Paul Lennon by Jon Kudelka

The 2010 state election presented Tasmanians with a hung parliament. The doomsayers insisting that this was end of stability: it had never worked in the past and wouldn’t again.

But let’s rephrase. Not a ‘hung’ parliament, a corpse dangling from the parliamentary gallows, but a ‘power-sharing’ parliament, where parliamentarians line up to vote issue by issue, not as in a trial of voting strength between two antagonists. Well, it didn’t quite happen like that. Instead, the two-party template was retained by co-opting Greens Nick McKim and Cassy O’Connor as ministers in a Labor cabinet. Hardly the Labor-Green government it is labelled as being, yet not quite a genuine power-sharing government either. But it might work, given genuine goodwill between the sharing parties.

However,when Nick McKim was sworn in at Government House, Bartlett and hardliner Bryan Green were reported in an article ominously headed ‘Body language says a thousand words’ (Examiner, 22 April 2010) as ‘exchanging looks of glee … like boys at school whose plan had worked.’ Had a hardline Labor trap been sprung? Will the new parliament take us forward into the twenty-first century, with new political and economic paradigms? Or will the hardliners in the major parties ram their agenda through, shatter the Greens, and return us to Van Diemen’s Land?

That last question is not rhetorical. The past twenty years of Tasmanian politics, up to the 2010 election, resembles in many respects the polity that my great-great grandfather Abraham Biggs experienced when he arrived in Hobart Town in 1833. Early governors did not need the deviousness of cultural hegemony to maintain power; they had it by statute. Lieutenant-Governor Arthur turned a colony that was falling apart through inefficiency, lawlessness and public immorality into a model of rectitude, by non-accountable top-down rule. His society worked, albeit with hideous discomfort for many, but then he never claimed he was in charge of a democracy. Modern day powerbrokers share with their predecessors the common factor of top-down rule that is not accountable – but we do claim to be a democracy.

Lieutenant-Governor Arthur had assumed, as had Deng Xiaoping, that to become rich is glorious. Our major parties today assume the same, with the added twist that helping selected mates to become rich justifies riding roughshod over due process. Arthur’s top priority was the maintenance of a military society reliant on convict labour, despite the wish of the free settlers for transportation to cease. The Lib-Lab top priority was correspondingly to give forestry and associated industries untrammelled freedom to do virtually what they liked, in the full knowledge that majority public opinion is against that. 

The only structural difference between a Lennon, say, and an Arthur is in the process of their establishment: Lennon was elected and Arthur was appointed. What went on in the interval between establishment and disestablishment was according to the autocrat’s will, not according to democratic processes. In recent times, the autocrat is not so much an individual acting alone, but one acting as an agent for caucus and other power-brokers ( see Peter Henning: Caucus Curse: A Blind for Labor-Liberal Corporatism )

Lennon stated that he had a mandate to do whatever he thought best for Tasmania and if Tasmanians didn’t like it, they could chuck him out at the next election and give someone else open slather. He had confused democracy with serial autocracy.

Lennon, and indeed other leaders of the major parties, seemed not to possess any conception of the role of due process in a democracy, or even what a representative democracy is. They acted instead as rulers over those who had elected them, not as their representatives. They had arrogated to themselves a power to which they had no right, because a properly functioning democracy requires accountability of the executive, and a government that serves community, not sectional, interests. A related misconception held by many, and expressed in letters to the editor of the Mercury just preceding and immediately after the 2010 state elections, was that democracy means majority rule: 80 per cent did not vote Green therefore the Greens should butt out and leave it to the winning party. But that is to impose a two-party system on a three-party electorate. The idea that a democracy is an inclusive system in which all, not just the majority, should have an input (at least by representation), and that democratic governance means not infringing the rights of anyone, is still to this day not well understood. 

Arthur richly rewarded his own cronies with land and convicts, thereby pushing smallholders and labourers to the margins and forcing out the Tasmanian Aborigines altogether. So too have recent governments steered large amounts of public money into favoured private companies and granted them monopolies, while massive tax shelters for timber plantations under Managed Investment Schemes have forced farmers off their land through economic pressure. Perfectly good farms, and the once-thriving communities they created, have been and are being destroyed, particularly in the north east and the north west of the island.

Arthur unashamedly appointed his favourites to high public office. So, too, have recent Labor governments appointed friends, relatives and failed political candidates, whose incompetence wastes millions of taxpayers’ dollars, as ex-staffer Nigel Burch pointed out to an Upper House enquiry.

Equality before the law was not recognised by Arthur, neither has it been in contemporary Tasmania. One side of the industry-wilderness divide is regularly prosecuted but, until the Upper Florentine workers were charged in 2009, rarely the other side. Inequality became law in July 2007 when the infamous Clause 11 in the Pulp Mill Assessment Act was enacted giving one party in the community, Gunns and any person or body representing Gunns, protection from legal redress. This is a privilege unavailable to ordinary citizens.

