Monday, March 29, 2021

Legislative Council 2021: Derwent

This is the second of the Legislative Council guides that I am putting out quickly as I am keen to ensure that the LegCo elections do not get neglected (especially as they are currently expected to be on the same day as the state election).  My guide to Windermere is up, and links for all pages will be added to my general state election hub page.

I will be doing live coverage of the state election from 6 pm for The Mercury on their website and I expect this to include the Legislative Council elections too, assuming that they go ahead on May 1 as flagged.  Postcount threads will be posted for any seats that remain in doubt or of interest following counting night.

Derwent: Seat Profile

As its name suggests Derwent covers much of the middle and upper Derwent Valley.  It starts in the suburbs of Glenorchy and takes in Bridgewater/Gagebrook, Brighton, the major town of New Norfolk, and a scattering of small farming, fishing and timber towns up to Lake St Clair and out into the south-west.  It even takes in Great Lake which isn't very Derwent Valley at all.

When I wrote my 2015 guide, Derwent was Labor's sole remaining Legislative Council seat.  They now have five!  Derwent has been held by the ALP continuously since 1979.  Charles Batt and then former Treasurer Michael Aird were long-term occupants of Derwent, and on Aird's retirement in 2011 it was won by Craig Farrell.  Labor has won the seat nine times in a row, Farrell's first win being the only one of these in which it has been taken to preferences.  However, I don't think the Liberal Party has officially contested any of these contests.

Labor's dominance is not surprising given that the seat is strong Labor territory in state elections.  Despite Labor's uncompetitive statewide result in 2018, Labor outpolled the Liberals 45.4% to 41.9% in booths in Derwent, with the Greens polling a mere 4.5%, Shooters 4.0%, Lambie Network 3.6% (didn't contest the Denison (now Clark) portion), and others 0.5%.  Labor's strength in the electorate is the seaward end of the river where most of the voters are: Bridgewater/Gagebrook and the northern Glenorchy suburbs.  As such the common image of the division as centred around New Norfolk is politically misleading.

Derwent: Incumbent

Derwent Labor incumbent Craig Farrell (website, Facebook, Twitter) is the President of the Legislative Council and has represented the seat for ten years since the by-election sparked by Aird's resignation.  In that by-election, Farrell won with a primary vote of 38.6%, nearly double his nearest rival in a field of five.  On preferences Farrell defeated ex-Liberal Glenorchy councillor Jenny Branch 56.6:43.4.  In 2015 Farrell attracted only a single very low-profile opponent, IT consultant Alan Baker, who he defeated 64.3:35.7 in an amicable and low-key campaign.  Farrell won every booth except for a tie in Bronte (all 64 votes of it).  

Prior to this Farrell's electoral record in local government had been reasonable but nothing spectacular.  At the time of his preselection he was Deputy Mayor of the Derwent Valley Council.  In earlier life he had a background in real estate and TV.  

Within a year of his election Farrell was holding probably the most demanding and thankless job in Tasmanian politics of the time as Leader for the Labor/Greens Government in the Legislative Council. His performance in that role was well reviewed.  On the retirement of Jim Wilkinson from Nelson in 2019, Farrell was elected as President of the Council, meaning that he now only exercises a casting vote in the case of ties.  He has flagged potentially using his casting vote on ties to support Labor policy rather than applying neutral speakership conventions (which I have argued should not apply to the Council anyway as it is too small) but I haven't seen this situation come up yet.  Currently left-wing MLCs hold a majority on the floor of the Council with four other Labor MLCs and four left-wing independents. (I hope to find time to revise my voting patterns assessment before the elections.)

Partisan differences aside, Farrell has been generally well regarded and has only attracted very rare and passing controversies, such as a 2017 debate where he compared alcoholism to child sex abuse (and quickly apologised) and a barney the same year where he threatened to withdraw a pair but Labor ultimately backed down.  

Derwent: Challengers (2)

The endorsed Liberal challenger is Derwent Valley mayor Ben Shaw (website, Facebook, candidacy announcement).  Shaw first contested the council in 2014 and was not only elected fourth as a councillor but also won the Deputy Mayor position against the incumbent (57.9% 2CP after preferences). In 2018 in one of the closest contests of the year Shaw defeated Paul Belcher for the mayoralty by 25 votes (50.3% 2CP).  He is currently vice-president of the Local Government Association of Tasmania.

