Key seats Bass and Braddon become victims of their own loveliness

By Tony Wright

An elderly man wearing a jaunty beret and a substantial beard plods up the main street of the Tasmanian city of Burnie, the blue endlessness of Bass Strait stretching behind him. Shoppers stop and stare.

Accompanying the man is a chocolate-coloured alpaca named Pedro. The little animal seems animated by its surroundings, head swivelling on its long neck.

Welcome to political campaigning, northwest Tasmanian style.

One Nation candidate Ludo Mineur, walking his alpaca Pedro through the streets of Burnie, says neither Prime Minister Scott Morrison nor Labor’s Anthony Albanese speak to his concerns any more.Credit:Joe Armao

Ludo Mineur, 80, says he has voted Liberal for the past 40 years.

This year, however, he has decided the Liberal Party has been taking voters for granted for too long. Neither Prime Minister Scott Morrison nor Labor’s Anthony Albanese (“he’s worse”) speak to his concerns any more, and he believes there are many like him.

“I’ve been getting more peeved each year,” he says.

He has defected, becoming a twig in a forest of small-party candidates whose preferences could make a difference to the hopes of both major parties in volatile northern Tasmania next Saturday.

Mineur is now the candidate for One Nation in the electorate of Braddon, which curls around the almost implausibly beautiful northwest coast of Tasmania, much of the way down its wild and remote west coast and out into Bass Strait to King Island.

It seems a form of cool-climate paradise, of villages amid rolling green hill country meeting the ocean, of mountains rearing inland and sunsets to break the heart when the howling winds of the Roaring 40s calm themselves.

But there is trouble in this paradise.

Fast-rising food costs, fuel prices that soar well above the mainland’s (unleaded around $1.90 a litre, diesel $2.15 and more), and a shortage of bulk-billing doctors, aged care workers and other pressures on the health system were raised in almost every conversation as The Age/The Sydney Morning Herald travelled around Tasmania’s north this week.

The broad mood of anxiety spreads beyond Braddon into the neighbouring electorate of Bass to the east, based around the lovely old city of Launceston and veering northeast to the Furneaux islands of the strait.

Bass and Braddon, both among the most marginal seats in the country, have historically played outsized parts in deciding who governs Australia.

Bass has ping-ponged between the major parties eight times since 1983 and is currently held by the Liberals by 0.4 per cent, the party’s tiniest margin in the nation. Braddon is held by Liberal Gavin Pearce on a margin of 3.1 per cent.

On the very morning of the 2019 election, with virtually every pundit and pollster in the land predicting he was about to lose power to Bill Shorten, Morrison flew to Launceston in time for the Bass polls to open.

He sang happy birthday to the Liberal candidate, Bridget Archer, and then dashed 100 kilometres down the coast to Ulverstone in Braddon to urge voters to cast their lot with Pearce.

That both electorates flipped from Labor to Liberal is now part of political folklore. Morrison remained prime minister and Shorten and the ALP stayed on the opposition benches.

Three years later, a last-minute happy birthday song is unlikely to cut through the political mist along this coast.

Paradoxically, the natural attractions of the area can be blamed, at least in part.

Cashed-up mainlanders – tree-changers, sea-changers, climate refugees and retirees – have come in the past few years to settle within the beauty of the environment, or simply to purchase a place and leave it vacant, a bolthole for the future. The appeal of the area rose last year when Launceston gained the prized designation of UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

The resulting jump in house prices – to an average $600,000 – may have pleased property owners, but many locals have been shut out of the market. Owners of rental properties have cashed in, leaving a serious shortage of affordable rental accommodation.

Bass is currently held by the Liberals’ Bridget Archer on a margin of 0.4 per cent, the party’s tiniest in the nation.Credit:Joe Armao

Wealth is not widespread. Braddon was 139th of the 151 electorates surveyed in the 2020 Roy Morgan Wealth Report. Bass came in at 113.

Jacqui Lambie, the plain-speaking senator who commands significant respect across the northwest – she was born in Ulverstone and raised in public housing in Devonport – says housing shortages are causing dreadful social problems.

“Ah, mate,” she sighs. “The people coming in with their stories, they’re in tears, they’re couch-surfing, living with their kids in cars, in caravan parks with no security; they’ve got nothing. And now people are worrying about interest rates going up. The s— is really going to hit the fan.”

It already has for those who live on the streets.

