Inside Story

Safe Labor? On the ground, Denison isn’t so straightforward

This Tasmanian seat might hold a surprise for Labor and the Coalition, wrote Natasha Cica during the campaign

Natasha Cica 5 August 2010 2420 words

Wild card? Andrew Wilkie, who narrowly missed on on a seat at this year’s state election, on the campaign trail in Hobart last week.
AAP Image/ Patrick Caruana

MIDWAY through this election campaign, Hobart is the only Australian capital city that’s been more or less ignored by Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott. Labor’s Duncan Kerr has held Denison – which takes in most of the metropolitan area – for almost a quarter of a century, and with a comfy margin of 15 per cent it looks about as safe as any seat can be in contemporary Australia. But there’s rising speculation that, with Kerr’s departure at this election, Denison’s not quite the done Labor deal many assume.

Kerr’s anointed successor is Jonathan Jackson, a thirty-six-year-old accountant. Born in Hobart and educated at the expensive Friends’ School, he’s the son of retired state Labor minister Judy Jackson. Although he was preselected ahead of some would-be MPs who don’t enjoy all these advantages, and although he’s has been promoted heavily by better-known Labor faces, in person Jackson isn’t the party hack you might expect. And there’s more to him than autocue slogans like “moving forward.” Important as that general direction might be for Jackson – if it means better education and smart, sustainable jobs in a state that’s not (yet) renowned for leading on either front – his evident passion is social justice. “The fundamental thing is to give Tasmanians an equal opportunity in life, the people who don’t have a voice in society, and what you can do as an effective representative is give people a voice,” he tells me, “and that means you need to listen, and fight for what’s right.”

For starters, though, that means communicating with diverse sub-constituencies that have potentially competing priorities. The electorate stretches along the Derwent River and wraps around Mount Wellington. It runs from the generally socioeconomically disadvantaged northern precinct of Glenorchy (traditionally Labor – heavy on “blue collar” manufacturing work, and featuring high levels of dependence on welfare and public housing and noticeable ethnic diversity compared with wider Tasmania). It proceeds through Hobart’s inner suburbs (Denison’s latte belt, in a city unusually dependent on government employment and stacked with members of the “creative class,” and with the strongest Greens support base in the nation). And then it takes in Hobart’s wealthier southern suburbs (most strongly Liberal and business-focused) and folds in the sparsely populated peri-urban communities on the periphery.

Isn’t connecting with all that difficult – never mind finding commonalities and, ah, moving forward? Not according to Jackson, who returned to live in Hobart after professional stints in Utrecht, London and Shanghai. “I like campaigning, I really enjoy the peacefulness of doorknocking and meeting people. You listen to people’s issues and concerns, in their environment. It’s a real privilege to knock on someone’s door and ask them how they’re feeling, and there’s no better way of finding out.” He cites early inspiration. “My grandmother was a strong influence on me as a young person – my mother too, who grew up in Glenorchy, and my father, who was a doctor and spent a lot of time away from home helping people. I see them all as very kind people who are very giving. My grandmother, who was a life member of the Labor Party, always volunteered – she never had a lot of paid work, but she did that until the day she couldn’t catch a bus anymore.” But why the Labor Party, beyond this pedigree? Essentially, it’s because of the party’s roots in a quest for fairness for workers, “and the fact is if you don’t have fairness in the workplace, as a society there’s not equality. Equality in a workplace resonates outside.”

For old-style class warriors, it may be a strike against Jackson that he lives in Taroona, one of those affluent southern suburbs. But so does the Liberal candidate for Denison, Cameron Simpkins, a forty-something former Australian army major. Since leaving the Australian Defence Force he’s worked in Cairns, Darwin, Sydney and Karratha – in a warehouse and a slipway, in IT project management, human resources and cable TV installation, and in a lobbying role securing funding for remote Indigenous communities. He was born in Canberra, where his father attended Duntroon, footsteps in which he would eventually follow. An early stint in primary school in Hobart when the family was posted to Anglesea Barracks left a happy impression on Simpkins, so when he and his wife sat down a couple of years ago to choose the place they really wanted to live, Tasmania was in the mix. Hobart won over Perth, and they relocated there two years ago, where he now works as a bank manager.

Simpkins sees Hobart as the best fit for what he calls their “values set.” “I have two young children, and I worry about the society that we are creating for them,” he tells me. “I watch the television and read the papers, and I hear the platitudes coming out of politicians’ mouths, on all sides of politics, right across the spectrum, and I get angry at that. And I thought, well, I could just get angry – or I could see if I could make a difference.” The impact he wants to make isn’t exactly like Jackson’s, of course. “Duncan Kerr has held this seat for twenty-three years, and people have been loyal to this man and that party. Then you go to Glenorchy, to Moonah and Claremont, even the city – and after all that loyalty, you’ve got every right to be saying, where’s the money?” Simpkins says. “If I can win this seat, whichever party wins in Canberra will drop money into the electorate, to win the seat back. If I get voted out in three years’ time, that’s okay. I will have achieved my aim.”

