Monday, April 22, 2013

Impressions of the Nelson LegCo Debate

I expect to have live election-night comments on all three LegCo electorates, from 6 pm 4 May.

(For election night, comments will still be subject to clearance but registration will not be required to post comments.)

This is another in a series of articles about the 2013 Tasmanian Legislative Council elections.   Existing instalments include:

My Legislative Council Candidate Guide

Nelson LegCo Polling

LegCo Spending Limits Create Confusion

I also have other LegCo related articles about the forestry peace deal, LegCo voting patterns and same-sex marriage.  And something coming up perhaps about the Liberal Party's stoush with the Nelson candidate who doesn't feature heavily in this article.

Hopefully better very late than never, here are my comments about the Nelson debate held a couple of weeks ago.  (There have been some rumours of possible further debates but I have seen nothing formally announced.)

The first Nelson Debate between Jim Wilkinson, Tom Baxter and Helen Richardson was held at the Dr Syntax Hotel on 10 April.  (Independent ex-Liberal Hans Willink was not included as he had not announced his candidacy at the time of planning.)  If you missed it, you can watch it on Simon de Little's full videoThe debate was attended by an almost entirely left-wing crowd of about ninety and the venue became quite hot as the space available was modest.  But the one feeling the most of the heat would have been the incumbent.

The moderation by HCC Greens alderman Bill Harvey was in my view very good.  He had the very difficult task of trying to control the tendency of those asking questions - some of whom were known or obvious partisan Labor or Greens supporters -  to waffle, grandstand and rant. It would have been especially difficult for him that some of those most abusing the format despite his express directions would have been strong supporters of his own party.  He did a good job by letting debate over the forestry peace deal flow between the candidates at length but winding up repetitive discourse later.  Some of the questions were totally silly; some so much so it was hard to even take some seriously (for instance, did the woman who claimed she couldn't contact Mr Wilkinson ever think of, er,  looking him up in the phone book or on the internet?)  This is always a risk with "town hall" settings.  Fortunately, not all of the questions were bad, and a fair range of subjects were covered.

I thought all the candidates spoke quite well, allowing for Wilkinson having to face a far more hostile environment than the other two and hence having more scope for mistakes under pressure.  The one with the most ground to make up both in terms of public awareness and inexperience was Helen Richardson, but I thought she did very well, by making her answers not only concise but also passionate and direct.    Jim Wilkinson fended off most of the challenges and abuse effectively (even having a hopeful "Goodbye dinosaur!" lobbed at him at one point) but at times appeared tired.  Tom Baxter was at times more amiable and less cheeky than I expected, but I also thought he was good at using body language to build a one-to-one engagement with the questioner, in a way that also communicated an ability to converse with voters to the audience.

The incumbent is getting a bit of a reputation for being gaffe-prone.  Indeed his classic clanger from the same-sex marriage debate, in which he overestimated the cost of a High Court challenge per citizen by a factor of a thousand (when faced with the extremely difficult challenge of dividing a number by itself), got a rerun as its own question.  In this debate one Wilkinson gaffe happened when a questioner wrongly stated that there were only three female MLCs and Wilkinson "corrected" this to five (there are in fact six pending the upcoming elections).  In another, he is captured by de Little casting a George Bush Snr at his watch (admittedly near the end of the debate and presumably to see how much time was left) immediately after one of Richardson's strongest moments.   And I doubt he would have won himself friends in that audience with his answer to a question about his views on women (question starts around 20:10) when he commenced his response with a more or less carbon-copy version of the Tony Abbott surrounded-by-women defence. 

About fourteen audience "questions" were asked in all, covering ground including women's rights, conflict of interest regarding Wilkinson's law practice, the forestry peace deal (extended discussion), tobacco donations, infrastructure failures, industrial relations and budget cuts, party alignment, Legislative Council reform, Wilkinson's accessibility, full-time representation, university cuts, Wilkinson's maths skills,  same-sex marriage, gender equity and oversight of the Legislative Council.  The topic of abortion was, perhaps surprisingly, not a major item for questioners, but Tom Baxter introduced it unprompted a few times and stressed support for Michelle O'Byrne's reform attempts.  The general state of the economy also received relatively little direct attention, although Wilkinson introduced claims of an "underclass" problem right at the end. 