In the courtyard of one of the large charities in Burnie, the City Mission, where the homeless and poverty-stricken come for a $1 breakfast and $3 lunch, we find Daniel, a man of 32, who doesn’t want to give his surname. He has been sleeping rough for several years in Hobart, has come to Burnie to be closer to his three sons, and says he is shocked at the number of rough sleepers on the north coast.

Unable to find a rental home, he has finally booked a hotel room for $300 a week, knowing this will leave him just $40 from his unemployment benefit at the end of a fortnight. But he says he is determined to move up, find a job and get his life back.

As we talk, a woman sits nearby. Burdened with mental illness and addictions, she sleeps on a park bench near Burnie’s railway tracks.

Daniel discovers she has only a single blanket. He gives her his sleeping mat and two sleeping bags.

“The only way to survive is to help each other out,” he says.

Both Burnie and Launceston have “Safe Places” reserved for the homeless and those in crisis, but they are stretched, with every bed taken every night.

Launceston Mayor Albert van Zetten, formerly CEO of City Mission, says the city’s shelter has 26 beds, but “we will need at least another 30 to 50 beds for crisis accommodation”.

“We’ll need those extra beds in the next two or three weeks because winter is coming,” he says, adding he doesn’t know how this might be achieved.

Homelessness is essentially a state government responsibility, but both Morrison and Albanese recognise it morphs, via health, national housing and cost-of-living pressures, into the federal election.

Lambie made sure of the link. She cut a deal in 2019 with the federal government that saw Tasmania’s $157 million of outstanding loans to the Commonwealth waived. In return, Tasmania was required to spend all the interest and principal savings – $230 million until 2042 – on social housing and programs to address homelessness.

“Every town I go to now has new public housing, but it can’t keep up,” Lambie says. “When I got that money wiped, there were 3500 on the waiting list and now it’s 4500.”

Morrison, desperate to hold Bass and Braddon against an apparent national surge by Labor, arrived in the area again on Thursday – his fourth visit of this campaign.

Albanese has visited several times, too, including Bass on the first day of the campaign, where he famously forgot the national unemployment figure and the Reserve Bank’s official interest rate.

Since then, barely a day has passed without a Labor frontbencher or government minister bringing a big-spending promise and a reminder that both parties have plans to help build affordable homes.

On Thursday, as Morrison and his outgoing Health Minister, Greg Hunt, flew to Launceston to announce $45.6 million for new and existing mental health services, Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek was flying out after promising $2.25 million for extra crisis accommodation for women and children in northern Tasmania.

Fisherman Craig Garland, standing as as independent, is not offering preferences to anyone.Credit:Joe Armao

In the seaside town of Wynyard, west of Burnie, a rangy fisherman named Craig Garland declares himself unimpressed, saying: “We have been lied to and ignored, and these bastards have created a level of mistrust and disconnect that is about to bite them.”

Garland may be seen as simply another anti-politician independent candidate in this poll, but he is a veteran of four federal and state elections, where he has principally opposed the polluting of fishing grounds by salmon farms.

He was, it happens, called a “king maker” when he grabbed 10.6 per cent of the vote in a 2018 byelection in Braddon. His preferences ensured a Labor victory over the Liberal Brett Whiteley.

Garland ran that election on a shoestring and a handful of posters.

This time, he has about $16,000 of donations, several hundred posters tacked up across the electorate, a campaign headquarters in the Wynyard home of his mate Norm Vanderfeen – where Garland and friends play chess weekly – and “heaps of friends and relatives all over the place”.

Garland is not offering preferences to anyone. His presence in Saturday’s election is, thus, yet another complication for Liberal and Labor in the most uncertain of times and electorates.

As he might say of the number-crunchers: “Go figure.”

Small party preference deals muddy the figuring all over the place.

While “Alpaca Man” Mineur’s One Nation preferences will go to the Liberals in Braddon, the One Nation candidate in Bass, Melanie Davy, has Labor ahead of the Liberals on the instructions of party chief Pauline Hanson, who labels the Liberals’ Archer “left-leaning”.

Archer earned Hanson’s ire for crossing the floor and voting against Morrison’s religious discrimination bill. However, some observers believe Archer did herself a favour by staring down a prime minister who has become electorally unpopular.

Meanwhile, the Jacqui Lambie Network candidate for Bass, Bob Salt, quit campaigning altogether this week when he discovered Lambie had placed Archer ahead of Labor’s Ross Hart on his how-to-vote card. Salt wanted to preference Labor because he wanted a change of government.

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