Friday, April 14, 2023

Legislative Council 2023: Murchison

This is my guide for the May 6 elections for the Legislative Council seats of Murchison.  On Wednesday I released a survey of the Council's recent voting patterns.  Yesterday I released a guide for Rumney and today a guide for the fizzer in Launceston. There will be live coverage on the night of May 6th.  

The Legislative Council currently stands at four Liberal, four Labor and seven independents.  Three of the independents are conservative, three are well to the left of Labor and one (Ruth Forrest) has moved from the left to the centre in recent years.  While the Liberal Government therefore has a relatively easy time of it and wins the majority of contested votes, it still needs to convince someone from the left or centre to support it on major legislation. 

This particular guide can have a stronger than usual disclaimer that I will include my own opinions in these guides from time to time, and if anyone doesn't like that they are welcome to GYOB.

Seat Profile

Murchison is a large regional/rural/remote electorate on the west coast of Tasmania.  It contains the north-western centres of Smithton, Wynyard and Stanley, the West Coast mining towns of Queenstown, Rosebery and Zeehan and the tourism and fishing hub of Strahan.  It also includes King Island and the west and centre of the city of Burnie.

The electorate of Murchison was formed in 1999, with the malapportioned west coast electorate of Gordon being abolished and the member for the also-abolished Russell, Tony Fletcher, taking over at the 1999 election.  Gordon had been sometimes held by the ALP but Russell was only ever held by independents - just six of them in 114 years.  Fletcher, who served as Leader in the Upper House for two Liberal Governments, retired in 2005 after having been re-elected three times, two of them unopposed.  Ruth Forrest has held the seat ever since.

The 2017 redistribution added a lot of urban Burnie to the mix and made Murchison a little less conservative than it used to be.  However, the Liberal Party still scored 53.3% at the 2021 state election at booths in Murchison to 23.8% for Labor, 12.8% for independent fisherman Craig Garland, 4.8% for the Greens and 3.8% for the Shooters.  Resource politics issues such as farming, logging and mining are seldom far away in this division 


Independent Ruth Forrest (Facebook, Twitter, linkedin) is seeking a fourth term.  Forrest won the vacant seat in 2005, narrowly leading on primaries with 29% in a field of five, and beating Kevin Hyland after preferences with 51.4% of the two-candidate vote.  Hyland had intended to run against Forrest in 2011 as an endorsed Labor candidate but withdrew and Forrest was re-elected unopposed, the last case of this happening until 2021.

In 2017 Forrest faced a significant challenge from then Circular Head mayor Darryl Quilliam, running as an independent but receiving assistance from several Liberal Party members in what looked a lot like a proxy Liberal campaign (Quilliam was not a member.) This was a fiery campaign including attacks on Forrest's voting record but Forrest won convincingly, 56.7-43.3.  When the Liberal Party went looking for takers to run as endorsed candidates against Forrest this time, they didn't find any.

Prior to politics, Forrest worked as a midwife, nurse and sexuality educator and has the advantage of having personally delivered a fair share of Murchison's voters.  Her professional experience has also been relevant to several Legislative Council debates.  

Forrest has no known links to any party.  My analysis of Legislative Council voting patterns used to place her on the left of the Council, but in the last two editions (covering votes from 2018 to the present) Forrest has moved into the centre.  In the last four years she has voted with Labor (which is also in the centre by LegCo standards) on 60% of contested divisions in my sample, and with the Liberals 50% of the time.  Even when Forrest was placed on the left she had some distinctive positions, for instance tending to be tougher on crime (at least against emergency personnel) than other left-wing independents.

Forrest is highly rated by the Tasmanian commentariat for her grasp of policy, commitment to scrutinising legislation and support for women's rights.  It is not surprising that she has attracted only obscure challengers.  Forrest lives within the electorate.

Challengers (3)

Codie Hutchison (FacebookTwitter, candidacy announcement) is an independent candidate, a former casual teacher and founder and editor of a local media enterprise.  He has also worked in cafes and has extensive local sporting involvements.  He has worked on several campaigns for Craig Garland and also a campaign against "Government Mandates".  

Hutchison is a common presence on Tasmanian political social media where he frequently comments on local politics (especially of the Waratah-Wynyard area) albeit to a small audience.  He has also published articles on Tasmanian Times, in one instance apologising after incorrectly claiming that the Local Government Minister could directly dismiss a councillor for perceived incompetence or inability to perform.  He has also started a Facebook page called "University of Wynyard".  Hutchison is running primarily as an advocate of "direct democracy" (see more below).  He lives within the electorate.  

