of State Parliament in early December, when Premier Lennon rushed through vital new laws on key measures such as anti-terrorism and Betfair in just a few hours.

The retirement announcement in late November by long-standing Attorney General Judy Jackson, just as the ALP rushed to get its pre-selected list of candidates finalised, added further weight to the feeling that this State Parliament did not expect to be resuming any time soon.

But what all these great sources of speculation often fail to say is why the urge to bring on a poll early?

Is it that the Lennon powerbrokers think their chances of winning government will lessen as the weeks pass this year?

Is there some dreadful bad news, dark economic tidings or juicy scandal around the corner that threatens to hurt Labor's chances later in the year?

Or is Paul Lennon so desperate to go to the polls early because of the simple fact -- as many close Labor watchers claim -- that, because he was appointed premier as a dying Jim Bacon resigned, this makes him feel psychologically an undeserving or illegitimate leader of Tasmania?

From outside, it is hard to see why the Government should be worried on the economic front.

Now that the once-ballooning state debt has been repaid, the Government has $200 million extra to announce and spend at its annual May Budget that is not being wasted in debt repayments.

As well, there is an additional $90-150 million increase in GST payments annually from the federal Government forecast each year for the next four years as the economy booms.

With at least $300 million extra in its pockets, and despite recent wage increases to public servants, it is hard to see how the Government is rushing to an early election to avoid any ill-will or backlash that might follow an austere Budget.

A late February, early March election would also delay the resumption of State Parliament, now scheduled for March 7.

Is there some scrutiny in the House that the Government so desperately wants to avoid that it will go to the polls early?

Or could it be the week prior to Parliament's return, from February 28 to March 3, that Mr Lennon and his team fear the repercussions of more?

This is when the Government Business Enterprises and state-owned businesses face the scrutiny of the parliamentary committees set up to review their operations -- and there is unlikely to be bright economic news from TT-Line, Hydro Tasmania or Forestry Tasmania to name just a few.

So, assuming an early election is called, why are the most likely dates February 25, March 4 or March 11?

The first parameter is the Tasmanian school year and the strong belief that you never hold an election during school holidays (which end on February 16).

But holding a campaign over summer, when the people are warm, in holiday mode and often enjoying great outside events, is generally considered to act in favour of incumbent governments.

Especially when you have a horse-racing mad Premier like Paul Lennon, who loves the month of February when the Summer Racing Carnival is on.

And this year it will feature Tasmanian Derby Day (Saturday, February 11) and the Hobart Cup (Monday, February 13), both at the revamped Elwick racecourse, and the Launceston Cup (Wednesday, February 22), all with massively increased prizemoney and scale because of the Government's funding deal with the Betfair.

But any later than March 11, and the Melbourne Commonwealth Games running from March 15 to Sunday March 26 starts to get in the way.

While the sports bombardment of the media for that fortnight would help the Government by blocking out the Opposition's message, it would also make getting political advertisements shown on the commercial TV networks in prime time nearly impossible, with all space booked out months ago by national advertisers.

But the clincher for an early election could be a much more subtle affair.

Late last year, the Premier's bullish but strategic media spokesman, Matt Rogers, quietly arranged for Premier Paul Lennon and his wife Margaret to show the delights of their freshly renovated historic home at Broadmarsh to The Australian Women's Weekly.

This lovely, soft-focus feature will appear in the best-selling magazine's next issue, due to hit the newsagents' magazine racks on January 23, just in time to remain on coffee tables and in hairdressing salons around Tasmania during the month of February.

How timely if it also coincided with a surprise election campaign!

But, as one Government insider said this week, nobody except the Premier really knows when the poll will be. And even he could still be keeping his options open.

"Paul Lennon takes little counsel from anyone and is probably the only one who really knows if he will go early and exactly when that will be. But one thing you can be sure of, when he goes it will be when he thinks Labor has the most chance of clearly winning."


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