3 February 2018
Queenslanders will probably remember Glenn Lazarus for two things – a short career in Federal Parliament and a long career in football.
Before being elected to Federal Parliament in 2013 and representing Queensland in the Senate for a couple of years, Lazarus was a legendary footballer. He made the big time while playing in Canberra, and went on to represent Australia at international level, as well as New South Wales in an annual three-match series against Queensland.
But in 1992 he moved to Brisbane, and joined a team full of Queenslanders. Being a New South Welshman, he regularly lined up against his own teammates in that highly popular interstate series. Over time, in this series there have been countless instances of players taking on teammates with whom they’d play together in club football every week. And often they’d brutally tackle their own teammates – sometimes they’d even trade blows with them! Not for nothing did this series attract a brand of “mate against mate”.
At first glance, you might wonder what this interstate football clash between NSW and Queensland would have in common with politics in another state. The answer is that concept of mate against mate.
This concept accurately describes elections in Tasmania. Here political parties regularly have several candidates running against each other in the same electorate – and sitting MPs are included. Candidates freely run against sitting MPs, trying to win seats. Often political parties have new candidates elected at the expense of sitting MPs.
I remember seeing this while in Tasmania to follow a general election in 2010. I heard stories of energetic candidates campaigning against sitting MPs, with promises of new and better things if they won. And one such candidate managing to win a seat in that election was Rebecca White – currently the Tasmanian Opposition Leader, who’s seeking to beat Premier Will Hodgman and take the Labor Party back to office after it lost office at the last election, in 2014.
Voting for State MPs in Tasmania has similarities with voting for Senators in a Federal election. There are five electorates, with five seats apiece – hence a chamber of twenty-five seats. Candidates are elected on the basis of how much of the vote they win in the electorates that they run in.
But I stress that candidates are elected. Here you vote for actual candidates, rather than political parties or groups. This is different from the Senate, where you choose whether to vote for parties as a whole or individual candidates – the size of a party’s vote across any given state determines how many, if any, of its candidates win seats. With elections in Tasmania, overall party support in any electorate is, at least in theory, irrelevant.
Notwithstanding the fact that the popularity of a political party and its leader regularly sways voters, in Tasmania you have to choose a candidate from your preferred political party or group, and then mark preferences for every other candidate. You’d likely cast your vote and early preferences for every candidate from your choice of party. The key point is that parties can’t just choose their preferred candidates in any electorate, and bank on voters to give them their support as a whole – like they do with the Senate.
To some extent, this keeps political parties honest. They have to choose candidates who, from what they can gather, have enough local popularity to win seats.
In terms of what happens in the environment of mate against mate in Tasmania, I come back to what happened there in 2010. Labor was then governing, and had several new MPs elected, including White. She won a seat in Lyons, a rural electorate. But in that electorate, two existing Labor MPs, including one minister, lost their seats. Similarly, another new Labor MP, Scott Bacon, won a seat in Denison, an urban electorate around central Hobart, but two ministers in that electorate were defeated.
In that same election in 2010, the Liberal Party had a similar thing happen. In a rural electorate, Braddon, one sitting Liberal MP was defeated, but a new one was elected.
This demonstrates how vulnerable State MPs can be in Tasmania when elections come around. Fending off candidates from other parties is one thing, but fending off people from your own party running directly against you is something else. The notion of mate against mate, familiar to football fans in NSW and Queensland as well as that footballer-turned-politician Lazarus, takes on another meaning when Tasmanians go to vote.