New Tasmanian premier backs pulp mill & tough budget cuts

Protest march against the proposed Tamar Valley Pulp Mill. Launceston, 2008.

In a move that took most people by surprise, Tasmanian Labor Premier David Bartlett resigned on January 23. Deputy premier Lara Giddings was sworn in the next day as the first female premier of the state.

Giddings will also keep her position as Treasurer.

Bartlett announced his decision with a message on his Facebook page that said: “To all my Facebook friends and contributors. I have decided to step down as premier and leader of the Labor Party.”

He said his reason was that he wanted more time to be a better father to his children.

Bartlett later held a press conference at his home, where he denied there were any other reasons for his resignation.

“I was elected when my son Hudson was five months old and I became the minister for education when my daughter Matilda was five weeks old," he said.

"They are now seven and five and I've come to the conclusion over the summer that this job that requires seven days a week of your energy, often 24 hours a day, is becoming or has become incompatible with being a good dad."

Some commentators have said they feel Bartlett’s reasons are genuine and have given him credit for striving for a work-life balance that allows him to do his share of parenting.

However, many others have questioned the underlying motives.

For example, Mercury journalist Sue Neales wrote on January 24: “It makes certainly little sense for Mr Bartlett to claim he is quitting as premier solely for family reasons, then to remain one of Tasmania's Cabinet ministers.

“With only eight ministers in Cabinet alongside the premier, most with multiple portfolios, the load of a government minister is scarcely less onerous in terms of time commitments than that of being the state's leader.”

Neales said Bartlett's “death knell” was sounded by a December EMRS opinion poll, which showed his popularity had dropped to just 23%.

Labor’s support has fallen since it was returned as a minority government in April. It relies on support from the Greens, who have taken two cabinet positions.

Neales also cited the ailing economy and the beleaguered forest industry sector as two looming issues that powerbrokers would prefer to be handled by Giddings and new deputy premier Bryan Green, rather than Bartlett and Greens leader Nick McKim.

Giddings was first elected to state parliament in the seat of Lyons in 1996 when she was 23 years old. She was the youngest woman to be elected to any Australian parliament.

At 38, she's now the youngest state premier in Australia. She lost her seat in Lyons in 1998, but was voted back into parliament in 2002 in the seat of Franklin, which she has held ever since.

Many have judged Green’s promotion to deputy a slap in the face for democracy. Five years ago, he was sent to the backbench in disgrace over the “deals for mates” scandal, which involved a secret agreement with the Tasmanian Compliance Corporation.

Charges against Green were eventually dropped after juries in two Supreme Court trials failed to reach a verdict.

In an interview on ABC radio on January 25, Giddings said: “He does have previous ministerial experience in which he did make a significant mistake. He has apologised to the Tasmanian people. He has had to live with the consequence of that mistake as well.



"I think he is a changed person from it. We do need to give people a second chance."

She cited the new Integrity Commission and other initiatives as evidence that the government has strengthened its accountability mechanisms.

Giddings said the Labor-Green coalition government would stay intact.

McKim told news cameras after Bartlett’s announcement: “The King is dead, long live the Queen.”

In the past, the Greens have said Green was unfit to be a minister. But McKim has not criticised Green’s new promotion.

Giddings used her first day in the job to reaffirm her support for the unpopular Tamar Valley pulp mill, near Launceston.

She has refused to rule out that her government would act as a guarantor for pulp mill owners Gunns.

Her refusal to rule out such a funding arrangement led to angry comments on alternative news site, Tasmaniantimes.com.

For example, anti-pulp mill campaigner Anne Layton-Bennett wrote on January 25: “Lara … The pulp mill is a stinking albatross that has hung around Tasmania’s collective neck for far too long. We don’t need it. The vast majority don’t want it. And you can be absolutely sure we will NEVER stop fighting it.”

Despite this, some groups have welcomed Giddings’ rise to premier.

On January 24, the Tasmanian Gay and Lesbian Rights Group’s Rodney Croome welcomed her appointment.

He said: “As attorney-general, Lara Giddings showed her commitment to equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people by championing the legal recognition of same-sex parents, state civil union ceremonies and overseas same-sex marriages.

“Her commitment to human rights is also demonstrated by her strong support for a state Charter of Rights, surrogacy law reform, the decriminalisation of prostitution and voluntary euthanasia… my hope is that under her leadership Tasmania will make substantial progress to becoming a more equal, tolerant and inclusive society.”

On the other hand, Karl Stevens, a West Tamar councillor and former Greens member, said Giddings was “a complete disgrace” in a January 26 post on Tasmaniantimes.com.

He said: “How anyone could claim to support ‘human rights’ while voting to remove the human rights of Tasmanians under section 11 of the PMAA [Pulp Mill Assessment Act], makes her an absolute hypocrite.”

The state's economy is said to be in strife and the mid-year financial review is due in a few weeks. Giddings has hinted of big budget cuts to come.

She told ABC radio on January 25: “Our expenses are outstripping our revenue … that means we have to make some tough decisions … There will be some belt-tightening.”

She said public sector job cuts were one option on the table.

Some commentators found further cause for concern when former (and loathed) Labor premier Paul Lennon told the January 25 Examiner he believed Giddings was “born to be Premier” and that he’d like to think he’s been “a bit of a mentor” to her.

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