Australian Economy

Meet the candidates vying for Bass, one of Australia’s most volatile seats

Mr Hart was the MP for Bass from 2016 to 2019, before he was unseated by Ms Archer, who holds the seat with a razor-thin margin of 0.4 per cent.

She, too, acknowledges winning a second term in Bass will be difficult.

“History is not on my side, I think it’s fair to say,” Ms Archer said when she sat down with The Australian Financial Review at a suburban shopping centre in Launceston. “But at the same time I feel like I have worked as hard as I can.”

Cost of living pressures

Ms Archer is probably best known to a national audience as the moderate Liberal who was willing to defy her party to cross the floor to support a debate on a national integrity commission. She crossed the floor again in February to amend the federal government’s Religious Discrimination Bill to prevent schools from discriminating against gay and transgender students.

About three-quarters of Bass voters live in Launceston, The rest are spread throughout Tasmania’s north-east, including Flinders and Cape Barren islands in Bass Strait.

Both Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Labor leader Anthony Albanese have made multiple visits to Bass since the election was called, armed with multimillion-dollar pledges.

Mr Morrison was in the electorate on Thursday, pledging millions in funding for mental health facilities.

Ms Archer, the former mayor of George Town in the state’s north, says cost of living pressures are biting in her electorate, which ranks as one of Australia’s most disadvantaged.

The median weekly income in Bass was just $1033 at the 2016 census, making it the 10th-poorest electorate in the country. Two in five people aged between 20 and 24 have not finished year 12, and almost one in four people aged between 18 and 64 are not working or studying.

Ms Archer said opinions of the prime minister varied across the seat, but voter sentiment was not as hostile as social media suggested.

“We went and had a coffee in a local cafe, just organically, and people coming over and speaking to him or wanting their photo taken or saying you’re doing a good job,” she said.

Not surprisingly, Mr Hart disagrees, telling the Financial Review there is a “profound dissatisfaction with Mr Morrison” in the electorate.

“I’m not attributing that to necessarily our messaging getting through,” he said. “I think that the general view across a range of electorates is that Mr Morrison’s got a problem with his reputation.”

‘Bit of short-termism’

Mr Hart said Bass’s volatile electoral history reflected its status as a microcosm of Australia.

“If you take the politics out of it, and you think from the perspective of the person whose father or grandfather might have worked in an industrial textile mill, or making car components for Ford or for Holden,” Mr Hart said.

“You’ve seen the effects of successive reimaginings of the Australian economy, resulting in job losses and successive governments, whether they’re Liberal or Labor, promising compensation but underestimating the depths of support that’s required or the length of support required.”

While voters in marginal seats are showered with gifts during election campaigns, the Liberals’ Ms Archer says it comes at a cost.

“I think there’s a risk in marginal seats that there can become a bit of short-termism – what’s the shiny bauble at the end of the electoral cycle – but my interest is how does that fit with where we want to be in five, 10 or 20 years’ time,” she says.

Why should I leave [the Liberals]? Why should I be driven out? I think that I’ll stay and people can make room for me.

Bridget Archer

While the Coalition trails in national opinion polls, Ms Archer stands a chance at securing a second term.

Her willingness to dissent on government bills has led to numerous approaches from crossbenchers urging the Tasmanian MP to quit the Liberal Party and become an independent.

She says the conversations, which have also included approaches from independent senator Jacqui Lambie, were “flattering” but she has never seriously considered quitting the Coalition.

“People say, ‘Oh, well, do you think you fit [in the Liberal Party]?’ Well, even if you accept that argument, why should I go? Why should I leave? Why should I be driven out? I think that I’ll stay and people can make room for me,” Ms Archer says.

Preferences from Jacqui Lambie Network’s Bass candidate, Bob Salt, will help Ms Archer retain her seat, although Mr Salt has stopped campaigning, complaining he was not consulted about the ordering on his how-to-vote cards.

One Nation’s Bass candidate, Melanie Davy, is preferencing Labor’s Mr Hart above Ms Archer, who party leader Pauline Hanson has called a “left-leaning Liberal”.

Tasmanian economy roars

Velo Wines manager Rodney Thorpe is one local who will be voting for Ms Archer on May 21.

Business is booming at Mr Thorpe’s winery, 15 minutes north of Launceston.

“We are nearly out of wine,” he said. “We’re just bottling it and it’s just going.”

Like other winemakers in the area, Mr Thorpe said he was struggling to get enough hands on deck.

“I was talking to a son of mine … and asked if he can come and help me pick grapes because I have a bit of a labour problem. I’ve got local people I can call on if I need a bit of a hand,” he said.

Times are pretty good in the Apple Isle, and the rusted-on Liberal voter credits Mr Morrison and former Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein for his state’s enviable track record navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I don’t know all the finances about our situation and things like that … but COVID has cost a lot of money to people, I don’t think they realise how lucky we’ve been to get through it as well as we have unscathed,” Mr Thorpe said.

Tasmania’s unemployment rate averaged 4 per cent in the first three months of the year – its lowest level in about 14 years – and private sector wages are growing at a faster rate than in any other state or territory.

While Mr Thorpe will support the Coalition on May 21, the winemaker’s vote choice has more to do with his opinion on the performance of Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese, rather than an assessment of whether his local member has delivered for the electorate.

“I haven’t had a lot to do with Bridget Archer. So, you know, I’ll have to do a little bit of homework,” he said.

Most voters in Bass are far less certain than Mr Thorpe about who they will support on May 21.

And for that reason, don’t be surprised if Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese make yet another visit to this must-win electorate in the dying days of the election campaign.

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