Lessons from History

Last Monday was the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Holgate government. A government that won power with a resounding victory for Premier Lowe in 1979 fell to a vote of no confidence in Premier Holgate’s government on 26 March 1982. Reflecting on those times, one can draw some fascinating parallels with the present day. Such a reflection will naturally involve looking through the prism of personal bias, but the issues then are similar to the issues now.

First and foremost, the government was in a period of austerity. Prime Minister Fraser had instituted a program of “new federalism” which essentially meant less money to the States. Premier Doug Lowe’s response was to call the 1979 election on the slogan “I won’t stand for it” and he won it in a landslide. However the austerity budgets continued, and the government was forced to continue making cuts, which made it increasingly unpopular.

Second, the Labor Party was faced with an internal issue where Bill McKinnon, a member who had lost his seat - in Franklin - petitioned the Supreme Court to declare null and void the election of his colleague Michael Aird. Petitions started to be laid upon all members of Parliament, but after a mad scramble, all but one - in the seat of Denison -was eventually withdrawn. The final resolution of this issue was to call a by-election in that seat, which caused the loss of a Labor member and the election of a new member from the Australian Democrats, Norm Sanders. Sanders was committed to the cause of conservation and had little time for the processes of parliament. More of Norm later.

Third, the government struggled over the development of a new power scheme on the Gordon River. Its preferred option, to build a dam on the Gordon above its junction with the Olga River, was not universally accepted within Cabinet, or the party. A bill was passed in the Lower House, but after many months of political horseplay in and out of Parliament, was rejected by the Legislative Council.

The government endeavoured to negotiate its way through the political morass, but to no avail. Finally, the government’s solution was to hold a referendum on the matter, at which its preferred option was roundly and soundly defeated.

Throughout this process, the conservation movement was adamant that the Franklin River be saved. The movement was gaining a lot of support from within the community, it ran rallies and was front and centre in the media. “Save the Franklin” was the battle-cry, and it had an effect on members of the government. Although the government’s option did not involve the Franklin, the conservation movement became more assertive, finally moving ground and declaring “No Dams”.

Fourth, the Premier, seeking new opportunities for industrial development, saw one in the maritime industry. A floating dock would be a fantastic piece of infrastructure to boost Tasmania’s reputation and position, it would employ a large skilled workforce, and it was strongly supported by advocates within the bureaucracy. Where to obtain a floating dock? One was available, in Russia, and the Premier gained assurances from the Fraser government that there would be no impediment to him concluding such a deal. However, once the Premier was in Russia finalizing the deal, an extraordinary fear campaign against the Russians was waged and the deal was trashed.

Finally, after a most frustrating year, with internal dissatisfaction reaching a crisis point, the Government decided to change its leader. Premier Lowe was replaced with Premier Holgate. Lowe immediately resigned from the Party, and along with another colleague, sat on the cross benches of Parliament. Such a move left the government in a minority on the floor of Parliament.

In these circumstances, with the change of Premier and a referendum result leaving the government’s new power development strategy in tatters, Holgate prorogued parliament for a period in order that the government could regroup.

In that period, the government determined to follow the will of the people as expressed at the referendum regarding the new power scheme, but it was not united in this decision, the public knew it, and as such it was never going to recover from the dilemmas of the previous year. Eventually, Sanders, the man who entered Parliament at the byelection, moved a no-confidence motion and which, supported by the Opposition and the cross benches, brought about the downfall of the government.

In the ensuing election, the government was defeated and the Liberals gained a clear majority. Soon after that Sanders resigned from Parliament and Bob Brown was elected on a countback.

So what are the parallels with the present day? There are a number.

For austerity budgets, read reduction in GST revenues. For the Hydro Electric schemes, read forestry. For the floating dock, read pulpmill. For change of leader read change of leader. For the division in Cabinet, read division in Cabinet. For minority government read minority government. And above all, in both instances, a need to provide political leadership.

During this period Doug Lowe had put a lot of effort into making the public service more professional and more accountable. For that he must be commended. It was not an easy task and the government was entering unchartered waters in considering a new way of receiving advice.

He was also the first leader in the country to be confronted with the dilemma of trying to appease aspirational voters on the one hand, and the traditional blue collar voters on the other. Those who frequented the coffee shops of Salamanca, who were not affected by government decisions, and those who worked in the workshops of Moonah, that were vitally affected by them. It was a hard ask.

This dichotomy has been visited many times since by Labor Governments throughout the country, and from those who advocate a “progressive” view of the world. Whether it is uranium mining, highways through koala habitat, management of waterways, preservation of native forests, the use of coal for power generation, there is inevitably a conflict which is essentially irreconcilable. The party must choose who it really represents. If it does not, then such conflicts will continue to fester, and as it did in Queensland last weekend, with devastating consequences.

As the saying goes, “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. On our very doorstep from 30 years ago is a shining example of what can confront a government, and which is confronting our present government. We could and should be able to learn from the events of 30 years ago. However, to quote loosely from Hegel: “What history teaches us is ...that people and governments have never learnt anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”

I hope Hegel is wrong.