Brenton Jones (candidacy announcement) is the endorsed Shooters, Fishers and Farmers candidate.  Jones is a launch master and marine engineer who as of 2019 was working transporting people on Lake St Clair and has previously worked in similar jobs on the west coast and overseas.  He holds various relevant Australian Maritime College qualifications.  Jones ran for Montgomery in 2019 finishing fourth of four with 10.8%.  In my 2019 review I noted "Jones' campaign announcement runs a basically populist line against inequalities of power and influence, and also argues that tourism should be able to co-exist with industries such as forestry and fish-farming without conflict."  Jones contested Braddon in 2018 polling 330 votes, and was also a minor Senate candidate for the party in 2022 polling 110 below the lines.  He lives at Melrose, well outside the electorate.

Gatty Burnett (Tiktok) is another independent candidate.  Burnett contested Braddon at the 2002 state election polling 307 votes.  She is a Utas paralegal student, a former youth worker for Save The Children and a former outreach and street teams officer for the Salvation Army.  As of the mid-2010s she was (speech recording here) involved in the North West Regional Comorbidity Action Project, dealing with people who are affected both by drug/alcohol problems and mental health issues.  

In a TikTok video Burnett says she was stood down from one of her positions for refusal to comply with vaccine mandates.  In 2009 Burnett lodged a complaint to the Australian Press Council against the Advocate's reporting that a friend had been "arrested"; the complaint was dismissed.  Burnett's TikTok videos include some with significant viewer counts, some of which concern banking and child protection and which I see as having at least a conspiracy theory like tone.   


To the extent that Burnett's videos are directly relevant to Murchison, one seems to be attacking Forrest over government funding that Burnett did not have to acquit for a project but I have no idea why she thinks Forrest and not the government should be explaining this. 

Hutchison said, when launching his campaign, that Forrest had done a great job but did not have an opponent at the time.  His main campaign push is for "direct democracy" in which voters can vote directly on issues via an app, and he has several trial runs on his website.  I suspect they've attracted negligible attention but I can't be bothered downloading the app and registering to check.  My general criticism of online direct democracy campaigns is that they become government not by the people, but by such of the people as have the time and the ability to be engaged with them.  

Forrest has published an op ed arguing a Burkean line about the role of a parliamentarian as one who not just acts as a delegate but develops policy through debate in search of the general good (this might be taken as another reply to direct democracy ideas).  Conservative opponents of Forrest's former voting record might be not delighted about her co-opting Burke but since none of them bothered running they will just have to lump it. Forrest has also stressed local issues including the Cam River Bridge and school and health funding.  

Jones in his candidacy announcement has sensibly focused on issues such as youth unemployment, power bills and infrastructure, and cost of living / interest rates.

In comments about local government reform, Forrest has indicated support for greater resource sharing between small councils and flagged concerns about forced mergers. 

Travelling through parts of this electorate several Forrest signs were seen (even on King Island) as were several large homemade looking Hutchison signs.


Remarkably given the politics of several years ago, we've reached a point where there are four candidates running for Murchison and Ruth Forrest is easily the most mainstream of them.  

None of the challengers appear to individually be serious opponents, two of them are blow-ins, and they are all fishing in parts of the same anti-mainstream pond where Garland and various right populist parties have between them been good for up to 20% in Braddon in the past.  I'm expecting that Forrest will hold the seat comfortably and think she may poll an outright majority or be not far short of one.  In 2017 it took me just 53 minutes to call this seat and I'll be surprised if it detains me much longer this time.  

If the Shooters actually make any kind of effort here, or perhaps even if they don't, it would not surprise me to see Jones well into double figures as he is perhaps the most natural option in this lot for north-west right-wing voters who still think Forrest is too left (especially on social issues).  I expect there are still plenty of classical Braddon pro-forestry/mining/hunting/4WD types who would prefer a Shooter over Forrest, and this election will be a great test of how widespread that sentiment still is and is a chance for the Shooters to poll much better numbers than they usually do.  It's hard for me to guess at what the others might get - any candidate in a four-candidate race will normally get several percent, and Hutchison may get something more by being a local and perhaps via the Garland connection.  

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