Wilkinson was strong on his critique of the forestry peace deal process and several aspects of his criticism were not really countered by the other candidates.   Baxter however produced the prop of the night, a letter from International Plywood (of London Olympics fame) indicating an interest in purchasing timber if the peace deal was passed.  This indicated that while it made up for many of the shortcomings in thoroughness and inclusion of the original process, even the Legislative Council's select committee process did not capture all possible relevant voices.  Baxter then leant on his corporate governance cred to accuse the chairman Paul Harriss of potential bias in chairing the process, given his strong pro-forestry views.  When then asked by Baxter to state his Plan B, Wilkinson initially reverted to further process critique, then said his Plan B was "leaving, at the moment, the industry as it is."  I don't think that sounded too convincing, though he has expressed his view better in some of the debates on the floor of the LegCo with examples of seemingly moribund timber industries elsewhere recovering.

As I write the peace deal bill has had some heavy amendments in the Legislative Council.  At the time of this Nelson debate, my impression was both sides (as present on the evening) were part right and part wrong. I don't think Wilkinson's Plan B is much of an option, even with likely support from an expected Liberal majority government in the near future, against the backdrop of difficult trading conditions, a very competitive international environment and political market attacks (the first aspect may not be permanent but the latter two are different stories).  However I also think the peace deal process has been an intellectually fraudulent shambles at almost every turn, and I'm somewhat sceptical that even heavy amendments will fix its variously distorted, ineffectual and even in cases perverse outcomes.   My Plan B would probably ride in on the wings of flying pigs and take what goodwill has existed in the current process, learn the lessons of its hideously many failures, go back to the start, and take another year to do it properly.

The following views were stated on LegCo reform.  Helen Richardson supported cutting terms to four years and having all-in all-out elections.  Tom Baxter supported removal of the Upper House's power to force the Lower House to an election by blocking a budget without facing an election itself.  Jim Wilkinson agreed with this but pressed the reduction of the size of parliament as an argument for being very careful about supporting large numbers of reforms at once.

Wilkinson's attempt to ward off the state-based same-sex marriage issue started with a rather spurious analogy about getting rid of tax.  Quite aside from the constitutional picture concerning same-sex marriage being far more debatable, I don't think Wilkinson would really be so keen to rid Tasmania of all taxation if he even had the power to.  Richardson made very brief and punchy statements that same-sex marriage was not about economics but a basic human right while Baxter engaged Wilkinson on the economic question of first-mover advantage.  An unstated and strong premise of Baxter's argument was that even if same-sex marriages in Tasmania were not immediately recognised outside Tasmania, it is highly likely same-sex couples would travel to (or even move to) Tasmania and get married under Tasmanian law anyway. 

Significantly, Wilkinson did briefly indicate he would give up law work on the side if returned.

Wilkinson defended not having an electorate office by arguing that his electorate was small, he was easily contacted and he was saving the taxpayer money.  At this stage, I agree with him on that, and I think the noise about this particular "issue" is probably not much more than baiting.

After all, who is there who has been genuinely very keen to see Wilkinson about an issue or obtain assistance through an office in his name, but been unable to arrange to do so, and why?  Does the Transform Tasmania Alliance (with or without Kittens) really believe the only way to meet Wilkinson is to go through the Parliament scanners and that he never ventures out to meet voters at their homes or elsewhere?  It's especially suspicious that most of those trolling the incumbent about this matter are clearly ideologically opposed to him and wouldn't go near his office if they were seeking support for an issue anyway.  Frankly if I needed to see Wilkinson and it wasn't urgent, I wouldn't even need to make an appointment, since it isn't actually possible to work more than a month or two in the CBD without running into the guy by chance.   Perhaps it will all play with some voters as an issue - but I'm not at all convinced on the evidence so far that it should.

What impact these debates actually have on election outcomes is hard to say.  We recently saw in the Western Australian state election that Colin Barnett was generally considered to have been soundly beaten by Opposition Leader Mark McGowan.  It was the only debate of the campaign but it did not prevent a massive Coalition win come election day.   Consider that and then consider a debate before a crowd of about ninety, perhaps twenty of whom might still be deciding between Baxter and Richardson and probably about three of whom could have been genuine swinging voters, and I wonder what the impact of it all is.  Perhaps comments made at such debates have multiplier effects as they're passed on more broadly, including through articles like this one, but really, debate between the candidates is not as prominent as it needs to be given the poor general understanding of the Legislative Council and its elections.  All credit though to Bill Harvey and the others involved for trying - and to the three announced candidates for all coming out to face the music.

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