Shaw is a New Norfolk local from a working-class background whose first job was at the Boyer paper mill (which incidentally brought my own family to the state in 1980).  He has also been an electrical engineer.  Shaw's higher political ambitions were launched in late 2020 when he said that he had approached both major parties: "If it was up to me I’d probably be an independent, but it’s just not realistic. " He self-described as a moderate and was reported as not agreeing with the politics of Liberal hardliners Brendan Blomeley and Simon Behrakis.  Having picked a side, however, Shaw seems to have taken to partisan combat with gusto.   

The Derwent Valley Council has been controversial for years and Shaw has been no different.  In 2019 he apologised after groundlessly suggesting that the Governor's husband Richard Warner and a community organisation had misappropriated funds.  Only nine days later it was reported (albeit in a report that didn't note that Belcher was Shaw's main defeated mayoral rival) that Council staff had asked the General Manager to ban Shaw from council chambers to prevent him "from directing staff". Shaw disputed the claims, and said he had been set up by leaks by an ex-staffer.  Other incidents in Shaw's council that year - in which Shaw was not involved himself -  included the poisoning of geese, ducks and plovers at a park (the investigation report was not released for legal reasons) and cases of police being called to council meetings (presumably because of incidents involving increased numbers of residents attending them).   Since 2019, however, the adverse headlines seem to have abated.

The Animal Justice Party candidate is Ivan Davis (Facebook).  Davis is a former farmer, Army musician and SAS trooper who according to his party bio has done a very wide range of jobs: "taxi driving, door to door sales, pruning grape vines, night supervisor in a half-way house, managing a community housing project, shop attendant, bus driver, complementary therapist, abattoir worker, labourer, close protection in an extreme environment, employment consultant, and finally an English teacher in China."  During the campaign Davis has been involved in animal cruelty protests

All three candidates live in the electorate.

It is unusual to see a Legislative Council election without an independent running.  Some previous cases include Derwent 2003 (Labor vs Green) and Newdegate 1969 (Labor unopposed); there may have been others.  

Issues

I will add notes on campaign issues as I become aware of them.

COVID-19 Recovery: Farrell has criticised the Gutwein government, seeking to tie it to the demise of the federal JobKeeper program and expected job losses in Derwent Valley tourism and other regional businesses.  

Protest Laws: Shaw has used social media to highlight Labor's vote against the government's latest version of its laws that seek to restrict obstructive anti-forestry protests.  Forestry is a significant industry in the small towns in the upper Derwent Valley.   

Campaign

I will flesh out the campaign section in coming weeks as time permits.  Shaw's slogan is "A Stronger Voice For Derwent" which seems to be a shot at the incumbent implying that a government MLC would be more effective.  I haven't seen any direct contact between the various campaigns yet.

Davis seems to be campaigning quite actively.  

Prospects

It always seems unlikely Labor would ever lose the jewel in its growing LegCo crown, but is it totally unthinkable?  With the unusual decision to hold the state and LegCo elections on the same day, there's an argument that a landslide COVID election statewide with voters voting about the same way in both houses could produce a shock outcome.  After all, the seat is close (about 53-47 to Labor) if modelled as a two-party contest using the 2018 elections.  

The interesting thing therefore - and in the aftermath we will get great data on this sort of thing - will be to see how many voters split their ballots and vote for Farrell in the Upper House in spite of voting for a Liberal in the Lower House.  

It's hard to know quite what to make of Shaw.  Is he a brash minor mayor with major tickets on himself or is he actually a good pick who will play well in the blue-collar areas that are normally Labor strongholds?  That said, the focus on the state election won't help Shaw to build his profile east of Derwent Valley where the seat will be won and lost.   In the absence of a concurrent state election I would have predicted a 60-40ish Farrell win, but the environment of this year's poll makes much Derwent more worth watching than normal.  

Labor's self-destruct mission in the Lower House campaign through the first week of April seems to have placed Derwent even more in play and I now (as of April 7) think the seat is very loseable.  

As for the Animal Justice campaign, they will pick up what "none of the above" vote there is so their vote will probably be respectable.

Betting

Betting is not reliably predictive (then again with LegCo what is) but it's amusing to keep an eye on it anyway. As of 1 April Farrell 1.42 Shaw 2.75 Davis 15.00.

As of 7 April Farrell 1.75 Shaw 2.00.

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