Published at UniPollWatch during the 2016 Australian federal election, this profile previewed the battle for the Tasmanian seat of Bass.
The electorate includes several Bass Strait islands, including Flinders Island, and the regional and urban areas of Dorset, George Town and Launceston. Liberal Andrew Nikolic unseated Labor’s Geoff Lyons at the 2013 federal election. But he shouldn’t be confident because Bass changes hands often and there are many one-termers on its list of former MPs. So this marginal seat is always interesting to watch.
The electorate of Bass is characterised by its diversity and, with that, a set of unique challenges across all parts in the region. Launceston supplies Bass with more half of its voters. Other regional centres on the fringes of the electorate include picturesque George Town, Dorset, Break O’Day and Flinders Island, a separate land mass which operates like a country town.
Despite sweeping into power over Labor’s Geoff Lyons in 2013 with a double digit swing, Andrew Nikolic would be unlikely to consider Bass a safe bet. However, if there is a candidate with the makings to be a long-term member for Bass, it may be Mr Nikolic, a 31-year military veteran.
As the government whip under Tony Abbott and the recently appointed chair of the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Mr Nikolic is regarded as a strongly partisan political enforcer and a rising star within the party. Since the 2013 election, Mr Nikolic’s agenda has been dominated by his aggressive advocacy for stronger anti-terrorism laws.
In his new role chairing a joint committee, Mr Nikolic’s ability to moderate his views and facilitate bipartisan discussion will be tested. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment has reportedly come as a move to appease the disgruntled right-wing of the Liberal Party and Nikolic’s selection indicates that Turnbull has a lot of faith in the Tasmanian, who is only three years into his political career.
One of the key election issues in the Bass electorate will be the economy. Like the rest of the state, Bass has suffered from Tasmania’s economic slowdown. Concerns around employment opportunities and infrastructural development in particular will be key areas. With the controversy stemming from the failed Gunns Pulp Mill development finally settled for good, this election will be the first with an open dialogue on employment. While the last three local elections have spun around whether the pulp mill would be revived to create a boom in employment, its 2014 sale into private ownership have ended the prospect of that happening.
Inevitably, a vast amount of that debate will also come back to forestry, the dominant industry in Bass. Tasmanian logging has providing a great economic resource but has come at a high environmental cost. Although Tasmanians have historically voted with environmental causes, the state’s economic struggles have somewhat softened voter loyalty towards the Greens and Labor Party. Increasingly, the government has granted additional logging tenders in Bass much to the chagrin of local environmental groups and international bodies such as UNESCO. The precarious balance between maintaining Tasmania’s rich environmental wellbeing while appropriately using its natural resources for the economic betterment of the state will continue to be an issue of debate throughout the election.
The constituents of Bass come from a spectrum of backgrounds. The equal youngest electorate in Tasmania, Bass is occupied by largely Caucasian Australian-born with pockets of privilege and disadvantage sprinkled through the region. Launceston, the major city where the bulk of voters reside, is the second-largest city in the state and relatively affluent, boasting above average rates of tertiary education and high wages. However, other parts of Bass served as stark contrasts. Rural regions George Town and Break O’Day are both amongst the lowest performing Australian regions in the Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) rating system. The difference is reflected in the real estate market, in which Launceston appears as an area of high demand and cost whilst George Town and Flinders Island have a plethora of affordable housing.
Particularly because of the disadvantaged areas of Bass, the electorate is sensitive to economic development. This comes especially in wake of the Gunns Pulp Mill failing to live up to the lofty promises made by previous governments to use the site to create jobs and industry. Already a flailing economy, many were holding on to the sentiment of the pulp mill potentially revitalising the Tasmanian job market. When the deal continued to flounder before eventually failing for good, the damaged relationship between decision makers and constituents across the state worsened. This was particularly felt in Bass, the proposed host of the revitalised mill, and voters expressed their dissatisfaction in the 2014 state election.
In an election that saw the Liberal Party sweep into power, the Bass region made history by electing the Liberals into three of the area’s five seats. This marked the first time in over forty years the party held that many seats in the electorate. The outgoing Labor Party retained one seat, as did the Greens, but the clear disillusionment with the two left-wing parties had been made evident in Bass and across Tasmania.
The Bass electorate is home to a dynamic, broad group of people united by proximity and common concerns. Although the political reality for voters in central Launceston and the isolated Flinders Island may be wholly unique from one another, mutual concerns over the murky future of domestic industries is Tasmania are the same in both regions. Thus far Mr Nikolic has proven skilled at navigating such challenges within his electorate and indeed the politics within his own party. However, his recent high-profile appointment to the Committee on Intelligence and Security will put the former soldier under intense scrutiny. It remains to be seen whether the increased attention will be a bolster or burden to Mr Nikolic as the battle for Bass develops.