Arthur’s ignoring the will of the free settlers saw to his downfall; exactly so with Reece and Lennon. While caucus and the powerbrokers had approved most of what Reece and Lennon had done, they got rid of them when their abrasive style made them public liabilities1.  The party powerbrokers define the policies for the premier to enact, but if the latter is so enthusiastic about it that voters are antagonised, that premier is replaced with one having an apparently softer image – and the party line continues unchanged. It is not unlike rule in Imperial China, when a succession of emperors ruled within a dynasty for as long as they had a Mandate from Heaven. When they went a step too far, or when a man-made or natural disaster occurred that suggested that the current emperor had lost his grip on matters, the Mandate was withdrawn; the next dynasty took over, to repeat the cycle of autocratic rule, corruption and violence. For dynasty read ‘major party’ and for emperor read ‘premier’ and you have a template of recent Tasmanian politics, scaled-down from centuries to years. 

Van Diemen’s Land and modern Tasmania have another striking feature in common: a level of hypocrisy that denies reality. Abraham, along with his fellow Methodists and the other good citizens erected a Pollyanna fantasy land of a morally pure, transplanted England in their idealised Hobarton, when the reality in Hobart Town was harshly different. The powerbrokers of modern day Tasmania hide their bogeyman by clear-felling on the far side the mountain, by screening a monoculture plantation with a thin layer of intact trees, while for years the government kept the Tarkine off official maps so people wouldn’t know this treasure trove of timber existed. Thus was propagated the fantasy of a clean, green and pristine Tasmania, with its flourishing and unique flora and fauna, when the reality is that the environment is being trashed at an ever-increasing extent, the waterways poisoned with carcinogens and toxic E. Nitens leaves, our ‘protected’ wildlife – the spotted quoll, the wedge-tailed eagle, the giant freshwater crayfish, the Tasmanian devil itself – being pushed to extinction through loss of habitat and other collateral damage from forestry operations. Alison Bleaney warned over a year ago that only four of Tasmania’s 33 water catchment areas are free of plantations ( Aerial spraying ... just 4 of Tasmania’s 33 catchments are plantation free )  yet triazines, which include the carcinogens atrazine and simazine, were found in 139 samples of Tasmanian river water due largely to forestry and farming operations (Mercury26 October 2009).

Is Tasmania’s polity worse than that of other states? Looking at recent events in New South Wales it hardly seems possible, but there is a difference both in the scale and the nature of the corruption. Corruption in the big states is on a larger scale, more organised and often involving a criminal underworld. Tasmanian corruption is situated in a small population, where local issues dominate and where anyone who is anyone knows everyone else in the same club, to wit, the Tasmania Club in Macquarie Street2.  You don’t worry about an abstract idea called ‘due process’, you fix things up for your mates and they will do the right thing by you. Tasmanian corruption is more entrenched and enduring than in other states, more part of a cosy system. Whereas Queensland seemed to straighten itself out relatively quickly once Bjelke-Petersen had gone, Tasmania has had a string of very different leaders from Reece onwards, from both major parties, yet policies and procedures on major issues have remained the same. Whatever party you voted in, deeply unpopular policies remained in place. Henry Melville wrote in History of Van Diemen’s Land, 1824-1835 of the eleven years under the rule of Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur: 

Blessed as Van Diemen’s Land is with the finest climate – ordained by Nature to be the gem of the Southern Ocean – with the means of procuring every comfort that man can wish to enjoy, it is lamentable to see that a system of Government has so reduced the Settlement to misery …

Would he write in similar vein about Tasmanian’s governance now? Will the 2010 election result contribute to a genuine power-sharing parliament that governs for the benefit of all Tasmanians, or will we return to the polity of Van Diemen’s Land where the natural wonders of our gem of the Southern Ocean continue to be exploited for the benefit of the favoured few?

John Biggs is a fifth generation Tasmanian who left his home state after graduating from UTas. He has spent all his professional life outside the state as an academic, returning in his retirement to write fiction. But what he found after 40 years’ absence provoked him to write much non-fiction:  iin Tasmanian Times, in letters to the press and in Tasmanian Over Five Generations, a cri-de-coeur about what Tasmania seems to have become. This article is drawn largely from that book.


1Yet in 2009 Wayne Crawford writes that a Tasmanian Bicentenary Survey found ‘Eric Reece to be the most popular, most influential identity … more than 25 years after he left politics, the late Eric Reece was still rated by Tasmanians as number one.’ (Mercury, 26th December 2009). It is intriguing to speculate if, after 25 years after leaving politics, time will sweeten memories to the extent that Paul (17 per cent) Lennon will be remembered as fondly. 

2For a fictional account of how this works by someone who should know (he was in the Lowe Government during the Franklin River crisis), see Terry Aulich’s novel, The River’s End, Balmain: Kerr, 1992.

John Biggs is in conversation with Lindsay Tuffin, Fullers Bookshop, 5.30pm Thursday

First published: 2012-06-18 05:04 AM