Simpkins also seems squarely on Jackson’s broader social-justice page. He talks a lot about fairness, and this week publicly supported gay marriage. His campaign office is in Hobart’s northern suburbs, and it will stay there if he wins, because “the people that need to see a politician in this electorate are Glenorchy, Moonah and Claremont people. You need to be close to the people. You look at where Duncan’s office is in the CBD, he’s too far away, and it’s intimidating in that building. If I can be half as good as Michael Hodgman, as a servant of the people, then I will be an okay politician.” (Hodgman was Kerr’s Liberal predecessor in Denison, from 1975 to 1987, and a minister in the Fraser administration. Known as the “Mouth from the South,” he spoke out in favour of East Timor, water fluoridation, daylight saving and even saving Lake Pedder, when none of that was popular.) Simpkins continues, “I’m a small-l liberal, very much a moderate. If you want to see change in the party, you need more moderates like me. One of my fundamental beliefs is in the freedom of the individual. That’s why I’m standing for the Liberal Party, because Labor’s all about the collective movement. I have no issue with the trade union movement, as such, I’m talking about the party culture.”

Simpkins freely acknowledges that winning is “a really long shot, I’d only just creep over the line.” The same has to be said for the Greens’ Geoff Couser, even though his first tilt at political office follows the unprecedented elevation of Tasmanian Greens leader Nick McKim to a ministry in the state Labor government. An emergency specialist at the Royal Hobart Hospital, Couser came to Tasmania a decade ago, lured by the quality of its natural environment and by Hobart’s proximity to Antarctica. He traces his attraction to the Greens to watching the Franklin dispute on television as a teenager in Brisbane in the 1980s – “to seeing this wonderful wilderness in Tasmania, and being inspired that there was a doctor leading the way!” And now? He points to the pull of being part of a political party that, as he sees it, has evolved beyond a narrow activist focus to have a real chance of playing a policy-shaping role not unlike that of the Liberal Democrats in the United Kingdom. “I’m proud to be part of the Greens, because we’re taking the space that the conservatives and Labor deserted long ago. I’m a small-l liberal. I’m a Sandy Bay doctor who lives on Nutgrove Beach” – which means Jackson and Couser are practically his neighbours – “my house is the only one with a Greens poster out front, and we have nowhere else to go at the moment.”

EXCEPT, maybe, somewhere else. The wildcard in Denison is the most experienced and highest-profile candidate of the field. Originally from Tamworth, Andrew Wilkie now runs a rug and kilim business in inner-city Hobart, also lives in the southern suburbs, and knows Cameron Simpkins from their army days in Canberra. First noticed nationally (and internationally) in 2003 as the only Anglosphere intelligence officer to blow the whistle on the lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the Iraq military intervention, Wilkie stepped into politics proper as the Greens candidate for Bennelong in 2004. After moving to Hobart soon afterwards, he ran as a Greens Senate candidate in 2007, then dramatically split from that party to run a Nick Xenophon–style “no pokies” and “integrity in government” campaign as an independent candidate for the state seat of Denison in the election earlier this year. Wilkie missed out by just 315 votes, scoring almost twice as many primary votes as the Liberals’ Elise Archer, who was ultimately elected under Hare-Clark preference flows from other women candidates. This should give everyone pause, not least because all the candidates for federal Denison are men. (Except for twenty-six-year-old Socialist Alliance candidate Melanie Barnes, a climate-change activist – but it’s hard to see her gaining much popular traction with published statements like “‘capitalism’ and ‘sustainability’ are mutually exclusive concepts; only socialism is sustainable.”)

As with all his fellow candidates, and consistent with his public trajectory, matters of values quickly come to the fore, unvarnished, for Wilkie. “I wasn’t going to stand federally. I’d campaigned for twelve months before the state poll, and spent most of our savings,” he reflects. “But so many people in Denison fall through the cracks, and someone like me comes along, they ring me. Like the woman who called because she’d been shortchanged on her disability pension, or the Housing Tasmania tenant who’d been waiting for three months to get a walker so he could leave his house. It goes on. There’s a lot of unmet need, and it doesn’t have to be that way. It’s frustrating, because I’m very interested in each person but I am almost powerless to help them unless I get into office. But I do write letters on their behalf, and sometimes that works. It’s really heartening and it’s part of the reason why I’m going again.” Rather than getting worn down, he says, “I think I’m ramping up.”

Which is why he decided to run for the House of Representatives, even though he believes that, with the right preference deals, he’d have a better chance in the Senate. “But now I’ve established relationships with the people of Denison, this is my home and it’s the place I’d like to represent.” To preserve his independence, he has ruled out preference deals with any of the competing parties – he says they’ve all approached him – and could be helped by the fact that Denison isn’t part of the national Greens–Labor preference deal. “I judge my chance of success as small, but real. I also judge that I am the only candidate who has any chance other than the Labor candidate. The baseline Liberal and Green votes are simply too small compared with the baseline Labor vote – and then there’s the way that preferences flow, or rather don’t flow, between the two major parties. So the Liberal candidate will probably finish second, but he can’t win because the Liberals won’t get preference flows from the Greens. I hope to collect votes from across the spectrum from all parties – as long as I can leapfrog one party, I expect to get flows.”

So will Denison act up and deliver an upset? No one can say. Not even the Greens national leader and Tasmanian senator, Bob Brown, who’s been acting up for longer than most. “Denison’s a strong Green seat, and Geoff’s a great candidate, and will get a stronger vote because the Greens are going well at the state level,” says Brown, as you’d expect. “But the result is by no means predictable,” he continues, observing that Tasmania’s the only place in Australia where Liberal how-to-vote cards are putting Labor ahead of the Greens. In Denison, they’re recommending Wilkie 2, Jackson 3, Couser 4. “There was a national understanding that the Liberals would preference the Greens in Denison – we said we’d go open ticket, and we’ll stick to that,” Brown says. “This shows the influence of the extreme right of that party, and if it’s a knife-edge election, it may amount to Eric Abetz effectively handing federal government to Labor.”

That would put Denison back on everyone’s map. •