By Ian Bell
23 July 2013
The seat of Bass in North East Tasmania is home to some 140,000 people, the greater number of whom reside in Launceston, a picturesque city nestled in the Tamar Valley. The city is bisected by the Tamar River along which lies a residential growth corridor to the West as far as the suburb of Legana and along the East to the Municipality of Georgetown, home to an aluminium smelter, a port and a failed pulp mill project. Named after Dr George Bass (1771–1803), a naval surgeon, early settler and explorer, the electorate also takes in the towns of Scottsdale, Lilydale and Bridport as well as Flinders and Cape Barren islands. Traditional industries include metal smelting, brewery, cattle (dairy and beef) farming, manufacturing, mining, shipping, timber, tourism, fishing, wineries and wool.
My name is Ian Bell and in my near 20 years in Tasmania I have lived in both the electorate of Lyons and for the past 10 years, Bass. I currently work in the state public service but before this worked for the Federal Member for Lyons, Dick Adams from 1993-2000, during which time I was an active member of the ALP. I currently have no party political affiliation but maintain a strong interest in issues to do with social justice, the environment and economic sustainability. I do not claim to speak for all of Bass. Secure employment, income and a home in a nice part of town affords me the relative luxury of being able to share my observations as a citizen journalist whilst many of my fellows are preoccupied with how they are going to pay the next bill in a region with declining economic activity, increasing unemployment and stagnant population growth. While these problems are not unique to Bass, they are the issues which require urgent attention.
Bass has a history as a bellwether seat in federal elections. Results from the division are usually among the first in the country to be tallied and reported on election night with anticipation that whoever wins here wins the election. It is also a marginal seat with the major political party’s regularly trading stewardship of the electorate since its proclamation in 1903. Currently safe Labor, an automated phone poll conducted in January 2013 suggests a decisive swing to the Liberals at the next election (the Nationals do not contest the seat) of up to 15%. The extent to which the ALP may be able to claw back some of this swing following the phoenix like re-emergence of Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister remains to be seen but there is palpable dislike of Labor in some sections of the community, particularly in outlying rural areas, owing to the state Labor Governments restructuring of the forest industry, attributed in large part to the influence of the Greens.
Announced candidates for the forthcoming election to date include the sitting member Geoff Lyons (ALP), Andrew Nikolic (Liberal), independent Tom Ellison and Lucy Landon-Lane (Green).
Geoff Lyons successfully contested Bass in 2010 after taking ALP pre-selection from Jodie Campbell. Well known for his involvement in the local community, especially in surf lifesaving, Lyons’ profile as a federal representative has not reached the same heights leading to perceptions that he is disengaged and remote from the electorate. Lyons publically attributes this to a lack of coverage by the local newspaper, the Launceston Examiner.
Andrew Nikolic a former army brigadier is the Liberal candidate for Bass and has been energetically campaigning for over twelve months. But
for all the qualifications, distinguished gongs and other accolades listed in his biography, he is not Tasmanian born and bred. In Bass, that counts. Nikolic has achieved some notoriety for his response to a satirical piece on him in a now inactive face book page the New Examiner, itself a satirical take on the local newspaper. Nikolic was accused of threatening to contact the employers of people who ‘liked’ a story on him about how he was heroically killed in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The face book story author, and editor of the New Examiner was subsequently revealed to be Tom Ellison, soon to be a declared independent candidate for Bass.
Ellison appears to be genuinely independent as opposed to the many faux independents (those who are party affiliated but not pre-selected) who have previously run in Bass. A straight talking, in your face, no hostages’ style of political aspirant in the mould of a young Paul Keating, his is an unabashedly progressive agenda one would think would have plenty in common with the Greens, (but if his response to the Greens proposal for a new tax on the Australia’s major banks is anything to go by this is not so). Ellison’s style has a polarising effect on people. As editor of the New Examiner his satire has caused offence to some which has led to questioning about his suitability for public office. Others see an irreverent, almost larrikin self mockery in his observations of his fellow Tasmanians that challenge us to see how we may be perceived by others.
The possibility of an independent federal member may prove an attraction for the voters of Bass, particularly with the amount of exposure and success independent Andrew Wilkie has had in the Southern Tasmanian seat of Denison. Undoubtedly, Wilkies cause has been aided by the circumstances of minority government but with national polls running 50-50 since the reinstatement of Kevin Rudd as Labor leader, an independent from Bass in another minority government be it Labor or Liberal, may be an irresistible prospect to many on election day.
Lucy Landon-Lane is the endorsed Greens candidate for Bass. An organic walnut farmer, there is an impeccability to her candidature that is matched by Andrew Nikolic’s background as a soldier and Lyons’ as a public servant. The Green vote in Bass has been consistent over the course of the last two elections at around 15% despite relatively low profile candidates and campaigns. Whether they can maintain this level of support in the wake of hostility to the Tasmanian forest peace deal remains to be seen but if it cannot, Geoff Lyons may well be the one who will suffer the most.
A candidate from the Palmer United Party is yet to be announced for Bass despite candidates being announced for other Tasmanian seats. Like wise, the Citizens Electoral Council, Socialist Alliance and Family First Party, all of who were represented in the 2010 election, have yet to announce candidates.
Northern Tasmania this time of year can be cold, wet and grey. Rain sweeps in with the wind from every which angle sending we locals scurrying indoors to our warm hearths. Despite the increasing proliferation of signage, the election still seems a long way off, something to worry about later and then for some only under sufferance. It is the weather and our refuge from it which occupies our mind and dominates our conversation for now. But this will change. The arrival of higher temperatures will gradually lift our horizons beyond that of our television sets and slow combustion fires and then the contest of ideas will begin in earnest.